On a clear day, Santiago luxuriates in one of the most resplendent settings of any city in the world. It’s framed by spectacular mountains — the white-tipped Andes to the east and the Chilean coastal range to the west. No wonder I was surprised when an acquaintance who had recently returned described it as “a dull hole with poor service and nothing to see beyond two hills”. While pollution and noise are likely to cloud one’s first impressions, Santiago deserves a closer look.
That Santiago solicits such polarizing opinions is telling — and while the city might not match the romance and grandeur of Buenos Aires— it is nonetheless cultured and quirky. In truth, it’s a bit of an anachronism — very modern and inviting with citizens that exude an old-world charm and humility. The city’s survived the challenges of earthquakes, financial crises, dictatorships and floods to emerge safe, energetic and inviting.
People in Chile’s provinces are fond of saying, “God is everywhere, but his office is in Santiago.” So what to do if you have a day or two to spend in the Big Guy’s office? Check out my recommendations below!
1. Plaza de Armas
As with any metropolitan centre in South America, the Plaza de Armas serves as the focal point of the city. The plaza was the midpoint of the Spanish settlement of 1541—and the square once served as a military training ground—hence its name. With time, however, it became the focus of Santiago’s social and commercial life. Santiago’s Plaza is a lively place, with outdoor cafes, local artists, street vendors, buskers, a statue of the local hero and, of course, grand buildings around the square. It’s a great place to people watch while sipping a beer or a coffee on a patio.
2. Santa Lucia Hill
Located in the heart of Santiago Centro, Santa Lucía Hill takes 15–20 minutes to climb and provides a very sweet view of the city unsurpassed inside Santiago—except by Cerro San Cristóbal (see below). It’s frequented by tourists—and lovers! Scattered throughout the park are various murals, statues, lookouts and liplocked couples. With multiple ways to get to the peak, just keep heading upwards and you can’t go wrong! The hill borders Avenue Bernardo O’Higgins in the south, Santa Lucía Street in the west and Victoria Subercaseaux.
Described by Frommer’s as one of the city’s most enigmatic neighborhoods, Bellavista “is to Santiago what Montmartre is to Paris”—that is, a popular bohemian quarter. The influence doesn’t end there, however, as Barrio Bellavista is known for French touches in its architecture and culture, too.
4. Cerro San Cristóbal
According to the locals we met, there is really no view of the entire city that compares to the panorama at the top of Cerro San Cristóbal. Take a ride up in the funicular from Bellavista and make sure you visit the statue of the Virgin Mary at the peak. Arrive half an hour before sunset on a clear day and watch night fall over the city—it’s breathtaking. Named by the Spanish conquistadors for St Christopher, in recognition of its use as a landmark, the hill boasts a 22m statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary donated by France in the 1920s. The statue is partly the work of French sculptor Bartholdi (of Statue of Liberty fame).
5. Maipo Valley
Vineyards stretch eastward from Santiago to the Andes and westward to the coast to form three distinct sectors of the Maipo Valley, considered the home of Chilean wine. It was here that the first wines were produced in the mid sixteenth century by Spanish missionaries. Some of the most established and respected names in Chilean wine are located in the Maipo Valley, for the simple reason that the original wineries were located, for obvious logistical reasons, within close proximity of Santiago city.
Santiago is one of my favourite cities in South America, with a breathtaking location framed by the Andes mountains. The city offers wonderful museums, colourful colonial architecture, appealing day trips—and great food and wine. My only complaint was that I didn’t have more time to spend touring God’s ‘office’.
Curious to see what it would be like to stay to tour God’s Office? G Adventures runs a number of small group trips in Chile encompassing a wide range of departure dates, and trip styles to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you South America as you’ve never seen it — check out our small group trips to Chile here.