Seven ways to experience Santiago de Chile
Santiago de Chile is far from a mere skyscraper-laden modern metropolis. Backed by the snow-capped Andes mountain range, it offers beautiful parks, enormous churches and cathedrals and a collection of small barrios, each as distinct as the next. Throughout its streets we find examples of its fascinating past, such as the grand European-style mansions of the early 20th century, and we can revisit the places where historical events took place that both shaped and continue to form the Chile of today. Perhaps best of all though, on the outskirts of the city are picturesque vineyards, producing some of the world's very best wine and wonderful national parks offering hikes through sumptuous Andean scenery.
Discover more with our Santiago de Chile city guide. All of the below can be enjoyed with our local guides on half or full day excursions during your time in the Chilean capital.
1. Journey through Chile's political, social and military past
The picturesque Santa Lucía Hill marks the the mount upon which the Spanish founded Santiago in 1541. Today it stands out as an oasis of green among towering skyscrapers. It is a fairly steep climb up what was, many millions of years ago, the peak of a large volcano, but climbers are rewarded with some wonderful city views and the sight of the early 19th century Fort Hidalgo. The central feature of the hill is the magnificent pastel-coloured Neptune Terrace Fountain, flanked on either side by exotic palm trees.
Like many other major South American cities, Santiago was built around a central Plaza de Armas. These large squares are typically lined with large municipal buildings and at least one vast cathedral and were originally intended as a central meeting point from which to defend the city in the case of attack. As well as the Metropolitan Cathedral, Chile's main square boasts the Royal Palace and National History Museum, the ornate Central Post Office and plenty of local life going on.
La Moneda is Chile's Government Palace and it was here that the most important event in the country's recent history took place. On September 11th 1973 a government coup was successfully led by soon-to-be-dictator General Pinochet. The incumbent president was overthrown and reputedly committed suicide from with the palace, the building sustained heavy damage under military attack and the course of Chilean history was changed forever.
The Museum of Human Rights, the National Stadium and Villa Grimaldi Peace Park are other important monuments in the story of Chile's darkest hour and the lessons learned from the tragic events of the early 1970s. These can be explored in greater depth, in conjunction with the above sites, on a full day tour through Chile's tumultuous past.
Cerro Santa Lucia & military parade in central Santiago
2. Then ride the funicular to admire the city from above
One of the defining features of Santiago is not actually something that sits within the modern financial district, nor the historic centre or the vineyards on the outskirts of the city, indeed anywhere indeed within the city limits. Standing proud in the distance, it is the Andes mountain range that provides one of the most striking backdrops to a city imaginable and the perfect conditions for the city's famed vineyards to flourish.
Continue reading to find out the best way to explore the Andes yourself on a day trip from Santiago, but the best place to see the juxtaposition of gleaming skyscrapers and snow-capped mountain peaks is from the open terraces at the top of Cerro San Cristóbal, reached via a short funicular ride. From here you are afforded near 360 degree views of the surrounding city, as well as a closer look at the 14 metre high statue of the Virgin Mary.
The base of Cerro San Cristóbal sits within the bohemian Barrio Bellavista, at the end of Pio Nono. Off to the side-streets are a collection of colourful murals and building facades, which display a surprisingly artistic side to the city. These evoke the essence of the nearby coastal city of Valparaiso (more on which later) and are perhaps inspired by the presence of Pablo Neruda's house La Chascona in the barrio. This houses an impressive museum through which you can wander to learn about the life and times of Chile's most famous poet.
San Cristobal Hill & Barrio Bellavista
3. Explore family-friendly museums in Chile's most attractive park
The Parque Quinta Normal might not make many headlines in guide books, but this large park is one of Santiago's most interesting green spaces. This is especially true on sunny weekends, when it is brought to life by families, dog walkers and joggers, but often few tourists. It is one of the most family-friendly areas of Santiago, boasting a large greenhouse and boating lake.
Those that do venture here generally come specifically for the collection of museums found here. The Museo Ferroviario is dedicated to showcasing the history of Chile's railways, displaying a variety of vintage locomotives imported to power its once flourishing rail network. As well as the trains, families will doubtlessly enjoy the highly interactive Museum of Science and Technology and the National Museum of Natural History, with its blue whale skeleton.
Just outside the southern entrance is the surreal facade of the Museo Artequin, an interesting museum which uses reproductions and replicas of famous artwork to teach its young (and older) visitors how to better understand and appreciate works of art. At the north end of the park is the huge Basilica of Lourdes, with its replica grotto, based on the famous one found in the French town of Lourdes.
Parque Quinta Normal
4. Sample world-class reds at traditional family vineyards
One of Santiago's biggest selling points is its proximity to the fabulous vineyards to the south of the city. One of our favourite vineyards is the renowned Cousiño Macul, where a visit is not just about wandering through attractive vineyards and learning how to really savour a good red, it is a journey the history of a traditional Chilean family and their place in Chilean society. In fact our tour doesn't start at the vineyard, but rather the late 19th century family mansion in downtown Santiago, the Palacio Cousiño. The building was badly damaged by the 2010 earthquake and is only now set to re-open after seven years of restoration work. Whether visiting the house or just surveying it from the landscaped gardens, this is the ideal place to set the scene for the day with a glimpse into the lifestyle of the wealthy Cousiño-Goyenechea family.
