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Things to Do in Chile

In Chile, coastlines stretch along the Pacific Ocean; the rugged terrain of Patagonia seemingly reaches to the end of the earth; and the dry Atacama desert, Andes mountains, and Valdivian forests nestle against one another to comprise a country where the topography is as varied as its options for exploring. Santiago de Chile, the country’s capital, is a melting pot of Latin culture, bohemian neighborhoods, and colonial architecture. Don’t miss out on views from the top of San Cristobal Hill (Cerro San Cristobal), colorful street art, and thumping nightlife in trendy Bellavista, or a bike tour of top city sights. UNESCO World Heritage Site Valparaiso—renowned for its hillside funiculars (cable railways) and street art—and beachside gem Vina del Mar are just a 1.5-hour drive away, and easily doable on a day trip from Santiago. If you’re seeking outdoor adventure, Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park boasts surreal beauty, with its mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers making it an ideal location for horseback riding or hiking tours. For wine lovers, Chile is the promised land for New World varietals, with regions such as the Maipo Valley, San Antonio Valley, and the Matetic Vineyards best explored on wine-tasting tours. Plus, the otherworldly landscapes of the Atacama Desert—home to Moon Valley, the Atacama Salt Lake, and the Ojos del Salar—are a must-see from San Pedro de Atacama. Far-flung Rapa Nui Easter Island, home to nearly 900 oversized-head statues, is a modern mystery best explored on a multi-day trip, including round-trip plane rides.
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Osorno Volcano
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The snow-capped cone of Osorno Volcano is one of Chile’s most recognizable landmarks. Towering over Lake Todos Los Santos and Lake Llanquihue in the Andean mountain range, Osorno is the starting point of Chilean Patagonia and is a magnet for adventurous outdoor enthusiasts who come here to ski, hike, and trek.

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Milodon Cave (Cueva del Milodon)
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In 1896, German explorer Eberhard Hermann entered a cave and found strange remains inside, the fur and bones of the extinct Mylodon sloth. Named after the giant ground sloth found within, Milodon Cave (Cueva del Milodon) is the largest of several caves within Cueva del Milodon National Monument. But the sloth wasn’t the only inhabitant of the caves. Remains of other extinct species, including a saber-toothed cat and a dwarf horse, as well as evidence of human habitation from as early as 6,000 BC have been found within the caves.

As visitors enter the monument, they’re greeted by a full-size replica of the mylodon sloth, standing 13 feet (4 meters) tall. The mylodon was said to resemble a giant bear, though the mammal was in fact a very large herbivore that went extinct over 10,000 years ago. A viewing point atop the cathedral-sized cave affords visitors views of the surrounding mountains, glaciers and the Eberhard fjord.

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Fort Bulnes (Fuerte Bulnes)
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Visitors to Fort Bulnes, located atop an unforgiving hillside, will surely take note of the unprecedented lengths colonizers went to in order to stake their claim on such inhospitable land.

Ancient shipwrecks that line the coastal route between this popular destination and Punta Arenas serve as a reminder of just how treacherous travel could be. While the fort’s museum, which explores the colonization history in Southern Chile and replicas of a historic church, jail, post office and stables are definitely worth the trip, visitors agree that it’s the epic views from scenic trails and the ancient watchtower that prove to be most memorable.

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Ahu Tongariki
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With 15 gigantic stone-carved moai lined up on a 200-foot-long platform and a remote location framed by the looming Rano Raraku volcano and the crashing ocean, Ahu Tongariki is nothing short of spectacular. For many visitors, this is the star attraction of Easter Island, and looking up at the towering figures, the largest of which stands 14 meters tall, it’s hard not to be in awe of the Rapa Nui people, who achieved the seemingly impossible feat of carving and moving the 30-ton stone boulders to their waterfront perch.

Ahu Tongariki is the largest ceremonial site ever made on the island, featuring the largest number of moai ever erected on a single site, and each statue is unique, with only one featuring the iconic red-rock “pukao,” or ceremonial headdress. Even more astounding, considering the size and weight of the statues, is that the site was almost completely destroyed by a tsunami in 1960, with the rocks flung more than 90 meters inland. The ahu has since been painstakingly restored, a project that took Chilean archaeologists Claudio Cristino and Patricia Vargas five years and was finally completed in 1995.

