Glittering glass-laden buildings, ancient architecture, and a huge serving of the great outdoors. Sounds impossible? Well, it's about time you find out about the underrated Latin American capital of Santiago de Chile.
Those who already know about Santiago normally describe the capital as a "sanitized" and "too European" destination in Latin America. And although not comparable to Latin giants like Mexico City, Santiago is still a great place to visit, especially as a launching point on a bigger tour of the country.
While it's often regarded as a more expensive city to visit in Latin America, Santiago is all about balance – luxury and affordable (sometimes even free!), old and new, local and European, urban and natural. It's more harmony than an eclectic mix.
There is a lot to do in Santiago, and you will definitely leave feeling like you barely scratched the surface. So, before you are overwhelmed about how to spend your time there, here are some of the highlights you should consider for your trip.
People Watch at Plaza de Armas
Santiago's historical center is the cornerstone of modern-day Chile. The plaza is surrounded by beautiful ancient buildings that are central to the local government, including the Central Post Office, the Royal Court Palace, and the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Plaza de Armas was established in 1541. Here, the city held many religious events and was the main venue for political news. The old colonial streets are lined with palm trees that create a strange but lush oasis at the very heart of the city. Nowadays, this is where people gather to spend an afternoon or people watch. It's also a great starting point for your wanderings around the city.
Head up Santa Lucia Hill
Just a few blocks away from Plaza de Armas is a great spot to while away an afternoon: Cerro Santa Lucia. It is a small and intimate park-on-a-hill in the center of Santiago. And although it was a rocky and unkempt hill until the 19th century, it was then later turned into a beautifully manicured plot of land.
It might be a late bloomer in terms of tourist spots, but it does hold quite a bit of importance in Chilean history. This is where Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia founded the city in 1541. Going further back, Santa Lucia Hill is also a remnant of a once-active volcano that explains the richness of the city's soil and natural landscape.
Now, Cerro Santa Lucia is one of the best places for astounding views of the city. The Fuente Neptuno or the Neptune Fountain greets you as you enter the park. And, this is the starting point for many trails that go through and around the gardens.
Another spot worth noting is the Castillo Hidalgo, built in 1816 to protect the city. If you came for the sights, head on up to the very top of the hill where the epic viewpoint is located.
View the City at San Cristobal Hill
For another perspective of the city, take a cable car ride to San Cristobal Hill. It's one of the many must-do's in Santiago because of its equally panoramic.
The hills are located within a Metropolitan Park, which is the largest park in the city. There are also quite a bit to do here. First, there are two open-air pools that are accessible from November through March, which is the southern summer of course.
You can also take the funicular, which opened in 1925 and has since been declared a National Monument. The funicular also brings visitors to the National Zoo, which houses over one hundred and fifty different species. At the summit, you'll find a religious sanctuary commemorating the Immaculate Conception and punctuated by a large statue of the Virgin Mary. There's also a Japanese Botanical Garden that's a great spot to relax in the summer, as well as the Bicentenary Children's Park worth checking out.
Visit La Moneda
The Presidential Palace, also known as La Moneda, is located right in the city center. Its imposing white walls mean it clearly stands out from the ancient structures that surround it. In 1973, the Palace was bombed during a military coup when the president Salvador Andelle refused to surrender. Later that day he apparently committed suicide, although to this day there are many theories of assassination.
Despite its grim history, La Moneda has been beautifully restored to its original grandeur. There are tours held within its premises, but they often sell like hotcakes, sobe sure to sign-up up to a week in advance. Just be aware that there are often events held at the Palace, so it may be closed to the public from time to time. Be sure to check before you go.
One thing that people look forward to is the changing of the guards at 10 AM. It’s definitely worth a peek, especially if you miss out on the tour.
Discover Chile's Art Scene
Santiago de Chile is known as a city of artists. And to get a taste of this you can start your exploration at the Chilean Museum of Fine Arts, which is a work of art in itself. The museum was established in 1910 in commemoration of Chile's 100 years of independence. Entrance is also free from Tuesday to Sunday, so might as well pay a visit.
