Santiago is a modern, energetic city that has emerged from divisive political times with resilience. Chile’s military dictatorship of 1973–90 is still fresh in the living memory of many of the city’s 6 million inhabitants. During our stay we were captivated by the charisma of its people, the stories of its past and the beauty of its surroundings. We’ve compiled these things to do in Santiago, Chile’s capital, to help you navigate your trip.
A note on photographs: we usually use only our own photographs for travel destination articles. However, shortly after our visit to Santiago, we were robbed in Buenos Aires and our cameras were among the items stolen. We only had a limited backup of our pictures from Santiago, and many were lost. Therefore, for some of the items below, we have used photos kindly provided by other photographers and credited accordingly.
1. Take a free walking tour
The best way to start your exploration of Santiago is by taking a free walking tour with Tours 4 Tips. These guys run a range of tours in Santiago, Valparaíso and San Pedro de Atacama, hosted by young guides full of knowledge and energy.
We chose to take the Santiago highlights tour (there is also an offbeat tour available). Our guide was a student called Oscar who had grown up in Santiago. He not only showed us around the main city landmarks, but also gave compelling insights into historic events, in particular the military coup and dictatorship. While endeavouring to remain objective, he talked about the impact it had on his family and city life in general.
Walking tours are perfect for introducing you to a new city and finding your bearings at the beginning of a stay. Oscar also gave us some really useful recommendations of things to do and places to eat.
2. Climb Cerro San Cristóbal to the Virgin Mary Statue
Many South American cities have symbolic statues. For Rio de Janeiro it’s Christ the Redeemer; Santiago has the Virgin Mary and the Sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception. This grand white statue is perched on Cerro San Cristóbal, some 300 metres above the city.
While it’s possible to take a funicular or cable car up to the statue, we chose to reach it the hard way. From the Pío Nono entrance at the south of the park, it took us about an hour to hike up the hill, with a few little breaks on the way.
From the crest of the hill, the view over Santiago against the mountainous horizon is simply breathtaking. The steps at the foot of the 14-metre statue and sanctuary provide a peaceful setting to take it all in.
3. Climb Cerro Santa Lucia to Castillo Hidalgo
Cerro Santa Lucia is a small hill, park and gardens in the city centre. Located just a few blocks east of the Plaza de Armas, it provides an alternative city viewpoint that is more central than Cerro San Cristóbal Hill and takes less effort to reach (although the view isn’t quite as good).
Entrance to the park is free, and there are various lookout points to gaze across the Santiago skyline. The park also features a historic castle in its grounds dating from the early 19th century.
Castillo Hidalgo has been one of the most important buildings in Santiago for 200 years. Over the generations, it has served as a fortress, museum, event centre and meeting point, and is now a prominent tourist attraction.
4. Visit the Museum of Memory and Human Rights
The legacy of the military coup and dictatorship is still deeply felt in Chile. The story of this dark period of history is told with compelling originality at Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights.
This is probably the most stirring museum display I have seen anywhere in the world. Through various exhibits, artefacts and visual mediums, it strikes just the right tone in addressing the effects of an intensely oppressive and divisive regime.
The museum pulls no punches in conveying the human rights atrocities that were committed under the rule of General Pinochet. While many aspects of this history are harrowing to take in, the exhibition also delivers a message of hope and positivity.
5. Explore the museums in Quinta Normal Park
Quinta Normal Park is a lush 88-acre space located in the Santiago district of the same name. It’s also home to several of the city’s most absorbing museums.
The Railway Museum and the Museum of Science and Technology are both within the park grounds, and well worth a visit. Our favourite, however, was the National Museum of Natural History.
Chile is a land of geographical extremes, from the Atacama Desert in the north to the ice fields of Patagonia in the south. As such, its natural history is unique. The museum imparts this through interactive exhibits and hosts some remarkable specimens, including a 17-metre whale skeleton and the world’s oldest mummies.
Quinta Normal Park is easily accessible from the city centre via the Santiago Metro. With the Museum of Memory and Human Rights located just outside the park as well, it makes for a great educational day out.
6. See the exquisite National Museum of Fine Arts
In the green surroundings of Parque Forestal, the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts is another educational gem in Santiago. Founded in 1880, it is the oldest fine arts museum in South America.
