Plaza de Armas, a square filled with palms and fountains, was laid out by Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish conquistador who founded the city in 1541. It is the historic heart of the city, lined with handsome Spanish Colonial-style buildings, including the City Hall, National History Museum, Post Office and Metropolitan Cathedral, the city's grandest church. Step inside the cathedral to see the gilt arches and the high marble altar set with lapis lazuli. Erected in the mid-18th century, this is actually the fifth church on this site. The first one was burnt down by Mapuche Indians just a few months after it was built, and the others were destroyed by earthquakes in 1552, 1647 and 1730. It is one of many buildings in the city rebuilt in Colonial style following an earthquake. The square itself is a lively scene, populated with artists, living statues, vendors, chess players and, of course, tourists.
Just one block southwest of the Plaza de Armas on Bandera is the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, Santiago's most outstanding museum. Here you'll find an unmatched collection of carvings in wood and stone, ceramics, and pottery and textiles from the early inhabitants of South and Central America and Mexico, especially the Andes tribes.
Constitution Square, the city's most formal public space, is located about six blocks from the Plaza de Armas. It's home to statues of heroes and to Palacio de la Moneda, the presidential palace. Tours can be arranged in advance by email (see Gob.cl/en/guided-tours/). The changing of the guard takes place every other day at 10 a.m. The plaza is the roof of an underground bunker built by Augusto Pinochet when he took over the government in the infamous military coup of 1973. Today it is a parking lot.
At the edge of downtown is the lushly landscaped Cerro Santa Lucia, a triangle-shaped hilltop named by Valdivia. According to some accounts, it was the spot where he founded Santiago in the name of the crown of Spain. The bare hillside was transformed in 1872 as part of an effort to turn Santiago into a European-style city, providing gardens, squares and terraces where fashionable residents could stroll and enjoy panoramic views. It was restored in the 1990s and an elevator to the summit was added. Castillo Hidalgo at the summit is an exhibition center for native art, and outdoor plays and concerts are held here in the summer. Enter at Avenida Alameda and St. Lucia, or take the elevator on St. Lucia Street at Agustinas.
The small artistic neighborhood of Bellas Artes, near the foot of Santa Lucia hill between the Alameda and Parque Forestal, is a favorite of artists and writers, home to pleasant bars, cafes and art galleries, an 18th-century church, and several museums. The grand Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts (Bellas Artes), built in the early 20th century, is two museums in one, showing Chilean and international painters, and incorporating the Museum of Contemporary Art. The attractive Museum of Visual Arts (Artes Visuales) showcases the work of some 300 local artists.
Take the funicular railway or a gondola to the summit of San Cristobal Hill in Santiago's Metropolitan Park for an unforgettable view of the city and its mountains. At the top is a gleaming statue of the Virgen de la Immaculada. The park, a green retreat from city traffic, also includes a botanical garden and the city zoo.
Though it is seedy in spots, bohemian district Bellavista has colorful houses and a host of shops, sidewalk vendors and cafes. It is also the location of La Chascona, one of the intriguing homes of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. It was the romantic hideaway for Neruda and his third wife, Matilde, for years before they were married. Winding garden paths, stairs and bridges lead to the home with a bedroom in a tower and a secret passageway. If you love Neruda, consider this full-day Neruda tour from Viator.
The unique Barrio Paris-Londres is lined with small mansions erected in the mid-1920s when European style was all the rage. The streets are even named Paris and London. Some of the three- and four-story homes are now restaurants or small hotels.
Want a change of scenery? Escape to the posh seaside resort of Vina del Mar. About 74 miles outside of Santiago (an hour and a half by bus), Vina del Mar is known for its palm tree-lined boulevards, fine hotels and dining, miles of beach, and the country's oldest casino. The don't-miss sights include its famous floral clock (which actually works) and the archaeological treasures at the Fonck Museum, known for its Rapa Nui (Easter Island) collection. See Vina del Mar tours.
Chile is increasingly famous for its wines, and a tour of vineyards is a pleasant outing from the city. The Maipo River Valley, about an hour from Santiago, has the country's greatest winemaking tradition and is home to more than a dozen wineries known for their fine reds. The elaborate estate of Concha y Toro is the country's largest winemaker. The wineries of the Casablanca Valley are also popular. Many companies offer day tours from Santiago; see Viator for a selection.
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns Viator.
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Getting Around Chile
Santiago City Guide
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