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Although it is one of the fastest growing and economically stable cities in Latin America, Santiago lacks many obvious tourist attractions of a Buenos Aires or a Rio – but don’t let that mislead you. After spending seven weeks in the Chilean capital, we put together this list of stand out things that make the city truly unique and shouldn’t be missed on a visit to Santiago.
Attractions in Santiago
Set just inside the mighty Andes mountains, Santiago itself is mainly flat (and great for cycling), but there are two cerros, or hills, right in the city center that afford perfect views of the city:
Cerro Santa Lucia
Santiago was founded right on this very spot, but nowadays Cerro Santa Lucia is known more as a scenic lookout. Located right by the trendy Lastarria neighborhood in central Santiago, on a clear day free of smog, visitors have fantastic views out onto the Andes and the city, but even on a smoggy day the hill itself is worth a visit for its majestic fountains, Spanish tile work, European style mini-castle and gorgeous gardens on every level up to the top.
Towering over the city is the Cerro San Cristobal lookout on top of Santiago’s second highest mountain. We scaled the hill on a 45-minute heart-pumping hike to the statue of Virgin Mary on top of the hill, but if steep hikes on uneven terrain aren’t your idea of fun, you can either hop on the funicular (when it’s working) or take a free bus up to the top (when it’s not). The Cerro is located north of the Bellavista neighborhood, which means you can combine this with a visit to Pablo Neruda’s house La Chascona at the bottom of the hill and a meal at one of the dozens of fabulous restaurants in the Patio Bellavista and surrounding area.
For a fully functioning central market, the Mercado Central is one of the cleanest we’ve visited. In particular, the fish market is packed with bright fish stalls and the old market hall has clean, quaintly decorated restaurants for some of the freshest fish in the country. For a more…local…experience, cross the river north of the Mercado Central and follow the foot traffic to Mercado Vega. This fruit and vegetable market is cheap and has excellent produce, as does the Mercado Vega Chica you’ll most likely pass through before the main market. A large market area itself, there are also little local eateries on the east side of the market.
Coffee with legs, a Santiago institution, can be found all over the pedestrian shopping streets downtown, right around the Plaza De Armas. The coffee is good and the people watching is fantastic – both for the waitresses flaunting their legs in their short dresses, the oogling men, and the women, businessmen and families who just stop in for good strong coffee. The two best chains are Café Haiti and Café Caribe – you can’t miss them on a stroll through downtown Santiago.
Plaza De Armas is Santiago’s central plaza and home to kilometro zero, the point from which the city has continued to sprawl out in all directions to become home to now seven million inhabitants. The plaza is home to beautiful historic buildings such as the incredibly ornate Central Post Office, the Palacio de la Real Audiencia and, as in nearly every Latin American city, the main Cathedral. Modern glass buildings and skyscrapers are mixed in together with downtown’s historic monuments and the palm trees and benches that line the plaza make the Plaza de Armas another excellent people-watching spot.
Tip: The cathedral’s dull façade is misleading – the inside is impressive and filled with gorgeous little details so make sure to stop in and cool off inside when you’re walking around downtown.
Santiago’s massive Cemeterio General (General Cemetery) is one of the largest cemeteries we have visited anywhere on our travels – and with over two million burial places, it is easily one of the largest in all of Latin America. Chile’s former beloved Communist leader Salvador Allende is buried here with his family in a grand modern mausoleum down one of the many shady avenues lined with other palatial mausoleums. Equally ‘awe-inspiring’ were the massive ‘death condos’, where coffins are slid for eternity into tiny slots in large constructions that look like condominium complexes. Most of the time these are open so that name plaques are visible to passersby, but there is one, frighteningly tall, multi-story building with hundreds of these plots inside, with plenty of space for friends and family to enter the building and walk up the ramp to the 4th, 5th or 6th floors to visit their loved ones. Scary!
The cemetery is super easy to visit, just take the Yellow Metro Line to the aptly named ‘Cementarios’ stop, and you come up right at one of the main gates.
Santiago is a surprisingly green city, with many parks and green areas all around town. If you are staying downtown, the Parque Forestral that runs parallel to the river north of the Lastarria neighborhood makes for great strolls or picnics and you will see many people laying in the grass reading or couples enjoying each other. In Parque Quinto Normal you can rent rowing boats on a little lake, and there are many hiking trails in the massive Parque Metropolitano.
Museo de la Memoria
It is easy to get distracted by the city’s flashy modern architecture, high brow cultural program, street art and great restaurants, but we say a trip to Santiago’s Human Rights Museum is a must in order to understand Chile’s very dark, very recent history under Pinochet’s military dictatorship between 1973 and 1990. Tens of thousands were disappeared, more were brutally tortured and countless starved under this strict dictatorship and although so many Santiguenos were affected, people today are focused on growth and the future, so this was the only experience we had of learning about the regime in detail.
