This is an updated version of an article originally published on 11 October 2018
Santiago de Chile is a large city of 7 million people located in Chile’s Central Valley. The city was founded in 1541 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, but some archaeologists believe that the first humans already reached the area in 10000BC. Santiago is the capital of Chile, hosting the country’s executive houses and judicial branches of government, the Congress however meets mostly in the nearby city of Valparaíso.
Why visit Santiago de Chile?
For travellers, the city often serves as a gateway to explore the extraordinarily diverse and beautiful Chile. Getting to know the capital a little often sheds some light on the whole country’s vibe, when it comes to people, food and culture. However, unlike few other metropolises in South America such as Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile can’t be exactly called a popular tourist destination but there’s certainly some charm and beauty to be discovered.
Santiago‘s skyline would have had the greatest potential due to the stunning and overwhelming Andes in the background. However, the city, unfortunately, appears like a result of a dire mishmash of several different versions of Tetris played by its urban planners and a rather insensitive developers. IMHO, even if a talented urban planner had an intention to mess the city’s atmosphere up, such a result would be very hard to achieve.
What a shame, given Santiago‘s potential. The expression “rest your eyes” within the skyline element of the city feels rather twisted here, because of this ever-present “Cinderella element” of separating the different kinds of architecture AKA the old/stylish vs the glass&steel modern buildings doesn’t offer much space for resting…
From the positive angle, “the Cinderella element” then makes you feel great when you spot a nice place – a great building or a corner – it’s like when you suddenly catch a smell of popcorn on the street filled with the smell of burnt fuel 😉 And there’s a lot of that “popcorn” in Santiago if you look closer. The downtown strolls offer some opportunities to find the hidden gems.
Places not to miss in Santiago
Tip: Start creating your own itinerary by saving the red-highlighted Google Maps location links provided bellow. If you are signed into your Google account and if any of the listed places sounded like your cup of tea, just click "want to go". You can then revisit your "want to go" location-list at any time ;)
In my humble opinion, the rather vulgar urban planning of Santiago mentioned above doesn’t reflect the vibe of the city. Overall, there are quite a few beautiful spots to visit, such as Cerro Santa Lucía, a hill with excellent views and the whole central area at its foot. However, be aware that the prices to grab a meal or a drink are reaching if not overtaking the Western European league, which I have learned the first evening the hard way after paying an equivalent of about €12 for two pints of IPA. Before you ask, let me tell you that the bill came out of the till 😉 But it’s also possible that I was drinking the most expensive IPAs there…
The 19th-century neoclassical centre is a bit of a banks&offices-like and during the rush hour also a bit claustrophobic due to immense crowds but other than that it’s rather charming. If you’re interested in history, this is where you’d find the presidential palace La Moneda the Pinochet‘s army attacked during the 1973 coup d’état, when the US-backed military junta violently replaced the democratically elected left-wing government led by President Salvador Allende. In case you were keen on historical facts, here‘s Britannica‘s article that provides some basic details.
Other significant sites in the city would be the country’s main square Plaza de Armas, or the Central Market (Mercado Central de Santiago). Overall, the centre is rather pretty just to take a stroll and grab a beverage or two in the numerous cafes and restaurants in the area. For a family kind of visit, maybe consider checking out the large park Parque Tupahue with ZOO, great views of the city and the cable car means of transportation. Well, and then there is Gran Torre Santiago, the second tallest building in Latin America people like to visit for its spectacular views of the valley.
Go out in Santiago
Located right under another popular hill with spectacular views of the city (Cerro San Cristóbal), only a few yards from the cable car station, there’s Pio Nono, Santiago‘s party street lined with endless restaurants/bars/pubs and terraces with 3 universities nearby. The beer is flowing in the bars/restaurants on cheap @ 1500,-CLP (€2) per 1l bottle. However one has to be the reggaeton-tolerant person to be able to cope with numerous sound systems blasting different tunes at each other.
Visitors should be apparently careful to wander westwards from the street later into the night. Otherwise, the whole Bellavista hood is very nice for dining, nightlife and related stuff. FYI, if the crowd at Pio Nono was a bit too young for you, the average age of the visitors rises a little above the UNI age when you head deeper into Belavista 😉 Another up&coming nightlife area is a neighbourhood called Barrio Brasil, nearby the centre. FYI, as a “gringo”, I was warned not to wander aimlessly into the side streets in this apparently working-class hood and to take a taxi upon my departure from the area.
