With more than 7.2 million people spread across its metropolitan area, Santiago is the biggest city in Chile, and the first port of call for most tourists visiting the country. This political, economic, and cultural hub was founded in 1541 by conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. Despite attacks from the region’s indigenous inhabitants and a series of earthquakes, Santiago gradually became an important trading center.
The city really came into its own, however, after Chile won its independence in 1818. In the following years, the population rose significantly, and the government launched a major building program. Many of the constructions from this period still stand, such as the glorious Teatro Municipal (Municipal Theatre). Santiago continued to expand throughout the twentieth century, and its economy flourished following the fall of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. Scores of skyscrapers have sprung up in recent years, most notably the Gran Torre Santiago, the tallest building in South America.
Today Santiago is an impressive, forward-looking city. It is the ideal place to start your Chilean adventure.
Planning Your Visit
Aim to spend at least three days in Santiago, which allows you to hit the main sights and take in the dining and nightlife scenes. Five days will enable you to explore at a more leisurely pace and add on a side trip to one of the nearby ski resorts or vineyards. Chile’s capital is also easy to fit into a wider journey around Chile: this nine-day itinerary includes Valparaíso, Viña del Mar, and San Pedro de Atacama, while this 14-day tour takes you from San Pedro de Atacama in the north to Torres del Paine National Park.
Tourist visas are available on arrival at the airport for most nationalities and generally last 90 days. Some nationalities—including, at the time of writing, Canadians and Australians—must pay a “reciprocity fee”, an arrival tax equivalent to the amount Chilean travelers are charged for visiting the country in question. There is no malaria or yellow fever in Chile and no special vaccinations are required to visit. The tap water in Santiago is safe to drink, too.
There are innumerable banks and ATMs throughout Santiago, and plenty of places to exchange foreign currency in the city center. Credit and debit cards are also widely accepted. For more practical logistics, see our Chile FAQ.
Santiago is a year-round destination, largely avoiding the extreme temperature highs and lows of northern and southern Chile, respectively. Summer runs from December to March, when temperatures reach 84°F (29°C), with lows of 50°F (10°C). Winter lasts from June to September, with highs of 66°F (19°C) and lows of 41°F (5°C). There’s generally negligible rain in the summer months, but the May to August period can be wet. For more on weather in Chile, check out our monthly guides.
Getting There & Away
The modern, efficient Arturo Merino Benítez (or Pudahuel) airport is 16 miles (25km) northwest of Santiago, with taxis, transfer services, and buses running to/from the city center. There are frequent flights to destinations across Chile, as well as regular connections to major cities in South America, North America, and Europe. LATAM is the major airline in Chile; Sky Airline is much smaller but often better value. Long-distance buses connect Santiago with towns and cities across the country, as well as Mendoza in neighboring Argentina.
Santiago’s city center is easy to explore on foot but for journeys further afield, it also has an excellent metro system: you need to buy a Tarjeta Bip! swipe card and then top it up with credit to use the service. Tarjeta Bip! cards are also used on the extensive local bus network, which heads just about everywhere you might want to go but is much harder to navigate than the metro. Taxis are common and easy to flag do. Uber is also available.
Highlights & Activities
With historic buildings and modern neighborhoods, thought-provoking museums and pumping nightlife, bucolic parks and bustling markets, Santiago has something for everyone. The city is also a great launchpad for trips into the surrounding countryside, which boasts some fantastic ski resorts.
Plaza de Armas
Surrounded by colonial-era buildings, including the cathedral and the main post office, and shaded by towering palm and eucalyptus trees, Santiago’s main square is a hive of activity. Throughout the day and evening, it plays host to gaggles of schoolchildren, fiercely contested chess games, shoe shiners, stray dogs, pensioners, young lovers, street performers, newspaper vendors, preachers, and many other characters.
Palacio de la Moneda
Just off the Alameda, Santiago’s main street, the Neoclassical Palacio de la Moneda is the city’s most famous building. Completed in 1805, this grand building served as the presidential palace until 1958, when it became the official seat of government. Free guided tours are available but need to be booked in advance. Immediately south of the palace, beneath a plaza, is the excellent La Moneda Cultural Centre, an art gallery, exhibition space, and cinema.
Chilean Museum of Pre-Colombian Art
This is one of Chile’s finest museums. It specializes in the incredibly varied arts, crafts, jewelry, and iconography produced by Latin America’s indigenous peoples in the 10,000 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Among the many highlights are the evocative Mayan bas-reliefs, finely carved wooden Easter Island statues, and gleaming Aymara silverware.
Cerro San Cristóbal
On a clear, sunny day, it is hard to beat the views from the top of Cerro San Cristóbal, a soaring hill in the Bellavista district. Accessed via cable-car or funicular railway, the summit has a park, gardens, a pair of public swimming pools, and a zoo.
Museum of Memory and Human Rights
Next to Quinta Normal Park, this moving museum is dedicated to the victims of the repressive Pinochet dictatorship, under which more than 3,000 people were “disappeared” and thousands more tortured, detained, or exiled. The well-curated exhibits use first-hand testimony, photos, video and audio footage, poetry, artworks, and literature to tell the story.
Skiing and snowboarding
Festivals & Special Events
Easter (Semana Santa) is a major celebration in Santiago (and, indeed, across Chile), as is Independence Day (18 September), a national holiday marked by raucous street parties. The city also stages Chile’s biggest LGBTI celebrations in June, with a busy program cumulating in a Pride Parade, and the Santiago International Film Festival, which takes place in August.
Lodging & Dining
Where to Stay
The leafy Providencia neighborhood is home to a couple of great mid-range options: Vilafranca Petit Hotel is a charming B&B in a peaceful area, while Orly Boutique Hotel & Suites has spacious, fully furnished rooms. If you prefer to be in the city center, Hotel Vegas has a collection of good-value rooms and apartments.
At the top end, The Aubrey is spread across a pair of gorgeously restored mansions in Bellavista, with on-point service, swimming pool, and wonderful restaurant. In Lastarria, Luciano K is an elegant, Art Deco hotel with a fantastic roof terrace.
Where to Eat
Santiago has a vibrant culinary scene, with options to suit all tastes and budgets. A meal at one of the many seafood restaurants at the Mercado Central (Central Market) and the nearby Feria Municipal La Vega (La Vega Municipal Fair) is a must. For hearty, meat-focused Chilean classics head to El Caramaño in Bellavista, El Hoyo near the Central Station, or Liguria in Providencia.
Las Vacas Gordas in Barrio Brasil serves sumptuous steaks, while Le Flaubert is a chic French bistro in Providencia. Meanwhile, Boragó’s contemporary take on Chilean cuisine has earned it continent-wide acclaim. Most restaurants offer an economical set lunch, which are ideal for travelers on a tight budget.
Santiago has lots of great bars, pubs, and wine bars, including The Clinic in Lastarria and Ky in Bellavista. The city is also within striking distance of several vineyards, and it is easy to arrange a half- or full-day tour and tasting session.