For years Santiago has been regarded as simply a ‘hub’ — a place you’re forced to go through to get to somewhere else that’s much better.
Rightly or wrongly, think Frankfurt, Zurich or Kuala Lumpur. You get off one plane, you get on another. You get the picture. However, once you escape the austere confines of the airport and reach the city proper, Santiago starts to feel, well, interesting! The reality is that this is a dynamic destination in its own right and one that has a whole lot to offer visitors.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to see and do 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 every other day, and includes a couple of toe-tapping numbers from the accompanying military band. I bet the President loves to sit in his office and hum along.
Nearby, the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes) is a superb example of 19th century beaux-arts architecture. The collection inside is equally engaging. There are regular special exhibitions in addition to the permanent collection of Chilean art. Check the website for details.
There are plenty of historical things to see and do in Santiago. Visit the oldest surviving colonial building in town, the San Francisco Church (La iglesia de San Francisco), 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 Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago (Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago ) or the Royal Court Palace (Palacio de la Real Audiencia de Santiago). The latter houses the excellent National History Museum of Chile (Museo Histórico Nacional). There are various artists at work in the square out the front.
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 Mountains. Up here you’ll get an appreciation of just how big Santiago is. At roughly six million inhabitants, this is the third biggest city in South America — although it’s well behind the sprawling metropolis of Sao Paulo, Brazil with its 11 million citizens.
Descend to Barrio Bellavista and explore the marvellous 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’.
Time for a late lunch (or early dinner) and the chance to try a Chilean cabernet — some say the best in the world. Make your way to Barrio Lastarria — known for its plethora of gorgeous 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.
Shopaholics, you are also well catered for in Santiago. The city is awash with designer labels and luxury cars. Head for Avenue Alonso de Cordova in Vitacura — very Toorak or Double Bay darling.
For a more organic shopping experience, visit the Central Market (Mercado Central de Santiago) on San Pablo with its ornate wrought iron work. The market opened 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.
There’s not a blade of grass out of place in central Santiago thanks to the ongoing program of civic improvement and the city now enjoys a huge number of parks and gardens that are packed with engaging modern sculpture. Any of them will be a fine spot for a little R&R.
One of the best options is the long thin Parque Forestal, which runs alongside the Mapocho River through the centre of town. It’s a great location for some people-watching around lunchtime. The river (and we use the term loosely — it’s more like a concrete canal) flows best during September to November.
When the river is low, the concrete walls of the channel play a cultural role in the city — they’re covered in political graffiti.
Do you have any tips for top things to see and do in Santiago? 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.