If you’re into clubbing, please note that, like in some other Latin cities, consider going out very, I mean very late. The clubs often open at midnight and stay open until the early hours. 10 pm might be the time to start the night with a dinner and see where it will take you 😉 Have fun but – well – just don’t let your guard down pls 😉 Party scene could be quite predatory sometimes (globally), especially if you’re not a frequent party-goer, I’d advise you to keep your common sense switched on at all times, if applicable 😉
Safety in Santiago de Chile
I wouldn’t say that Santiago is a dangerous city, even for the infamous Latin American standards. For example according to the USA today, Santiago de Chile was nowhere near the top 50 most dangerous cities in 2019, while the US cities of New Orleans, Baltimore and St Luis made it to the list at 50th, respectively at 23rd and 15th positions.
But we’re still talking about a big city. And any big city comes with crime, whether it’s a risk of pickpocketing, mugging, street gangs and so on. So keep your eyes open twice as much as normally, especially if you’re new and visibly foreign. Don’t flash your valuables around, don’t be a dick and so on. More about safety in Latin America could be found here, in case you were interested.
To move around Santiago is very easy. You’ll need to buy a Bip! Card at any metro station for 1500,-CLP (€2) and top it up. The system is rather easy to understand and it is explained here. If I was able to purchase the Bip!, with massive jet lag and my Spanish at the time, anybody can 😉 Of course, there are also always tons of taxis around.
Getting to the city from the airport
From Santiago‘s airport, there are several bus companies running shuttle services to the city centre. Upon your arrival, you’ll be surrounded by the overcharging taxi drivers who ask 16000,-CLP (€21). Avoid them and ask at the information desk about the public buses. The public bus journey to the centre takes the same and it will only cost you 3200,-CLP (€4.20). The buses run from 06:00 am to 11:30 pm about every 10 minutes.
- Please do keep the little paper slip you will be given upon your arrival to Chile during the passport control. You’ll need it again when leaving the country;
- Also please make sure that you’re not bringing certain animal or plant products as it might resolve in the confiscation or even fine. Read more here.
Santiago is a huge city. According to my local friends as well as other sources, I’ve gathered that the popular areas to stay appear to be Bellavista, San Isidro, Centro, Las Condes or Recoleta hoods. Don’t forget to check both, booking.com as well as airbnb.com as they do compete a lot, having one or another offering cheaper options in different areas.
Sort of conclusion
With no disrespect intended, I would personally not recommend getting Santiago as a destination to visit for a tourist. However, if you’re passing by and have few spare days, it’s certainly worth considering exploring the city a little. I mean that in spite of being a bit of an underrated city, if compared to other Latin metropolises, such as Rio or Buenos Aires as mentioned above, Santiago also has a lot to offer. The character and vibes are there big time, you just have to look closer.
Speaking for myself, I was happy to bugger off to Valparaíso after few days in Santiago – it suited me better. After 52 hours of travelling, I’m not sure if Santiago is the best entry point to South America’s first-timer like me because due to its urban planning, it felt like that Santiago’s 7 million people were always around me. In comparison, the little coastal town of Valparaíso (pop. 276 000) is quieter, less overwhelming, more atmospheric and much more colourful, while the “Tetris gone wrong” only touched Valparaíso a bit.
