During our month in Santiago, we stayed in a little airBnB rental that was only a couple of blocks from Plaza de Armas, which is smack in the heart of Santiago Centro. For the most part, we’ve really enjoyed staying here and I think it’s a wonderful location (I will talk about some cons later). In fact, I’d even say that we got pretty lazy being here, because everything we need is within a short walking distance, including many ice cream parlors and pastry shops. Who needs to go somewhere when there are so many dessert offerings here?!
But somewhere along the way, after our feet got tired of walking everywhere, we discovered the metro and started using it to explore other areas.
I will be writing a separate Santiago barrios (neighborhoods) guide that explains the many different ones and what each one offers. Maybe that will be helpful for planning your visit and deciding where to stay. For now, this post serves the purpose to go over various sites in Santiago Centro (and more importantly, to show my mom some pictures so she doesn’t continue to think that Chile is a third world country).
Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas has been the centerpiece of the city of Santiago since 1540.* This historical square is home to the Metropolitan Cathedral, the City Hall (Municipalidad de Santiago), the National History Museum, and the Central Post Office (Correo Central). It really is too bad that the plaza was under construction during our entire stay. All the fountains and sculptures were hidden behind the ugly black construction fence that encircled the entire center of the plaza.
The Plaza de Armas is a must-see on a trip to Santiago, boasting some of the most stunning architecture of the city. We walked through it almost daily and I’m still in awe of the magnificence. There’s always so much activity, from street musicians to caricature artists. Directly on the south end of the plaza is an aisle filled with little eateries and take-away counters, all offering affordable and quick Chilean food.
Verdict: Must visit if you enjoy history and old architecture. Also, all the other attractions are around it.
*Does not mean all the buildings have been there since 1540. In fact, here’s a fun piece of trivia: the current church is the 4th church to stand at that location, because the previous churches all kept on being destroyed by one disaster or other. The present church was only completely finished in 1906.
South of Plaza de Armas run the famous pedestrian streets. Paseo Ahumada (the main drag) runs through the plaza, with the slightly less popular Paseo Estado parallel to it, and Paseo Huefarnos intersecting both. Here, you’ll find the popular Chilean mega-department stores (Falabella, LaPolar, Ripley) as well as a lot of local stores, and even some American brands. We particularly enjoyed strolling through these streets for our ice cream fixes, and of course, who can forget the delightful cafe con piernas?
I’m always surprised by how busy these streets are, at all hours of the day. Businessmen hurry through the streets in the morning on their way to work, and to stop for a cup of coffee. Vendors sell their wares on tarps laid out on the street. Street musicians provide constant entertainment to the bustling crowd. And the entire city seems to be out in full force in the hours after work. There’s nowhere more lively than these streets in Santiago Centro.
Verdict: We walk these streets almost daily and I’m still not sick of it. Definitely check it out. It’s one the best places to people watch. And plus, I believe this is the only place you can find café con piernas.
At the end of Paseo Ahumada and a couple of blocks west (on Moneda street) is La Moneda, the presidential palace. Besides being the place for meetings, greeting of ambassadors, and other presidential duties that I’m not knowledgable enough to write about, it is also infamously remembered for being the site of the September 11, 1973 coup d’etat, where former President Salvador Allende committed suicide and a dictator was put in place.
Changing of the guards ceremony occurs every other day, 10:00am on weekdays, and 11:00 am on weekends. Such an event is new to me, so we made sure to catch it once. It was quite a spectacle to see hundreds of uniforms, horses, and a marching band. Even though I was completely confused about which guards were actually changed.
You can also book a guided tour of the presidential palace through the official website. The tour is free, but make sure you book about a week in advance. We visited the central courtyards, a few of the assembly and waiting rooms, and the memorial where Allende committed suicide. I thought the tour was interesting but nothing to write home about. Although I did get in sit in Pinochet’s favorite chair, which made my butt feel extremely dirty afterwards.
Verdict: Must visit as the La Moneda is a significant landmark. However, the guided tour could be skipped if short on time. We had an entire month here, so why not?
La Vegas & La Vegas Chica
La Vega is well known for being the largest market in Chile. You can easily spend a couple of hours wandering through the maze of aisles and stalls. Absolutely everything can be found here, from vats of pickles to entire pig heads, and even a little area of slot machines (random much?). This is a great place to get a glimpse of local life. But I have to be honest, I went there a couple of times and really tried to make it work for me, but I couldn’t. La Vega and I just couldn’t get along. I found it too chaotic, too dirty, too smelly.
There is a large food court area inside La Vega, but for eating, most people prefer La Vega Chica next door. Not a lot of shopping can be found there, but it has dozen of food stalls serving authentic Chilean food. I’ve eaten at both La Vega and La Vega Chica, and to be honest again, the meals I had there were probably the worst out of all I’ve had during my time in Santiago.
Verdict: Even though it wasn’t for me, you should still go there… I’m pretty sure it’s a rite of passage or something for travelers visiting Chile. But I’ve already talked about how I prefer the Mercado Tirso de Molina across the street. I would recommend eating there (2nd floor) instead.
Mercado Central is Santiago’s famous fish market, where you’ll find the freshest seafood in town. The building is very cool too with its intricate wrought iron work. And if you’re not a fan of buying raw fish and cooking it yourself (which I’m not), you can have someone else be the chef at one of the dozens of restaurants inside the market. The entire center of the market is one giant fancy restaurant with tied waiters and red tablecloths. It looks really nice, but to avoid the inflated touristy prices, it’s better to opt for one of the smaller, less fancy ones along the perimeter. All of them have more or less the same thing on the menu.
Verdict: Visit at least once and have a meal. Fans of seafood will be spoilt for choices here, including the Chilean specialties – razor clams, congrio, and the king crab (the size of a basketball!).
Beautiful Buildings & Churches
Alright, I don’t know too much about the old buildings or churches here, except that you are surrounded by them. I just wanted to include some of my favorite pictures that I like too much not to share. So here they are.
As much as I loved where we stayed, the Santiago Centro area does have some cons:
It’s stinky and dirty – Santiago Centro is dirty. I do commend the city for having a strong janitorial force so there’s not too much trash or dog poop floating around. Instead, it’s the smell of pee… it’s everywhere! It permeates every crack of the sidewalks. And the smell of cigarette smoke. You can’t get away from it. I’ve learned to hold my nose and breathe through my mouth when walking around Santiago Centro. And I’ve learned to keep my eyes actively scanning the ground to avoid stepping on people’s spit.
Beggars – Yes, I realize that all big cities have beggars, but it still annoys me. Walking through Plaza de Armas, you’ll see a lot of beggars lined up, various kinds of deformities on display. A guy with a blacked stump, a man with scaly legs, a woman amputated below both knees…all trying to play the sympathy card. However, I don’t mind the people who are honestly trying to earn your cash, like the guy who spray paints himself in copper, the street magician, or the boy breakdancing with a football.
Lack of ethnic food – You won’t find anywhere better in Santiago for some truly authentic local Chilean cuisine (like what I imagine a Chilean grandma would make at home). But craving something different after a couple of weeks? Good luck trying to find decent Chinese food or pizza. And don’t even think about looking for the more exotic cuisines like Thai or Vietnamese. You’re better off hopping on a metro and going over to Providencia or Las Condes for any international cravings.
These cons diminish drastically or even disappear all together when we visit the other neighborhoods. However, I wholeheartedly suggest staying in Santiago Centro for those visiting for just a short amount of time. It’s lively and charismatic, not to mention the beautiful old buildings wherever you go. Santiago Centro is truly the essence of Santiago and soul of Chilean culture.