The family first began work on their vineyard here back in 1870 and have been at the forefront of the Chilean wine industry ever since. Tours through the estate are led by expert guides, who lead you through the history of the winery and the way in which it has balanced the arrival and development of new technology, with the traditional wine-making methods upon which it was founded all those years ago. One of the highlights of the tour is the chance to survey the atmospheric cellar, before being guided through the tasting process with a selection of some of their finest wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Another preferred vineyard of ours in the Santa Rita, located in the high Andean foothills near the town of Alto Jahuel. As well as the innovative winery and picture-perfect vines, within the grounds here is a museum featuring a fantastic collection of pre-Columbian artefacts.
5. Shop for produce at local markets and cook up your own Chilean lunch
Shopping in the city's main food markets offers a very different perspective on local life in Santiago. One of our favourite ways to lead you on a journey through the country's varied cuisine is to team you in the capable hands of an international chef and send you off to peruse the markets in search for the best seasonal ingredients with which to prepare your lunch.
The La Vega Central is one of the most vibrant and typical markets in the capital, where colourful fruit and vegetables, grown mainly in the nearby Central Valley, lend an exotic air to each stall. Together with your chef you will browse the produce and select the freshest and most appetising for your special lunch. During the course of the visit you will get to better know the wide variety of items on sale here, which extends to fresh juices, cheeses, nuts, fish and meat. There is also some produce from neighbouring Peru on sale.
It is then on to the cast-iron Mercado Central, on the other side of the Mapocho River. This market is best known for its fresh seafood, including oysters, lobsters, mussels and a wide variety of fish. Having procured all the ingredients, you will then work together to cook up a delicious fresh lunch, paired with some fine Chilean wines and enjoyed in wonderful company.
6. Get active in a choice of breathtaking landscapes
With so much to see within the city, it can be difficult to tear yourself away from the centre. But Santiago is surrounded by diverse landscapes which provide a huge variety of leisure activities, from hiking and trekking through to more extreme undertakings.
Well off-the-beaten-track are the parks of San Alfonso and Yerba Loca, two of our favourite places to enjoy the great outdoors in Chile. The 3,600 hectare park at San Alfonso is set amid mountains, valleys, rivers, springs and waterfalls. You can follow quiet forest trails on comfortable walks, or step things up a little with some horse-riding, zip lining, rope climbing or even white-water rafting. Meanwhile, the primary reason for a visit to Yerba Loca is its 9 hour round trek through Andean mountain scenery to the large La Paloma Glacier. Marvelling at this huge wall of ice, it is hard to believe we are only 20 miles from the capital.
In total contrast, the La Campana National Park is one of the very best places to see the endangered Chilean palm tree species. These exotic trees tower up to 30 metres high and some date back a thousand years or more. They can be seen flourishing in the company of beautiful waterfalls and sometimes wildcats, skunks, eagles and chinchillas.
For skiers we recommend a visit to the Valle Nevado Ski Resort, situated at 3,000 metres above sea level at the mouth of Mapocho River. Valle Nevado is said to have the largest skiing surface in the Southern Hemisphere.
La Campana National Park (photo by Mar del Sur)
7. Head to the coast to visit colourful Valparaiso
The coastal cities of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar are well worthy of at least a one night stay. But for those with less time, both can be combined on a long but extremely enjoyable day trip from Santiago.
Heading out to the Pacific Ocean, via the agricultural valleys of Curacavo and Casablanca, will first bring us to the 'Garden City' of Viña del Mar. It is a city known for its lush parks, important art museums and inviting beaches, among the best in Chile. Somewhat surprisingly, The Quinta Vergara park boasts its own open-air amphitheatre, used to house an annual international music festival.
We then continue down the coast on a short drive to Valparaiso. This hillside port city is at once ramshackle, bohemian and cultured, full of colourful houses, historic monuments and with a thriving art scene. It was once one of the most important cities in the country, being the former base of the Chilean Navy and a stopping point for large ships navigating South America's west coast. The opening of the Panama Canal deprived the city of its greatest source of income, but it has today taken on a fresh new artistic identity, best with a visit to one of its many art galleries and to the La Sebastiana museum, former home of beloved Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
Valparaiso & Viña del Mar
When to Go: The best time to visit Santiago is generally in the Autumn (March to May) or Spring (September to November), when temperatures are comfortably warm, days are bright and sunny and the nearby vineyards are looking their best. Autumn is the time of the wine harvest, with festivals to celebrate, whereas Chilean independence weekend in September can be in an interesting time to visit and join in the celebrations, though all museums are closed.
Eating & Drinking: Aside from the array of fresh seafood served here, one of the most typical dishes to try in Santiago is a cazuela Chilena; a meaty stew served with, potato, corn on the cob and pumpkin. To wash it down, what better than a glass of Chilean red wine, produced at the magnificent vineyards of the Central Valley, to the south of Santiago.
Where Next: Santiago is located in central Chile and so is a natural link between the arid north and the glaciers and mountains of Patagonia further south. Close to the Bolivian border is San Pedro, the access point to the cinematic rock formations, vast salt flats and billowing geysers of the Atacama Desert. Closer to the city is Santa Cruz, gateway to the Colchagua Valley wine region. Heading south, the highlights of Chilean Patagonia are the dazzling Lake District, the Torres del Paine National Park, affording some of the continent's best hiking and expedition cruises to the San Rafael Glacier or Tierra del Fuego.
Take a look at our selection of tours to visit Santiago yourself