Santiago, one of South America’s most sophisticated cities, is a thriving metropolis that’s home to five million people, or nearly a third of Chile’s entire population. Though it ranks third behind Miami and Sao Paulo for Latin American business travel, it is one of Chile’s least popular tourist destinations, given the number of travelers who use Santiago only as a jumping-off point to locations such as Patagonia or the Lake District. As the city booms economically and memories of the stifling Pinochet dictatorship fade, Santiago is reinventing itself, and the arts, nightlife, and restaurant scene have improved considerably as of late. As well, no other Latin American city has the proximity that Santiago has to such a diverse array of day attractions, including wineries, ski resorts, and beaches.
Santiago also boasts a one-of-a-kind location sprawled below some of the highest peaks of the Andes range, providing a breathtaking city backdrop when the air is clear and the peaks are dusted with snow. Unfortunately, smog and dust particles in the air often shroud the view, especially during the winter months. From December to late February, when Santiaguinos abandon the city for summer vacation and the city is blessed with breezier days, the smog abates substantially. These are the most pleasant months to tour Santiago.
POINTS OF INTEREST
DOWNTOWN HISTORIC & CIVIC ATTRACTIONS
Begin your tour of Santiago at the historic heart of the city, the Plaza de Armas, which can be reached by taking the Metro to Estación Plaza de Armas. Chile’s founder, Pedro de Valdivia, laid plans for the plaza in 1541 as the civic nucleus of the country and its importance was such that all distances to other parts of Chile were, and still are, measured from here. Take a seat and soak in the ambiance of shoe shiners, religious fanatics, local artists, kissing couples, old men crouched over chessboards, and other colorful characters milling about.
CATEDRAL METROPOLITANA & MUSEO DE ARTE SAGRADO
Santiago’s grand cathedral spans a city block and is the fifth cathedral to have been erected at this site due to earthquake damage. The cathedral was also the subject of intrigue in 2005 when renovations unearthed the lost body of Diego Portales, the principal ideologist for the Chilean Constitution of 1833. The cathedral, designed by the Italian architect Joaquin Toesca in a neoclassical-baroque style, took nearly 30 years to complete, finishing in 1780. Of most interest here are the hushed, cavernous cathedral interiors, with columns that soar high to arched ceilings, and an ornate altar made of marble, bronze, and lapis lazuli, and brought from Munich in 1912. The cathedral is currently undergoing a renovation that has taken far longer than planned; with any luck, it will be completed by the publication of this book.
PALACIO DE LA REAL AUDIENCIA/MUSEO HISTÓRICO NACIONAL
This excellent museum is a must-see for history buffs and travelers seeking insight into Chile’s past, from the Conquest to the present day, in size and scope that doesn’t feel overwhelming. The museum is housed in the elegant, lemon-colored Palacio de la Real, where Chile held its first congress following independence. The museum winds around a central courtyard, beginning with the Conquest and finishing with a photo montage depicting modern political turmoil and literary and artistic accomplishment in Chile. Along the way, visitors can view weapons, agricultural tools, traditional costumes, household appliances, oil paintings depicting early Chile, and reproductions of home life during the 18th and 19th centuries. There are, unfortunately, no tours in English, and all interpretative information is in Spanish; however, most displays are self-explanatory. Plan to spend 30 minutes to 1 hour here.
CASA COLORADA & MUSEO DE SANTIAGO
Widely regarded as the best-preserved colonial structure in Santiago, the Casa Colorada, or Red House, was built between 1769 and 1779 as a residence for the first president of Chile, Mateo de Toro y Zambrano. Today, the Casa Colorada operates as the Santiago Museum, depicting the urban history of the city until the 19th century. The tiny museum, on the whole, is somewhat amateurish, seemingly directed at kids more than adults. A visitor center with information about downtown Santiago is also located in the Casa Colorada.
MUSEO CHILENO DE ARTE PRECOLOMBINO
Heading back on Merced and past the plaza to Bandera, you’ll find the notable Chilean Museum of pre-Colombian Art, housed in the elegant 1807 ex-Royal Customs House. This is one of the better museums in Chile, both for its collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and its inviting design. There are more than 1,500 objects on display here, including textiles, metals, paintings, figurines, and ceramics spread throughout seven exhibition rooms. The collection is encompassing but not as extensive as, say, the Anthropological Museum of Mexico, but the exhibition does offer a vivid exhibition of indigenous life and culture before the arrival of the Spanish. There’s also a well-stocked bookstore that sells music, videos, and reproductions of Indian art, textiles, and jewelry. Visitors must call ahead for a reservation.
PLAZA CONSTITUCION & THE COMMERCE CENTER
The Plaza Constitución, located between Agustinas, Morandé, Moneda, and Teatinos streets, is an expansive plaza used primarily as a pedestrian crossway and a venue for protests. It’s also where you’ll find the infamous Palacio de la Moneda, the Government Palace, and the site of the September 11, 1973, coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet to oust the socialist president Salvador Allende. The building, the largest erected by the Spanish government during the 18th century, was the focus of much criticism for being too ostentatious, but today it is considered one of the finest examples of neoclassical architecture in Latin America. Visitors are allowed to enter the courtyard and walk around after showing guards their passports. If you’re lucky, you might catch the changing of the guard, when dozens of carabineros (police) march in step to the Chilean anthem in front of the palace, every other day at 10 am.
CENTRO CULTURAL PALACIO LA MONEDA
The center is located underground before the Palacio (Citizen’s Plaza) and can be accessed by walking down a ramp at either Teatinos or Morandé streets. The center is an architecturally a sensational example of urban-contemporary design and focuses on revolving exhibitions of Latin American modern and historical art and photography. There is also a center displaying artesanía, or arts and crafts, textiles, clothing, and jewelry. The center also has an art-house cinema, library, educational center, and a sleek cafe. Check their website for upcoming exhibitions and events, and plan to spend about 30 minutes here.
