Best things to do in Chile
Find out more about those top places in Chile
One of Latin America’s foremost hidden gems, Valparaiso is a wonderfully chaotic city situated on a spectacular peninsula jutting out into the breakers of the Pacific Ocean. While Valparaiso lacks the sophistication of its neighbor Viña del Mar, it is all the better for it: pastel colored houses tumble down hillsides as if dropped randomly; container ships chug in and out of port daily; and the city’s population is a colorful cast of artists, poets, sailors, prostitutes and dockworkers. The best thing to do in Valparaiso is to simply wander the city’s precipitous streets, alleys and escaleras (stairways) and soak up the city’s unrivaled and lovably gritty charm. What is more, the city’s artistic streak has become ever more visible with street murals popping up on every corner. More than any other Chilean city, Valparaiso has a sense of ‘anything goes’, which makes it a perfectly debaucherous base for exploring the nearby Central Coast.
The former home of Valparaiso’s most famous resident, the writer Pablo Neruda, La Sebastina is a highlight of any trip to the city. Perched atop the top of a precipitous hill, the house is a chaotic assemblage of staircases, annexes and balconies that provide breathtaking views of the port. Characteristically, the house is cluttered with books and other works of art, which can be explored with the help of a local guide.
Built around a former prison, Valparaiso’s cultural center is one of Chile’s foremost artistic spaces. Blending funky wall murals, cutting-edge art, performances of famed historic plays and poetry readings, the center has something to please any visitor.
One of the first things visitors to Valparaiso notice is how steep it is: houses cling to cliff sides; roads snake up vertigo inducing slopes; and precipitous stairways run up and down the city’s hills. Thankfully, it is also served by a series of 19th century funicular railways, the most impressive being the Reina lift. For a bird’s-eye view of the city and a novel transport experience, make sure not to miss it.
Bedecked in cannons, Valparaiso’s Museo Marítimo Nacional explores the rich history of the city’s involvement with the navy. Much of the museum is dedicated to the fascinating and little known history of the 19th century Pacific War where Chile fought neighboring Bolivia and Peru.
Within Chile, the area around Valparaiso is best known for its fantastic wines. On winery tours that leave regularly from the city, you will be transported to some of the region’s finest vineyards for exquisite tastings of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Syrah wines that thrive in the area’s cool oceanic climate.
Just north of Valparaiso’s glitzy neighbor Viña del Mar lie the Concon Sand Dunes. Amongst the world’s largest, these dunes tower over all that surround them and are popular with thrill seekers who use them for sand-boarding. For dare devils, thrilling boarding tours of the dunes are available.
Valparaiso is Latin America’s street art capital with murals bedecking nearly every unused wall in the city. To best experience the city’s creative energy, take a guided tour where local experts will be able to point out the best examples of Chile’s distinctive graffiti scene.
Lorded over by two snow-capped volcanoes, Osorno and Calbuco, the picture-perfect town of Puerto Varas is the perfect gateway to Chile’s inland sea, Lago Llanquihue. Puerto Varas itself is a charming town with Germanic origins that far outshines its much larger southern neighbor Puerto Montt. Indeed, the wide streets, half-timbered houses and Lutheran-style cathedral stand today as testament to the German colonization of southern Chile, which took place in the mid-19th century. While the town’s history is unexpectedly unique, it is the surrounding landscape that truly makes Puerto Varas a hidden gem with a variety of adventure sports and hiking trails allowing for easy trips into the Chilean Lake District.
Towering over the vast Lake Llanquihue is Orsano Volcano, one of South America’s greatest natural wonders. A variety of tours runs daily from Puerto Varas to the perfectly conical slopes of the volcano, which allow you to walk through millennia old coigües forests, marvel at the La Burbaja crater and take ski lifts to the highest summit where you can see magical lava formations.
Surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes and lush pine forests, Lake Llanquihue is Chile’s most scenic lake and its second largest. Puerto Varas, which sits on its shores, is the ideal base for exploring this pristine wilderness. Every day tours leave the mountain town to explore the lake’s rich flora and fauna, the German influenced towns that pepper its shores, including charming Frutillar, and admire breathtaking views of the Andes.
Not far from the base of Osorno Volcano is the spectacular Petrohué Falls in the mesmerizing Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park. Set amongst verdant pine forests, the waterfalls are one of Chile’s finest with numerous trails around the edge that let you admire the full force of nature. Make sure to look out for the aptly named torrent ducks that live in and around the white water rapids.
A highlight of Puerto Varras is undoubtedly the Museo Pablo Fierro, one of Chile’s most eccentric museums. With the powder blue clapperboard exterior bedecked in vintage cars, bicycles and other unique objects and the interior crammed full of unusual and often unforgettable memorabilia detailing the 19th century colonization of southern Chile, the museum is unforgettable.
Located on the eastern shores of Lake Llanqihue, a tour of the Germanic village of Frutillar is one of the best tours available from Puerto Varas. With a factory producing excellent smoked sausages, inns selling traditional pilsner and 19th century Alpine lodges lining the twisting streets, it is easy to forget Frutillar is in Chile and not Bavaria. Tours of the village often encompass the fascinating Museo Colonial Alemán, which details German immigration to the area.
There is no more iconic experience in Puerto Varas than taking to the tranquil waters of Lake Llanquihue to savor the spectacular views of the Andes. Boat tours and kayak excursions from the town take you to the lake’s most remote islets where you will be amazed by the rugged volcanic geology and the bio-diverse ecosystem.
For thrill seekers, the best experience to be had in Puerto Varas is rafting the white water rapids of the Rio Petrohué, where you will get up close to the raw power of nature. To cap this adrenaline pumping experience off, tours finish with cold beers and traditional southern Chilean food against a backdrop of glacier capped peaks.
