Santiago was my first and last stop during my trip to Chile. I could squeeze only two days in Santiago (+ one more for a Santiago to Valparaiso day trip) in my Chile itinerary but I managed to see a lot and I really enjoyed the city.
Santiago reminded me a lot about Buenos Aires, Montevideo, or central Rio de Janeiro – all these cities in South America surprised me in a positive way and Santiago was no different. I found many more things to do in Santiago than I expected and I really think this is such an underrated city (but I get it’s difficult to compete with all these great places to visit in Chile, like Patagonia or Atacama).
And so today I’m sharing with you my favorite things to do in Santiago, Chile. I’m sure if you approach the city with an open mind it will find as cool as I did. And I hope this Santiago guide will help you prepare for your trip!
Why visit Santiago
Santiago will most likely be your first stop in Chile since the local airport is the main getaway to the country. It’s worth spending here some time to get to know the city, its history, culture, and culinary scene.
Santiago has a great art scene (including street art) and some bohemian, hip, or artsy neighborhoods. The city hides many wonders, you just need to follow your intuition and curiosity to find them.
If you are lucky you can also admire the magnificent Andes mountains just outside of the city.
For those who are interested in recent Chilean history (like Pinochet’s regime), Santiago offers really interesting museums that tell all about it.
Where to stay in Santiago
Santiago is huge but there are a few areas that are good as a base: Downtown (so you are close to all the Santiago attractions), Bellavista or Barrio Italia (if you like more of the artsy and hip area).
Here are some of the highly rated and recommended places to stay in Santiago:
- Hostal Boutique Casa La Barca (9,4/10)
- The Singular Santiago (9,3/10)
- Hotel Boutique Castillo Rojo (9.0/10)
- and more!
How to get around Santiago
Downtown Santiago is compact enough that you can walk everywhere. To get to the farther places like Barrio Italia, Sky Costanera or the Museum of Memory and Human Rights you can use the metro – it’s affordable, safe and fast.
You can read more about using the metro in Santiago as well as other Chile travel tips here.
Things to do in Santiago
Now, that you know some Santiago travel tips, here are all the best things to do in Santiago.
Explore the downtown area
The central part of the city is where you will find most of the Santiago attractions, it’s also a commercial heart of the city. The area is a mix of colonial architecture, modern buildings, and those from the early to mid 20th century (so a lot of modernism and art deco).
Many of the streets are turned into pedestrian passages, often packed with people and street sellers.
When walking around be sure to look above to see some exquisite details on the buildings, don’t be afraid to peek inside the gates and staircases too – you might find some real gems there. Santiago’s downtown is much more than it seems at first so be sure to give this area a proper chance.
Since this is mostly the financial and commercial part of the city you won’t find many people around in the evening so visit it during the daytime to make the best use of it.
Find beautiful interiors
Many of the buildings of the public use in Santiago have impressive interiors so if you like this kind of hidden gems be sure to step inside and see their beauty.
My favorite ones were the Chilean National Library, National Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Contemporary Art, Estación Mapocho, and Central Post Office Building but there are many more of them.
You can easily guess that most of the buildings from the turn of the 19th and 20th century have beautiful interiors so if you happen to pass by them – take a look inside!
Admire the view from Santa Lucia Hill
Santa Lucia Hill is one of the best viewpoints in central Santiago, offering a nice panorama of the city and surrounding mountains. Located on the hill that used to be a volcano some 15 million years ago, this is actually an important historical sight too – that’s where Pedro de Valdivia in 1541 announced the founding of Santiago.
While the main reason to come here is for the view, the park itself is a lovely place as well, with a few monuments, terraces and plenty of places to relax.
If you can – visit Santa Lucia Hill over the weekend when the traffic in the city is smaller and your chances of seeing Andes increase.
Visit Centre Gabriela Mistral
A former convention center from the 1970s is one of the main cultural hotspots in Santiago. Opened in 2010 and named after Chilean poet-diplomat, educator, and humanist Gabriela Mistral, the institution focuses mainly on promoting performing arts and music but you can also see there numerous activities and shows from other kinds of culture and art.
Even if you don’t plan to attend any events it’s worth stopping by the Centre Gabriela Mistral to see its interesting architecture, visit one of the best bookstores in Santiago, and feel the cool vibe of the place.
Admire a thriving street art scene
Just like many other cities in South America, Santiago has an amazing and thriving street art scene. While the queen of Chilean street art is Valparaiso, the capital also has its moments and you can be sure to find some really great works around.
Both local artists (including my favorite one – INTI) and international ones contributed to the street art scene in Santiago. You can find the best works in Bellavista, Barrio Brasil, Barrio Franklin, or Downtown but more or less the whole city has some street art gems.
