Santiago, surrounded by mountains and wine country, contains some of Latin America’s most fantastical structures, comprehensive museums, and one of its largest cemeteries. Drink the city's pisco, wander its parks, and learn how it has healed since the Pinochet dictatorship. Attend one of its many music or art festivals, buy seafood fresh from the market, and see where Pablo Neruda lived. If the day is clear, end it by watching the sun set over the Andes, whether from the Cerro Torre (the tallest building in Latin America), the Bahá'í Temple (the only one in South America), or Cerro San Cristóbal (the city’s most popular hill).
Hike Cerro San Cristóbal
Located in Santiago Metropolitan Park, Cerro San Cristóbal (San Cristóbal Hill) rises nearly 1,000 feet above the capital’s streets. Urban hikers and bikers daily huff it to the top, while those less inclined to take the Zorro Trail wait in line to go up via the gondola or funicular (an elevator on railroad tracks). The summit has panoramic views of the city and surrounding Andes mountains, a large statue of the Virgin Mary, a small chapel, and lots of food vendors ready to sell you a mote con huesillos (a non-alcoholic drink made with dried peaches and hulled wheat). The park also contains a Japanese garden, zoo, and wine museum.
One of the largest cemeteries in Latin America, Cementerio General de Santiago offers night tours combining live theater, architecture lectures, and a walk through the grave sites. The Cuentos Urbanos Tour, led by a Franciscan monk in traditional garb, highlights some of the most famous stories of the entombed by having a local theater company act out their demises (and some alleged resurrections). A popular date night option, the tour runs 90 minutes and costs 6,000 pesos ($7.65). Two of the most famous sites are the tomb of former Chilean president Salvador Allende and Patio 29, a grave site and memorial of the desaparecidos (the missing persons) murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship.
Pumping out fresh fish and produce to locals and tourists since 1872, Santiago’s Central Market is where to find that Chilean seafood dish you’ve been eager to try. Locals come in the morning, many times before dawn, while tourists tend to frequent it in the afternoon. Sample some classic dishes like pastel del jaiba (crab casserole), locos (abalone), or even erizo rojo (sea urchin), which you can purchase live. Many restaurant promoters will approach you, especially in the late afternoon: Be prepared to politely but firmly decline them, until you’ve been able to explore your options. The restaurants on the market's edge tend to be less touristy.
Originally built by the poet as an abode for him and his paramour Matilde Urrutia, La Chascona today remains much the same as when Neruda was alive, throwing parties from his captain's bar. See his furniture, including his armchair, and collections of quirky objects. Art work of friends like Diego Rivera, as well as mementos of his travels abroad from when he was a diplomat for Chile, also fill the house. A three-tiered maze of colors, plants, and elaborate drinking spaces, you can learn the most about La Choscona’s history (and much about Neruda himself) by renting an audio guide and walking the house on a self-guided tour. Admission is 7,000 pesos ($9) and on a first come-first served basis.
Only 9 miles from the city center, Viña Cousino Macul (Macul Vineyard) offers some of the Maipo Valley’s finest wines for tasting, as well as tours to familiarize yourself with Chile’s wine history, varieties, and fermentation processes. Founded in 1856 by the Cousiño family, they still own and operate it, providing tours in Spanish and English Monday through Saturday. In addition to enjoying a wine pairing with fruits and cheeses, stroll the vineyard and explore the cavernous wine cellar. All the wines are made exclusively from grapes grown on the Cousiños' two Maipo Valley estates. Purchase bottles of their merlot, chardonnay, or syrah for souvenirs.
The Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM) showcases free art exhibits, performing arts shows, and concerts. Open late and family-friendly, the building has a diverse past. Originally opened as a conference center by President Allende and later taken over by the Pinochet dictatorship, it became a cultural center after the fall of the regime. Though it's named for poet and Nobel Prize-winner Gabriela Mistral, most art inside is a celebration of many different facets of Chilean art. In addition to a museum, the center houses a bookstore, library, theater, wine store, and café. Outside you’ll find graffiti related to protests and groups of Santiaguinos (Santiago locals) meeting with friends or working on their own crafts, like K-pop dance routines.
Attend the Changing-of-the-Guard at Palacio de la Moneda
The current presidential palace of Chile, la Moneda was the site of the takeover by the military coup of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1973. After Augusto Pinochet bombed la Moneda, President Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected Marxist president in Latin America, died there the same day. Many speculated as to whether he was assassinated, rather than believing the official report of suicide. Now restored, la Moneda hosts art exhibits and tourists can see an elaborate changing-of-the-guard ceremony every other day. Consider booking a tour (reservations required a week in advance) to learn more about the deep history of this place and its intimate ties to Chile’s past.
