Santiago is the cosmopolitan heart of Chile, and has lots to explore. I visited initially with a friend and make regular return visits to see my girlfriend’s family.
This post has a quick overview of what I think are some highlights, and then goes into more detail neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Hopefully there is something useful in here to guide your visit to this excellent city.
All of the bolded location links below will take you to Google Map locations if, like me, you like to plan your travels by geography.
Quick Overview: the highlights!
Go to Lastarria, a hip neighbourhood where you can eat the best gelato (Emporio La Rosa) and take a stroll in Cerro Santa Lucía (park on a now-extinct volcano). Barrio Italia is a trendy neighbourhood with cafes, boutiques, and antique furniture, which is fun to wander.
Chilean Food & Drink
Eat: ceviche (“seh-VEE-cheh”; white fish ‘cooked’ in citrus juice with onion and herbs), hot dogs (yes, actually – a ‘completo’ is topped with chopped tomato, avocado, and mayonnaise), sopaipillas (deep-fried sweet potato cakes), maní confitado (candied peanuts), and empanadas (usually ground meat, but you can also find cheese and/or spinach, in a pastry).
Drink: pisco sour (made from the Chilean liquor pisco), or if you are so inclined, try a ‘piscola’ (pisco + coca cola), and of course: wine. Chile is known for its wonderful wine. Try a carmenere, (“car-men-AIR-eh”), a smooth red wine made from a uniquely Chilean grape.
More details by neighbourhood
In the super hip neighbourhood (barrio) of Lastarria, head to Emporio La Rosa (for the best gelato. It is a local favourite with classic flavours as well as flavours unique to Chile, like lucuma (made from lucuma fruit, a magical fruit that tastes a lot like dulce de leche) and miel de ulmo (subtly sweet and made from the nectar of the flowering ulmo tree). They have a few satellite locations, but the Lastarria location is the original and the best.
Grab an ice cream and sit on their lovely corner patio (ideal for people-watching) or sit in or stroll the nearby Parque Forestal, and then walk around the neighbourhood – with lots of great shops and cafés there is lots to explore!
I strongly recommend visiting the Centre Gabriela Mistral (the GAM) which always has interesting exhibitions. Even if you don’t go inside, the covered courtyard/plaza is a great place to sit and people-watch and check out whatever rotating art display is on at the moment. (Last time, I was lucky enough to see this one.)
Also, I very strongly recommend visiting the Museo Violeta Parra, a beautiful, modern museum dedicated to the artist and musician who renewed and reinvented Chilean and Latin American folk music. You can listen to her music and marvel at her incredible embroidered tapestries. I was so thrilled that the museum has text in Spanish, English, and Mapudungun (the language of the Mapuche people indigenous to Chile.)
Near Lastarria is Cerro Santa Lucía , a park on an abrupt hill (actually a small extinct volcano) in the middle of the neighbourhood where you can find great views and cool basalt columns. Also a great location for the favourite pastime of Chilean teenage and young adult couples: making out in parks.
Barrio Italia is a trendy neighbourhood worth a wander with lots of nice cafés, restaurants, and furniture stores! This neighbourhood was settled by immigrant artisans in the 1800s and is full of beautiful handmade furniture, crafts, and antiques.
Bellavista & La Vega
North of Lastarria across the Mapocho River is Bellavista with more shops, cafés, and restaurants – another fantastic neighbourhood to stroll around and explore.
If markets are your thing, west of Bellavista you’ll find La Vega Central, a huge produce market. The nearby Mercado De Abastos Tirso De Molina is friendlier for buying a bite to eat and housed in a really interesting market building, and Mercado Central is just across the river from that.
Cerro San Cristóbal
Nearby, just north of Bellavista, you can take a dodgy/fun (depending on how you feel about these things) funicular up Cerro San Cristobal for amazing views of the city and the Andes.
Note that the view of the mountains is likely to be better earlier in the morning or right after it rains when the pollution is lower. (Your weather app might tell you that this is ‘haze’, which is a nice way of saying ‘smog’.)
Although I have never taken it, the cable car up Cerro San Cristóbal is open again.
Downtown & Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas in central Santiago is a grand public square in the heart of a bustling, pedestrian-oriented downtown.
Off of the square, the Precolombian Art Museum / Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino hosts an impressive collection.
A 10 minute walk from Plaza de Armas is the Plaza de la Constitución and La Moneda Palace, which is the seat of the President of the Republic of Chile. This was the site of the infamous US-backed military coup on September 11, 1973 that violently ended Salvador Allende’s presidency and marked the beginning of the Pinochet dictatorship.
Quinta Normal & Barrio Yungay
Across the road from the Quinta Normal metro station is the heavy, heartbreaking, important, educational, and beautifully done: Museum of Memory and Human Rights / Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos in Barrio Yungay. First introducing human rights investigations and inquiries all over the world, the museum then takes you through Chile’s own relatively recent turmoil with the Pinochet dictatorship and the many killings and disappearances of dissenters that happened during that era.
Nerdy aside: Check out the excellent film ‘NO’ (2012) with Gael Garcia Bernal playing the ad executive who comes up with a campaign to defeat Augusto Pinochet in Chile’s 1988 referendum. Although I haven’t seen it, I hear ‘Nae Pasaran‘ is excellent as well. It is a documentary about the Scottish workers who, in solidarity with Chile, refused to repair aircraft engines that were part of Chile’s military fleet and likely involved in the 1973 coup.
Next to the metro station is Parque Quinta Normal, which is beautiful for a stroll, especially after you’ve visited the Museo de la Memoria. Inside the park are the free Museum of Science and Technology, Natural History Museum, and Railway Museum. There is probably someone near the Quinta Normal metro station selling maní confitado (candied peanuts) from a little food cart, if you’re feeling snacky.
A 10 minute walk away through some beautiful streets is Peluquería Francesa, a nice cafe and restaurant in an old and interestingly decorated building that also still houses a classic barber shop.