My favorite mural was, obviously, by INTI and you can find it at the entrance to the Bellas Artes metro station in the Downtown (but I might not be objective here, I adore his works no matter if I see them in Kosice, Lodz or Santiago).
Santiago has an extensive metro system with (currently) seven lines and 136 stations – this is the best way to quickly get around the city.
But another reason to go underground is to see some of the metro stations as that’s where you will find some nice additions to the city’s cultural and art scene. Not only numerous cultural events are widely promoted in the metro, you can also find there literature’s quotes (including the most popular Chilean poet – Pablo Neruda) or works of art.
The most impressive station is the Universidad de Chile where you can see a giant mural showing the history of the country. Other stations worth checking are Baquedano, Bellas Artes, Santa Lucía, or La Moneda.
Stop at Plaza de Armes
The main square of Santiago, Plaza de Armas, is such a vibrant spot you might want to stay here a little bit longer to observe the life goes on.
This has been a central place of Santiago already after the city was founded in 1541 and still today you can find some of the most important buildings surrounding the square: the cathedral, main post office, or the local government’s seat, just to name a few.
Plaza de Armes is always busy with people – relaxing on the benches in the shadow of palm trees, watching street performers, or playing chess. Just don’t get distracted and pay attention to your belongings as pickpockets like to operate in this area.
Visit the Cathedral
Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral, located at the corner of Plaza de Armas, is one of the most important churches in Chile and the seat of the Archbishop of Santiago de Chile. It was built at the end of the 18th century but the current look dates from a century later.
The interior is just stunning and rich in decorations – ornaments, frescos, or gilded columns. Even if you are not into churches it is worth stepping inside and see the impressive beauty of the place – it really is something.
Eat at the Central Market
Even if the place is a bit touristy, Santiago’s Central Market is a great place to visit and try some of the local food. The building with the cast-iron roof (built in Glasgow and transferred to Chile) dates back to 1872 and replaced the old market that burnt down.
You can find here fresh seafood, typical Chilean cuisine, and more. In 2012 National Geographic places the Central Market in Santiago among the five best markets in the world.
If you are looking for a quick bite try Emporio Zunino (entrance is from the outside of the market building) – the iconic empanadas place that has been in business since 1938.
Visit Plaza de la Constitución
Plaza de la Constitución is probably the most important square in Santiago. It occupies a full square block and is surrounded by some of the most important institutions in Chile: Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Banco Central de Chile, or La Moneda Palace (the president’s seat).
The square got its current look in 1983 after it had to be rebuilt after the riots in La Moneda Palace 10 years earlier.
Today this is a favorite place for people working in nearby institutions to have their lunch break in, if you visit Plaza de la Constitución around that time you can expect to see plenty of people sitting on the grass, eating and chatting with friends.
Stop at Palacio de la Modena
Palacio de la Modena, originally a mint house, was opened in 1805 (but the works were still not finished) and today is the seat of the Chilean president and three cabinet ministers.
On September 11th, 1973 during the military coup d’état, the palace was bombed by the Chilean Air Force, and the current president of the country, Salvador Allende committed suicide in the building. During the restoration process, some of the bullet holes were left and you can see them still today.
It’s worth being here for the changing of the guards to see the traditional spectacle that dates back to the 1850s – it takes place every two days (odd-numbered days in odd-numbered months, even-numbered days in even-numbered months) at 10 am on weekdays and 11 am on the weekends.
In the back of Palacio de la Modena, you can visit Centro Cultural Palacio de La Moneda – the cultural institution opened in 2006. It has a few exhibition rooms as well as the National Film Archive and Arts Documentation Center and is yet another great cultural spot you can find in Santiago.
Visit Museum of Memory and Human Rights
Between 1973 and 1990 Chile was led by the Machiavelian leader Augusto Pinochet and his civic-military regime. It was one of the darkest moments in Chilean history when human rights were violated on daily basis and around 3 000 people lost their lives.
The Museum of Memory and Human Rights is dedicated to that period and tells the story of the military coup and its aftermath. I believe everyone visiting Santiago should come here and learn more about this tragic period to understand the country and its people.
The museum consists of four levels and is a very touching and somber place. The entrance is free of charge but you can pay a small fee for the audioguide – I definitely recommend it as many of the materials are in Spanish only.
Relax in Quinta Normal Park
After the visit to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, you can relax in the Quinta Normal Park, located across the street. Thie beautiful urban oasis was founded in 1841 to help cultivate foreign plant species in the local greenhouses.
Today this is one of the prettiest places to relax in Santiago. Quinta Normal Park is also home to the National Museum of Natural History, a branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Railway Museum.
Hang out in Barrio Italia
Barrio Italia is like a hipster hotspot in Santiago. The area, not far from the center and easily accessible by metro (station Santa Isabel), was settled by Italian immigrant craftsmen in the 19th century. Today this is one of the rising stars of Santiago.
