Santiago is often regarded by travellers as simply an air travel ‘hub’ — a place you’re forced to go through to get to somewhere else in South America.
You get off one plane, you get on another. You get the picture. However, those who escape the austere confines of the airport and reach the city proper will discover a dynamic destination that has a whole lot to offer visitors. With the majestic Andes Mountains as a backdrop, the capital of Chile consists of a historic centre punctuated with grand Neoclassical architecture, and a series of vibrant and very distinctive neighbourhoods.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the spectacular changing of the guard ceremony at the presidential offices. It’s more a full scale parade than a ceremony!
Enjoy this Santiago travel guide.
Top cultural experiences in Santiago
The centre of Santiago is a blend of the historic and modern.
The city was established by the conquistadors way back in 1541. Multiple earthquakes have made short work of many of the original colonial buildings, but there are more than enough surviving monuments to keep the most voracious of tourists happy.
Pay a visit to the magnificent Palacio de la Moneda — the Presidential offices and former mint. The wonderful changing of the guard ceremony takes place here every other day, and includes toe-tapping numbers from an accompanying military band. I bet the President loves to sit in his office and hum along.
Nearby, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts) is a superb example of 19th century beaux-arts architecture. There are regular special exhibitions in addition to the permanent collection of Chilean art. Check the website for details.
Board the historic time capsule that is the creaking 1920s funicular in Barrio Bellavista (the bohemian quarter) for the short journey to the top of Cerro San Cristobal, which is adorned by a giant statue of the Virgin Mary. Up here, you’ll get awesome views of the city and Andes, and an appreciation of just how big Santiago is (the city is home to around six million people).
Awesome views can also be had from Sky Costanera — the observation deck of the Gran Torre Santiago (Great Santiago Tower). The deck is situated at a giddying height of 300 metres.
Santiago for history lovers
There are plenty of historical must-sees in Santiago.
Visit the oldest surviving colonial building in town — the La iglesia de San Francisco (San Francisco Church), which dates back to the late 1500s. Then take a stroll down the gorgeous cobbled Barrio Londres.
Over in the historic Plaza de Armas, the centre of life in the city since it was established, you can also visit the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago (Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago) or the Palacio de la Real Audiencia de Santiago (Royal Court Palace). The latter houses the excellent Museo Histórico Nacional (National History Museum of Chile). Peruse the colourful works of the various artists hard at it in the square out the front.
History buffs may also want to visit the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights ), which commemorates the victims of human rights abuses under the infamous rule of Augusto Pinochet from 1973 and 1990.
Great places to eat in Santiago
Following your visit to Cerro San Cristobal, descend to Barrio Bellavista and explore the neighbourhood’s marvellous jumble of cafes and galleries.
Now we’re talking. It reminds me of Melbourne’s Brunswick or Collingwood, or perhaps Sydney’s Paddington or Marrickville — with a Latin twist!
Grunge chic is all the go here. Definitely check out trendy Patio Bellavista — a revitalised development of civic squares, cafes, restaurants and boutiques. You can’t go wrong. It’s also a great spot for live music in the evening. For a quick snack, try a completo — which literally means ‘hotdog with the lot’.
Foodies and wine lovers should also explore Barrio Lastarria — renowned for its plethora of wine bars and bistros. At celebrated eatery Sur Patagonico, I’m persuaded to try my first carmenere — Chile’s signature grape. It’s a fantastic drop.
Where to shop in Santiago
Santiago is awash with designer label boutiques and luxury car showrooms.
Those with cash to splash should head for Avenue Alonso de Cordova in Vitacura. Very Toorak or Double Bay, darling.
For a more organic shopping experience, visit the Mercado Central de Santiago (Central Market). The market first opened back in 1872. Today it’s largely a seafood market and the central plaza has a great (if slightly whiffy) selection of seafood restaurants and cafes.
Ways to relax in Santiago
There’s not a blade of grass out of place in central Santiago, thanks to a strong municipal program of maintenance and improvement.
The city has a huge number of parks and gardens, many of which feature engaging modern sculptures. Take your pick of the green spaces and enjoy a spot of urban R&R.
One of the best options is the long thin Parque Forestal, which runs alongside the Mapocho River. It’s a great location for some people-watching around lunchtime. The river (which is more like a concrete canal) flows best from September to November. When the water level is low, the walls of the channel play a civic role; they’re covered in political graffiti.
To escape the confines of the city for a day and relax and rejuvenate at the same time, book a tour to the Termas Valle de Colina (Colina Hot Springs) in the Andes, 140 kilometres from Santiago. The outdoor stepped pools have been formed by calcified sediment from the thermal spring. Soak up the arid beauty of the setting as your cares drift away.
Do you have any tips to add to our Santiago travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.