Stretching down South America’s western flank, the long, narrow country of Chile has a wide range of attractions, including big-city allure, mountains, deserts, beaches and outdoor adventures aplenty. Chile’s capital, Santiago, is the gateway to the nation, and well worth exploring for its fascinating museums, world-class restaurants and scintillating nightlife. From there, it’s an easy journey to Valparaíso, a rejuvenated port city with a bohemian vibe, or south to the Colchagua Valley, Chile’s premier wine-growing region.
Further afield, you can spend a few days in the Elqui Valley, with its sleepy villages, astronomical tours and pisco distilleries, then continue north to San Pedro de Atacama, best reached by flight to nearby Calama airport. You can easily spend a week here and still not see everything with the region’s alpine lakes, canyons, geysers and hot springs.
If time allows, you can take a road trip up the north coast, going from La Serena up to Iquique and stopping at fishing villages, untouched beaches and colonial towns along the way. At Chile’s other end is Patagonia, which is a paradise for adventurers. Gorgeous landscapes and abundant wildlife are two big draws, which you can see in abundance in places like Torres del Paine, one of the great natural wonders of the world. In no particular order, these are the seven best things to do in Chile.
#1 Step Back in Time in Santiago's Historic Center
Home to 40 percent of the nation’s population, Chile’s cosmopolitan capital has grand architecture, a buzzing dining and drinking scene, and leafy neighborhoods ripe for exploration. It’s also home to excellent museums, including the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, with its exquisite collection of indigenous textiles and pottery. You can explore the past in the city’s historic center, which is home to the grand 16th century Plaza de Armas, the neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana and the Museo Histórico Nacional, which has a chilling exhibition on the 1973 military coup. The district of Bellavista is another must-see, with a fantastic house-museum of Pablo Neruda, Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, and the hilltop perch of Cerro San Cristóbal offering panoramic views over the vast metropolis.
#2 Trek through Patagonian wilderness in Torres del Paine
One of South America’s most dramatic national parks, the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine has a landscape of churning rivers, lush forests, glaciers and the soaring granite peaks of Torres del Paine. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is also home to abundant wildlife, from big herds of guanaco grazing on the open steppe to flocks of fast-footed rhea (a relative of the ostrich) and the elusive puma. The best way to experience it all is to take a multi-day trek. The classic W Circuit is a 44 mile (71 km) journey offering magnificent views and big adventure, including trails that traverse hanging bridges.
#3 Go wine tasting in the Colchagua Valley
Chile’s fertile farmlands south of Santiago produce some of the country’s finest wines. Vineyards have flourished here since the Spanish first planted vines back in the 16th century. Journeys into wine country offer a chance to sample award-winning wines from family-owned wineries that date back generations. The mountainous backdrop and picturesque villages add to the charm and are best enjoyed at one of many lovely wine lodges scattered around the region. If you’re around in early March don’t miss the Fiesta de la Vendimia (harvest festival) held in Santa Cruz.
#4 Explore the art-filled lanes of Valparaíso
Over the past two decades, the once rough-and-tumble port city of Valparaíso has transformed itself into one of Chile’s most fascinating cities. Cobblestone lanes zigzag their way up and down hilly neighborhoods, lined with colorfully painted 19th-century houses. Over a dozen old-fashioned ascensores (funiculars) trundle up the hillsides, saving your legs from the steep climb.
Public art is everywhere, with artists from across Latin America creating massive, richly saturated murals all across town. A good place to start the art-filled wander is the Parque Cultural de Valparaíso, a former prison with bold paintings in the old exercise yard, and the Museo a Cielo Abierto — an open-air gallery of works along the streets of Cerro Bellavista.
#5 Visit the otherworldly landscapes of the Atacama Desert
The world’s driest desert hides many secrets, including sputtering geysers, azure lakes and red-rock valleys that look like they’ve sprouted straight out of Martian soil. Gateway to some of the most spectacular scenery is the altiplano village and travelers Mecca of San Pedro de Atacama. From here, you can take day trips out to see flocks of wild flamingos, soak in hot springs or watch the sunset over the colorful rock formations of the Valle de la Luna. It’s also a good place for adventure, with some prime spots for horse riding, mountain biking and even sand-boarding.
#6 Relax in the Elqui Valley
Famed for its serene villages, eco-friendly inns and star-filled night skies, the scenic Elqui Valley six hours north of Santiago makes a fantastic getaway. You can explore landscapes that inspired Chile’s first Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral, and visit historic pisco distilleries that have been going strong since the 1800s. You can dine well in low-key restaurants that serve up local products, including dishes cooked in solar ovens just outside of Vicuña. There are also numerous observatories in the area, with astronomical tours offering stunning vantage points of the evening sky.
#7 Take a road trip along the north coast
Chile’s long, magnificent northern coastline makes a memorable backdrop for a road trip. You’ll find sleepy fishing villages, lively surf towns and wild national parks where the desert goes right to the edge of the sea. North of La Serena, you can spot penguins, sea lions and dolphins on the rocky islands of the Reserve Nacional Pingüino de Humboldt. A few hours north of there, Bahía Inglesa is a picturesque seaside village with great seafood restaurants overlooking a lovely beach. Other highlights include the empty desert park of Pan de Azúcar and the lively coastal city of Iquique with colonial architecture and mesmerizing surf beaches.