The museum is housed in one of the most striking and symbolic buildings in the city. Built to commemorate the first centennial of Chilean independence, the architecture blends baroque, neoclassical and art nouveau styles.
Free to enter, it is more of a gallery than a museum in reality, displaying a selection of works by artists from Chile and beyond.
7. Absorb city life at Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas has been the main city square and centre of activity in Santiago for nearly five centuries. Lined by some of Chile’s most iconic buildings, it’s a great place to stop, relax and watch city life go by.
Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral, standing on the north-west corner, is perhaps the architectural highlight of the square. There are also several museums around its perimeter, including the National Museum of History and the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art.
8. Go cycling on car-free Sunday
Every Sunday, dozens of kilometres of Santiago’s main roads are closed between 9am and 2pm as part of a scheme to promote cycling in the city.
More than 40,000 cyclists take to the city streets each week to participate in the scheme created by CicloRecreoVía. You can see a map of the streets that are closed as part of the scheme here. Following success in Santiago, the initiative is being expanded to other cities around Chile.
There are various options for hiring a bicycle in the city for travellers to take part; Contact Chile provides further information on this. Even if you don’t have a bicycle, it’s still a refreshing experience to get out around the city on foot and enjoy the calmness in the absence of traffic.
9. Witness the amazing street art of Inti
Chile has a flourishing street art scene that was pioneered by a network of underground artists who operated in secret during the military dictatorship. Inti, a street artist from Valparaíso, is at the forefront of this movement today.
In 2013 he was commissioned to paint two giant murals next to the Bellas Artes metro station in Santiago. The colourful masterpieces he created invoke characters representing Ekeko, the god of abundance in Andean folklore, blended with symbols of prosperity and political struggle.
On Inti’s website he describes the meaning behind the murals in his own words. You can also peruse other examples of his fantastic work around the world.
10. Take a trip to the nearby port city of Valparaíso
The colourful coastal city of Valparaíso is considered by many as the cultural capital of Chile. Once a rich and flourishing port, it had to reimagine itself after the Panama Canal opening meant that ocean vessels no longer needed to traverse around South America.
Today Valparaíso has become a thriving hub of music and art, distinguished by multicoloured houses scattered over its many hilly neighbourhoods. It can be reached by less than two hours by bus from Santiago.
Street art has been at the core of Valparaíso’s revival. Having developed in secret as an underground movement during the military dictatorship, today street art is legal in Valparaíso – the only place in Chile where that’s the case. For more background on this, check out our article on Valparaíso street art.
11. Taste fresh fish at Mercado Central
For the traveller who loves to explore local markets, Mercado Central is an unmissable highlight in Santiago. Of the many bustling marketplaces we’ve visited in South America, it stands out among the best.
Mercado Central is a particular attraction for fish lovers. It features many restaurants – small and large – that specialise in seafood dishes, including the Chilean favourite ceviche. Lunchtime is the best time to visit to get a great deal. Try asking for a complementary pisco sour!
Inside you can also find a maze of market stalls where you can buy a wide variety of fresh seafood from the Pacific.
12. Eat an empanada from Emporio Zunino
Directly opposite Mercado Central, on the corner of Avenida San Pablo and Paseo Puente, stands Emporio Zunino; one Chile’s most legendary empanada-makers.
An empanada is a pastry snack that originated in Spain and is popular in many South American countries. It is typically filled with meat, vegetables or cheese.
Emporio Zunino, opened in 1930, is Chile’s oldest traditional empanada factory. We tried it out for brunch, and it completely lived up to the hype. You won’t find a better empanada anywhere in Santiago.
13. Drink a terremoto in La Piojera
Tucked away on a side street just a short walk away from Mercado Central you will find La Piojera. This is a somewhat legendary local dive bar, always packed with crowds of drinkers.
This is the place we discovered the Chilean beverage phenomenon that is the terremoto. It translates directly as ‘earthquake’, a fitting name for its effects! A terremoto essentially comprises a large quantity of pipeño (a strong fortified wine) with a dollop of pineapple ice cream floating in it. It’s typically served in a half-litre glass, or – if you dare – a litre.
La Piojera is anything but a tourist trap. It’s been around for nearly a century and stays true to its local roots. You can also order greasy, meaty meals served in huge portions to line your stomach for the terremotos. Be prepared to compete for seats, though.