Drink a Pisco Sour
Pisco, a type of brandy, is mixed with egg whites, lemon juice, and simple syrup to produce a pisco sour, the national drink of Chile. Most bars in Santiago serve this tart, frothy cocktail, but for a little pizazz, head to Restaurante 040’s secret rooftop terrace, known as “room No. 9.” Upon entry, you're only a false door and an elevator ride away from a sour made with the highest quality pisco. If you’re curious about the debate between Chilean and Peruvian pisco, go to Chipe Libre to try some of the best varieties from both countries.
Sky Costanera sits atop the tallest building in Latin America, the Gran Torre Santiago, which measures 984 feet tall. The two observation decks, collectively known as “Sky Costanera,” offer 360 degree views of Santiago, along with a bar and occasional live music performances with free wine. Come just before sunset to see the city bathed in golden light, the sun descending behind one part of the Andes mountain range and the moon rising over the other. To reach it, pay the 15,000 peso entry fee at the bottom ($19), then hop on a fast elevator which will ferry you up to the 62nd floor in only 40 seconds.
Located in the foothills surrounding Santiago, the Bahá'í Temple is a place of worship replete with gardens, green spaces, and an air of serenity. The temple, a giant structure of marble and glass shaped like a flower about to unfurl, draws not only those who come to pray and mediate, but also architecture junkies and curious tourists wanting to see the only temple of the Bahá'í faith in South America. The temple’s walls consist of nine “sails,” an important number for this ecumenical faith. At night, the spaces between the sails emit a soft glow which shimmers off the reflection pool. Come here to relax or clear your mind Tuesday through Sunday.
El Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (the Memory and Human Rights Museum) tells the stories of the desaparecidos and the atrocities perpetrated under Chile’s Pinochet dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. The building itself was built specifically for this purpose, and its exposed beams represent how each Chilean under the dictatorship was profoundly affected. The museum displays video footage, newspaper clippings, photography, and audio recordings from this time, and has archives in the basement. It hosts temporary events and shows, touching on themes like Indigenous culture and human rights violations in other countries. Entry is free.
Be Surprised by Santiago a Mil
While Santiago hosts many festivals throughout the year, Santiago a Mil is the city's largest annual art festival. Showcasing music, contemporary theater, dance, circus, film, and other types of art, it spans three weeks in January. Artists from nearly 25 countries come to perform 90 different shows in concert halls, parks, plazas, and theaters. Many shows are free as a central tenet of the festival is affordability. Performances take many forms: duets, flash mobs, stilt-walkers, actors on scaffolding continually moving throughout crowds, and more. Expect to see something you never have before; acts are known to challenge forms and perspectives across artistic disciplines.
Explore the Parks
Santiago has 14 parks, full of running trails, bodies of water, plants, monuments, and fountains. They’re great places to people-watch and get a feel for the city's culture. Buy some mate (a caffeinated tea) and enjoy sipping it in Parque Forestral by the Mapocho River or the German Fountain. Roam around Cerro Santa Lucía to see great views, a fountain with Neptune rising out of it, and the fortress Castillo Hidalgo. Discover an abandoned greenhouse at Parque Quinta Normal and rent a paddle boat to tour around its duck pond. For more river walks, manicured lawns, and a flamboyance of flamingos, head to Parque Bicentenario. Entrance to all the parks is free.
Home to the Santiago Philharmonic Orchestra, Santiago Ballet, and the Santiago Municipal Choir, the Teatro Municipal (Municipal Theatre) hosts opera, ballet, theatre, and musical performances throughout the year. Considered the most prestigious performing arts venue in Chile, it is also the oldest. Erected in 1857, the theatre has a French Neoclassical style and has survived two major fires and a massive earthquake. Expect good acoustics and an impressive space, elegant but not overly glamourous. Tickets run from the expensive to cheap, with the most affordable starting at 3,000 pesos ($4). Buy them at the box office in person or from the theatre’s website.
Head to the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Chilean Pre-Colombian Art Museum) to see art work and artifacts of Indigenous groups from pre-colonized Central and South America. From mummies to shamanistic tools, the museum holds some fascinating pieces, providing a glimpse into the culture and customs of more than 100 groups. Exhibits contain masks from the Moche, Mayan bas-reliefs, Mapuche totems, and Valdivian pottery. The museum spans four different eras, contains more than 3,000 works, and speaks to Chile’s modern day Indigenous cultures, too. Open from Tuesday to Sunday, tickets are 8,000 pesos.