Santiago is the capital and the largest city in Chile. It was founded in 1541 by Pedro Valdívia, a Spanish conqueror, but due to a series of indigenous attacks, earthquakes (the city is home to the highest number of headquarters in Latin America) and a series of floods, the city changed constantly. Currently the downtown is dominated essentially 19th century buildings in a mix of architectonic styles. Santiago's landscape is also shaped by several natural hills, the Andes Mountains and the Mapocho River.
Honestly we were not expecting such a modern and cosmopolitan city! Santiago has been growing since the 90s and the city is full of modern buildings, a few skyscrapers (including the tallest building in Latin America), several shopping centers, universities, restaurants & coffees and a very extensive and efficient transportation infrastructure. It's now easier to understand why this city is home of many multinational companies. Greater Santiago has a population of 7 million (about 40% of the country's population).
There are plenty of things to do and see in Santiago! We spent several days in the city so we had enough time to visit plenty of museums, walk in the parks, try new restaurants and roam around through its awesome buildings and pedestrian streets. The city is quite big so we walked a LOT (and we took the metro for longer distances). We booked a nice apartment in the Providencia neighborhood, one of the best areas to live in Santiago (again, we used Airbnb - click here if you want a first-time discount).
Here are the places we visited by order of our preference:
#1 Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos - This is a must-see when visiting Santiago! Dedicated to the victims of human rights violations during the civic-military regime led by Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990, this museum was inaugurated in 2010 (but it is already a top attraction in the city). We spent almost 2.5 hours in the museum reading all the testimonials of tortures, violations, disappears and deaths of women, men and children. There were also several photos, videos and objects both from the dictatorial regime and the victims. Free entrance! This museum is based in the Barrio Yungay, an historical neighborhood with some cool restaurants and coffees.
#2 La Chascona (Pablo Neruda's house) - La Chascona was one of the three houses of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, reflecting his love for the sea and originality. The tour is audio guided (6,000$CH/person) and it took us to Neruda's spirit, work and life. The house is full of original objects from all over the world, a collection made by the poet in his travels and also while working in Europe and Asia. The city views from the house, on the slopes of the San Cristobal hill, is also very good! It is not possible to take photographs inside the house.
#3 Cerro de Santa Lucia - Santa Lucia is a small hill in the very city center of Santiago (altitude of 629 m and height of 69 m over the surrounding area). The hill is the remnant of a volcano 15 million years old. It can be easily visited on foot and there's several stairways, fountains, old buildings, facades and viewpoints. On one side of the hill, it's possible to see Fort Hidalgo (finished in 1820 as a defensive point). We were lucky to catch the Ñam Santiago, a Latin-American gastronomic festival, where we had a great vegetarian lunch and taste several Chilean products. We were also interviewed for a local TV (not sure which one was exactly)! Below the hill there's also an Indigenous Artisan center where we met an artisan living in the Easter Island and married with a rapanui women and a Mapuche artisan that builds typical musical instruments.
#4 Museo Historico Nacional - The Chilean National History Museum has a permanent exposition with 18 exhibition rooms. It explains all the Chilean History and it's the best museum to get an overall perspective of this country past. One of the rooms explains the prehistoric period and the majority of the other rooms explain History only after it was conquered by the Spanish (from the 16th century onward). It has several descriptions and objects from the colonial period, including the relationship with the indigenous, the church role and the daily life. The museum also makes a very good connection between the colonial and the independence years explaining the first years, the political organization, education and changes through the years in the 19th and 20th centuries. Free entrance for everyone!
#5 Plaza de Armas and the surrounding buildings - Plaza de Armas is Santiago's main square, the centerpiece of the initial layout of the city and surrounded by some historical buildings, including the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago, the Palacio de la Real Audiencia de Santiago and the Central Post Office. The plaza itself has a small garden and it seems to be a meeting point for several people (locals and tourists) so there's also plenty of police. The National History Museum is also located in this place.
