Framed by snow-capped peaks and majestic landscape, Santiago is the metropolitan capital city of Chile. While it may not have the sun-kissed beaches of Rio de Janeiro or the European-style opulence of Buenos Aires, Santiago is emerging as a unique and much-loved South American destination. An ever-growing food scene is making the city popular amongst international travellers, and with various places of interest in a picture-perfect setting, it’s no wonder that Santiago is becoming more than just a gateway to Patagonia.
If you’re looking for the best things to see, curious about which dishes to try or simply want to learn a little more about this lively city before your holiday to Chile, then keep reading our Santiago city guide for our tips and advice on how to make the most out of your holiday to Santiago.
Santiago’s Best Spots
From gorgeous European-esque architecture to lush parks, Santiago is a wonderful city to spend a few days exploring. The capital of Chile is nestled between stunning mountain ranges and has everything you would expect a metropolitan city to offer, from quaint independent cafes to high-end restaurants and bars. Like most large cities, Santiago is divided into various neighbourhoods – some are super popular and others remain hidden gems. If you’re planning a holiday to Santiago, keep reading for our favourite spots in the city.
Plaza de Armas
The historic Plaza de Armas is the beating heart of Santiago. The lively spot is encircled by beautiful architecture, restaurants and shops, creating a hub where a blend of tourists, locals and street performers meet. The square was founded by Pedro de Valdivia in 1541, and has remained one of the most important areas of Santiago ever since. It’s also been the base of many historical events, protests and demonstrations. As well as the stunning buildings that surround it, the plaza is lined with trees and shrubbery which create a wonderfully open and relaxing space for those who walk amongst it.
Check out the prominent neoclassical Correo Central (Central Post Office), which once housed Pedro de Valdivia himself, with its intricate detailing and ornate facade. Or visit the National Museum of History where you can experience the wonderful view of the square from the museum clock tower. Another highlight is the Cathedral of Santiago, where you can enjoy pieces from its Museum of Sacred Art, or simply admire its lovely exterior.
Street performers are at large here, especially chinchineros. This unique one-man band normally consists of someone playing drums which are strapped to their back, while spinning around at high-speed. Sit down at one of the many restaurants here to enjoy a coffee and show all in one. From the plaza, you can easily access two of the city’s most prominent streets, Paseo Ahumada and Paseo Estado. Here you can find an abundance of local and international shops and boutiques as well as street vendors and cafes.
The plaza is an excellent place to get a coffee but meal prices are higher than usual since it’s geared towards tourists. Wander a little further from the square and you’ll find smaller restaurants at lower prices.
Cerro San Cristobal
Overlooking Santiago and the Andean mountains is Cerro San Cristobal – a peak that sits 300 metres above the rest of the city. This makes it one of the most popular things to do in Santiago due to the incredible views that can be seen of the city below and surrounding mountainscape. There are a few walking trails to enjoy, or alternatively hop on the funicular for a more relaxing and quicker way to reach the peak. At 722 hectares, the area is the largest green space in Santiago and makes for a fantastic relaxing day out of the city if you want to grab some friends and a picnic. On top of the hill sits a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as well as an amphitheatre and a chapel. The white 14 metre high statue towers above the city and provides an iconic landmark which can be seen from far and wide.
The funicular departs from Plaza Caupolicán where you’ll find the tourist kiosk and ticket desk. You’ll be asked if you wish to purchase only a funicular ticket, or a combined cable-car ticket which will allow you to hop on the cable car that takes you over the park and offers fantastic views of Santiago and the mountains.
Cerro Santa Lucia & Fuente Neptuno
Santiago is a city blessed with plenty of open green spaces and Cerro Santa Lucia, located in the middle of the city, is an excellent one to explore. Created from volcanic activity around 15 million years ago, the verdant hill was relatively unimportant until mayor Benjamín Vicuna Mackenna transformed the space during the 19th century.
Hidden within the greenery you’ll find a charming Japanese garden and the 18th century castle that once protected the city. A highlight here is the elegant Fuente Neptuno, a neoclassical fountain that was dedicated to the Roman god of the seas, Neptune. Being such a romantic spot, it’s historically been a meeting place for young lovers who wanted some space from the city. The walk to the top is slightly less strenuous and takes less time than exploring Cerro San Cristobal yet also offers some lovely views of the surrounding area.
