Things to Do in Santiago
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.
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.
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.
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.
Viña del Mar is Santiago’s closeby seaside cousin, just a little bit over an hour away on one of the country’s busiest highways. Viña, as it is commonly called calls itself the garden city, for the profusion of flowers, all over the city, and at Quinta Vergara, the large park there, as well as the iconic flower clock that faces the ocean walk so popular among locals and visitors.
In the summer, Viña fills up with Chileans as well as Argentines from just across the Andes, and international visitors as well. There are restaurants and nightlife, close proximity to more historical Valparaíso, and of course, the long Pacific coastline. Viña del Mar also has a casino and a couple of other points of interest, including a castle you can visit, and the aforementioned Quinta Vergara park, where the summer song festival is held ever February.
Cajón del Maipo, a narrow canyon where the Maipo River flows, begins just 16 miles (25 kilometers) southwest of Santiago, but its picturesque scenery, fresh air and charming mountain towns feels worlds away. Santiago residents often escape to Cajón del Maipo on the weekends for hiking, rafting, horseback riding, climbing, cycling and skiing. Rafting season lasts from November through March, while winter sports take over from June to September.
At the heart of Cajón del Maipo lies San José de Maipo, the biggest city in the canyon. Founded during a 1792 silver rush, the town maintains many of its colonial adobe structures as well as an eighteenth century church in the Plaza de Armas in the center of town. Hot springs scattered throughout the canyon offer opportunity for relaxation, while roadside stalls sell fresh-baked bread, Chilean empanadas, honey and other food items to stave off hunger pangs during a day of exploration.
Chile is justly famed for its wine, and no Chilean vintage is better known than Concha y Toro. Founded just south of Santiago in 1883 by Don Melchor de Concha y Toro, a politician who was clearly a man of the people, this respected winery now has vineyards all over Chile. The original, with its evocative stone cellars and photogenic fields, is still in Pirque.
Just outside Santiago's spreading city limits, this pastoral spot is the most convenient of all the Chilean vineyards to visit. The tour, available in Spanish, English, and other languages, takes you through the historic old buildings and into the modern era of winemaking, explaining both the science and artistry of the endeavor.
Today, Concha y Toro Winery produces some 20 million cases of excellent wine, most for export. Two glasses are complimentary with your tour, along with traditional tapas. Many more are available in the shop.
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.
Located in San Jose de Maipo outside of the Chilean capital, El Yeso Dam (Embalse El Yeso) dammed the Yeso River to create a lovely turquoise reservoir that can hold more than 253 million cubic meters of water. While only 60 miles (98 kilometers) outside of Santiago, El Yeso Dam feels very remote. The views across the reservoir to the snow-capped mountains in the distance rank among the best in the Chilean Andes.
While the El Yeso reservoir provides drinking water to residents of Santiago, it also serves more recreational purposes. Residents and tourists alike head to the turquoise waters for sport fishing, windsurfing or picnicking on the banks.
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.
More Things to Do in Santiago
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.
Matetic Vineyard is located in the San Antonio Valley, a Chilean wine region about 120 kilometers west of the capital Santiago. With its abundant sunshine, cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean and irrigation by fresh water from the Andes, the region offers the perfect climate for growing wine. Additionally, high temperature fluctuations between day and night force the roots of the vines to penetrate deeply into the soil to provide themselves with nutrients, a fact that gives the grapes grown in the valley a strong and distinctive flavor. Matetic’s wines are known for their elegance as well as the intensity of the pure fruit and several well-known vintages are produced here, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir.
The winery was founded by the Matetic family in 1999 and due to the high quality standards and the specialization in biodynamic farming, Matetic Vineyard managed to soon become one of the leading wineries in Chile.
Ancient grapes and full-bodied wines are a huge part of Chile’s culture—and no place is this more apparent than on a visit to Santa Rita Winery, located in the scenic foothills of Alto Jahuel. Travelers can wander the grounds through thick groves of old-world vines, sample some of Santa Rita’s world class wines or tuck into delicious fare at the Done Paula restaurant or the more casual La Panaderia Café.
A tour of the vineyard offers travelers a perfect opportunity to get in touch with the country’s deep roots while learning more about the tradition of wine making that started in Chile hundreds of years ago. The nearby Andean Museum showcases some 2,000 pieces from the nation’s past, rounding out any traveler’s voyage through the country’s ages.
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.
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.
Just outside of Santiago is the weekend getaway spot of Cajón del Maipo, a narrow river valley that snakes its way up to the Andes. The valley has a few small towns in it, with places to eat and stop and shop, but the real prize is way up towards the very top of the (rough) road, shortly before it dips into Argentina, and that is the hotsprings at Termas Valle de Colina.
About a 2.5 hour drive from Santiago, at the foot of the San José volcano, at an elevation of about 8,000 feet are the eight different pale blue pools of the hotsprings, which have been channeled away from their source with different mixes of cool water, to make for comfortable soaking. The waters contain several types of minerals including magnesium and calcium that are said to have curative properties.
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.
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.
This quiet winery is a short drive from Santiago, on what is referred to as the Autopista del Sol, which heads straight west from Santiago, arriving at the seaside town of Cartagena. Undurraga has a long history in Chile dating back to the 19th century, when this area of the Maipo valley was first used for wine grapes. Basic tours of the winery in English and Spanish start with a description of the operations, and then past some traditional Mapuche (indigenous) carvings, and past a small grotto that visitors can enter to better understand the terroir, between alluvial soils, rocks and roots that comprise the land on which the grapes are grown. Groups can be large, though English tours are usually smaller, and private tours are available.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.