14. Try a meat sandwich in Fuente Alemana
Another must-try local establishment in Santiago is Fuente Alemana. We were told about this place by an American traveller we met who lived in Santiago for several months. He described it as “very famous, very good and very Chilean”. Of course, we had to try it after hearing this.
The setup in Fuente Alemana is intimate and enjoyable. Chefs work away in an open kitchen area, while customers prop up on seating that stretches all the way around it in a square. You order at the cashier as you enter, then take a seat and watch your hot sandwich being cooked.
I am a big fan of sandwiches and have eaten many thousands in my time. This was one of the best I’ve had; perhaps more burger than sandwich, or at least somewhere in between. It was a delicious feast of meat, grease and sauce. The day after, I wrote a full article about the experience – check that out here.
15. Eat a completo Italiano
When we took our Santiago free walking tour, I asked our guide if he could recommend any particular local food to try. The first thing he mentioned was the Italiano, a popular Chilean take on the American hotdog.
To spare you the same confusion that I had, there isn’t anything Italian about it other than its appearance. The Italiano is basically a hotdog smothered with avocado, creamy mayonnaise and tomato sauce. The resulting green, white and red stripes resemble the Italian flag.
The ‘completo’ version is huge, and comes with all the trimmings and lashings of sauce. You can find it in cafés, pop-up stalls and fast-food outlets all over Santiago. We ate our fill in a café on Plaza de Armas, filled with locals watching the big football match between Santiago’s two biggest rivals.
16. Enjoy Chilean wine
Chile is renowned around the world for its excellent wines, in particular red varieties like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Santiago is within close reach of the Maipo Valley, one of the country’s most prominent wine-producing regions. There are many companies that offer winery tours from Santiago, or alternatively it’s easy to reach independently.
With our time and budget limited, we were content with sampling a selection of Chilean wines we picked out from shops around the city. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon perusing the options, and even more enjoyable to spend an evening drinking them!
17. Watch Game of Thrones in a pub
Visiting an Irish pub is usually the last thing we would recommend in a South American city. No offence intended of course; we have nothing against Ireland, in fact we love it. But we always prefer to try new experiences on the road, and we have plenty of Irish pubs at home in London.
The Shamrock in Santiago, however, was different. It’s the only pub in the city that shows live screenings of TV shows like Game of Thrones. This solved our problem of how we were going to watch the season 7 finale.
Located between central Santiago and the Las Condes district, the pub is tricky to find, tucked away in a little square just off Avenida Providencia. The Game of Thrones screenings are extremely popular. We arrived at 6pm for a 10pm screening, and we were the last people allowed in.
The atmosphere for the show was incredible! The bar owner hosted various games in the build-up. Me and Lisa were given free drinks for apparently looking like Jorah Mormont and Cersei Lannister. The screening itself was amazing, with the packed crowds cheering and groaning along to the big moments.
Things to do in Santiago, Chile: map of attractions
The map below shows the places of interest in Santiago that are detailed in this article:
Where to stay in Santiago
During our time in Santiago, we stayed in two hostels in different parts of the city. The first was Princesa Insolente Hostel, located in the Brasil district about 2 kilometres west of Plaza de Armas. It’s about a half-hour walk to the city centre.
This was a very pleasant and sociable hostel, with an outdoor bar area and a well equipped kitchen. The rooms were spacious and comfortable, with free strong wifi. Breakfast was free if staying in a private room, or available for a small fee if staying in a dorm.
The second hostel we stayed in was Ají Hostel, closer to the city centre in the Providencia district. We loved this hostel because it provided free dinner every night! The only hostel we’ve ever known to do this.
In general, the facilities at Ají Hostel were very good, with a large kitchen, good wifi, secure lockers, hot water, and a comfortable social space.
For more accommodation options, see the Santiago section of booking.com.
Chile travel: more destinations
If you are spending more time in Chile, you might find some of our other articles useful:
- Chile itinerary: two weeks | San Pedro to Santiago
- How much does a Chile trip cost? Here’s what we spent
- Pisco Elqui: travel to the heart of Chile’s stargazing valley
- 10 awesome things to do in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
- Torres Del Paine W Trek: a complete guide for first-timers
- Patagonia itinerary and travel guide: 28 days / two weeks (includes both Argentine and Chilean parts of Patagonia)
Have you visited Santiago before? Let us know about your experiences in the comments below.
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