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Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna)
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With its parched desert plains and wind-sculpted topography, it’s easy to see how Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) earned its name. The sharp sandstone peaks, glittering salt deposits, and crater-like depressions make for some dramatic photographs, and watching the sunset over the valley is an unforgettable experience.

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Punta Arenas Municipal Cemetery
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Opened in 1894, the Punta Arenas Municipal Cemetery is known as the final resting place for some of the area’s most famous historical figures. Relevant families—like the Menendez-Behetys—even have their own chapels here. The massive iron gate stationed at the cemetery’s main entrance was donated by Sara Braun, a wealthy businesswoman, back in 1919, and local legend says it has remained closed and locked since the day it was completed at Sara’s request. While the grounds were originally reserved for bodies of British colonialists, it also includes those of famous German, French, Norwegian and Chilean residents as well.

Punta Arenas Municipal Cemetery covers about 10 acres (four hectares) of city land, making it one of the most expansive burial grounds in the region. Visits are often included in city tours, and the cemetery’s main office has an incredible electronic database where travelers can search for individuals by name to find the location of specific plots.

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Anakena Beach
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With its stretch of white sand fringed with Tahitian coconut palms, a backdrop of grassy hills and ocean waters that rarely dip below 64 degrees F (18 degrees C) even in the winter months, few places come as close to paradise as Anakena Beach. One of only three beaches on Easter Island, Anakena also plays an important part in the history of the island. It was here that King Ariki Hotu Matu’a first landed on Easter Island and later, the beach became a spiritual center for the Miru tribe–the remnants of which can be seen in the seven beautifully restored moai of Ahu Nau Nau and the single moai of Ahu Ature Huki that overlook the beach.

Aside from its striking setting and dramatically situated moai, the main draw to Anakena Beach is, of course, the ocean and the warm, clear waters make the ideal spot for swimming, surfing and snorkeling.

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Nao Victoria Museum (Museo Nao Victoria)
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Visitors to the Nao Victoria Museum can travel back in time and experience the real-life thrill of a 16th-century sailing experience. Opened in 2011, this destination is celebrated by locals for promoting national identity and preserving much of what makes this area so unique. Visitors can wander through four real-life replicas of famous ships: the Nao Victoria, James Caird, HMS Beagle and Schooner Ancud—boats that played an important role in the discovery of Magallanes. Guides are included in the cost of admission, which makes for rich storytelling while travelers explore the ships.

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Plaza de Armas
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The site on which the city was founded back in 1541, Plaza de Armas is both the heart of Santiago de Chile’s historic district and the epicenter of the modern city. The leafy, palm-fringed plaza is surrounded by grand monuments and architectural landmarks, and it’s abuzz with activity at all hours of the day and night.

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Llanquihue Lake
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The town of Puerto Varas sits on the banks of Llanquihue Lake in Chile’s magnificent Lakes District. The lake itself, the second-largest lake in the country after General Carrera Lake, sits at the base of the near-perfect conically shaped Osorno Volcano, adding to its already picturesque qualities.

The shores of the 336-square-mile (870-square-kilometer) lake share a German heritage, yet each attracts visitors for a different reason. Puerto Varas is the lake’s adventure capital, while Frutillar on the western banks of the lake appeals to Chilean tourists on summer holiday. The charming Bavarian-style town of Puerto Octay offers remote accommodations on the north shores of the lake, and rustic Ensenada on the eastern banks sits at the entrance to Vicente Perez Rosales National Park.

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More Things to Do in Chile

Rano Raraku

Rano Raraku

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One of Easter Island’s most unforgettable landmarks, the ancient volcano of Rano Raraku is home to the island’s largest and most important archaeological site. Known as the quarry, this was where the island’s iconic moai were carved, using the naturally formed tuff (a soft rock made from solidified volcanic ash), and then distributed around the island.

About 95 percent of all the island’s moai were carved at Rano Raraku, and although the site was abandoned in the late 18th century, it remains littered with a remarkable 396 incomplete moai. Wander through the quarry and you’ll find half-carved statues, sculpted boulders perched high up on the quarry walls and moai half buried in volcanic tuff, leaving just the heads poking out of the ground. Most unique are Moai Tukuturi, a small, round-headed statue on its knees, and El Gigante, the largest known moai, which reaches an incredible 71 feet (21 meters) in height, weighs an estimated 270 tons and remains attached to the rock face.

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Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine National Park

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The epic massifs at Torres del Paine National Park (Parque Nacional Torres del Paine) in Chile draw visitors to an area of unspoiled beauty, where green fields and chill glittering lakes spread out beneath the naked granite spires of the Cordillera del Paine.

