Santiago, Chile is a far more vibrant city than it gets credit for.
Santiago is often viewed as a stopover, rather than a destination in its own right. The mention of Santiago doesn’t conjure up the same sex appeal or glamour of South American cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.
So when my husband first mentioned the prospect of a quick trip to Santiago I didn’t initially jump at the idea (this is probably also because it involved a 10-hour flight to Chile over Easter weekend and only one full travel-free day on the ground).
But if you wander Santiago’s lively streets and parks, the city comes across as whimsical and intriguing. It is also a wonderfully pedestrian-friendly city.
Between 1973 and 1990, the city’s creative spirit was suppressed by the repressive military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. But if you visit today, you will find a relaxed place with a bohemian feel.
Street art is plentiful.
The ubiquitous quiltro — the city’s friendly street dogs — were constant companions during our trip. The Barrio Lastarria neighborhood was an especially relaxed location for strolling the streets with our new four-legged friends.
Street life itself was vibrant, and dancers performed on pedestrian-only streets.
The city has its drawbacks, of course. Stubborn smog means the Andes Mountains that contribute to the city’s dramatic skyline are not always visible. But on a clear day, the view is glorious.
On our first evening in the city, we enjoyed a crisp view of the mountains from our hotel room at the Santiago Marriott Hotel. The hotel is situated in a quiet, leafy residential neighborhood that feels almost like an American suburb. It is within walking distance of the Parque Arauco mall, which is populated with lively nightspots and restaurants. From our hotel, we used Uber to get around the city. The subway system was also fairly easy to use.
We visited on Easter weekend. There was little traffic, as many residents decide to celebrate the holiday with family along the coast. Fewer people also seemed to translate to less smog obscuring the mountains in the distance (at least on our first day).
Architecture, Art and History
We decided to hit the ground running, and took a took a three-hour free walking tour of Santiago city highlights through Tours 4 Tips.
The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, or Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts, sports impressively beautiful neoclasssical architecture on its exterior, and is pleasantly full of energy on the inside. On Easter Day, the museum was open and admission was free. A group of young people was working on an art installation inside. We also visited a special exhibit consisting of the figure of a woman lowered over a beam of light.
We walked to the sprawling La Moneda Palace, the presidential office and the seat of government. The original neoclassical building was built in the late 1700s to serve as the mint (hence, in Spanish moneda = coin/money).
The Plaza de Armas is the main square of the city, a lively gathering place for families framed by many architecturally distinct buildings. The Central Post Office (Correo Central) is one of the most striking buildings. It was constructed in the Renaissance style.
However, it is the Catholic Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago) that dominates the palm tree-dotted Plaza Mayor square.
The site for the cathedral was established by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia in 1561. Due to damages from earthquakes and fires, the cathedral was built and rebuilt five times — in 1561, 1571, 1670, 1679 and 1748. Therefore, the current structure reflects the last reconstruction of the cathedral in 1748. The building was declared a Chilean national monument in 1951.
We were lucky enough to step inside for Easter Sunday mass, a beautiful and overpowering experience.
The other buildings in the city are also quite beautiful, if you take the time to go on the walking tour mentioned above.
Vibrant Street Life and Street Art
The busy street life in Santiago was one of my favorite things about the city. Families congregated in the Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square and gathering place. An older gentleman relaxed in a quiet square in from of a bird bath. People shopped at small markets. A llama stood at attention, ready for photo opps. And the friendly quiltro street dogs roamed the streets, or relaxed alongside people in parks.
Street art, graffiti and murals covered many walls. The ubiquitous presence of murals in the city reminded me of visiting Mexico City.
I did not notice until looking more closely at the painted wall below that instead of “Star Wars” it said “Estar Guars” (!) (how it sounds in Spanish).
According to GAM, the Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP) — a Chilean Communist Party muralist brigade founded in the 1960s — created a massive bold and multicolored mural demanding rights for all Chileans in 2012. The panels depicted indigenous people and working class.
The mural demands rights for the Chilean people, and denounces abuse of the Chilean people by businesses and politicians. It is 80 feet wide, the BBC reported. The BBC noted that the BRP, “saw murals not only as a way of brightening up the city’s drab wells, but of fomenting radical social change.”
The panel below from the BRP mural includes an indigenous Mapuche man clutching several items.
Another panel in the mural reflects the political movement in pursuit of free education, depicting a student grasping books and a pencil and messages that read “Free and inclusive education now!” and “We want an excellent education for all Chileans!” Laborers and fishermen are depicted in other panels.
The most captivating pair of murals that we came across were painted by Chilean artist INTI Castro in 2013 at a crossroads near the Bellas Artes Metro Station (pictured below).
If you look more closely, the images show the juxtaposition of the traditional Andean figures with technology. The figures depicted are “ekekos,” with an ekeko considered an Andean god of prosperity and abundance that is often depicted as a doll-like figure. According to a video online, INTI painted them in conjunction with an art festival. He particularly likes bright, saturated colors.
Art even exists in the subway system. Below, the Visual Memory of a Nation (Memoria Visual de una Nación) mural by Mario Toral at the University of Chile station is very distincive.
Santiago has two stunning hilltop parks that are ideally visited on a clear day — when the Andes Mountains are visible instead of obscured by smog. Unfortunately, we visited on a smoggy day. But the parks were still very enjoyable.
The first is the Cerro Santa Lucia, a hilltop park with scenic gardens and a commanding view of town. At the base, is a yellow castle-like structure and the Neptune Fountain.
If you don’t feel like hiking up a mountain, take the Bellavista Funicular ride to the top of the 300 meter high Cerro San Cristóbal (San Cristobal Hill) for a panoramic view of the city and surrounding mountains. Again, the caveat is that smog photo bombs the experience a bit, so you may want to check the sky before you go.
The funicular line was long and the video running on a loop made us feel like we had fallen into a tourist trap. But we had a pleasant conversation with two Argentinian women who were visiting the city with their young daughters, who wanted to practice their English. The actual funicular cable car seemed a bit rickety, and I was eyeballing the single cable line nervously as an American woman next to me worried aloud to her husband that such a thing wouldn’t be allowed to pass in the U.S. You also can take about 45 minutes to hike up the hill.
But no worries, once you arrive at the top, you will be transported to a peaceful place, where many Catholics gather to pray, reflect, and visit the statue of La Virgen (Virgin Mary) perched atop the hill overlooking the city.
Seeing the Virgin atop the mountain is certainly emotional. Soft music was playing.With her arms outstretched, the Virgin brings to mind the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio (albeit, with some unfortunate wires behind her).
Many people lit candles nearby, and a priest was hearing confessions in a chapel. Large crosses painted in vibrant colors lined the hillside and emphasized that this is a peaceful, religious place of worship for Catholics.
The Barrio Bellavista neighborhood is a popular area for nightlife and people-watching. Sit outside and enjoy the cocktail that Chile is famous for, the pisco sour! We wandered into a bar and enjoyed a drink on a second-story patio, overlooking the busy street below.
The Patio Bellavista is a more upscale dining and shopping mall in the Bellavista neighborhood that is enclosed. Security guards walk around the perimeter, giving it a safer feel for a nighttime outing. Tourist souvenir shops also can be found inside. After a drink, enjoy some late night drinking food such as chorrillana, beef with french fries topped with fried eggs. This isn’t fine cuisine, but it will fill you up.
Our night out in Santiago felt totally relaxed and enjoyable, just like the rest of our experience in the city. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!