When someone mentions South American cities, what do you think of first? Maybe Rio, Buenos Aires or Lima… but had you considered Santiago? After spending a year in the Chilean capital, I can safely say that Santiago is a must-see destination.
The Chilean capital has been increasing in popularity over the past few years, especially due to its access to the sought-after destinations of the Atacama Desert and Patagonia. It can often be bypassed on the South American tourist trail, with visitors favouring the more well-known regional alternatives, but now British Airways have launched direct flights to Santiago from London so it’s more accessible than ever before. If you are short of time or budget, though, the highlights can definitely be seen in just a few days, but if you have a bit longer there’s plenty on offer to keep you busy.
Plaza de Armas
The historic centre of Santiago as a city, the main square Plaza de Armas, offers museums, a cathedral, and the contrast of more modern architecture with the colonial buildings. There are also free walking tours starting from here, either in Spanish or English, and the guides will only ask for tips at the end. This is a useful way of getting to know the area when you first arrive and getting some recommendations from a local.
The tours usually go past the government palace La Moneda which is just around the corner from the main square and if you’re lucky you might see the changing of the guard ceremony while you’re there.
Cerro Santa Lucía
Located in the heart of the City, Santa Lucía is over 60 metres above the streets below, so has fantastic views all around. It’s not too far to walk up, with only the last few steps being very steep! But when you get to the top, you can see the snow-capped Andes to the east and the modern buildings of the centre. It’s open during the day and free to enter, but you may have to give your passport details at the entrance.
Cerro San Cristóbal
The walking tours will usually finish at the foot of this hill, where you can take a funicular up to the Virgin Mary statue. With Far-reaching views towards the financial district and the Andes mountain range, this is where you also might see the smog lingering above the city, but it’s to be expected in a city stuck between two large mountain ranges! Late last year, the cable car that runs from this point was also reopened. That’s something else to try if you enjoy the heights of the city.
If you’re not one for heights, this may not be for you. This viewing platform at the top of the tallest building in South America takes you 300m above the financial district of Santiago, and it will show you just how vast the city is. At roughly the same height as the Shard, the Costanera Centre is the perfect way to finish off a day of sightseeing, watching the sunset below you.
These are some places you should try to visit if you have a few extra days in the city:
Having lived in this area for a while, I would highly recommend taking a stroll through the streets of Barrio Italia. It’s mostly free of tourists, but with the array of cafés, trendy shops and antique sellers, it’s a great alternative to the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Just a short walk or metro ride, it’s also easily accessible from the centre where most of the hotels and hostels are located.
As a well-populated capital city, Santiago has its fair share of tranquil green spaces. In the centre, you can find Parque Forestal and Parque Bustamante, which has a modern library right in the middle of it. If you’re after a more modern backdrop, Parque Bicentenario is located in the heart of the financial district. A quick metro ride away is Parque Quinta Normal, a great place to relax on a hot summer day. It’s also just across the road from the Museo de la Memoria, commemorating the memory of human rights victims of the dictatorship from 1973-1990, which is beautifully laid out and worth visiting if you’re interested in Chile’s history.
This tiny town less than an hour bus ride out of Santiago is the best place to pick up last minute souvenirs (much cheaper than in Santiago) and to see the surrounding area. It’s also a great place to pick up an empanada, sort of equivalent to a Cornish pasty, or a famous Pomaire pig!
If you are just passing through, consider staying a few days longer and exploring the coastal city of Valparaíso, one of my personal favourite places. It’s only 2 hours away by bus and renowned for its colourful buildings, funiculars and views across the bay. A must-see while you’re there is La Sebastiana, one of famous poet Pablo Neruda’s homes, with even better views out across the bay.
Santiago and the central Chilean region has now rightly earned its place on the top destination lists. It may not be as renowned as alternative locations in the north and south of the country, but I’m sure its popularity will continue to rise with the big airlines already recognising its appeal. The time is long gone for bypassing Santiago on a trip around South America.