In true Santiago style, of course, the building is an architectural wonder, built by a group of Brazilian architects, and entry is free for all.
The Fine Arts Palace has a great selection of Chilean paintings and sculptures and serves as a solid, if quick, introduction Chile’s art scene. The low admission of only 600 Pesos (US$1.30) is well worth it, and Sundays are free. Art lovers will also enjoy the Contemporary Art Museum, which is located in the same building as the Fine Arts Palace and the Ralli Museum, which holds a comprehensive collection of Latin American artists and pieces by Dali, Miro and Chagall.
Santiago has no shortage of museums and if you happen to be in town on a rainy day, other excellent museums include the interactive Science and Technology museum, the Natural History Museum, the Archeological Museum of Santiago, Museum of Pre-Columbian Art and The Interactivo Mirador.
Top Santiago Neighborhoods
The Lastarria neighborhood could be considered tourist-friendly, and though we never saw tour groups en masse, English and other languages can be heard interspersed with the many, many locals who flock here to eat at the excellent restaurants in the area. This small neighborhood is packed with interesting architecture, colorful neo-classical buildings and the gorgeous Ivy House. On the weekends, there is a little flea market and if you need a quick pick-me-up, Café Wonderful is truly wonderful, indeed.
Although these two neighborhoods are just a few metro stops from the Plaza de Armas, most people do not visit here. This is a shame, however, since they are some of the prettiest in Santiago. Barrio Brazil was an upper-class neighborhood in the 1800s, and many of the mansions from that time remain. Barrio Yungay is what felt the most ‘Latin American’ to us, with little colonial houses and cobblestone streets and while some will warn against spending too much time in this lower-income neighborhood, it felt perfectly safe and welcoming during the daytime when we were there and our guide on the free Patrimonial Route walking tour brought us through the neighborhood. We highly recommend this free walking tour, as he also brought us to the famous historic barbershop and French restaurant Peluqueria Francesa for a coffee and to many plazas and streets that we might not have found on our strolls through the area.
Las Condes and Providencia show a completely different face of Santiago, and a trip here is necessary to get an accurate feel of the city. Providencia’s modern skyscrapers have earned it the nicknamed Sanhattan, and although not quite as impressive as Manhattan’s skyline, it is home to the highest tower in South America along with beautiful older buildings as well. Las Condes is almost entirely ultra-modern office buildings and home to the classic Intercontinental hotel covered in ivy trim and the sexy , chic W Hotel just around the corner.
If you should ever find yourself feeling creative, bored, thirsty or hungry in Santiago, head to this neighborhood. There is most certainly something happening here – especially on the weekend. Bellavista is a bohemian area with restaurants, bars and clubs, many of which are located on Pío Nono street (which leads straight to Cerro San Cristobal). It is well worth venturing off this main road and just meandering through the side streets in the barrio where you’ll see antique mansions, colonial houses and the most, and probably the best, street art in Santiago. Bellavista is also home to Pablo Neruda’s Santiago home La Chascona and definitely check out Patio Bellavista – filled with shops and restaurants, including one of our favorite breakfast/brunch spots – Le Fournil (see below).
Tours in Santiago
Free Walking Tours
Most people spend a few days at most in Santiago on their way north to San Pedro de Atacama or south to Patagonia, so it never feels overrun with tourists. Even so, two companies offer walking tours – Free Tour Santiago and Spicy Chile. Free Tour Santiago offers the generic 4-hour walk that covers all the main sights, but we went with Spicy Chile, who offer three different tours that get you off the main trail to explore more of the city. We loved our guide, a 24 year old law student, who was able to really articulate insightful cultural information.
FotoRuta has expanded their photography scavenger hunts from Buenos Aires to Santiago now. You can read about our experience here. FotoRuta is a great afternoon experience for photography fans as well as newbies interested in slowing down an taking a closer look at the Lastarria area through a lens.
La Bicicleta Verde offers several bike tours in Santiago, so you can see much more in a much shorter time. They offer several tours – Parks & Politics, market tours, night tours and even Wine & Bike tours!
Santiago’s culinary delights
Sadly, Santiago is not great for veggies, but what they do have is pretty good. El Huerto in the Providencia neighborhood is our absolute favorite, and we also really liked Quinoa, though this is a bit outside downtown in Vitacura, reachable by the 405 bus (ask the bus driver to drop you at Luis Pasteur and walk just a bit further in that same direction.) Skip El Naturista – even though it is the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Santiago with three branches throughout the city, the food we had there could have not been more disappointing.
We tried several breakfast spots, but hands down, Le Fournil was by far the best. The goal behind this little French bakery (there are two in Santiago) is to bring quality European bread to South America, and we can confirm they have done just that! We loved the Desayuno Le Fournil, which consisted of delicious croissants, homemade baguettes, pastries, fresh jam and butter and a nice, strong coffee. You can also get great lunches and dinners here (and all come with the delicious bread!).