Enjoy your stay 😉
Museums to consider in Santiago
- Museum of Santiago (Casa Colorada/info): city’s history from the Pre-Columbian era up until now
- Chilean National History Museum (Palacio de la Real Audiencia de Santiago/site): national history and heritage, everyday life objects from Chile
- Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos/Wiki): commemoration of the victims and human rights violations during Pinochet’s regime (1973–1990)
- Colonial Art Museum (Museo de Arte Colonial de San Francisco/site): colonial art and religious artefacts
Culture and Arts
- National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes/site): sculptures and paintings
- Santiago Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Santiago/site): contemporary paintings, drawings, sculptures
- Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art (Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino/site): pre-Columbian artworks and artefacts from Latin Americas
- La Moneda Cultural Center (Centro Cultural Palacio de La Moneda/site): cultural facility with various exhibitions inside La Moneda
- La Chascona/info: relics of famous people at one of the former homes of Pablo Neruda
- Museum of Sacred Art (Museo de Arte Sagrado/info): religious paintings, sculpture and furniture
- Chilean National Museum of Natural History (Museo Nacional de Historia Natural/site): multiple permanent exhibitions
- Mirador Interactive Museum (Museo Interactivo Mirador/site): cool for kids
- Planetarium Chile (Planetario Chile de la USACH/site): a planetarium with exceptional A/V technology
Useful and informative links
- General information: A website dedicated to visitors to Santiago Chile that offers details, insights and updates about the city, including culture/events, restaurants or shopping sections
- Transport: Santiago Tourist’s website guide how to use Metro in Santiago
- Customs info: General Consulate of Chile in Amsterdam the only official gov website that talks about declaring products of plant and animal origin you might be bringing to the country in English 😉
- History: a wee bit more extensive piece about Santiago‘s past by New World Encyclopedia could be found here;
- Culture & Events: All events website for Santiago
- Culture & events: Eventbrite event website for Santiago
Popular destinations to visit in Chile
Only two hours away from Santiago, on the Pacific shore, there’s a colourful and atmospheric bohemian city of Valparaíso that’s certainly worth visiting, especially if you’re into such vibes. More details about this incredible city could be found here.
Desierto de Atacama, is one amazing and surreal places to visit in the whole region. This driest non-polar desert in the world comes with many mind-blowing attractions, plus the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama also comes with a certain charm, if you manage to ignore the usual and rather predatory tourism scam that all popular travellers’ hotspots come with. Read more about Atacama Desert here, in case you were interested.
Except for the Atacama Desert, the northern Chilean region Antofagasta has plenty of attractions for a wide variety of activities. Whether you want to spend some time on the local beaches, climb the second highest peak outside Asia Nevado Ojos del Salado (6 893m), check out some of the region’s deserts of National Parks, there’s a lot to explore in this diverse province. For more details, please see Wikivoyage‘s page here, in case you were interested.
If case you’ve had some spare time, I’d definitely recommend exploring the stunning Carretera Austral, a 1200km stretch of road that starts in the neighbouring Puerto Montt and ends in Villa O’Higgins. The road cuts through the stunning Patagonian landscapes that include multiple national parks with great trekking options around fjords or glaciers as well as activities such as rafting, kayaking and so on. A little detailed guide to exploring Carretera Austral could be found here.
Only a short ride westward from Puerto Montt, there’s the largest Chilean island Isla Chiloé, where you can check out very different scenery, the island’s typical carpentry architecture as well as the less-visited National Parks. More info about Chiloé island could be found here.
Only a few hours drive north, you’ll end up in the picturesque town of Puerto Varas with stunning views of Volcán Osorno across Lago Llanquihue. The town itself feels very resorty but the area offers a lot of trekking options as well as seasonal winter sports. More details could be found in the joined piece about Puerto Varas and Bariloche in the link below.
Torres del Paine
The touristy town of Puerto Natales is the gateway to the iconic Patagonian National Park Torres del Paine. Everything you need to know about the park could be found here, in case you were interested.
If you were interested in visiting a huge, 120 000 colony of Magellanic penguins on Isla Magdalena nearby Punta Arenas, please note that in Puerto Natales, you’d be only 247km/3hrs drive away. More info could be found here.
Tierra del Fuego
Once you’re in Punta Arenas, then it’s worth considering visiting the “End of the World” AKA the town of Ushuaia (Argentina) in Tierra del Fuego that’s divided between Chile and its eastern neighbour. More details about the archipelago, its history, attractions, trekking and so on could be found here.
Ferry travel in Southern Chile
The region that’s filled with multiple islands, fjords, icebergs and beautiful mountains could be also observed from a deck of a boat. While the more wealthy travellers are able to pick one of the pricey tourist cruises in the region, most of us are left at the mercy of our more modest budgets. Fortunately, the local ferry routes are also sailing through the stunning Patagonian landscapes. More details could be found here.
Traveller’s Guide to Chile
For more complex information about this beautiful country, including basic history, cuisine, general tourism info and safety, as well as off the beaten path places to visit in Chile, please click here.
Featured image by Image by Horst Engelmann taken from Pixabay.