South America

Things to do in Santiago

Laura Pattara

Laura Pattara  |  5 September 2019

Santiago would have to rate as one of the coolest capitals in all of South America, offering an abundance of historical, cultural and culinary delights that encapsulate the varied enticements of Chile. The city itself boasts a beautiful historic core with drop-dead-gorgeous architecture and a myriad of museums and theatres to appease even the most famished culture-vulture. Foodies, in particular, rate Santiago as one of the best destinations in the continent (alongside Buenos Aires) and, given the proximity of the country’s best wineries, make for a very rewarding city-escape. To really soak up the best of Santiago, you’ll want to spend a minimum of three days here, at the very least.

What stands out most in Santiago, however, is its eye-popping location. The city sits in a valley, surrounded by spectacular Andean peaks. In summer, this can cause a bit of a smog build-up (about the only criticism anyone could make of Santiago) yet getting out in nature and hiking extensively (or, better still, skiing in winter) makes a stay here enjoyable and rewarding at any time of year.

Can you tell we love Santiago to bits?

Here’s why!

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Skip through the blog to find what you are looking for:

  1. Top sightseeing highlights - soak up the architectural splendour
  2. Best Viewpoints in and around Santiago
  3. Museums you shouldn't miss
  4. Best Santiago hoods for food/nightlife/art/luxury
  5. Great guided tour ideas
  6. Best local markets & sustainable souvenir shopping
  7. Our secret Santiago hot-spots

Top sightseeing highlights – soak up that architectural splendour 

Plaza de Armas & Old City Centre

If this is your first time travelling to South America, you’ll need to get acquainted with the Plaza de Armas. Every major city has a central square called "Plaza de Armas" and you can always trust it to be its most revered heart and soul. Santiago’s 16th-century plaza is particularly charming, with cobbled streets shooting off on all directions, magnificent colonial-era buildings framing it, a grand fountain dedicated to Simon Bolivar and a wealth of benches, shaded by enormous trees, that are ideal for watching life stroll by. Looking for that one place to start your Santiago discovery tour? This is it!

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Presidential Palace, Metropolitan Cathedral, Central Post Office & Stock Exchange

You’ll probably spend your first day just ‘looking up’ when exploring Santiago, the city’s main architectural treasures doing a fine job of distracting you every few minutes. So why not dedicate some time to checking out some of the most impressive buildings of all? Many are on and around Plaza de Armas so, to make the most of your time here, make it a first priority. All the buildings boast a fascinating history and simply breathtaking design. Check out this great list and pin your faves on your map.

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Best viewpoints in and around Santiago

San Crisótbal

The city’s Metropolitan Park offers not only sweeping city views from atop its highest peak, San Cristóbal, but also a cable-car to make your ‘ascent’ even easier. This extensive park, with its botanical gardens, modest zoo and children’s playground is a fantastic spot for families to spend a few hours.

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Cerro Santa Lucia

A more modest hill yet one you’ll find in the heart of the city, Cerro Santa Lucia was turned into a public park in the late 1800s and is just perfect if you’d love to stretch your legs. The peak is only 70m high but its central location means the views are just as enchanting and, what’s more, we love that it gives visitors a chance to meander some backstreets of the city they otherwise would never discover. The gardens are wonderfully manicured and dotted with historical landmarks so if you can’t quite manage a visit to San Cristobal, make this a must-visit.

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Sky Costanera Centre 

Head up to the Sky lounge of the Costanera Centre (a whopping 300m high) and enjoy the magnificent, 360-degree views over the city and across the greater Andes. This is undoubtedly the best place for sunset views over Santiago. If that’s not enough to entice, do note that this is the largest shopping mall AND tallest building in all of Latin America.

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W-Hotel & rooftop bars

Prefer your jaw-dropping sunset views to come with a refreshing cocktail? Who doesn’t?! Santiago boasts quite a few rooftop bars where a drink and a gobsmacking view go hand in hand. One of the most famous is the bar at the W-Santiago, often rated the swankiest joint in town. If you’re up for a splurge it’ll be right up your alley but note that are many more equally delicious options that are far less expensive.

