Nestled snugly at the foot of the Andes, Santiago is an enigmatic city that calls out to travelers for a wide variety of reasons. Whether you find yourself in Chile’s capital for business or pleasure, you’ll surely want to spend some time exploring the quirky personality of this modern, bustling metropolis. There is an array of different neighborhoods, or comunas, in the city, but many tourists opt to stay downtown, based on a combination of centrality, amenities, and price. Whatever the reason for your visit, you’re sure to find an activity you enjoy in the historic heart of Santiago.
During the day, you could spend hours just sipping coffee and people watching in the various pockets of the downtown area. The nucleus of all this rests in Plaza de Armas, an ample plaza flanked by important government and public buildings. During the day, the plaza is buzzing with vendors, performers, and revelers alike. For a bit more physical activity, go for a vigorous walk up the Cerro San Cristobal, a hill whose summit is home to an imposing statue of the Virgin Mary as well as arguably the best view of Santiago and its surrounding mountain ranges. And to immerse yourself in a bit of culture, check out the various museums on offer, including the particularly impressive Human Rights Museum. Also make sure to spend a few hours wandering in Santiago’s mazes of markets, including La Vega for produce, Mercado Central for seafood, and La Persa Bio Bio for antiques and myriad oddities. One thing all of these activities have in common: a lot of time on your feet. Make sure you bring multiple pairs of comfortable walking shoes to Santiago, because you’ll be strolling along for hours each day.
And when you’re ready to rest a bit, relax and bask in Santiago’s rousing and intoxicating nightlife. Things get started later here, so relax for a bit and then head out to a late dinner and cocktails in the equally sophisticated and quaint Barrio Lastarria, where hip and artistic people converge with young professionals amidst the coolly lit, winding streets. Hop in a cab afterward and head to Manuel Montt street, where various pubs and restaurant serve up crafty cocktails at a slightly better price than many other areas in the city. Hit up a karaoke bar or break out your dancing shoes at any of these spots. Alternatively, you could join the droves in Bellavista for a thumping, raucous night out.
Make sure you sample some of the local offerings during both your day and evening outings. For food, grab a toasty empanada on practically any corner of the city center—filled with meat, cheese, or seafood, these handheld snacks are more than ubiquitous throughout the city. Another common street food is a completo, which is a hot dog with heaps of toppings such as mayonnaise and palta (avocado). At night, sip on a refreshing pisco sour, the local trademark cocktail which is vaguely reminiscent of a margarita.
Travelling between all of these spots is relatively easy—you can hop on the relatively efficient Metro or bus to reach most locations (beware—you can only pay your bus fare using a rechargeable bip! card, which you can purchase at the metro stops or offices around the city. Taxis are also surprisingly cheap—just make sure you ask your driver to turn on the meter. Make sure to be aware of your possessions at all times while walking around the city and utilizing public transportation—like any big city, theft and pick-pocketing can be a real problem. Watch out for beggars and stray dogs on some of the streets, although they will more than likely leave you alone. Women should be aware that they will be catcalled by local men—you can minimize the disturbances by dressing a bit more conservatively, but generally just ignoring them does the trick.
After a few days spent wandering the area, you’ll realize that Santiago is a city that defies easy explanation. It is equally globalized and unique, and the diverse population that floods its streets every day coexists interestingly in the sprawling core of the city. People may dismiss Santiago as being a bit dirty or standoffish, but dedicate some time to exploring it and you’ll find that, to the contrary, this big city is loveable and alive in a way that’s all its own.