Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Santiago
La Moneda is easy to spot – its white, neoclassical walls make up the presidential palace that takes up an entire city block in downtown Santiago. Construction began in 1781 and was completed in 1805, when it was used as a mint, which is what the term moneda translates to in English.
The gigantic Chilean flag that waves in front of La Moneda, from a grassy traffic circle in the middle of the Alameda (Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins), can be seen from blocks away. There are two nearby plazas that serve as popular meeting and lunchtime spots, each with lawns, fountains and benches. History buffs will remember that this building was bombed in 1973 as part of the coup d’etat that ended Salvador Allende’s presidency and preceded Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power. There are still, a few areas where the damage has been left for visitors to see.
At the heart of Santiago de Chile's historic district is the city's social hub, the palm-shaded Plaza de Armas. Surrounded by the neoclassical facades of Santiago's most important buildings, including the Metropolitan Cathedral; the Municipalidad, or federal building; and perhaps most striking, the magnificent Correo Central, or old post office. Two pedestrian malls, lined with handicrafts vendors, independent musicians, and plenty of cafes and shops, stretch out from the festive city center. Most of Santiago's museums and important sites are within a few blocks.
Since 1540, the venerable expanse of stone, cement, and sculpture has been a social hub, and it still serves as a gathering place for folks from across the cultural spectrum. Whether you're here to learn some history, feed a few pigeons, or just enjoy a glass of wine, the Plaza de Armas probably offers the finest people-watching in Chile.
Cerro Santa Lucia is one of two hills that overlook Santiago, where in 1541 Pedro de Valdivia founded the city long before Chile existed as an independent country. At the time, the hill was called Huelén by the indigenous people; a nearby street (by metro Salvador) still bears that name.
The hill rises about 230 feet over the surrounding part of the city, and there are excellent views of downtown from several terraces up there. Cerro Santa Lucia has three main constructions: the main entrance on the Alameda, with its wide, curving staircase, fronted by a fountain and backed by a yellow mansion; the fort at the top from which the best views of downtown can be seen; and the Castillo Hidalgo, which often hosts large international events.
The Santiago skyline is dominated by San Cristobal Hill - or Cerro San Cristobal, a forest-carpeted mountain rising from the city, protected as the Parque Metropolitano, or city park. It was once called Tapahue, after the indigenous headdress it resembles, and developed into a public greenspace at the beginning of the 20th century, after the astronomical observatory was constructed atop.
Today, the park serves as a scenic escape above the smog that can choke Santiago on winter days, and offers fantastic views across this city of 6.5 million to the Andes. Walking trails, picnic spots, and an amphitheater are all dwarfed by the 22-meter (72-foot) statue of the Virgin Mary, erected here in the 1930s.
The park extends into the cerro's skirts, and also encompasses the National Zoo and two pretty public pools, both excellent options for families.
Bellavista, a walkable neighborhood not far from downtown Santiago, is routinely referred to as the city’s bohemian neighborhood. There’s street art and both sedate and raucous nightlife, art galleries, theater performances, dance clubs, loads of restaurants (both formal and informal) and one of Chile’s most-visited museums, La Chascona. Even this museum has a colorful history; it is one of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s homes-turned-museums. And the whole neighborhood is just a few blocks south of Cerro San Cristobal, the large hill that overlooks the city and has both a sanctuary and a large marble statue of the Virgin Mary on top, in addition to the hiking trails, swimming pools and Japanese garden. On weekends, the hill attracts families, couples, runners, cyclists and participants in group activities, from yoga to zumba. And all week long, the Chileans of all ages and income brackets come to hang out.
The interior, wrought-iron construction of the Mercado Central looks like it could contain a greenhouse, but with the masonry outside, this building houses local eateries, a few fruit and vegetable stands, the occasional roaming musician, and just a sampling of souvenir stands, though in total there are more than 200 locales. The building dates back to 1872, and is consistently named as a must-see in Santiago. In fact, in 2012, National Geographic named it as the 5th best market in the world. Due to its central location, and the fact that it is often visited by tourists, it has also become a hub for pickup and drop off for a number of different tour services.
