Santiago de Chile is the capital of Chile and the biggest city in the country. It's a thriving metropole with 5 million inhabitants, one third of the total population.
The mood is more European here and the city is ideal to set out the amazing Atacama or Patagonia regions.
The city is surrounded by the Cerro San Cristóbal, a hill over 800 meters (2,625 feet). On top, overlooking Santiago, is the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción, a Virgin statue that can be seen from many parts of the city.
The center of Santiago de Chile is the city's soul. Many colonial buildings such as the cathedral, the post office, the city hall (all on the Plaza de Armas) and la Casa Colorada (the Colored House) make for an excellent contrast for the typical neighborhoods.
Plaza de Armas
To get a good feel of the city you can start with the Plaza de Armas (Metro: Estación Plaza de Armas). Pedro de Valdivia, who conquered Chile for the Spanish crown, founded this plaza in 1541. The Royal Court of Justice (now the Natural History Museum), the Governor's Palace (now the Central Post Office), the Metropolitan Cathedral and the grand residences of principal conquistadors.
At the southwest corner of the plaza is Paseo Ahumada, which bisects Paseo Huérfanos a block away. Like Plaza de Armas, these lively pedestrian walkways are a good place to get a feel for downtown Santiago and the people who work here. Both walkways are lined continuously with shops and restaurants, and they can get frenzied during the lunch hour.
Barrio Bellavista is Santiago's most lively neighborhood. Its streets are lined with trees and colorful antique homes, many of which have been converted into restaurants and studios for artists and musicians. It's a pleasant place for an afternoon stroll; in the evening, Bellavista pulses to the beat of music pouring from its many discos and bars.
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Cerro San Cristóbal
On top of the Cerro San Cristóbal you find the Parque Metropolitano, a 730-hectare (1,803-acre) park and recreation area with swimming pools, walking trails, a botanical garden, a zoo, picnic grounds, restaurants, and children's play areas. You can take a gondola ride to the top, where the 22m-high (72-ft.) statue of the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción, which can be seen from all over the city, overlooks Santiago.
Palacio de la Moneda
It's now the Government Palace that was first built as headquarters of the Royal Mint (hence its name). The largest building erected by the Spanish government during the 18th century, the palace was criticized for being too ostentatious, but today it's considered one of the finest examples of neoclassical architecture in Latin America. The president does not reside here; instead, the building houses presidential offices. You cannot enter the building, though you may walk through its central plaza.
Joaquín Toesca, the Italian architect responsible for setting the neoclassical tone of civic buildings in Santiago de Chile, directed the design of the palace until his death in 1799. From 1846 to 1958, it was the official presidential residence, and it continued as presidential headquarters until the infamous coup d'état on September 11, 1973, when Pinochet's troops shelled and bombed the building. During the event, ex-President Allende killed himself, and Pinochet stepped in as a dictator who would run the country for the next 17 years.
Other attractions in Santiago are:
Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, the old Royal Customs House harbors this abundant collection of Latin American artifacts and paintings.
La Chascona (Pablo Neruda's Home), tour the eclectic architecture of this home which served as the romantic hideaway in Santiago for famed poet Pablo Neruda and his wife Matilde, as portrayed in the 1995 film "Il Postino."
Calle Dieciocho (18th Street), el Barrio Concha y Toro (neighborhood), the houses of Avenida República, Virgin Opazo Street and the passages Lucrecia valdés, Adriana Cousiño and Hurtado Rodríguez have been declared National Monuments.
If you want to escape the smog and/or traffic that can choke the city sometimes you can hang out in the various parks such as O'Higgins, Forestal and Bicentenario.
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© Photograph "Santiago de Chile" by Martin Vansteenkiste
© Photograph "Cerro San Cristobal" by Paulo Neres | Agency: Dreamstime.com