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Museums you shouldn’t miss

You don’t have to be a history nutter to enjoy a day at a museum in Santiago: learning more about Chile’s history and culture will infinitely enhance your experience here. And besides, we find even the most indifferent visitors will inevitably get absorbed with South American history at one point or another of their journey – The continent’s long and tumultuous story, especially its indigenous one, manages to touch a chord with all who visit.

Santiago is home to more than 50 museums, many dedicated to particular historical aspects of Chile’s history, arts and crafts. No matter what you’re into (futuristic design, religious art, famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda or old trains, perhaps?) you’ll find a dedicated museum that’s right up your alley. For general knowledge/history, however, we find the following three to be the most unmissable:

Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Startling artefacts from Chiles oldest indigenous cultures and is perfect if you’d love to learn more about the cultures that lived in South America before the Spanish invasion.

Museum of Memory & Human Rights

Chile suffered terribly under the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 80s and this sobering but excellent museum will bring you up to speed with the country’s most recent history. The dictatorship is very much a sore point among locals today so, aside from your tour guide and the internet, this is about the best place to learn more, from a local perspective.

National Museum of Natural History

Outstanding and fascinating displays housed in one of Santiago’s most striking buildings. Learning all about the wildlife of Chile’s many regions is just the ticket if you’re planning to explore this glorious country, be it in the Atacama Desert or the southern Patagonian fjords. Unmissable, we say!

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Best Santiago hoods for food/nightlife/art/luxury

We actually get asked this a lot: where is the best place to stay in Santiago? As mentioned above, it is almost irrelevant, given the exceptional public transport system (there’s some serious Swiss-like efficiency going on here) and the fact that this impressive metropolis is spread out quite a bit. No matter where you stay, you will have to jump on a bus, train or taxi at some point but none of that is either complicated or expensive, so it really matters little.

Having said that, the most popular suburbs to stay in Santiago are:

Centro Historico

For obvious reasons, most visitors want to stick close to Plaza de Armas and its array of alleyways filled with stunning buildings, great restaurants and trendy cafés. Hone in on Lastarria and Bellas Artes to be really in the heart of it all, including 5* restaurants, most of the museums and sightseeing landmarks, as well as the ever-spectacular architecture.

Barrio Brasil

This hip newcomer was once the most lavish hood in town and although it fell into disrepair for years, it has been going through lovely gentrification over the last two decades. Barrio Brasil boasts great street start, a young vibe and oodles of artsy charm.

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Bellavista

Man buns, manicured goatees and cool night-vibes are all the rage in Bellavista so if you’d love some evening action (plenty of bars, nightclubs, LGBT bars and even karaoke bars found here) this is the ideal barrio for you.

Providencia

This up-market hood is all about glorious restaurants, gorgeous boutiques and amazing parks, not to mention modern art museums, arguably more suited to mature visitors who prefer quieter evenings out.

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Great guided tour ideas

Taking a guided walking tour of the historic centre is a fabulous idea, whether or not your Santiago vacation is fully-guided or (semi) independent. Even the most ‘average-looking’ building can come to life when you have a passionate guide talk you through its history and that holds through whether you’re up for an architectural grand-tour or a food extravaganza excursion.

Santiago is home to several agencies offering free walking tours, usually led by enthusiastic local guides who work hard to earn their tips. If you’re planning to visit Santiago independently this is really an excellent option. Next up, Santiago boasts the ubiquitous hop-on/hop-off bus tours (yet given the brilliant local transport services, we don’t deem them to be indispensable) as well as plenty of food tours that get your taste buds in the most hidden yummy nooks of the city.

The most priceless guided tours, however, would have to be those where private transport is essential, such as when exploring the wine regions of Santiago or heading up to the mountains for some hiking and/or skiing or Valparaiso for some sun-soaking by the beach. We can help you organise any of the above-mentioned excursions plus we have a ton more ideas if you have more than a few days to spend here.

