I’ve had an amazing couple of days in Santiago! It’s such a big and vibrant city, and I would love to see more of it in the future. However, with only two days I had to make the most of my time and see everything I could.
Day 1 was mainly spent seeing the sights of downtown. Since I didn’t sleep much on the plane, I took a nap when I first checked into my hostel then headed out to see the main sights with the group Tours for Tips, which was really great and helped me get my bearings in the city. Also the guide showed us where to get amazing empanadas, so I had dinner figured out. The local Santiago specialty empanada is “Empanada de pino,” which besides normal empanada ingredients like meat and cheese also includes a hard boiled egg and an olive.
A key place to see in Santiago is the Plaza de Armas, which is located in every city settled by the Spanish. Today it has the post office and city hall as well as Santiago’s biggest cathedral. However, even though it’s on the same spot as the old Spanish cathedral, there have been a lot of earthquakes since the Spanish arrived in 1540, so this is not the oldest cathedral in the city because the current building dates to the 1860s. The entire country of Chile is on a fault line, so the country is used to earthquakes and actually has legislation in place so that if any modern buildings fall down, the architect can be prosecuted. That said, despite being a very old city, most of the buildings are less than two hundred years old.
The Presidential Palace was my favorite spot on this first day because that’s when it sunk in that I was really here. I’d read a fair amount about Allende and Pinochet, but this was the actual building that Pinochet bombed during the coup. The guide even pointed out the building where the video of the bombing was taken. The divide between Allende and Pinochet supporters is still part of Chilean culture today and can be really divisive if it’s mentioned. Even thirty years later, Chile is still coming to terms with its past and the horrors of the dictatorship.
The last stop on the tour was the cultural center named after the poet Gabriela Mistral, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945. Something I really like about Santiago is how much people love just being in the city. Although this building really gets going in the evenings with theater performances and dance classes, there were people there even while we were just having fun in the dance studio or hanging out at the café and the bookstore. You can also always find people in the parks. Personally, I like to find a park when I visit a new city because it’s a nice way to kind of escape all the traffic and crowds, and apparently everyone in Santiago loves parks too. There are people walking dogs in the mornings, businessmen eating lunch in the afternoons, and couples and kids in the evenings. As the biggest city in the country (8 million people!) Santiago is also the most polluted city in the country, and the parks help to clear some of this out.
On Day 2 I started with another Tours for Tips walking tour, but this one went to some more local places. Even though locals hang out in the Plaza de Armas, it’s also a spot for tourists, whereas the markets are about as local as you can get. First of all, there are so many markets – fish, flowers, fruit. There’s everything, and they’re full of energy. You can also get a cheap lunch at the little restaurants here, but they fill up fast. My favorite thing about the markets though? Everything is fresh, local, and in season. The guide bought a few avocados and strawberries for us to try, and it was easily the best avocado I’ve ever had!
We also stopped by the cemetery on this tour, which I thought was a little weird, but here in Santiago, locals do visit the cemetery on a daily basis. The streets are wide enough for cars in most places, and the whole place looks like a little town. (I was weirdly reminded of Pompeii.) This isn’t like an American cemetery with lots of little headstones dotting the grass – most people are buried in long shelves of coffins with plates showing their names, but the majority of the cemetery is mausoleums. These can be community spaces or the burial spaces for rich families, and since a lot of them were built in the early twentieth century, it’s like a quiet little town of Art Deco mausoleums. Salvador Allende also has a monument here, although he was originally buried in an unmarked grave by Pinochet’s soldiers.
After a stop by the hostel to shed my jacket and eat lunch, I went to the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art. This was really cool, and I would definitely recommend it. The art is divided into regions spanning the southern tip of South America up to Mexico, and it’s really cool because it’s not the history you usually study. There were a lot of really cool artifacts, but my favorite part was “Chile Before Chile,” which covered the groups who lived in the various regions of Chile before the Spanish arrived. It even had a section on Easter Island!
Finally, I had dinner at Galindo in the Bellavista neighborhood. Bellavista is The Neighborhood for food, and although Galindo had already been recommended to me, the tour guides also mentioned it as a great place for Chilean food. First of all, it was really cute, and the wait staff was super friendly. I had the Caldillo de Congrio, which my guide had mentioned at the fish market as a traditional dish. It was on the menu, so I decided it was a good choice. It was absolutely amazing, but the bowl was HUGE and it took me forty minutes to eat it all. I’d been planning to get a traditional dessert too, you know to experience the culture, but I couldn’t eat anything after that.
There’s definitely a lot more to do in Santiago, and if I had time, I would really like to go up Cerro San Cristobal to get a view over the city, but I guess that will have to wait until next time.
Bonus Tip: If you’re here for at least two days, get the metro card. I didn’t, and by the second day I realized why I should have. This is a very spread out city, and I did a lot of walking!