Santiago's Cathedral - or Catedral Metropolitana - is considered one of the finest pieces of religious architecture in South America. This is the Catedral Metropolitana's fourth incarnation (as well as numerous touchups) since a church was first dedicated on this spot in 1561, and must be one of its loveliest.
It was most recently rebuilt in the 1750s, with the help of Italian architect Joaquín Toesca, who designed the baroque-fringed neoclassical facade that set the standard for subsequent structures around the Plaza de Armas. Yet, as impressive as the stone exterior is, it is the resplendent vault and richly adorned altar, inside, that really inspires. A small museum of religious artifacts adjoins the main church.
At the heart of Chile’s political landscape, the Plaza de la Constitucion is a vast, paved square occupying a full square block in the center of Santiago’s civic district. Surrounded by government buildings like the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice, and the Banco Central de Chile, the most impressive site of all is the square’s Palacio de la Moneda.
Designed by the Italian architect Joaquín Toesca and built in the late 18th century, the Palacio de la Moneda is said to be one of the finest neoclassical buildings in South America. Originally intended as the Royal Mint, today the palace houses the Chilean presidential offices.
Every second morning, here’s where you can see the changing of the guard set to the Chilean national anthem, and while you can’t go inside the palacio, you can wander its inner courtyards. In front of the south side of the Palacio Moneda, it’s worth visiting the Centro Cultural Palacio de la Moneda.
Those looking to play and picnic in downtown Santiago always head to Parque Forestal. The park runs from an area near the Central Market up to Plaza Italia as a strip of greenery with walking paths, leafy trees, old-fashioned lamp posts, playgrounds and two of the city’s most important museums.
These are the Bellas Artes and the Museum of Contemporary Art, which stand back to back in the park near the metro Bellas Artes. The latter’s chunky Botero horse statue out front makes it easy to spot, while Bellas Artes faces the street José Miguel de La Barra.
Parque Forestal is popular among runners, walkers and families. On Sunday afternoons, street performers get together in the park to practice acrobatics and juggling, and once a month, there is an open-air flea market where anyone can register to sell household goods such as books and clothing. In the summer, the spots under the leafy platano oriental trees are the most coveted.
Constructed in 1910, at the height of Latin America's frilly neoclassical-meets-art nouveau architectural wave, the graceful Palacio de Bellas Artes still strikes an imposing figure amidst modern Santiago's cold skyscrapers. Its ornate stone facade, which would do any cathedral proud, and permanent artistic merit make it the perfect home for the National Museum of Fine Arts.
The permanent collection, displayed in the Palacio's soaring chambers, begins with the Spanish Colonial era and traces Chile's cultural development through the styles of its artistic masters. Temporary exhibitions come from around Chile and the world.
The MAC (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo), Santiago's contemporary art museum, is also here. While it University of Chile-operated institution may lack the gravitas of the neighboring Fine Arts Museum, exhibits can be a lot more fun.
More Things to Do in Santiago
Lastarria is one of a few small, mostly cobblestoned neighborhoods in Santiago, and it is definitely one known for its indie fashion, antiques and popular restaurants. Lastarria heads north from the Alameda (Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins), near the Universidad Católica metro station and over a few blocks to the street Merced, an area with esoteric boutiques and stores such as Plop and Tienda Nacional that sell locally published books.
There is always something going on in between the Alameda and Merced, with antiques at the Plaza Mulato Gil and exhibits at the MAVI (Museum of Visual Arts) on the Merced side. The area is home to several shops that have taken space in an old mansion and sell trendy clothing from new designers as well as woven copper and crin (horesehair) jewelry, which is unique to Chile. Lastarria also encompasses some smaller streets, such as quiet Rosal, often the site of local photo shoots because of its old, colonial-style architecture.
