If you bite into a chili pepper, you better be prepared for a complex blend of heat, piquant spice, and an unforgettably edgy kick. The same goes for your first taste of Santiago, the vibrant capital city of Chile, which is indeed shaped a bit like the skinny, pungent fruit whose name it evokes.
With its warm arid summers (November to March), a lively bar scene, and cuisine that has intrigued the likes of many internationally renowned chefs, Santiago has become a muy caliente destination. Sitting snug in a valley, surrounded by the snow-dusted Andes and the Chilean Coast Range, Santiago is about halfway between Chile’s northern and southern border, at the literal and figurative heart of the country.
Here are our top ten things to do in Santiago de Chile and beyond:
1. Plaza de Armas
All distances within Chile are measured from Santiago’s Plaza de Armas, where locals gather for picnic lunches, to play chess, or gossip on palm-shaded benches. Plug into the square’s pulsating energy while indulging in some prime people-watching and admiring the grand architecture of the surrounding Catedral Metropolitana, the Palacio de la Real Audiencia (home of the National History Museum), and the Correo Central, possibly the poshest post office you’ll ever encounter.
2. Barrio Lastarria
Just south of the Mapocho River which flows through the city, you’ll find Barrio Lastarria. Take a stroll around this artsy neighborhood, which has a reputation for galleries and funky bars and restaurants. Two of the best places to see contemporary sculptures and works by Chilean artists are GAM and the Museo de Artes Visuales.
3. Cerro Santa Lucia
For panoramic views of the city, check out the summit of the Cerro Santa Lucia, the impressive hill on the southern edge of Barrio Lastarria. You can hike up the wooded slopes or take the lazy man’s lift on the western side of the park. Note: While Cerro Santa Lucia is a popular place during the day, it’s best to avoid it at night.
4. Cerro San Cristobal
For more kiss-the-sky vistas, head to Cerro San Cristóbal, a 722-hectare park which peaks at more than 850 meters high. Santiago’s most expansive green space encompasses a botanical garden, zoo, swimming pools and a towering white statue of the Virgin Mary.
5. Barrio Bellavista
Sure, you could walk to the top of Cerro San Cristobal, but then again, you could also take the funicular from a station in the Barrio Bellavista. Situated along the northern bank of the river, Bellavista is a buzzy neighborhood punctuated by colorful graffiti murals and bars, clubs, restaurants, and cafes.
6. Eat Like a Local
You can find anything from Japanese to French and Italian cuisine in Santiago, but if you really want to eat like a local, try a lomito sandwich, packed with meat, tomato, mayo, and avocado. For fresh seafood, hit the Mercado Central.
7. Drink Like a Local
You can’t go wrong with Chilean wine, and pisco is popular, too. You could venture really off-piste with terremoto, a dessert drink usually served on Independence Day and made with pineapple ice-cream and pipeño sweet white wine. If you think that sounds disgusting, you’re not alone; it’s the “love it or hate it” Marmite of cocktails. Terremoto, rather ominously, means “earthquake.” You’ve been warned.
For a perky pick-me-up, stride up to one of Santiago’s stand-up coffee bars. At these cafés con piernas, which translates literally as “coffee with legs”, where waitresses serve caffeinated cuppas.
8. Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos
If you only visit one museum, make it the Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos (the Museum of Memory and Human Rights). Housed within a modern copper-covered monolith, the museum, which opened in 2010, focuses on human rights violations under the late 20th century dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
9. Shop for a Gem of a Souvenir
Chile is one of the few places in the world where lapis lazuli, a bright blue gemstone, is mined. If you’re searching for a special stone to take home, look for it at one of the many lapis lazuli outlets along Avenida Bellavista in Barrio Bellavista or at Los Dominicos, an upscale craft market in the Las Condes area.
You’ll also find plenty of inexpensive souvenirs at Centro Artesanal Santa Lucia. This conglomerate of about 150 craft shops is located near the base of the Cerro Santa Lucia, along the Alameda, Santiago’s busiest avenue.
10. Hit the Road
There are several wineries within easy reach, including Concha y Toro and Cousiño Macul. See the sea with a journey to Chile’s Pacific Coastal towns and cities like Valparaiso, famed for its rainbow palette of cliff top homes and historic funiculars.
For active adventurers, the Cajon del Maipo river valley offers organized hiking, rafting and mountain biking. In the winter ski season, head to the snowy slopes in Farellones, accessed by a windy switchback road, or in Portillo near the Argentine border.