Part of Bolivia until the late-19th century War of the Pacific, Antofagasta is today Chile’s second largest and fastest growing metropolis. While the city is often bypassed by travelers altogether, Antofagasta has a gritty charm that sets it apart from Chile’s other cities. Centered on a compact historic downtown, the faded grandeur of the city’s streets recall Antofagasta’s 19th century glory days as a center for British immigration to South America. Testament to this unusual cultural influence is the Victorian and Georgian style department stores, railway stations and townhouses that pepper the city center. What is more, Antofagasta has a laid back if slightly seedy bar scene that serves the city’s vast port. Besides the city itself, Antofagasta is a perfect base for exploring the natural wonders of the surrounding Pacific Coast, such as the sandstone arches and coves of La Portada.
Looking like the ruins of some long forgotten civilisation, Huanchaca is in fact the derelict remains of a 19th century silver foundry built by the Bolivian company of the same name, which was once one of the world’s richest. Today, the ruins are open to the public while a small museum has fascinating exhibits on the role played by the Huanchaca Company in shaping modern Antofagasta.
The coastline stretching north of Antofagasta is one of Chile’s most spectacular, with an impressive array of sandstone sea-stacks, arches and rocky coves to be explored. Most famous is the Portada National Monument, which sits offshore as a potent reminder of the erosive power of the Pacific Ocean.
Antofagasta sits sandwiched between the world’s largest ocean and the world’s driest desert, the Atacama. Some of the best tours available in the city take you deep into the heart of the latter towards the hi-tech Cerro Paranal Observatory, the lunar landscape of Valle de la Luna and Los Flamencos National Reserve with it's seemingly endless salt flats that are home to a dazzling array of wildlife.
Visitors often experience a sense of culture shock when strolling the atmospheric streets of Barrio Histórico. Unlike the Spanish colonial buildings of other Chilean cities, the old quarter of Antofagasta has a distinctly British flair owing to their 19th century influence. Stretching from Plaza Colón with its miniature Big Ben to the old port, the city is packed with a profusion of Victorian and Georgian architecture.
The former Victorian customs house has been converted into the fascinating Museo Regional, which details the rise of Antofagasta from remote colonial settlement into 19th century industrial powerhouse. Artifacts include rare early colonial pieces and industrial machinery used to mine precious nitrate.
For a real taste of Chilean cuisine, head to the rough around the edges but eminently lovable Terminal Pesquero where you can sample fresh ceviche, fried fish and seafood soups and watch hungry sea lions circle below.
To many Chileans Antofagasta is something of a cultural backwater lacking the museums and art galleries that are concentrated in Santiago. However, things are changing thanks to the Centro Cultural Estación Antofagasta, which houses rotating exhibitions on topical issues such as immigration, the legacy of Pinochet’s dictatorship and climate breakdown. With such a diverse program, a visit to this museum-cum-gallery-cum-community space will undoubtedly be eye-opening.
Do any capital cities have as good a view as Santiago? Unlikely. Situated on a high altitude plain near the foothills of the Andes, Santiago offers breathtaking views of the glacier capped mountains and bubbling volcanoes that tower over the metropolis. While the city’s setting is expansive, many of its historic and cultural attractions are located in a charming and compact center. Packed with some of Latin America’s best museums, buzzing colonial-era squares and art-noveau markets selling the country’s finest produce, the Chilean capital has something for everyone. Santiago also makes an ideal base for touring the nearby mountains with the high altitude Valle Nevado resort offering year round glacier skiing.
Better known as Cerro San Cristóbal, the Parque Metropolitano is one of the world’s most breathtaking locations. Santiago’s largest green space is perched high above the colonial era city center and is reached by multiple cable cars and funicular railways. Once out of the urban sprawl, the park offers truly unbelievable views of the Andes and has a clutch of world-class attractions, including South America’s premier botanical garden and a towering statue of the Virgin Mary.
The best thing about Santiago is its proximity to the unspoiled mountains of the Andes. To get the best experience of this wilderness, take a day tour to Valle Nevado, Chile’s premier ski resort that sits at 3000 meters above sea level. From the resort you can take part in thrilling winter sports, hike up glaciers or simply sit back and marvel at the jaw-dropping scenery.
A treasure trove of Pre-Columbian artifacts, the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino is Santiago’s standout museum. With exhibits ranging from Mayan stone columns to Andean textiles and indigenous weaponry, the museum has a truly all-encompassing collection. For the best experience, tours of the museum are available with expert guides who can reveal little known facts about Pre-Columbian Chile.
Named after the Chilean poet who was the first Latin American woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, the Centro Gabriela Mistral has single-handedly revitalized Santiago’s art scene. Housed in a striking contemporary building, the gallery has rotating exhibitions by Latin America’s biggest artists while regular performances, film screenings and concerts are held.
Highlighting Chile’s traumatic history under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos is Santiago’s newest and boldest museum. While a visit to the museum is one of the city’s most chilling experiences, it is a must-see for those wanting to learn more about the country’s recent past.
Lying just south of Santiago, the Cajón del Maipo is a mecca for the city’s outdoor enthusiasts. With organized tours of this rugged wilderness leaving from Santiago daily, it is easy to be in the city one hour and white water rafting, heli-skiing or hiking towards the San Francisco Glacier the next.
Despite lying thousands of meters above sea level, Santiago is very close to the Pacific Ocean meaning it gets some of the world’s freshest seafood. To browse the best of the day’s catch, head to the Mercado Central where you can see the ocean’s bounty and sample regional cuisine in rustic stalls.