Visitors to Santiago can take a trip back in time just by walking through the doors of the famous Iglesia San Francisco de Borja. This iconic church ranks among the city’s oldest—and most beautiful—religious structures, and dates back to the original Spanish settlements. Marvel at the bold and imposing red exterior, then enter to find soft yellows, blues and whites decorating the interior. Learn from your guide about the legend of the statue of Virgen del Socorro and savor the silence of the church, where you can spend some time in quiet meditation or prayer before returning to the hustle of Santiago city streets.
From the outside, the French-styled Correo Central (Central Post Office) is a frothy white wedding cake of a building, while inside its all tiered galleries topped by a beautiful glass dome. Built in 1882 on the northwest corner of Santiago's Plaza de Armas, the Central Post Office, designed by Chilean architect Ricardo Brown, has been a national monument since 1976.
Next door to the Palacio de la Real Audiencia de Santiago, aside from buying your stamps, the Correo Central is also home to the Museo Postal y Telegrafico. Dedicated to Chile's postal history, here you can see a huge collection of stamps from around the world.
You might not expect a winery so close to the city of Santiago, but then, Santiago has been growing up towards the mountains in recent decades, so it’s not so much that Cousiño Macul was built in the city as that the city has grown all around it. Cousiño Macul is a peaceful oasis in the district of Peñalolén, at the foot of the mountains, which are seen in the background over the planted fields. The winery was founded in 1856 by Matías Cousiño, and is still owned and run by the same family. From the tasteful treed entryway to the quiet store, it feels like there is a reverence for the product and process here. In late summer and early fall, you can try grapes straight off the vines, which depending on the exact week may be Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah.
This peaceful park along the Mapocho River features several different types of sculpture, from representational to geometric and abstract, in natural materials such as stones, and also some of more distinctive pieces, such as a yellow cage-like structure, and a large metal cube made of parallel bars. The sculpture park is easily found by exiting the metro at Pedro de Valdivia and heading north, and you will recognize immediately that you are headed in the right direction as you cross over the Mapocho river on a bridge that is also dotted with sculptures. Alternatively, on your way out of Cerro San Cristobal, take a taxi or walk down to the Pedro de Valdivia side and walk a few peaceful blocks through the tony Pedro de Valdivia Norte neighborhood before entering the park.
Santiago is a busy, walkable city, with a fairly compact downtown. But there are times when you’ve had enough of having to move along at the speed of the crowd, and wish you could have a more spacious place to be. And you can. There are three major pedestrian thoroughfares in downtown Santiago, Huérfanos, which runs west down from Cerro Santa Lucía, and both Paseo Ahumada and Paseo Estado, which stretch north from the Alameda (Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins) towards the Mapocho River and Mercado Central.
Paseo Ahumada is perhaps the busiest of the three, and you’ll find families and individuals walking, talking on the phone or sitting on benches at most times of day, On the street there are nearly always street performers and vendors, selling hats, scarves, and the occasional television antenna. There are also popular stands selling mote con huesillo, a local drink made of sweet peach punch with reconstituted dried peaches and wheat kernels at the bottom.
Built in 1925, Chile’s National Library is home to an extensive collection of rare books and valuable manuscripts that date back to the early 1800s. Its luxe interior spans two floors, which boast marble staircases and ornate sculptures of some of the country’s most famed artists. The impressive French neoclassical building is also home to the nation’s National Archives.
Travelers who visit the vast open rooms lined with historic texts and open study tables say the iconic building in the center of Santiago offers a rare opportunity to travel back in time. And the silent stacks prove a stark contrast to the electricity of the city streets that lie right outside its doors.
Beloved Chilean poet and politician Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto – otherwise known as Pablo Neruda (1904–1973) – helped design this quirky, nautical-themed home for himself and his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, for whom La Chascona (“tangle-haired woman”) is named.
