Although it’s one of South America’s most metropolitan capitals, Santiago is also perhaps one of the most misunderstood. On first inspection, this smoggy city of high-rise buildings, thick traffic and crowded public transport can seem less than inspiring, but those who get beneath the surface of this concrete jungle – or out to the peaks of the snow-dusted Andes Mountains that preside over Santiago – are richly rewarded.
And what’s more, Santiago is, well, cool. It only takes a few days of exploring Barrio Lastarria or Bellavista, sipping local wine and craft beer and dining al fresco on a terrace or nailing a black run in Valle Nevado, the capital’s nearby ski resort to understand that this is a seriously exciting city.
Best time to visit Santiago
Santiago is alive throughout the year and the best time to visit the city really depends on your interests. The summer, particularly the sweltering months of December through February where temperatures can hit 34˚C, are when most tourists pass through, many on their way to Patagonia in the south or the spellbinding Atacama Desert in the far north.
The bonus of visiting during these months it that a lot of the locals or santiaguinos are out of town enjoying the beaches of Viña del Mar or the lakes around Puerto Varas, so the capital adopts a more relaxed personality. What’s more, the city’s trademark winter smog has cleared, meaning you can see the craggy peaks of the Andes in the west.
But summer isn’t the only time to visit Santiago. Thanks to the ski resort on its doorstep, June through September are for driving one and a half hours into the mountains and hitting the slopes. Day time temperatures usually hover between 12-15˚C and it’s not unusual for the snow at the top to be bathed in sunshine.
Top things to do in Santiago
Although Santiago might not have the colonial architecture of other Latin American capitals, the Plaza de Armas at the very heart of the city is still a worthwhile place to start. As one of the main hives of activity in the city, this square is an excellent place to while away an hour, sat in the shade watching the world go by or the old men who gather here to plan chess on sunny afternoons.
You’ll also find Palacio de la Real Audiencia, the previous home of the Royals Courts of Justice and which now houses the informative Museo Histórico Nacional (the National History Museum) where you can find an excellent collection of information and artefacts that give an overview of the country’s history. Also worth a short visit is the Catedral Metropolitana, the neoclassical cathedral that dominates the plaza.
Right around the corner stands the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Chilean Museum of Precolombian Art); it claims to have the best selection of pre-Colombian artefacts (including textiles and pottery) from across the whole Latin American continent.
A few blocks away you can find the Mercado Central and La Vega, two of Santiago’s most traditional shopping experiences. In the former, wander through the stalls of fish and either buy some to cook or sit down for a meal of congrio frito (fried eel) or pastel de jaiba (a creamy crab pie) from one of the tiny restaurants. Across the road, La Vega is a true South American market where the full-sensory experience of the owners howling for business and the colours of local vegetables and fruits makes for an interesting morning.
It’s also worth wandering through Barrio Bellavista and Barrio Brasil or touring on a bike with a local guide to learn about the story behind this neighbourhood’s graffitied streets. Finish at Parque Quinto Normal for a breath of fresh air and to visit the powerful and informative Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights), a museum dedicated to delivering the facts about the military coup that controlled the country between 1973 and 1990 and left thousands dead or “disappeared”.
Further around town, Cerro Santa Lucia in Barrio Lastarria offers the most accessible views of the city; a short 10-minute hike through lush, landscaped gardens brings you to the viewing platform. If you’re feeling more energetic, climb Cerro San Cristóbal from the Bellavista neighbourhood for panoramic vistas (smog most likely included) or pay to ride the funicular to save yourself the leg work!
In the winter, hire a car and buy a ski pass (costing around $48,000 CLP for the day) for Valle Nevado, one of the best resorts in Chile. Situated only 46km from the capital and with 900 hectares of skiable land and pistes for all levels and abilities, it’s an excellent day or even weekend getaway. Nearby Farellones has a range of hotels, just be aware – they come with a fairly expensive price tag!
Where to stay in Santiago
Santiago is a large, sprawling city but luckily for visitors, most of the accommodation is centred around the districts of Santiago, Providencia and Las Condes and therefore on the doorsteps of hundreds of bars and restaurants. What’s more, Santiago’s excellent metro system means that wherever you stay, you’ve never far from the action. Buy a metro card at one of the stations and you’ll find yourself easily connected to the city’s attractions.
There are plenty of options for budget travellers, including Hostal Forestal, with its large dorms, fully-equipped kitchen and plenty of space for hanging out downstairs. It’s also located right next to Baquedano metro station at the very heart of town. Another option is Happy House Hostel, which is set in a huge house and has a swimming pool and extensive terrace. It’s a short walk to the Plaza de Armas and two blocks from Los Heroes metro station.
If you’re in Santiago for a stopover, there are a clutch of hotels around the airport but none of them are particularly affordable. If you have enough time, it’s instead worth booking accommodation in the city and using the bus between the airport and Los Heroes metro station for $1,700 CLP each way. You can also organise a bus transfer (at a cost of between $6,000-7,000 CLP) through your hotel or hostel.
Find and book these hotels on our favourite accommodation search website: Booking.com
Another great alternative for accommodation in Santiago is Airbnb, where private rooms start at $30 and offer a unique way to experience the city from a more local perspective.
Don’t have an Airbnb account yet? Sign up now and receive a discount to put towards your first Airbnb stay!
Where to eat and drink in Santiago
One of the best things about Santiago is its restaurant and bar scene, which has led to the capital acquiring a reputation as one of Latin America’s most dynamic cities for dining. Although Chilean cuisine might not be as revered as that of its neighbour Peru, there are plenty of local and international dishes to get your teeth into. What’s more, as one of the globe’s largest producers of wine, you can’t spend a few days in this city without sampling its signature grape variety, carménère.
For excellent restaurants that won’t break the budget, head to Barrio Lastarria. Sample local wine from a selection of over 400 different types in Bocanáriz, a restaurant that aims to showcase the best of the country’s numerous vineyards. It also has a wide menu of main courses and nibbles.
Next door, discover Chipe Libre: Républica Independiente del Pisco, a restaurant dedicated to serving up the country’s favourite tipple, pisco. The menu is full of cocktails inspired by Chilean and Peruvian culture and has a full menu of dishes designed to complement the pisco.
Another Santiago institution is The Clinic, a bar named after the irreverent political magazine of the same name and, if you understand a bit of Spanish, their menu is an entertaining window into Chilean politics. The bar also has good food and some excellent local brews on tap and is found in both Barrio Brasil and Plaza Nuñoa.
Barrio Bellavista is another top spot for dining, with Uncle Fletch a trendy hamburger joint with a huge selection of craft beer and some seriously enormous portions. Bellavista is also the heart of Santiago’s nightlife, so dinner here can easily lead on to a night in the neighbourhood’s huge selection of bars!
How much time do you need in Santiago?
For many visitors, Santiago is just a stopover, but for those really wanting to experience life in South America’s most metropolitan city, three to four days, or longer if you plan to ski, is probably enough. You’ll find that Santiago is the country’s main transport hub, so you’ll probably end up spending more time here anyway.
Steph Dyson is a travel writer and educational volunteer who writes about adventurous travel and meaningful volunteering as she believes them to be life-changing but accessible ways of exploring the world. Currently based in Santiago, Chile, she’s spent over two and a half years travelling, volunteering, and living in several South American countries and is still not ready to go home yet. A cheese addict and Bolivian television personality (well, almost), she’s a lover of the great outdoors and never says no to an adventure. You can check out her tips for travelling and volunteering in South America on her website, Worldly Adventurer. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.
Have you ever been to Santiago? What tips and advice would you give to first-time visitors?