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Valparaíso Historic Quarter

Valparaíso Historic Quarter

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Hailed as the San Francisco of South America, Valparaíso’s Historic Quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its beautiful buildings, street art, and steep hills. Visit to admire the historic architecture and take a vintage funicular up the summits of the cerros, where you’ll find trendy cafes and bars.

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Cerro Concepcion

Cerro Concepcion

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Perhaps the most scenic of Valparaiso’s popular cerros, Cerro Concepcion is home to quaint shops, unique art galleries and picturesque views of the stunning Chilean countryside—as well as a whole lot of rolling hills. On clear days visitors can gaze out over the dunes of Concon and even see as far as far off Vina.

The climb to Cerro Concepcion may be steep, but quiet cafes perfect for people watching offer up the ideal place for travelers to catch their breath. Afterwards, the hidden side streets, colorful murals decorating old building walls and spectacular views offer up enough reason to wander slowly from the heights of Valparaiso Heaven back to the reality down below.

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Viña del Mar

Viña del Mar

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Nicknamed the Garden City and located just an hour from Santiago, Viña del Mar is a charming seaside town famous for its flowers and its beach. Top attractions include the seafront Wulff Castle, the Flower Clock (Reloj de Flores), and Francisco Fonck Museum, the entrance of which is marked by a stone moai statue from Easter Island.

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Plaza Muñoz Gamero

Plaza Muñoz Gamero

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This historic town square is among the most popular destinations in the Magallanes Region because of its unmistakable energy and close proximity to some of Punta Arenas’ major attractions. Travelers can easily walk from Plaza Munoz Gamero to Casa Braun-Menendez, the Sociedad Menendez Behety and the local cathedral, and many visitors agree that the best handmade crafts in town can be found here.

Walking the plaza takes only a few minutes, but most visitors gather at park benches or relax in the shade of trees to take in the sights and sounds of local life. Local folklore states kissing the statue of Magellan’s feet is good luck, so visitors looking to change their fortune should be sure to do so before leaving the plaza. A central information center also offers travelers maps and recommendations, making this a perfect first stop on a trip to Punta Arenas.

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La Moneda Palace (Palacio de la Moneda)

La Moneda Palace (Palacio de la Moneda)

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The presidential palace known as La Moneda Palace (Palacio de la Moneda)is one of Santiago’s architectural icons. A giant Chilean flag billows before the white, neoclassical building, which houses movie theaters, art galleries, and an independent bookstore. Look for the statue of former president Salvador Allende at the southeast corner of Plaza de la Constitución.

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Santa Lucia Hill (Cerro Santa Lucia)

Santa Lucia Hill (Cerro Santa Lucia)

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Santa Lucia Hill (Cerro Santa Lucia) is one of two hills that overlook Santiago, where in 1541 Pedro de Valdivia founded the city long before Chile existed as an independent country. At the time, the hill was called Huelén by the indigenous people; a nearby street (by metro Salvador) still bears that name.

The hill rises about 230 feet over the surrounding part of the city, and there are excellent views of downtown from several terraces up there. Cerro Santa Lucia has three main constructions: the main entrance on the Alameda, with its wide, curving staircase, fronted by a fountain and backed by a yellow mansion; the fort at the top from which the best views of downtown can be seen; and the Castillo Hidalgo, which often hosts large international events.

There are also gardens and the Pedro de Valdivia Plaza, which has its own fountains and colorful tiled benches with Moorish influence. The top of the hill can be reached via the main entrance, as well as by way of the pedestrian access at the corner of José Miguel de la Barra and Victoria Subercaseaux, up a flight of stairs. There is also an elevator on the west side of the hill, where the pedestrian street Huerfanos ends, but this route only takes visitors halfway to the top.

Visitors to the hill would be hard-pressed to miss the cannon-firing, which takes place every day at noon and can be heard throughout many parts of downtown. This activity was suspended for several months after the 2010 earthquake, but it is back, routinely surprising those wandering the area.

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Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works

Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works

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Now an eerie ghost town marooned on the arid plains of the Atacama Desert, it’s hard to believe that the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works were once home to a thriving

community of miners. The historic refineries were in use from 1880 to 1960, and served as the epicenter of Chile’s once hugely profitable saltpeter (sodium nitrate) mining industry.