Wine Valleys Santiago
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Best local markets & sustainable souvenir shopping

Gone are the days when people travelled abroad to spend money on dust-collectors they don’t need and clothing they could buy at home but, luckily, that doesn’t mean all shopping is off the cards. Santiago’s many arts and craft markets make sustainable shopping even easier, with a host of Made in Chile treasures to pick from that’ll make for beautiful mementos.

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The best sustainable (and quite frankly usable and appreciated) souvenirs to bring home from Santiago include exquisite alpaca clothing (from scarves and ponchos to tailored jackets, gloves and hats) to locally-made wine (of course!), lapis lazuli jewellery (this is Chile’s national stone), copper artefacts (using the country’s main mineral export) and Mapuche indigenous woven fabrics, which make for sublime rugs and throws) and hand-carved masks – both of which are arts that are hundreds of years old and crafty skills that have been passed down through generations.

For our shopping sprees in Santiago and aside from wine (which we prefer to buy directly from the winemakers), these are our favourite markets to visit:

Centro Artesanal Pueblito Los Dominicos - Perhaps the best ‘all in one’ craft market as it’s the largest in Santiago. If you have time to only visit one market then make it this one.

Centro Artesanal Santa Lucia - Over 150 dedicated craft stores will stop you dead on your tracks as you visit the famous peak.

Patio Bella Vista - A mix of trendy craft stores and gorgeous restaurants might kidnap you for a whole afternoon.

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Our secret Santiago hot-spots

Anyone who’s ever been to Santiago will likely tell you they found THE best-hidden restaurant, THE most underrated museum and THE best place to hike nearby and, the fact is, they are all inarguably right. Santiago is full of secret hot-spots and although we know you’ll find plenty of hidden nooks on your own tour, we thought we’d share four of ours:

Cajon del Maipo

The gorge with its sparkling lake and endless trails is where Santiago’s city-dwellers head to on weekends to revel in nature, where they come horseback riding, mountain biking and white water rafting in summer. The wilderness is astonishing and the many highlights (which include a great weekend farmer’s market, winery stays and plenty of regional restaurants) means you can even make a 2-day trip out of a visit. When we want to get out of the city for the day, this is where we stretch our legs.

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Click HERE to find out more about our tour to Santiago and the Andean Lakes

Soak up the street-art (and more) of Valparaiso

The main beach hub in the region and the #1 day-trip destination for anyone who visits Santiago in summer, Valparaiso is a treasure trove of fabulous street-art, gorgeous food and bohemian shops. So famous (and gorgeous) is the street art here that dedicated guided tours are run daily so you don’t miss out on the most impressive murals the city has to offer. Valparaiso is a postcard-pretty town and between its vertiginous cliffs, colourful home and dreamy aesthetics, we think ‘beach bumming’ is about the last thing you’ll want to do here. Prefer going at it alone? Then follow this self-guided itinerary and soak up those splendours!

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iso

Feast on seafood at the Mercado Central

Santiago’s main fish market is a visual and fragrant feast and about the best place to try a few different local dishes like ceviche and pastel de jaiba, a crab pie that’ll make you weak at the knees. This place has become a huge tourist attraction in recent years and, it must be said, some restaurateurs can get a bit annoying in trying to woo you to a table. Just march right past the overly-touristy restaurants in the main food hall and head to the rear of the markets, where you’ll find a bunch of holes-in-the-wall eateries. This is where locals come to feast with abandon and you should follow suit…but not before devouring this insightful guide to the Mercado Central.

PS. Come hungry.

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Thanks to direct, non-stop flights from Auckland to Santiago, you could be hitting the streets of this amazing city in no time at all. And you won’t believe the itinerary ideas we have in store for you!

Check out our Santiago Tour Itinerary inspirations and, when you’re ready, come discover the remainder of wonderful Chile.

Contact us for tailor-made, bespoke and group-tour itineraries.

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