There are several galleries to pique your interest as well. The most popular in the list is the Centro Cultural Matucana 100, which is an art center that used to be a government warehouse. There are different exhibits within the space. Sometimes, they also host films and concerts that you can check out.
If you're more into contemporary art, the best way to tune into the pulse of the city is the massive and quirky street art. While Santiago's street art may not rival nearby Valparaiso, the city can hold its own with its murals and paintings. Some murals even cover an entire side of sky-high buildings.
Browse through the Markets
Santiago's streets are where all the action is. So, another experience you must not miss are the various markets that pop up on Santiago's streets. While shopping in the various stores and boutiques in the city are a good option, the street markets hold many of the city's local treasures.
Some of the most popular markets are Los Dominicos and Santa Lucia traditional arts and handicraft markets. As the name suggests, these markets have a good collection of handicrafts and souvenirs and reasonable prices too. While most markets are known to be aimed at tourists, there are still many authentic items that provide a glimpse at Chile's folkloric culture. If you're looking for an iconic Chilean souvenir to bring home, be on the lookout for the alpaca wool ponchos
Binge on Seafood at Mercado Central
One of the many things that Chile does best is seafood, thanks of course to its coastline and booming fishing industry. Naturally, these catches make their way to the city and straight to people's stomachs at the Mercado Central.
Dating back to 1872, the Mercado Central has always been a popular haunt for fresh seafood. The selection is many and varied, which locals shop for in the morning and tourists enjoy as meals in the afternoon. The dishes and ways of cooking are as varied as the seafood. You can find anything from ceviche and mussels to king crabs and complex seafood dishes.
The market is open every day, but the hours are never fixed. It all depends on what’s available and how quickly they run out of stock. The busiest time is always in the morning, which is also when you can get the freshest and first picks.
Sample Chilean Wine
Chile produces some of the world's best wines, and this is the perfect time to take a vineyard tour and sample some great bottles.
Cousiño Macul is a mere 15 kilometers away from Santiago, making for an excellent day tour from the center. Many local buses or cabs make the trip to the vineyard, which has been operating since 1856 if you can believe it. The vineyard and the craft of wine-making is currently being run by the sixth generation of Cousiños. They run four tours a day, and you can choose either a standard tour around the vineyard or a premium tour with wine-tasting, souvenirs, and a cheese plate. Personally, I always go for the second option!
Cool off at Emporio La Rosa
There's always space for dessert, and you should leave some room for ice cream at Emporio La Rosa.
Ice cream isn't necessarily an iconic treat in Chile, but the long queues outside this shop will suggest otherwise. Don't be discouraged though, as the line moves quickly. The shop also sells different kinds of sweets, including cakes, candies, and even snacks like empanadas. What people line up for, however, is the ice cream. You can choose to grab-and-go or enjoy your afternoon treat at their al fresco seating. Every now and then, street musicians stop by and serenade guests, which only adds to the local experience!
Take a Day trip to the Andes
The most stunning feature of Santiago is probably the epic views of the distant Andes Mountains. Given their proximity to town there are several great spots you can enjoy mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding, all of which are easy to get to from the city.
The nearest hiking spots to Santiago are Provincia, Manquehue, and Pochoco. There are several trails you can follow, but it will be a difficult trip if you're taking public transportation. The best way to hit the trails is to rent a car and drive yourself up to the trails or join the many tours that head out to these spots.
At winter time, the Andes also make for an excellent spot for snow sports. Just 90 minutes outside Santiago is Valle Nevado, considered one of the best skiing spots in the Andes. It offers a variety of different slopes for every skill level, so even beginners will have a great time here. There are also many shops, bars, and restaurants at this beautiful ski resort, so maybe consider spending a night in one of their apartments.
Exploring Santiago de Chile
There is no one thing to define Santiago de Chile, which is perhaps what makes it such an intriguing and exciting destination. Mixing Latin American flair with European influences make for a truly unique and beautiful setting any time of the year. If you're planning on visiting the city any time soon, drop by the spots on this list for the best the city can offer!