The long-abandoned sites are now protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites and offer a fascinating insight into Chile’s history and heritage. Visitors can explore the restored buildings; peek inside the workers’ quarters, church and school; and learn about local life at the small museum, before seeing the old processing plants, mine shafts and mining equipment.

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Paseo Gervasoni

Paseo Gervasoni

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Travelers who want a taste of culture and local life will find what they seek on a stroll through the Paseo Gervasoni. This popular walking street winds through massive murals of colorful art depicting images of daily life, portraits of famous Chileans and abstract drawings as well. Visitors say it is an outdoor Mecca where travelers can soak up brilliant local artwork while they also soak up the sun.

Incredible views of the crystal blue bay provide the perfect opportunity to watch ships sail in and out of the bustling harbor and a variety of restaurants, cafes and bars offer outdoor seating that’s ideal for people-watching.

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Santiago Central Market (Mercado Central de Santiago)

Santiago Central Market (Mercado Central de Santiago)

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The interior, wrought-iron construction of the Mercado Central looks like it could contain a greenhouse, but with the masonry outside, this building houses local eateries, a few fruit and vegetable stands, the occasional roaming musician, and just a sampling of souvenir stands, though in total there are more than 200 locales. The building dates back to 1872, and is consistently named as a must-see in Santiago. In fact, in 2012, National Geographic named it as the 5th best market in the world.

Due to its central location, and the fact that it is often visited by tourists, it has also become a hub for pickup and drop off for a number of different tour services.

Inside the market, there are several restaurants serving local specialties, which mainly revolve around fish. There is the larger-than-life centolla or king crab, which the waiter cracks for you as you wait, or flavorful (raw) sea urchins served with plenty of onion, cilantro, lemon juice and olive oil. Or if you want something hearty, try anything called a budín or chupe, which will be thick, creamy soups and casseroles served in the typical greda (terra cotta) dish. If you’re feeling more austere, try grilled fish with a salad, but don’t pass up on what is probably Chile’s favorite appetizer, machas a la parmesana, which are razor clams served au gratin.

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Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana)

Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana)

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Santiago's Cathedral - or Catedral Metropolitana - is considered one of the finest pieces of religious architecture in South America. This is the Catedral Metropolitana's fourth incarnation (as well as numerous touchups) since a church was first dedicated on this spot in 1561, and must be one of its loveliest.

It was most recently rebuilt in the 1750s, with the help of Italian architectJoaquín Toesca, who designed the baroque-fringed neoclassical facade that set the standard for subsequent structures around the Plaza de Armas.

Yet, as impressive as the stone exterior is, it is the resplendent vault and richly adorned altar, inside, that really inspires. A small museum of religious artifacts adjoins the main church.

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Plaza Sotomayor

Plaza Sotomayor

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This one-stop Valparaiso destination is home to plenty of Chilean history, art and culture. As a result, travelers will find lots to explore on a visit to Plaza Sotomayor. Named after Rafael Sotomayor, this popular city square lies in the middle of the city’s historic district. Visitors can get up close to the Chilean Navy headquarters, and pay homage to fallen sailors at the plaza’s central monument dedicated to the Battle of Iquique. Afterwards travelers can make a stop at the National Council of Culture and the Arts before wandering to the nearby Customs House or Estacion Puerto, where commuter trains arrive and depart from other Chilean cities.

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Bellavista

Bellavista

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Bellavista, a walkable neighborhood not far from downtown Santiago, is routinely referred to as the city’s bohemian neighborhood. There’s street art and both sedate and raucous nightlife, art galleries, theater performances, dance clubs, loads of restaurants (both formal and informal) and one of Chile’s most-visited museums, La Chascona. Even this museum has a colorful history; it is one of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s homes-turned-museums. And the whole neighborhood is just a few blocks south of Cerro San Cristobal, the large hill that overlooks the city and has both a sanctuary and a large marble statue of the Virgin Mary on top, in addition to the hiking trails, swimming pools and Japanese garden.

On weekends, the hill attracts families, couples, runners, cyclists and participants in group activities, from yoga to zumba. And all week long, the Chileans of all ages and income brackets come to hang out.

Bellavista’s food options cover nearly every budget, with many restaurants in the Patio Bellavista, an walkway that also houses gift shops, theaters and jewelry stores. There is a string of cheaper eateries with a beer garden atmosphere on the street Pio Nono, and tonier options on the parallel street of Constitución.

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