Bursting with Neruda´s odd collections and romantic personality, the house serves as unique insight into one of the most important figures in the country´s recent history. Music boxes, exotic artifacts, original chinaware, toys, antiques, and an overwhelming library with thousands of books are only part of the appeal; also on display are a replica of his Nobel Prize (presented in 1971 for literature) and a portrait of Urrutia by the famous artist Diego Rivera, which holds a secret of its own.
Though later vandalized by dictator Pinochet´s men, La Chascona has been restored and is now open to the public via tours.
These two connected villages, only an hour away from Santiago, comprise one of the most popular ski centers in the country, both because of their proximity to the capital and their high number of ski runs.
Ranging up to almost 11,000 ft (3,352m) above sea level, and with numerous ski classes available for those who need a refresher course, El Colorado is an ideal place to bring the family for a quick jump-start to the season. Nearly 70 runs graze the mountain in total, which receives an average snowfall of 15 ft (4.5m). Full equipment is available to rent.
With a BBQ grill, local supermarket, cozy pub, and coffee shop on the terrace (which boasts “Swiss-Alpine” cuisine), the resort offers plenty of munchies post-piste—with scenic views to boot.
Photo courtesy of Dario Alpern via Wikimedia Commons.
While the salmon-colored Mercado Central building is a self-contained, orderly area with impressive wrought-iron architecture and orderly seating areas, La Vega is anything but. This is Santiago’s main market for the purchase of fruit, vegetables, and meat, and also disposable containers and bags, items made of wicker, and even some terra cotta dishes from the nearby town of Pomaire. But most visitors come here for the controlled chaos, the bustle, and of course, to spy some foods you might not find at home.
Different areas are home to different kinds of foods, with a wholesale berry section, an area of Peruvian goods (where you’ll find sweet potatoes and purple corn), and even an area just for hot peppers, including merquén, a spicy smoky mix of hot pepper with cilantro seeds and salt.
The name of this street, and the neighborhood that surrounds it, is synonymous with fairly close-in luxury in Santiago. It’s just to the north of sprawling (but also pricey) Las Condes, and contains some of the highest-valued real estate in the city, including world class hotels, restaurants, shopping, and one of the nicest urban parks you’re likely to visit in South America.
Shopping takes place on Vitacura itself, and then on two main tree-lined boulevards called Nueva Costanera and Alonso de Córdoba, where there is loads of shopping for clothing and home design, including international boutiques, and a couple of local stores. For restaurants, choose from several reservations-only, dress up restaurants on Nueva Costanera, many of which have won awards, including recently, Boragó, which was named one of the top 50 restaurants in South America.
The convenient location of some of the world’s best skiing to Chile’s capital city of Santiago might make you consider spending a winter here. Or at least skipping a week or two of your own summer when European and North American pros come down to the Andes to practice in the off-season. If you want to try to spy some US national ski team members, try July and August on the advanced slopes at La Parva, when they just might be training.
La Parva has about 1,000 acres of terrain, and runs 14 different lifts, of quads, triples and doubles. It’s also one of the ski resorts that caters to the youngest children, starting from age 4, though some of the lessons for the youngest kids are inside. One thing that sets La Parva apart from other ski resorts is that people stay in private homes and condos here as opposed to hotels, which puts more of a family feel to it.
Between Santiago's Central Post Office and the Municipalidad, the National History Museum (Museum Historico Nacional) is housed in what was once the Palacio de la Real Audiencia, which was designed by Juan Jose de Goycolea y Zanartu and built by the Spanish Empire between 1804 and 1807 to house the Royal Courts of Justice.
Today the grand old rooms are dedicated to showcasing the eclectic remnants of Chile's past — the exhibits are divided into the themes including Mapuche silverwork, colonial furniture and art, textiles, weapons, and photography. And on a visit, you'll see everything from sewing machines to period clothes and furniture.
The ground floor is dedicated to conquest and colony, and upstairs you'll learn more about Chile's struggle for independence through to the industrial revolution and the 1973 military coup. But the only evidence you'll see of Pinochet is a stash of his presidential sashes.
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