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Why Go to Santiago

You might associate Santiago with towering skyscrapers, rolling vineyards and soaring mountains — and you wouldn't be wrong. Set in the Maipo Valley (framed by the snowy Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west), Santiago captivates visitors with its arresting views, neoclassical architecture and imaginative cuisine. Santiago hasn't always been so alluring: In its nearly 500-year history, the city has withstood invasions, dictatorships and earthquakes. But over the past few decades, an economic boom has helped Santiago reinvent its image and earn it a place on the tourism map alongside other popular South American destinations like Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Today, Santiago continues to evolve with Latin American character and European flair shaping its art-centric barrios (neighborhoods). Along Santiago's streets, you'll find centuries-old mansions and grand cathedrals jostling against cutting-edge shops and trendy galleries, markers of Santiago's textured past and present.

To discover the city's flourishing enclaves, shop alongside fashion-savvy Santiaguinos in Bellavista, soak in the scenery from Santa Lucía Hill or sit down for a meal in the Barrio Italia. Afterward, wander through the Plaza de Armas to the Metropolitan Cathedral or admire Pre-Columbian artifacts on display at the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. And as the sun goes down, savor leisurely sips of a pisco sour at a cocktail bar or stay up late to join in the revelry at one of the many nightclubs strewn across the city. You may not see all of Santiago's creativity and culture in one trip, but it won't take much effort to experience what's important: artsy boutiques, regionally inspired cuisine and delectable wine — local passions that are bringing a new luster to Chile's capital.

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Santiago Travel Tips

Best Months to Visit

The best time to visit Santiago is from late-September to November, or from March to May; these months mark the spring and fall shoulder seasons in Chile. Although the city experiences a moderate climate with mild temperatures year-round, spring and fall are especially alluring with plenty of sunshine, thinner crowds and affordable flight options from popular U.S. destinations. Fall (March through May) makes is a particularly pleasant time to visit if you enjoy vino: Wineries celebrate the season with grape harvest festivals. From November to April (summertime in the Southern Hemisphere) temperatures, crowds and hotel prices start to swell. Meanwhile, May to September (the winter season) experiences showers, cooler temps and increased smog levels, but the powder blanketing the nearby Andes beckons to skiers.

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What You Need to Know

  • Watch out for pickpockets Stay alert when visiting tourist areas like Santa Lucía Hill and St. Christopher Hill, where petty crime is prevalent.
  • Prepare for smog From June through early September, heavy smog and pollution permeate the city.
  • Go easy on the tap water Though Santiago's mineral-rich water is safe to drink, it can take some getting used to. Avoid an upset stomach by sticking to bottled water.

How to Save Money in Santiago

  • Explore on foot Santiago's streets are laid out on a grid, making the city's barrios easy to explore on your own two feet.
  • Shop the local markets For bargain-friendly souvenirs, head to one of the city's local craft markets, such as Feria Santa Lucia, which sell everything from jewelry to clothing to antiques.
  • Sightsee for free Some of the city's most cherished attractions are completely free to experience. Don't miss the Plaza de Armas, a popular gathering spot for musicians and comedians.

Culture & Customs

In 1541, Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia founded Santiago, selecting its central valley location for its moderate climate and advantageous position for fending off intruders. He outlined the city streets on a grid, fanning out from the Plaza de Armas, a main square filled with political institutions and religious sites. Inside the Plaza de Armas, you'll stumble upon city highlights, including the Governor's Palace (now the Central Post Office), the Royal Court of Justice (now the Natural History Museum) and the Metropolitan Cathedral. It wasn't until the 19th century that Santiago began to grow, with World War II creating a high demand for industrialization and urban jobs. However, the city was rocked in 1973 when Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet launched a coup d'état and assumed power. Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship included the loss and exile of thousands of Chilean civilians. As the epicenter of Chilean politics, Santiago was especially prone to the repercussions of Pinochet's actions. Chile restored democracy in 1990, electing a leader that paved the way to economic growth and increased globalization.

Today, Chile's capital is undergoing a renaissance, with flourishing neighborhoods showcasing a mix of old and new, and a rich blend of the city's Spanish and European influences. Though the majority of Santiaguinos (native Chileans born in Santiago) are Catholic as a result of the city's Spanish heritage, a variety of other religions, including Evangelicalism and Judaism, are widely practiced in Chile.

Spanish is the official language here; however, a booming international travel market has ushered in English-speakers at many major hotels. But outside the hotels, English speakers can be hard to come by. With that in mind, it would be a good idea to master some key Spanish phrases, such as "buenos días" ("good morning") and "gracias" ("thank you"). You should also consider writing down the name and address of your destination if you are planning to travel by taxi; this will help you avoid any miscommunication.

