National capitals are the stuff family dream vacations are made of, as there is never a shortage of things to see and do, and ways to tailor the visit to kids of different ages. Santiago, Chile, elevates that notion, and not only because the top attractions of late include the tallest building in South America and a funicular that scales San Cristobol Mountain.
In the last couple of decades, Santiago evolved into one of the most dynamic urban getaways, with its natural attributes, intermingling of global cultures and artistic soul. Its eclectic mix of museums, markets, neighborhoods and parks have features everybody from energetic toddlers to curious elementary school kids, jaded teens and parents will remember for years to come.
3 and up
St. Christopher Hill (Cerro San Cristóbal), with its famed funicular, is a perfect, self-contained Sunday with its spectacular views, historic church, interesting food stands and various settings just waiting to be backdrops for selfies and family portraits. After scaling the heights (active families with older children can also hike up the mountain on the park’s trails), families can explore the rest of Metropolitan Park, a gorgeous expanse of green space in the bright and trendy Bellavista neighborhood.
The entire family can get a taste of Santiago’s high life on the observation deck at Gran Torre Santiago, and then enjoy the largest shopping mall in Latin America. Although Santiago, back on Earth, could be perceived as a large open-air museum, several cultural sites approach engaging children with the same vibrancy and energy. Interactive museum Museo Interactivo Mirador is non-stop fun with its array of unusual musical instruments, interactive exhibits and DIY experiments, and magical tunnels designed to introduce kids to various scientific principals.
Museo Artequín, designed by French architect Pierre-Henri Picq to house Chile’s exhibition in the 1889 Paris International Exposition, blends Santiago’s unique blend of European and Latin American architecture with a lively introduction to fine art with two floors of reproductions of famous artworks hung at kid-height. There are occasional interactive exhibits and workshops.
While Santiago evolved into one of Latin America’s culinary capitals, the Santiago-style hot dog—the “completo” —is one edible concoction anyone can appreciate. Locals recommend getting this puppy with the works (chopped tomatoes, mashed avocados, cheese and other fixings) at Domino or Charly Dog, though there are other creations and combinations, as well as a veggie variation at Charly Dog.
Age 7 and Up
La Vega Central within the city’s Central Market (Mercado Central) is truly larger than life … right down to huge ears of corn, lettuce heads and stone fruit, as well as unusual local veggies such as avocados one can eat with the skin on. Casual, affordable dining abounds at Vega Chica, where curious eaters can try out cazuelas (thick soup with chicken, corn, carrots and potatoes), piping hot, cheese-stuffed empanadas fresh from the oven and other street foods.
The Museo Nacional de Historia Natural has the distinction of being one of the oldest natural history museums in South America, founded Sept. 14, 1830, by French naturalist Claudio Gay under a commission by the Chilean government. Though it has exhibits reflecting its original mandate of presenting the biology and geography of Chile, its contents today are both up to date and ultimately timeless. Highlights include the impressive Biogeography of Chile (a long tunnel snaking through much of the first floor); a 17-meter skeleton of a blue whale; an insect room that includes large fossil dragonflies; interactive children’s games about Chile’s terrestrial ecosystems; anthropological rooms dedicated to Chile’s indigenous tribes; and some of the oldest mummies in the world, dating back more than 7,000 years.
The Plaza de Armas is the cultural and spiritual heart of the city. While the entire family will enjoy the plaza’s eclectic mix of comedians, artists, photographers, performers and street vendors on a sunny day, school-age kids will be awed by any of the buildings surrounding the square. These include the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Governor’s Palace, (now the city’s main post office), and the Historical Museum (Museo Histórico Nacional), which houses fascinating exhibits cataloguing Chile’s history from the pre-Conquest period to the 20th century. A short walk away, the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art (Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino) houses a diverse assemblage of pottery, sculptures and textiles from Mesoamerica, the Amazon, the Caribbean and Central and Southern Andes.
13 and Up
Teens with a little money to spend will find an assortment of decidedly “non-mall” clothing and jewelry at the Santa Lucia Arts & Crafts Market, as well as a bit of people watching with local teens looking for their own fashion statements. As the market has a good reputation among locals for its safety, variety and good prices, the rest of the family will enjoy browsing an array of handmade wooden toys both fun and important cultural assets for all age groups.
The Parque Forestal is home to two free-admission museums high-school kids studying world history will enjoy. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes has a mix of international pieces as well as works by Chilean painters such as Luis Vargas Rosas and Roberto Matta. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo showcases modern works from artists working all over Latin America. Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos) offers a more thought-provoking experience, documenting the events of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year rule and pays tribute to the thousands of lives lost 1973–1990 through photographs of victims, video coverage of protesters and a host of legal documents, letters and artifacts from the late 20th century.