Meat-eaters looking for a quick lunch or snack, the Portal Fernández Concha arcades just south of the Plaza de Armas have dozens of stalls hawking quick ‘completos’, Chile’s popular style of hot dogs and ‘lomitos’, typical pork sandwiches. Set meals here run roughly $2.50 including a drink.
For a much better selection of lomitos, stop in at La Fuente Alemana (The German Fountain), an old-fashioned diner-style restaurant where you pull up a seat at the counter and watch the cooks in the center preparing the massive sandwiches with roasted pork, avocado, lettuce, tomato, cheese and other ingredients. There are branches around town, but the most central we’ve seen is at Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins 58 just across the river from Barrio Bellavista near the Baquedano metro station.
Mercado Central is the best place for fresh fish. It is clean and always filled with well-heeled locals seated at several fish restaurants right in the market hall.
The good news in Santiago was for our waistlines – pizza here doesn’t even begin to compare to our pizza discoveries in Buenos Aires. The only spot that truly won us over was Tiramisu – a bit out of the way in the El Golf neighborhood (closest metro station is El Golf), not far from the W Hotel and worth the trip if you’re seriously in need of pizza. The selection is giant, and you even can get pizza tacos!
La Piojera around the corner from Mercado Central (Calle Aillavilu 1030) is definitely a local drinking experience you shouldn’t miss. This is a gritty cantina packed every night with the entire gamut of Chileans all there to enjoy the bar’s infamous terremotos (earthquake), a dangerous drink made of Pipeño (a sweet fermented wine), pineapple ice cream and Fernet Branca (herbal liquor). A half liter costs only US$4 and is enough to make you stumble and shaky on your feet (hence the name). If you are in good drinking shape and have somebody to look after you, go for a replica (aftershock).
La Piojera also has good Chilean food, especially the chorillanas, a typical Chilean dish of French fries topped with strips of pork, onions and fried eggs – could there be a better drinking/hangover food?!
The Clinic Bar is named after the satirical Chilean newspaper The Clinic (comparable to The Onion) and pokes fun at the country’s right wing party in posters all over the place and in the menu which looks like a newspaper. If you speak Spanish, you can get great insight here for Chile’s current political issues, relationship with neighboring countries and also some witty, sharp international commentary. Along with the political statements you can enjoy typical Chilean dishes and drinks here.
The BocaNariz bar in the Lastarria neighborhood is the perfect place to sample Chilean wines. They have over one hundred native wines on their menu and also offer several sample options where you can try three different 50ml glasses of wine. Dani tried the Fresh & Fruity white wines and loved them all!
We mentioned La Peluqueria Francesa (Boulevard Lauvaud) French café restaurant in the Yungay neighborhood, but this old-fashioned barbershop / eatery is worth a stop for two reasons. First, stepping inside feels like a time warp to the 1920s, as the café has decorated with memorabilia spanning movie posters, antique furniture, dolls, and more different kinds of barbershop trinkets than you’d think possible. Second, and possibly more importantly, Happy Hour here is actually ‘Happy Day’ and lasts from 10am to 9pm, and Pisco Sours are only $3! We have heard great things about the food and people are raving about it on Tripadvisor, but the breakfast we had here was rather disappointing.
Since Chileans are still enamored with Nescafe Instant Coffee, which is served in most of the traditional restaurants, it can sometimes be hard to find a good cup of espresso, lattes, cappuccinos or just a cafe con leche. Luckily, some coffee connoisseurs decided that Chile needs more Italian-style coffee bars with real coffee and now you can’t only find good coffee at Starbucks (although there are several throughout the city, if you need a quick caffeine fix). For some true latte art and excellent cappuccinos visit the Wonderful Cafe (they have one branch in the Lastarria neighborhood and one in Las Condes), and for organic Guatemalan beans roasted on the spot, head to the Green Roasters Roasting House at Parque Bustamente. We also had excellent espresso at the old-fashioned Cafe de la Barra in Lastarria; at Santiago’s oldest cafe, the historic Confiteria Torres which dates back to 1879 and at the aforementioned Peluqueria Francesa.
Some useful tips for your trip to Santiago, Chile
Get yourself a BIP card for the metro. You’ll need one for the buses, anyway, which don’t use paper tickets, so you might as well have it for the metro as well. BIPs are 1,400 Pesos ($2.75) and then loaded with as much credit as you’d like to use the pay as you go system. The entire transportation system is simple to use and the metro stations are beautiful.
Lastly, pray for rain!
The best time to head up on top of one of one of the viewpoints is after a rainy day, when all the smog gets washed away. That’s when you are most likely to have the beautiful mountain views on all the postcards.
Want to go beyond Santiago’s main sights? Check out our Go beyond… Central Santiago post!