Santiago is a busy, big city at a very special location: it’s surrounded by the Andes mountains. On a clear day even from the centre they look so close, I have the feeling we are in a small town. Locals tell us that unfortunately on many days the view is blurred by the cloud of smog. That open friendliness of locals that have accompanied us since Brazil, until Chiloé, was nowhere seen in Santiago. People don’t smile and everyone seems busy minding their own business. But hey, this is the financial capital of South America, cachai? Nevertheless, we spent here 2 weeks and walked the city out and about, so happy to share the best things to do in Santiago, Chile.
The history of Santiago
Since the 10th century indigenous groups lived at the area of Santiago – in fact here was the Inca capital. The official, long name of the city is Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura (colonial territories were often named after Spanish territories). Pedro de Valdivia founded it on Cerro Santa Lucia hill which is a green oasis in the heart of downtown. It’s well worth a visit bringing along a little picnic to enjoy under flowering trees and get a birds eye view of the gritty, often rundown multistory buildings which sporadically obstruct the sight of the picturesque mountains. Notice, that Santiago isn’t called Santiago de Chile that foreign sources often use.
Where to go and what things to do in Santiago, Chile
There are a few districts that tourist guide books recommend to visit, and they are all different. Most of the government buildings are located in the centre around Plaza de Armas. It’s a typical square how I always imagined South American big cities: a lot of asphalt, serious dark buildings from the 80’s, palm trees and local old folks playing chess or just sitting and looking around all day long. It’s possible to see all the important buildings – such as churches, government buildings, museums – with a medium long walk. Here‘s an interesting article about Santiago’s architecture.
Best neighbourhoods in Santiago
One of the best things to do in Santiago, Chile is to go hunting for treasures in the different barrios – whatever it might mean to you: graffitis, beautiful buildings, authentic local life. My favourite District is Bellavista which is full of colourful graffiti and bars – the ultimate (but not cheap) going out area. There are many hostels at this district to cater for the backpacker crowds. We found here vegetarian completo (hot dog) which is a miracle in case of such a traditional meaty food. (Read our post about food in Chile)
Another, similarly graffiti-filled district is Barrio Brazil. It’s not yet so trendy as Bellavista and at parts it’s specifically seedy with piles of rubbish lingering on the streets, it has a potential to become a hype area. Bellas Artes district is filled with trendy, hipster shops and lively street life. In the country of no tolerance for alcohol consumption in public, I was surprised to see many people selling weed cake openly on the street – apparently in Chile marijuana is legal to consume it baked. In Chile it seems like everyone is selling something everywhere, and in Santiago street sellers often pave the side of the streets, fill the air of buses and metros with their voice, stop by at your table or bench and even offer to ease your need for buying in the cemetery!
Museum of Pre-Columbian art in Santiago
We see more faces with features of indigenous origins, than so far on our trip. The topic of indigenous peoples really interests us (we are planning a separate article about it) so we enjoyed a visit in the museum of the Chilean Pre Columbian art. They have 2 permanent exhibitions: indigenous groups in the territory of present Chile; artworks of indigenous groups in Latin America. Both of them were very extensive with many texts (first exhibition also in English) and exhibited objects. The entrance to the museum is free on the first Sunday of the month at the time of our visit. I have to admit that this is the most interesting museum about the indigenous that we visited in South America, so it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Santiago, Chile.
Is Santiago on your bucket list? Is there anything else you’d like to read about that city? Feel free to ask us in the comments below!