Chile's Captivating Capital: Santiago
Cradled in a basin between the Andes and the Chilean Coastal Range, with the Pacific Ocean to the West, lies Chile’s astonishing capital city: Santiago. Also known as Santiago de Chile, this vibrant and leafy hub is rapidly shooting up South America’s list of urban gems and there’s a torrent of reasons why.
Stepping from one neighborhood to another is like flicking through trailers at the movies - each with its own distinctive character and unique story to tell. An eclectic and eccentric tangle of restaurants and bars, epic architecture and original museums, Santiago is a versatile adventure of your own making.
Santiago’s blessed with a mild mediterranean climate - warm summers and cool winters with scarcely any rainfall. Until recently, the city has been overlooked in favor of hiking trips in southern Chile’s Patagonia, tours of the Atacama, the world’s driest desert, or trips to the mystical Easter Island (Polynesian Rapa Nui). But with its growing economy and dynamic underground art scene, Santiago has been on the brink of renaissance for the last decade, making it a destination in its own right.
Discerning tourists are quickly cottoning on to the city’s spectacular best-of-both location between mountain and coast. It sits at 1,706 feet (520m) above sea level in the country’s central valley. Within just an hour of leaving Santiago, travelers can be relaxing at the coastal resort of Viña Del Mar to the West, or tearing down the snowy ski resorts of the Andes to the East.
It was the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia that founded the city in 1541, when it was known as Santiago del Nuevo Extremo. The name ‘Santiago’ evolved from the latin for ‘Saint James’, the patron saint of Spain. Today, it’s home to 40% of all Chileans, with a city population of about 200 thousand and a metropolitan population of nearly 7 million, and has become a global travel destination.
To help you build your Santiago itinerary, here are a few essentials to get you started!
Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas should claim its rightful place at the top of your checklist. The historic heart of the city, this town square is flanked by grand buildings including the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral, the Central Post Office, the National History Museum and the City Hall. The square was actually the centerpiece of the first building plans when the city was built and is a great exponent of Santiago’s fascinating history.
For a truly authentic experience, head to Santiago’s downtown. This is the area around Plaza de Armas and has a multitude of diverse little shopping streets and grand architectural sites such as the Palacio de la Moneda which is the seat of the President of Chile.
If you’re a history buff you might want to check out the churches on Paseo Ahumada, where you can find Basílica de la Merced, Iglesia de la Compañía, Iglesia de Santo Domingo and Iglesia de las Agustinas. Downtown is also home to the recognizable neoclassical architecture of the University of Chile’s main building.
Santa Lucía Hill
Santa Lucía Hill is actually a relic of a 15 million year old volcano in downtown Santiago! It has an interesting part to play in the history of the town, being the physical spot where Pedro de Valdivia first founded the city.
Head up the stone tower at the hill’s summit for a panoramic vista of the city and the Andes Mountains. Cerro Santa Lucía is also home to a fabulous little crafts market.
Bellavista is a popular neighborhood for its vibrant nightlife. With its plethora of bars, restaurants and nightclubs you’re guaranteed a lively night out here! This bubbling atmosphere doesn’t stop at dawn however, and it makes a great spot for a daytime meander too.
Bohemian passages with colorful houses, avant-garde galleries and street art, it’s here you’ll find La Chascona, once home to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and now a famous public museum. Head to his namesake restaurant El Mesón Nerudiano for an authentic rustic meal and a Pisco sour. Pisco is a popular brandy from Chile and Peru made from fermented grape juice - an absolute must-try while you’re there!
San Cristóbal Hill
Santiago is full of beautiful green spaces, and the largest of these is Metropolitan Park next to the Bellavista neighborhood, where you can find Cerro San Cristóbal (or San Cristóbal Hill). This is the best place to go for spectacular views of the city.
You can get up here by funicular (which costs about $5 for adults) or walking (this takes about an hour). At the top there’s a sanctuary with a remarkable statue of the Virgin Mary (a full 22 meters tall).nThe Metropolitan Park is also home to a Japanese botanical garden, two large swimming pools and the national zoo, so it’s well worth visiting.
The Lastarria neighborhood is another area with a pulsing evening scene, but makes for a wonderful daytime adventure with its museums, art galleries and bustling cobbled streets and European architecture.
Barrio Bellas Artes
Barrio Bellas Artes is where you’ll find Santiago’s most famous art museum, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes which is over a century old now and has free entry. It’s a huge space that offers over 12 thousand works of art from all over the world, and is the largest of its kind in Latin America. The barrio is also known for its boutique shops, theaters and quality eateries.
A haven for foodies! The Mercado Central was opened in 1872 and is well known for its fantastic value seafood. It’s actually made up of several different markets all peddling different wares and produce, as well as many excellent restaurants for tasting local delicacies.
This little taster menu of Santiago merely scratches the surface of this wonderful city! We haven’t even mentioned the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center (named after the Chilean feminist poet), the Gran Torre Santiago (Latin America’s tallest skyscraper) and Santiago’s swish and trendy financial district, cleverly coined as ‘Sanhattan’. It’s even home to South America’s most extensive subway system! There’s no end to Santiago’s secrets, and we could go on forever listing all the wonderful sites to add to your itinerary.
If you have an interest in visiting Chile during your trip across South America, enquire with our expertise sales team to see what additional land tours we can offer you in the area! Please send us an enquiry or call us on 1-888-215-355 to begin, or extend your Latin American adventure.