This incongruous neighborhood is just a few blocks in diameter and was built between the 1920s and ’30s on the old gardens of the Monastery of San Francisco. The neighborhood oozes charm—it looks as if a chunk of Paris’s Latin Quarter was airlifted and dropped down in the middle of downtown Santiago. The cobblestone streets of this neighborhood end at tacky, mismatched buildings on the neighborhood’s outskirts.
CALLE DIECIOCHO & PALACIO COUSIÑO
During the turn of the 20th century and before Santiago’s elite packed it up and moved away from the downtown hubbub, Calle Dieciocho ranked as the city’s toniest neighborhood. The tourism board touts Calle Dieciocho as a step back in time, but neglect has taken its toll, and the only site really worth visiting here is the Palacio Cousiño Macul, once the home of Chile’s grandest entrepreneurial dynasties, the Goyenechea-Cousiño family. When finished in 1878, the palace dazzled society with its opulence: lavish parquet floors, Bohemian crystal chandeliers, Italian hand-painted ceramics, and French tapestries. A visit here not only provides an opportunity to view how Santiago’s elite lived during the late 1800s, but it also offers a chance to admire the most exquisite European craftsmanship available during that time. To get here, take a taxi or the Metro to Estación Toesca (turn left when leaving the station). Take a 10-minute detour around the corner (east on San Ignacio) to Parque Almagro, a scruffy park that nevertheless affords a view of the little-known, almost Gaudiesque Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento, constructed between 1919 and 1931 and modeled after the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, Paris.
IGLESIA, CONVENTO, Y MUSEO DE SAN FRANCISCO
The Church of San Francisco is the oldest standing building in Santiago, and although this landmark has been renovated over the years, the main structure has miraculously survived three devastating earthquakes. The highlights are the museum and the convent, the latter with an idyllic patio planted with flora brought from destinations as near as the south of Chile and as far away as the Canary Islands. The garden, with its bubbling fountain and cooing white doves, is so peaceful, you’ll find it hard to believe you’re in downtown Santiago. The museum boasts 54 paintings depicting the life and death of San Francisco, one of the largest and best-conserved displays of 17th-century art in South America.
CERRO SANTA LUCIA
Materializing as if out of nowhere on the edge of the city’s downtown limits, the Cerro Santa Lucía is a lavishly landscaped hilltop park and one of the more delightful attractions in Santiago. Native Mapuche Indians called this hill Huelén (Pain) until conqueror Pedro de Valdivia seized the property and planted the Spanish flag in 1570, thereby founding Santiago. In the late 1800s, Governor Benjamin Vicuña envisioned the hill as a recreation area and transformed Santa Lucía into an extravagant labyrinth of gardens, fountains, and flagstone promenades that gently spiral up to a 360-degree view of the city. The park is open daily, September through March. Admission is free, though you’ll be asked to sign a guest registry. The Centro de Exposición de Arte has indigenous crafts, clothing, and jewelry for sale, but you’ll find better deals across the avenue at the Centro Artesanal de Santa Lucía, with handicrafts, T-shirts, and more.
It’s the quintessential tourist stop, but the colorful, chaotic Mercado Central is nevertheless a highlight for visitors to Santiago. Chile’s economy depends on the exportation of natural products such as fruits, vegetables, and seafood, and the market here displays everything the country has to offer. Lively and staffed by pushy fishmongers who quickly and nimbly gut and fillet while you watch, the market displays every kind of fish and shellfish available along the Chilean coast. Depending on your perspective, the barking fishmongers and waitresses who harangue you to choose their zucchini, their sea bass, their restaurant can be entertaining or somewhat annoying. Either way, don’t miss it, especially for the market’s lofty, steel structure that was prefabricated in England and assembled here in 1868.
BARRIO BELLAVISTA & PARQUE METROPOLITANO (CERRO SAN CRISTOBAL)
The Parque Metropolitano is a large park and recreation area with swimming pools, walking trails, a botanical garden, a zoo, picnic grounds, restaurants, and children’s play areas. The park is divided into two sectors, Cumbre and Tupahue, both of which are accessed by car, cable car, funicular, or foot. On a clear day, the sweeping views of the city render this attraction as the best in the city, but it can be disappointing on a particularly smoggy day. To get here, head to the Plaza Caupolican at the end of Calle Pío Nono, where you’ll encounter a 1925 funicular that lifts visitors up to a lookout point.
Along the way, the funicular stops at the Jardín Zoológico. This surprisingly diverse zoo features more than 200 species of mammals, reptiles, and birds, including native condors, pumas, and guanacos. Below the statue is the teleférico (cable car) that connects the two sections of the park. The teleférico is a lot of fun, especially for kids, but it can be a roasting oven in the summertime heat.
Below the Cerro San Cristobál sits the bohemian neighborhood Bellavista. One of the more interesting neighborhoods in the city, its streets are lined with trees and colorful antique homes, many of which have been converted into restaurants and studios for artists and musicians. It’s a pleasant place for an afternoon stroll; in the evening, Bellavista pulses to the beat of music pouring from its many nightclubs and bars. You might begin your visit with a trip to Bellavista’s prime attraction, La Chascona. Located a block east of the Plaza Caupolican (entrance point to the Parque Metropolitano), this is one of three homes once owned by Chile’s most famous literary artist, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. As with Neruda’s other two homes, La Chascona is packed with quirky collections of antiques and whimsical curios collected during his travels. The home is headquarters for the Fundación Pablo Neruda, which provides guided tours.