As the longest north-to-south country in the world, Chile’s capital city of Santiago is a necessary stopover for travelers looking to visit Easter Island, Patagonia, or the Lake District. But if you stay in the airport, you’re missing out. Central Santiago is arguably the most organized, pedestrian-friendly, and welcoming capital in South America.
So, what is there to do? Without renowned attractions like those in Rio de Janeiro, or the obvious sophistication of Buenos Aires, Santiago has flown under the radar for too long. In recent years the city’s culture has blossomed, with elegant museums, hotels, and restaurants springing up in between the neoclassical buildings, lush parks and spotless pedestrian plazas.
What’s more, Santiago’s younger generation stands out for its alternative attire (tattoos, piercings) and accepting attitudes. This adds a vibrancy not found in most South American cities: it’s no coincidence Santiago is the first city outside of the US to host Lollapalooza, a popular alternative music festival. This recent cultural revitalization elevates Santiago from the status of ‘pleasant interlude’ to ‘must-see’.
Here’s our top list of things to do in Santiago, Chile’s comfortable and calm capital city.
Central Santiago is clean, orderly, and accessible, so you’d be a fool not to take advantage. Most of the main attractions can be visited on foot over the course of one or two days. (If you only have an afternoon to spend in the city, a well-organized tour will also do the trick.) Many of the attractions are located within Santiago Centro or the neighboring (and walkable) districts of Barrio Brasil, Barrio Bellavista and Providencia. The Centro is packed with banks and civic centers, including the Palacio de La Moneda where the president and cabinet ministers work.
A few blocks away is the Plaza de Armas, a pigeon-packed park full of shaded benches and green space. It’s ringed by the massive and impressively ornate Post Office, which was once the Palacio de los Gobernadores, originally built in 1715 and restored in 1882. Taking up almost the entire western side of the plaza is the Metropolitan Cathedral. The fifth time’s the charm for this cathedral, as four earlier iterations fell victim to fire and earthquake. The outside of the building is nice, but the inside is truly spectacular.
If you’re really energetic, you can walk all the way to the tops of two central hills for panoramic views of the Santiago cityscape. Cerro Santa Lucia is a lovely landscaped park where Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia celebrated the official founding of Santiago in 1541. Today, paths take you past fountains, gardens, and two castle-like structures to an open rocky hill top. On clear days, you can see the snowcapped mountains that ring the city.
Those with more time (or ambition) can also walk to the top of Cerro San Cristobal, much more of a hill than Cerro Santa Lucia could ever hope to be. It rises roughly 985 feet (300 meters) above the rest of the city, which is why most visitors take the funicular to the top. In addition to sweeping views, the top of Cerro San Cristobal contains a religious sanctuary with a 50-foot statue of the Virgin Mary.
With craft brews, reserve wines and creative pisco cocktails (not to mention the seismic brutality of the Terremoto!) Santiago pulls no punches when it comes to alcoholic diversity. (The recent culinary renaissance has also made it a much more exciting place to eat than it once was). Chile shares the spotlight with Argentina as South America’s main wine producer, but is specifically acclaimed for its Carmeneres, Cabernet Sauvignons and Sauvignon Blancs. Although you can buy bottles at bargain prices in the city, we’d highly recommend a half-day trip to one of the many wineries on the outskirts of Santiago. Or this 10-day winetasting adventure!
Nursing a hangover or traveling with little ones? Mote con huesillo is a seriously moreish non-alcoholic drink made from husked wheat grains and peaches doused in a sweet syrupy liquid containing cinnamon, sugar and yet more peaches. You need a spoon, rather than a straw, for this one.
Have we convinced you yet? Check out our array of Chile & Easter Island tours (choose between the lunar landscapes of the Atacama, the fantastic fjords of Patagonia and the mysterious moai of Easter Island) or contact a destination expert to craft the boutique itinerary of your dreams.
Photo credits in order of appearance: Ximena Nahmias, Ignacio Alonso, Mauro Mora, Jose Ignacio Pompe, Chipe Libre – Républica Independiente del Pisco