Barrios Lastarria & Bellavista
José Victorino Lastarria Street, named after the famous 19th century writer and politician, is a small yet busy area overflowing with bars, shops and restaurants. The historical neighbourhood, nestled in the centre of Santiago, holds many of the city’s museums, cinemas and theatres which give way to various festivals and theatre performances throughout the year. This boosts the neighbourhood’s already rich cultural atmosphere and makes it a popular area for young artists to congregate. Meandering around Barrio Lastarria is an excellent way to get to know the city and you’re bound to come across an abundance of delicious restaurants and trendy bars.
Barrio Bellavista is a bohemian style barrio and the access point for the funicular to Cerro San Cristobal, nestled between the giant hill and the Mapocho river that runs through the city. Due to its location, it’s also one of the most visited neighbourhoods in the city. Adorned with vibrant street art, quirky bars and restaurants and a lively nightlife, Bellavista is an excellent place to spend the evening. The best way to start exploring is by walking through the streets since there is colourful street art and murals around every corner. Spend some time ducking into the small shops and boutiques where you can find handmade goodies such as jewellery or art. Here you can also visit the Museum of Pablo Neruda, an exhibition set up in his former house to honour his life and poetry
On a clear and sunny day, Sky Costanera is one of the best things to do in Santiago. At 300 meters tall, the observatory is the highest in all of South America and offers fantastic 360-degree views of Santiago and the Andes mountain range. Located within the financial district of the city, the tower soars so high that it simply cannot be missed, no matter where you are in Santiago. At the foot of the building you’ll also find a modern shopping mall, cinema and fast-food restaurants/cafes.
The elevator to the top takes a mere two minutes and operates 365 days a year. The observatory is open from 10am to 10pm and tickets cost 15 US dollars for an adult pass. The tower is located quite a walk from the city centre and historic neighbourhoods so catching the metro is the fastest way there – the closest metro stop is Tobalaba.
Food & Drink in Santiago
Santiago, with its international flair and merging cultures, has a fantastic variety of cuisines and restaurants to suit all budgets. From local street food to high-end gastronomical delights, the city has a booming foodie scene and the hardest thing you’ll face is which of the many restaurants to try out first. Chilean cuisine is rich in carbs, meat and seafood. Taking inspiration from its neighbouring countries and other influences from all over the world, local residents are lucky to have a fantastic variety of dishes to indulge in. Some of the most popular street snacks are empanadas, sopaipillas, ceviche and completo, which is essentially a Chilean hotdog!
As a capital, cosmopolitan city, Santiago has a huge variety of international restaurants to suit every budget and taste. From delicious Italian fare to Asian flavours, a little research and you’re bound to find your cuisine of choice. We recommend checking out Chipe Libre – Republica Independiente del Pisco. The menu exudes Latin flavours yet with an international twist, and they are considered to serve some of the best pisco sours in the city.
Some of the best restaurants can be found in the areas of Bellas Artes, Barrio Lastarria, Patronato and Barrio Italia, but don’t be scared to ask your hotel for some local recommendations too.
The Central Market and Street Food
If you love seafood, then head to the Central Market, located a short walk from the Plaza de Armas. The market has been open since 1872 and to this day, remains the hot spot for fishmongers selling their best produce that has recently arrived from the coast of Chile. The building exudes the authentic feel of any good fresh seafood market, with rows of vendors chopping and gutting their catches. The smell of the ocean drifts down the walkways and the floors are normally wet from being constantly hosed down to keep it clean. Venture into the centre of the market and you’ll find yourself surrounded by restaurants eager to have you sample their best dishes.
Another popular market is La Vega, which is also one of the busiest food markets in the city. With an abundance of colourful fruit and the smell of sizzling empanadas drifting through the stalls, you won’t leave here hungry.
Vegetarian and Vegan
While South America is certainly heavy on the meat, vegans or vegetarians who are visiting Santiago shouldn’t worry. So long as you do some research, Santiago actually has a surprising amount of restaurants dedicated to plant-based eating. Some of our favourites are El Huerto, which is predominantly vegan but also has a few vegetarian items on offer. Other vegan hot-spots to look out for are Vegan Bunker, Holm and VegeChef Lyon.
For vegetarians, it’s generally a little easier. Most restaurants serving empanadas will offer cheese, or quesa, options which are meat-free. Pasta is also popular on a lot of menus.
Which dishes should I try in Santiago?
Completo’s are a Chilean style hotdog, stuffed in a bun and smothered with chopped tomatoes, avocado and mayonnaise. It’s sold across the country from food stalls to cafes.
The traditional South American treat, empanadas are fried pastry stuffed with fillings such as cheese, potatoes or meat.
Ceviche is a type of white fish that is “cooked” in salt and lime juice and served with salad. It’s very popular in Chile for being a fresh and cooling dish.
