Sights in Santiago, Chile’s Plaza de Armas and Vicinity

Central Santiago has the highest density of sights in or around the Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Constitución, Cerro Santa Lucía, and Barrio Bellavista, with a handful elsewhere. The municipal tourist authority, with separate offices near the Plaza de Armas and on Cerro Santa Lucía, offers free walking tours that include admission to some of the best museums; check for the most current itineraries.

On its west side, the Plaza de Armas’ oldest surviving landmark is the Catedral Metropolitana, begun in 1748 but, because of earthquakes and fires, not completed until 1830. Italian architect Joaquín Toesca designed its neoclassical facade, modified with late-19th-century Tuscan touches.

On the north side, the next oldest structure is the Municipalidad de Santiago (1785). Immediately west, the Palacio de la Real Audiencia (1804) houses the Museo Histórico Nacional. At the corner of Paseo Puente, the French-style Correo Central (Post Office, 1882) replaced the original government house. Half a block east of the plaza, dating from 1769, the Casa Colorada (Merced 860) houses the municipal tourist office
and city museum.

Pedestrians cross a square surrounded by bronze statues on pedestals and elaborate buildings studded with corinthian columns.
Plaza de Armas in Santiago, Chile. Photo © Rafael Gómez, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

One block from the southwest corner of the plaza, the Palacio de la Real Aduana (Royal Customs House, Bandera 361) now holds the exceptional Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art).

One block north of the plaza, built of massive blocks, the Templo de Santo Domingo (21 de Mayo and Monjitas) was constructed in 1747-1808. Two blocks north is the Mercado Central, the landmark central market that’s a tourist draw for its seafood restaurants. From 1913 until 1987, trains to Valparaíso, northern Chile, and Mendoza (Argentina) used Eiffel-inf luenced architect Emilio Jecquier’s monumental Estación Mapocho. Closed in 1987 and reopened as a cultural center, it hosts events like Santiago’s annual book fair. In the nearby Cal y Canto Metro station, foundations of the colonial Puente Cal y Canto bridge over the Mapocho are now open to view.

Museo Histórico Nacional

During the 17th century, the Palacio de la Real Audiencia housed Chile’s colonial supreme court, but earthquakes destroyed its quarters in both 1647 and 1730. Architect Juan José de Goycolea y Zañartu designed the current neoclassical building (1808). Its clock tower dates from Mayor Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna’s late-19th-century term.

During the independence struggle, the first Congreso Nacional met here. Royalists restored the Real Audiencia from 1814 to 1817. That same year, the Cabildo of Santiago met here to make Argentine general José de San Martín head of state, but San Martín declined in favor of Bernardo O’Higgins. After President Manuel Bulnes moved government offices to the Casa de la Moneda, the building became municipal offices and then a museum.

Today, the building houses Museo Histórico Nacional (Plaza de Armas 951, tel. 02/2411-7010, 10am-6pm Tues.-Sun., US$1.20, free Sun. and holidays). Thematically, its collections encompass Mapuche silverwork, colonial and republican furniture and art, material folklore, textiles, weapons, and photography.

Chronologically, it traces Chile’s development from indigenous times through Spanish colonial rule, the subsequent establishment of church and state, collapse of the Spanish empire, the early republic and its 19th-century expansion, the oligarchy that ruled parliament, and the failed reforms that resulted in the 1973 coup—when the story abruptly ends.

Museo de Santiago

Perhaps Santiago’s best-preserved colonial house, the Casa Colorada was home to Mateo de Toro y Zambrano, who became Chile’s interim governor, at age 83, after the colonial governor resigned. Named for its reddish paint, it hosted both José de San Martín and Bernardo O’Higgins after the battle of Chacabuco (1817), and the famous mercenary Lord Cochrane later lived here. Abandoned for many years, it underwent restoration after 1977. Only the two-story facade facing Merced, with its forged iron balconies, is truly original.

Inside the Casa Colorada, the Museo de Santiago (Merced 860, tel. 02/2386-7400, 10am-6pm Tues.-Fri., 10am-5pm Sat., 11am- 2pm Sun. and holidays, US$1 pp) chronicles the city’s development from pre-Columbian times through its founding by Valdivia, the evolution of colonial society, the independence era, and its transformation under 19thcentury mayor Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna. The history is vivid in the models of historical buildings and dioramas of events, such as the 1863 fire that destroyed the Iglesia de la Compañía. The museum was closed for a major remodel as of early 2014.

Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Late architect Sergio Larraín García-Moreno donated a lifetime’s acquisitions to stock the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Bandera 361, tel. 02/2928-1500, 10am-6pm Tues.-Sun., US$6, US$2 students, children under 13 free), housed in the former colonial Real Casa de Aduana (Royal Customs House, 1805). Following independence, the neoclassical building became the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) and then the Tribunales de Justicia (Law Courts) until a 1968 fire destroyed most of its interior and archives. Flanked by twin patios, a broad staircase leads to the upstairs exhibits. The permanent collections from Mesoamerica and the central and southern Andes are impressive. There are smaller displays on the Caribbean, the Amazon, and Andean textiles. Particularly notable are the carved wooden chemamull, larger-than-lifesize Mapuche funerary statues. The museum also possesses Aguateca’s Stele 6, from a Late Classic Maya site in Guatemala’s Petén lowlands that has suffered severe depredations from looters.

Mercado Central

In 1817, Bernardo O’Higgins himself shifted the disorderly market on the Plaza de Armas to an area once known as “the Dominican rubbish dump” on the Mapocho’s south bank, a few blocks north. When fire destroyed the informal installations on the new Plaza de Abasto in 1864, municipal authorities hired Manuel Aldunate to create more permanent facilities. But the current Mercado Central structure (San Pablo 967, tel. 02/2696-8327, 7am-5pm Sun.-Thurs., 7am-8pm Fri., 7am- 6pm Sat.), from 1872, is mainly the work of Fermín Vivaceta.

Street-side storefronts have concealed the original facade except on the Ismael Valdés Vergara side, where it faces the river and opens onto a new plaza. There are entrances, however, on all four sides. From the interior, the wrought-iron superstructure, embellished with the Chilean flag’s recurring lone star, provides an airy setting for merchants to display their fresh fruit, vegetables, and seafood— according to journalist Robb Walsh, “a display of fishes and shellfish so vast and unfamiliar that I felt I was observing the marine life of another planet.”

Lunching and people-watching at tables set among the produce is a popular pastime for locals and tourists alike. The smallish restaurants on the periphery are cheaper and nearly as good as the two or three that monopolize the prime central sites.

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