A lot of travelers to Chile see Santiago as merely a gateway to adventures outside the city’s limits and want to make their stop as quickly as possible. But, while the country’s mountains and coasts might be what convinced you to visit, a trip to Chile without spending time in its capital would be remiss. Cosmopolitan, energetic, and beautiful (especially when it’s clear enough to see the Andes), Santiago blends elements of cities like New York, Buenos Aires, Paris, and Berlin while still maintaining its own unique, quirky Chilean flair.
Santiago is home to about 6 million people—nearly 40 percent of the country’s total population. As such a big city, Santiago can be intimidating to navigate or even decide where to begin exploring.
Luckily, we got the scoop from the best possible source: a local. Born and raised in Santiago, 27 year-old Camilo Andrés Alba is a musician and city tour guide who knows the city like the back of his hand. Here, our compilation of recommendations from Alba and others, for how to spend a great (if full!) day there.
Start the day with a breath of fresh air in Parque Forestal, the urban park located along the Mapocho River in the heart of Santiago. Stroll beneath the trees toward the super chic neighborhood of Lastarria, where you’ll be able to track down an excellent cup of coffee and people watching as you sip from a sidewalk café.
Once properly caffeinated, continue on your city tour to see some of the classics. Make a brief stop at the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral, or GAM, an elegant cultural center with a tumultuous history as it transitioned from a convention center, then to the Ministry of Defense, then, after a fire, to what it is now: a gathering space and center for music and art (plus, there’s free wi-fi).
Continue to Palacio de La Moneda, the grand white building where the Chilean president works. It was also the center of the military coup d’état that took place in the country on September 11, 1973, when the Chilean Air Force bombed the building. With that history in mind, hop on the metro and head a few stops east in order to visit the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which tells the stories of the victims Augusto Pinochet’s military regime between 1973 and 1990.
Come midday, it’s time for lunch as well as a chance to see some of the underbelly of Santiago. “We have a very divided city,” Alba says. “There’s part of the city that’s maybe a little bit messier, a little bit dirtier—but that’s where all the popular culture is located.”
Take the metro back west to the Plaza de Armas, the main square located right at the city’s center. Surrounded by historic buildings, including an impressive cathedral, Plaza de Armas has become known as an immigrants’ hangout. From traditional dancers to mimes, you can always find a show here—and there’s always plenty of street food from all over South America (the Peruvian offerings are on point).
Save your appetite, though, because you’re about to enter Santiago’s culinary mecca: Mercado Central and La Vega Central. Wander between the stands at Mercado Central offering every type of seafood imaginable from congrio (eel) to mejillones (mussels). Then, cross the river to La Vega Central—the main market. Covering an area of four square blocks, there are at least 10,000 people who work at the market, and it’s home to an intense rainbow of fruits and vegetables (the meat and cheese markets are in a separate building nearby).
Once your hunger is properly worked up, settle into a meal at one of the market’s picadas, small restaurants or stands that offer traditional Chilean food like pastel de choclo, which is a layered savory pie, or cazuela soup.
The best part? Eating amongst a medley of locals. “Chile is a very classist society,” Alba says. “But all of those distinctions are virtually dissolved here in La Vega … it’s a place of equality.”
Hop back on the metro to the Cemetario General. While you might not think of a cemetery as a typical tourist attraction, this one leaves an imposing impression and provides further insights into Chile’s culture and history. Spanning 117.5 football fields, there are currently about 3 million people buried here. That’s almost half the living population of Santiago! “It’s like a city of the dead,” Alba says. Drift between the impressive stone mausoleums—including that of former president Salvador Allende—while noting the stark difference between them and the rows and rows of “niche” burial sites typically bought by less affluent families.
From there, head to Cerro San Cristobal, a 2,890-foot hill that rises above the city. The cable car at its base may be tempting, but don’t head up just yet: the views will be much better if you wait a couple more hours. Instead, work your way to La Chascona, the enchanting and whimsical home of Chilean poet and luminary Pablo Neruda back when he lived in Santiago.
After touring La Chascona, take advantage of the soft evening light—which usually goes hand-in-hand with a relative absence of smog—to ride to the mountain’s summit. Revel in the expansive, panoramic views of the city that you just spent the whole day exploring.
Wind down in Bellavista, Santiago’s colorful bohemian neighborhood that is rife with restaurants, bars, and nightlife. Did someone say pisco sour?