The area is full of small shops and boutiques, cool bars and cafes, street art, and quirky spots and is a great escape from the busy downtown. This was one of my favorite areas of Santiago and I wish I could have spent more time there.
Visit National Museum of Fine Arts
The National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago, established in 1880, is the oldest art museum in South America. The institution is located in the beautiful “Palace of the Fine Arts” from 1910 and this building and its stunning interior is already a good reason to visit the museum.
While the museum focuses mostly on Chilean art and artists, you can find here some international exhibits too, such as African sculptures, Spanish paintings or Italian drawings. Visiting the museum is free of charge and this is one of the must places to visit in Santiago.
Visit Museum of Contemporary Art
Once you are done with the National Museum of Fine Arts, head next door to the Museum of Contemporary Art, another great addition to the cultural scene in Santiago. The institution, founded in 1947, is run by the Faculty of Arts of the University of Chile and focuses on modern and contemporary art.
Even if you are not into it, it is worth stopping here to see yet another beautiful interior in Santiago, especially that the entry is free. When I visited there was a great exhibition of black and white photography that I really enjoyed.
Enjoy the vibrant Bellavista neighbourhood
Across the river from the downtown and the National Museum of Fine Arts you will find Bellavista, the famous bohemian neighborhood of Santiago. And it is indeed an artsy and colorful area.
While Barrio Italia is taking over its place on the hipster map of Santiago, Bellavista is also full of art galleries, small shops, cool hangout spots, and an overwhelming number of street art works. Many local artists choose to live here and you can feel this bohemian vibe in the air. This is such a fun place to be in!
Visit Pablo Neruda’s house
Pablo Neruda, the most famous Chilean poet and a Nobel Prize winner, had three houses in Chile: in Valparaiso, at Isla Negra, and in Santiago, in the Bellavista district. La Chascona, as that’s the name of the house, shows his love of the sea and the quirky character – Neruda himself designed and decorated the house.
Today this is a museum dedicated to the poet and you can get an insight into his lie and work there.
Go to the San Cristobal Hill
San Cristobal is one of the most iconic Santiago attractions that you shouldn’t miss. The hill, located in the Bellavista district, is an excellent viewpoint of Santiago and the magnificent Andes.
The best way to get to the top of San Cristobal Hill is by funicular or cable car, if you want to go on foot it’s around a 45-minutes walk with 300 meters elevation change.
The hill is a popular relaxing place for locals, especially on the weekends.
Visit General Cemetery
Santiago General Cemetery is the most important necropolis in the country and the final resting place for many notable Chileans. The cemetery was established in 1821, shortly after Chile got its independence, and is a place of great historical value.
Many of the graves are architectural masterpieces in various styles and walking around here is like a history and art lesson.
The best way to reach the cemetery is by metro to either Cementerios or Cerro Blanco stations.
Visit the highest observation point in South America
Sky Costanera is the observation terrace on the 61st and 62nd floors of the highest building in South America which makes it the highest viewing platform on the continent. Going up there takes only 2 minutes and then you can admire 360° views of the whole of Santiago. All the main landmarks are clearly marked on the map so you know where to find them in the cityscape.
Visiting Sky Costanera is a bit expensive but definitely worth the money. You can buy your ticket in advance, click here for the details.
Go for a tour
If you would like to get to know Santiago better and hear some stories about the city from the locals, there are plenty of tours to choose from and you should definitely go for one of them.
Here are some of the recommended tours:
- Private Santiago City Half Day Tour
- Private Santiago and Neighborhoods Tour: San Cristobal Hill & Artisan Village
- Private Tour: Half-Day Santiago Discovery
- Private Tour: Santiago at Night with Dinner and Show
- Santiago Like a Local: Private Walking Tour with Coffee, Markets, Street Food and San Cristobal Hill
Go for day trips
Santiago can be a good base for some day trips around. The most popular is obviously Valparaiso – the most colorful city in Chile and the UNESCO site that is only less than 2 hours away from the capital. But there are more places you can easily visit as day trips from Santiago.
Below you can find the best tours you can join:
- From Santiago: Valparaiso and Viña del Mar Day Tour
- From Santiago: Cajón del Maipo and Volcán San José Hike 8K
- Santiago: Laguna del Inca and Portillo Small Group Tour
Final thoughts on visiting Santiago, Chile
As you can see Santiago really offers a lot and the variety and diversity of attractions is really big – everyone should find something interesting for his taste.
Even if I was a bit jetlagged I enjoyed the city a lot and was more than happy to discover all these great things to do in Santiago.
If you plan to visit Chile be sure to give the capital a chance, you might really like it too!
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