Choripan is a popular sandwich made with chorizo. It’s often served with salad and topped with Pebre.
Humitas are tasty corn cakes which are wrapped in corn husks and steamed. They are made by mixing steamed corn, onion, egg and cream.
Mote con Huesillos
This traditional summer drink consists of nectar liquid made using peaches and sugar. Once cooled, it’s mixed with cooked husked wheat.
A sopaipilla is a fried pastry which is eaten similarly to bread, with toppings such as avocado, cheese, pebre or dulce de leche popular choices. It’s often made using pumpkin puree.
Pebre is a type of salsa popular in Chile. It’s made using coriander, garlic, onion, olive oil and the key ingredient – aji chili peppers. It’s used as a dipping sauce or topping.
Drinks in Santiago
Chile is known for producing some of the best wine in the world – so a holiday to Santiago wouldn’t be complete without sampling some of the finest on offer. Much like Argentina is known for Malbec, Chile is known as the home of Carménère. Another popular drink is borgona, which is very similar to Spain’s sangria but with a little more of a berry punch. Pisco Sour is a famous cocktail which is also considered as Chile’s national spirit. While Peru also promotes the drink as their own, both country’s make it quite differently.
You might also spot a strange drink with what looks to be rice or corn at the bottom. This sweet beverage is called Mote con Huesillo and consists of dried peaches and husked wheat, mixed with sugar and cinnamon.
Getting around Santiago
Santiago has a great metro system which is simple to use for visitors. Either use the city Bip card and top up as you require or purchase a single ticket. However depending on the time of day, it can get very crowded! Like every city, Santiago also has an abundance of taxi’s as well as Uber, so depending on the distance you are covering this can be a good option, especially if it’s late at night. Buses are also a cheap and often convenient way of getting around the city. They generally follow major roads and stop close to metro stations. If you don’t speak basic Spanish, catching the bus could be challenging since most drivers won’t speak English.
Santiago is generally very flat, so getting around by bike is an easy and enjoyable experience. The city has a public bike platform where you can rent one for one to three days at a time. Speak to a local tourist information for the tourist plan regarding this, but the bikes can be found in most central neighbourhoods including the Plaza de Armas.
Santiago is also very easily walk-able. As a tourist, you are likely to be staying in or around the centre, with most attractions being within walking distance. Not only is walking the best way to see a city at a more relaxed pace, but it’s the most environmentally friendly way of getting around.
Alternative things to do in and around Santiago
Santiago is often seen as a gateway to other fantastic locations in Chile – such as Patagonia or the Atacama Desert. However the city itself is ever-changing, with plenty to see and do for a few days. Here are some of our suggestions for alternative things to do around Santiago.
Take a day trip to Valparaiso or Vina del Mar
Nestled along the coast are the seaside towns of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, which make for the perfect day trip from Santiago. Located 120 kilometres from Santiago, Valparaiso can be reached in around two hours on the bus, which departs regularly. Perched on the hillside in Valparaiso you’ll find a sea of quaint colourful houses, with some fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding landscape. Valparaiso is currently the third largest metropolitan city in Chile and has remained the headquarters for the Chilean National Congress since the early 1990’s. During the 19th century when South America saw a wave of European immigration, Valpairaso flourished as it became a major stopover for ships crossing the Straits of Magellan. Due to its rich cultural heritage, the old quarter of Valparaiso became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
Popular activities in Valparaiso include wandering the colourful streets where you’ll discover vibrant street art, bohemian cafes and the odd boutique shops, or enjoy the local food scene and indulge in a chorrillana. Head to Vina del Mar and enjoy the beautiful beaches and glamorous atmosphere.
Channel your inner sommelier
Chile is a popular destination for wine lovers. It was during the 16th century when the Spanish conquistadors first arrived that introduced the common grape wine, and by the 19th century French immigrants brought over new varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. As people learnt of Chile’s vast space and mild climate in the central belt, the country grew to become one of the world’s most prominent wine exporters. Today, it’s the fifth largest in the world. While simply sampling some of the country’s finest wines at bars in Santiago is a fantastic experience, if you have the time then visiting the surrounding the vineyards will simply add to the memory.
The best option is to get in touch with a local company who can provide transport and a guide. That way you won’t waste any time trying to find your own way there and you’ll learn all about the production of wine from an experienced guide.
If you have more time on your hands, a bus from Santiago to Mendoza takes around five hours. However, this doesn’t take into account the border crossing which can take some time – and the roads are incredibly winding!