#6 Barrio Bellavista - Bellavista neighborhood is know as Santiago's bohemian quarter where many artists and intellectuals live following the steps of famous personalities like Pablo Neruda ("La Chascona" is based here). This area is full of restaurants, coffees, bars, galleries and boutiques. It is also surrounded by universities and some colorful antique homes. Patio Bellavista is part of this neighborhood and there are lots of cool places inside, specially restaurants with nice terraces and small handicraft/souvenir shops.
#7 Cerro San Cristóbal - San Cristóbal is a hill in northern Santiago that is about 300 m above the rest of Santiago, being the second highest point in the city. It can be reached by foot but we took the funicular to the top of the hill (2,000$CH/person). It is a very touristic place so it was full of people! The view was very good but unfortunately the smog didn't allow us to see all the city perfectly defined. In the mountain peak (one needs to walk about 15m from the funicular station) there is a sanctuary dedicated to the Immaculate Conception with a chapel and an amphitheater. There are a few coffees on the hill so it's also a nice spot for an ice cream while enjoying the view (at least that's what we did!). Cerro San Cristóbal is part of the Santiago's largest public park, the Parque Metropolitano.
#8 Sky Costanera - This is the tallest building in Latin America! With a height of 300 meters, this building offers a spectacular 360º view of Santiago (5,000$CH/person). The tower has nearly 700,000 square meters of building space available built on only 47,000 square meters of land, and it's estimated that there would be approx. 240,000 people going to and from this place each day. The tower also offers free guided tours upstairs (we did ours at 7pm) where they point the most important places in Santiago and explain a bit of the country and the city History. The view was incredible and we saw it during the day, the sunset and the evening.
#9 Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino - Art museum close to Plaza Armas displaying a great collection of pre-Columbian artefacts from Central and South America. The museum gives a good explanation about civilizations with more than 10,000 years with pieces from well-known pre-columbian cultures like the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas. There's also a textile section with painted cloth where the oldest piece has 3,000 years old and it belonged to the Chavín culture.
#10 Plaza de la Constitución & Palacio de La Moneda - Plaza de la Constitución is a square block at the heart of the civic district. The most famous building there is Palacio de la Moneda, the seat of Chile's President. The building is surrounded by other government buildings like the Central Bank of Chile and the Justice and Finance Ministers. There's a statue of Salvador Allende in this plaza, an homage to the ex Chilean president since he was killed (or committed suicide, depending on the History perspective) inside the palace in 1973 when it was bombed. Inside the palace it's also possible to visit the Centro Cultural Palacio la Moneda, a cultural facility with exhibition rooms and other cultural and art shops, audiovisual and interactive rooms and a couple of coffees/restaurants. We saw the temporary exhibition about life and death of the ancient Egypt (free during the mornings all week).
#11 Iglesia de San Francisco - The St. Francis Church is very beautiful, specially from outside with its red/brown color. It also includes the Museum of Colonial Art (1,000$CH/person) where it's possible to admire several paintings of the life of St. Francis and other paintings, sculptures, metalwork, woodwork and other artifacts (religious, mainly!). The museum also includes Gabriela Mistral Nobel prize document and some descriptions about her work and life. We specially liked the the building with the garden in the middle and the peace that could be felt inside (not a very touristic museum).
#12 Centro Gabriela Mistral - This is a modern cultural center in the city center used for temporary exhibitions and conferences. This is not a very touristic place but where locals come a lot. The temporary exhibitions were about the value of animals (photography) and another one with several types of clay - we didn't enjoy a lot both but it always depend on each person. The building and the way it is decorated deserves a visit! It is also located in a very cool neighborhood: Barrio Lastarria, an historical but very popular neighborhood full of cultural activity with cinemas, theaters, restaurants and bars. There are also some live performances through the streets which creates a nice environment.
Next stops: Valparaíso & Viña del Mar (Chile)