Santiago is a great city to explore. With a pleasant climate and European vibe, you can wander to your heart’s content without feeling the need to look over your shoulder all day long – as you might in some of South America’s other capital cities.
I spent two leisurely days there taking in the sights, and these are my top 10:
1. Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos
If you only have time to see one place in Santiago, it should be this one. Built on three levels, with a towering collage of the faces of those who lost their lives during Pinochet’s rule covering one wall from the ground to the third floor, this museum documents the events of human rights abuses and repression that occurred between 1973 and 1980 under the dictatorship of General Pinochet.
Although much of the information is only in Spanish, there are a number of video documentaries with English subtitles that allow you to piece together what happened.
After viewing footage from the day Pinochet’s men took over the government by brute force, and learning about the hardships of Chilean civilians during his rule, it’s difficult to hold back the tears as you view the final film featuring street parades in celebration of him losing the vote in 1980.
2. Cerro San Cristobal
This hill overlooking the city and surrounding mountains offers unrivalled views.
My guidebook had led me to believe I could take a funicular to the top for CH$16,000, but it was closed for renovation when I was there. This turned out to be a good thing though, because the 45-minute walk is very pleasant and not too strenuous.
At the top, you can visit the base of the statue of the Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcion, and shop around the artesania stalls for gifts. There is also a swimming pool open during the summer months, and many picnic spots among the monkey puzzle trees.
3. Pablo Neruda’s house
Near the base of the Cerro San Cristobal, on a small side street called Marquez de la Plata, is one of the three residences of the famous Nobel prize-winning poet and author, Pablo Neruda. The other two are in Valparaiso and Isla Negra, nearby on Chile’s coast.
Pablo Neruda had travelled extensively, and his houses are full of trinkets he picked up across the globe. He also designed each of his houses himself and his quirky style, and obsession with all things nautical make touring the rooms a very interesting experience.
A guided tour will set you back CH$3500, but the staff are very knowledgeable about Neruda’s eventful life and can answer any questions you might have about the contents of the house, as well as his propensity for being unfaithful to his three wives.
4. La Moneda
La Moneda is the site of the siege that brought Pinochet to power. Its impressive palace has since been restored, and it stages a changing of the guard every other day at 10 am.
Although I was unfortunate enough to be there on the wrong day, and was also waved away from entering the inner courtyards (open to tourists except at weekends), it was an impressive building surrounded by billowing national flags and steeped in history.
5. Parque Forestal
This pleasant park, which runs alongside the muddy, graffiti-covered banks of the Rio Mapocho, used to be a massive landfill site. It’s hard to believe now, as you stroll through tree-shaded gardens past statues and museums.
I took a peek inside the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, for which you donate money rather than paying an entrance fee. It was pretty sparse and I’m not a great appreciator of modern art, but the pieces on show at the time, by Mexican artists, were entertaining.
There’s also a big statue of an obese horse by the famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero just outside.
6. Plaza de Armas
The centre point for the city of Santiago is the bustling Plaza de Armas, which fills with street performers during the day. You can take a bench and people watch, or explore the elaborate interior of the Catedral Metropolitana, which was designed by an Italian architect.
On the north side of the plaza is the Palacio de la Real Audiencia, which contains Santiago’s Museo Historico Nacional.
7. La Vega
Just across the Rio Mapocho, if you head north from the Plaza de Armas, is a massive covered market called La Vega. As well as many handicrafts and everyday useful items, you can pick up a massive bag of fruit for next to nothing. Strawberries were CH$1000 per kilogram and I took enough to last me the day.
The district of Providencia is a great place to head for some much needed retail therapy. If, like me, you’ve been backpacking for months and you’re desperate to replace those worn out clothes and liven up your wardrobe, shopping here will make you feel like you’re back home.
There are plenty of malls, with giant clothing stores, many of which you may recognise.
While things aren’t dirt cheap like in Bolivia or Ecuador, you can find genuine designer brands at much lower prices than in Europe.
9. Barrio Brasil
While there aren’t any key attractions in this part of town, as you wander the streets, the architecture changes considerably from house to house. I saw colourful squat buildings and massive deteriorating mansions reminiscent of a scene from a horror movie.
This area also has some great restaurants and bars and, since it is close to the Universidad de Santiago, you can guarantee they will be packed with a young crowd.
10. Parque Quinta Normal
If you’re on the west side of town for the Museo de la Memoria, you should check out this tiny park. It’s just across the road from the museum and right next to the entrance to the Quinta Normal metro station. There’s a network of paved footpaths, leading past park benches to a lake where you can rent pedalled boats or relax on a grassy mound in the sun watching the world go by.