The historic destination of Santiago was once the Sleeping Beauty of South America, and while tourists traveling in Chile were always more or less obliged to stop by the nation’s capital, until recently few gave it more than a passing glance
Now with an ascendant restaurant scene, buzzing culture, new galleries and museums, and ever-growing national pride, Santiago has become a highlight on many Chilean itineraries and one of the continent’s most dynamic cities.
Here is our guide to the history, geography, neighborhoods and highlights of Santiago de Chile.
Mountain views, Mediterranean climate
Founded in 1541 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, Santiago occupies a strategic position in Chile’s fertile central valley. It is graced with a mild, Mediterranean climate and surrounded by Chile’s two major mountain chains: the Coastal Range to the west and the mammoth Andes to the east, which stood as natural sentinels for the most distant of Spain’s major colonial outposts.
Today, the Andes – scrubby and sun-dappled in summer, snow-dusted and majestic by winter – serve as an easy point of reference for visitors and the rough and tumble backyard for nature-loving Santiaguinos, offering hikes and rafting during the summer months in the nearby Maipo Valley, and the continent’s largest ski resorts by winter. The Río Mapocho roughly bisects the city, a shallow, murky flow that carries mineral laden waters from high mountain springs to the Pacific Ocean, just two hours from the city center by bus.
Colonial beauty, modern spirit
The long history of colonialism is less immediately apparent in Santiago than in other Latin American cities, with many historic buildings destroyed over the years in earthquakes, but the remaining historic structures that dot the city center, particularly those lining the monumental Plaza de Armas in the city center, offer a vibrant glimpse into the past.
The prosperous eastern districts of Santiago are at the center of Chile’s burgeoning economy, and are home to the glass and steel skyscrapers, including the as-yet unfinished Costanera Center, which will be the tallest building in South America. The leafy streets of areas like Las Condes and Vitacura are also home to some of the city’s finest restaurants.
West of the city center, young bohemians keep Chilean tradition alive with long nights dancing cumbia and cueca, the national dance, and playing music in squares lined by elegant early 20th century mansions, some in a state of romantic disrepair, and increasing numbers undergoing extensive renovation.
From the peak of Cerro San Cristobal, at the feet of the iconic white figure of the Virgin Mary, visitors can take in panoramic views of the city and the mountains. But the best way to get to know Santiago is simply by walking its diverse neighbors and meeting just a few of its 5 million inhabitants over a glass of locally produced wine or beer.
Santiago is both Chile in a nutshell, and something entirely apart, the mirror for a nation whose identity shifts with every rumble of the tectonic plates that formed it, and a self-sustaining metropolis whose growing energy keeps it running late into the night. Santiago is wide awake, and from the looks of it won’t be resting any time soon.
This post is also available in Spanish