The official currency of Chile is the Chilean peso (CLP). The peso is weak compared to the U.S. dollar: Approximately 550 CLP equals $1 USD. As far as payment is concerned, the U.S. dollar is sometimes accepted at tour agencies, and credit cards are widely accepted at most places, but note there is typically a 6 percent transaction fee. Make sure to carry cash to ensure you pay the lowest rate. When dining, keep in mind it is considered polite to add gratuity; a 10 percent tip is standard. You should note taxi drivers do not expect gratuity; however, giving your driver any remaining change from your fare is commonly practiced.

You'll find most people here dressed casually — just be sure to pack appropriate attire depending on when you plan to visit. While Santiago maintains a moderate climate, bringing plenty of layers during the winter months and comfortable walking shoes for exploration is a must. If you're traveling solo, be sure to stay alert, especially after dark in popular areas like Bellavista and the Plaza de Armas, where pickpockets linger to prey on unsuspecting visitors. 

What to Eat

Santiago's burgeoning culinary scene is a big selling point for foodie travelers. The city's cuisine is as eclectic as its neighborhoods, with restaurants featuring dishes packed with Peruvian flavors in bohemian Bellavista to traditional fish-focused entrees at the Central Market.

Like its South American peers, Santiago's hit restaurants source fresh, local ingredients. Here, you can savor local specialties like manchas a la parmesana (razor clams layered with cheese and lemon juice) and seafood stews prepared with freshly caught fish from the Pacific. Or you can indulge in meat-centric meals, such as a pastel de choclo (a pie made up of chicken, beef, boiled eggs, olives and corn). To eat like a local, venture to the Bellavista and Vitacura areas where restaurants serve authentic dishes with a little extra zest, like caldillo de congrio (a fish stew filled with tomatoes and potatoes) and ceviche made with fresh sea bass or scallops. Regardless of where your culinary adventure takes you, pair your meals with a staple Chilean cocktail like a pisco sour or glass of local wine.

Bear in mind that Chileans eat later than Americans. Plan to sit down for lunch between 1 and 3 p.m. and head out for dinner between 9 and 10 p.m.; most restaurants close between 3:30 and 9 p.m. Though formal attire is not typically required, dressing up for dinner — particularly in cosmopolitan areas — is a good way to blend in.

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Safety

Santiago is a relatively safe city with very few instances of violent crime. Still, you should keep your wits about you and be wary of pickpockets, particularly when you're visiting well-trafficked tourist spots like Barrio Brasil, Central Market , Santa Lucía Hill , Plaza de Armas and St. Christopher Hill . After dark, you should also stay alert if you plan to venture to Bellavista , which is a well-known magnet for petty thieves.

Getting Around Santiago

The best ways to get around Santiago are by foot and by metro. Since the city's streets are laid out on a grid, exploring on foot is an easy way to take in the sites. The metro also serves as an efficient, inexpensive and reliable way to travel between barrios, plus its lines service the city's top attractions. That said, taking the metro means combating heavy crowds, which can lead to an uncomfortable commute and, if you're not careful, a stolen wallet. Taxis are another convenient and affordable way to get around the city; however, you'll want to be sure to flag only those with yellow tops to avoid getting scammed. Buses are another compelling option, thanks to reasonable rates as well as extensive, easily navigable routes.

Santiago's major airport, Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport (SCL), sits about 15 miles west of the city center. The airport serves many international carriers that offer direct flights daily between major American cities, such as Miami, Dallas and New York City. While you can opt to hop on a minivan transfer to downtown Santiago outside your arrival area or wait for a Tur-Bus (which runs roughly every 30 minutes between the airport and the Universidad de Santiago Metro Station on Avenida Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins or Alameda Avenue), taxis are the most hassle-free means of transportation into the city. Hailing a taxi will cost you around 14,000 CLP to 17,000 CLP (roughly $25 to $30 USD), though fares vary depending on your destination. You can also easily pick up your own set of wheels outside the airport, but with plentiful public transportation options to choose from, there's no need to rent a car unless you're planning to venture outside of the city.

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Entry & Exit Requirements

A valid passport is required for entry to Chile. U.S. citizens can stay in the country for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. Travelers arriving into Santiago's international airport will be issued with a tourist card and are required to pay a $160 USD reciprocity fee upon arrival. For current information on entry and exit requirements, consult the U.S. State Department's website .

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