On a trip to Patagonia, I found myself with a day in Santiago, the capital of Chile.
Santiago is one of the gateway cities, along with Buenos Aries in Argentina, where travelers heading to Patagonia catch buses or hop on flights to head further south.
Travelers may also find themselves in Santiago for a quick visit while in transit to one of Chile’s many popular spots, like the Lake District or Valparaiso.
Now that I have a day, how do I make it a terrific one?
How to spend 1 terrific day in Santiago, Chile
While it will be difficult to really get to know Santiago in just 1 day, the city has become increasingly cosmopolitan and offers plenty for a traveler in transit to get a sense of the city.
1. Take a free walking tour.
Santiago Free Walking Tours run English speaking tours every day at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. If all you have is 1 day in Santiago, a walking tour will give you a great overview of the city, as well as some of the local history and culture. Tour groups meet outside of the Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas.
No need to make a reservation. Just show up and look for the guide dressed in the red “Free Tour” t-shirt.
The tour moves throughout the city at a comfortable pace, with a couple of stops where you can get something to drink or sit for a moment. Plan for the tour to take about 4 hours.
Our guide answered all of our questions and gave great local advice about restaurants, foods to try, and museums to visit. All of us were more than happy to tip him well at the end, and if you feel as if your guide has done the same, you should do so, too!
Another terrific free walking tour option is with Tours 4 Tips.
They have a 10 a.m. tour called, “Santiago Offbeat,” where you’ll explore the “other side” of Santiago by walking through local markets, parks, and the public cemetery, where many of Chile’s Presidents are interred.
The 3 p.m. tour features “Santiago Highlights,” visiting cultural and government landmarks. All tours meet daily at the Museo Bellas Artes (Fine Art Museum). Each tour is about 3 hours long. Tours 4 Tips suggests you book your tour (for $0) online so they have guides ready for you.
TIP: If your travel plans include a stop in Valparaiso, both tour organizations also have free walking tours there. Tour details, times, and meeting points are on their websites.
2. Head up Cerro San Cristobal.
Head up nearly 1,000 feet (300 meters) to the Cerro San Cristobal look-out point for sweeping views of Santiago and the surrounding Andes Mountains.
Santiago is a city with a smog problem, but rain helps reduce smog. So, if you’re timing is right and the day before had rain, you’ll likely have fantastic views!
You can hike up to the vantage point or take a cable car.
But, the most common way to the top is to take the funicular from the Bellavista neighborhood. It’s located near the Patio Bellavista restaurant area and the Banquedano Metro station.
The funicular stops along the hillside at the National Zoo, a botanical garden, and Parque Metropolitano before finally reaching the sanctuary and white statue of the Virgin commemorating the Immaculate Conception. From here, outstretch your arms and (hopefully!) enjoy the views!
Traveling soon to Santiago?
3. Visit a Museum
If you’re in Santiago any day Tuesday-Sunday (Santiago’s museums are closed Mondays) stop in to admire the indigenous people’s artifact collections at the Chileno Museum of Pre-Columbian Art.
The museum is just a 5-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas. Despite its small size, the museum packs many objects of interest, including Andean mummies that are older than the Egyptian mummies! Exhibits are in both Spanish and English.
If you’d like to better understand some of Chile’s more recent history, the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos is a human rights museum to remember the victims of the Pinochet Regime.
This museum was opened in 2010 by the Chilean government, with the intent of publicly acknowledging and reflecting on the violations committed against its people.
From the Plaza de Armas, take the Metro (L5) to the Quinta Normal station. In the summer (January-February), the museum’s extends its hours to 8 p.m., making this a good choice for the late afternoon or early evening, after having enjoyed a free walking tour and/or some of Santiago’s other sights.
4. Stroll through the Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral de Santiago.
The historic Plaza de Armas is Santiago’s most popular city square, with the Cathedral de Santiago, the Central Post Office, and other government buildings lining the square.
The square is a great spot to see some of Santiago’s neoclassical architecture together with the palm trees, stately fountains, and historical statues.
You can also stop into the Cathedral de Santiago, which was completed in 1800.
It’s open every day from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. If you decide to take part in a Santiago Free Walking Tour, keep in mind the tour meets outside the Cathedral but does not go inside.
However, this shouldn’t dissuade you from strolling inside and through the square to capture some photos and see its daily activities.
5. People watch while eating and drinking in Barrio Bellavista.
Barrio Bellavista neighborhood is Santiago’s artsy, intellectual neighborhood.
Once home to Pablo Neruda, there’s now the University, markets selling artists’ wares, and street food vendors selling local snacks. There’s no shortage of restaurants, bars, and nightlife lining the streets around Pio Nono and Constitucion.
Find yourself an outdoor seat, where you can enjoy a Pisco Sour with some local Chilean dishes.
TIP: La Chascona, the former home of Pablo Neruda, is now a museum located just a 5-minute walk from the Pio Nono area in Bellavista. Some of the free walking tours end at La Chascona making this an ideal time to stop in and learn more about the Chilean poet’s life.
6. Explore Local Markets.
Mercado Central is Santiago’s famous fish market, reached by a 5-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas.
It’s busy and can be crowded as more and more tourists have “discovered” it. You can eat lunch here, but it’s best to stick the edges where the food is less expensive than the restaurants at the center.
Santiago’s La Vega Market is known for its incredible selection of fresh and cheap produce.
If you’re looking for a more local feeling, opt to have lunch here instead of Mercado Central. With only a day in Santiago, watch the time at La Vega. It’s an easy place to meander through and get lost…like I did!
So, are you spending 1 day in Santiago?
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Heading to Patagonia after Santiago? Check out my Planning a Trip to Patagonia post!