The most incredible thing about Chile’s geography is it has a coastline on the Pacific Ocean that stretches north to south 4,270 kilometres (2,653 miles) but its width between the Ocean and the Andes is never more than 445 kilometres (276 miles). That distance is only 90 kilometres (56 miles) at its narrowest point! So, it’s unsurprising that significant climatic differences range from the Atacama Desert in the country’s north to the southern region, where Antarctica is the next land.
The Pinochet years of dictatorship stained Chilean politics, but today, Chile is a democratic republic. Santiago, its capital, sits around the midpoint in Chile, with a population of 17.5 million. Spanish is the official language that mid-16th century conquerors brought to South America, and they established cities in Chile. The Spanish failed to conquer some parts of what is now Chile, with the Mapuche people remaining in control of the south-central region. A stable republic came about in the 1830s, albeit authoritarian, over a decade after the Spanish left. Today’s boundaries have existed since the War of the Pacific (1879 to 1883) against Peru and Bolivia.
While it suffered significant internal turmoil at times, today’s country is stable with a good economy. Chile’s wine has made inroads into the world market and one of the delightful ways to spend a day trip from Chilean cities like Santiago is to visit some of its wineries. There is a considerable variety in Chile and enough to do and see to occupy two weeks of your time, and still need to return to see more. With limited time, you will only see a fraction of what is on offer, so read on and then plan your itinerary for a visit based on the time you have available.
Cities in Chile
If you only have time for one tour, take this Chilean Cities Full Day Group Tour to explore several cities, including Vina Del Mar, Valparaiso, Casablanca and Reñaca.
20 Chilean Cities To Visit
Santiago, the largest city and national capital, is in a valley below the snow-capped Andes and east of the Pacific Ocean.
Its population is on the way to reaching five million.
As the oldest city in Chile, it is no surprise that it has reminders of its Spanish colonial past.
They include the 19th-century Palacio de la Real Audiencia, where you will find the National History Museum and the 18th-century Metropolitan Cathedral.
You’ll find lots to do and see as Santiago has the infrastructure you would expect of a large city, including theatres, parks, restaurants and modern transport systems with good communications both north and south.
- Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Around Santiago – see all you can in a day.
- Private Santiago City Half Day Tour – unlock the city’s secrets with a guide.
An important port on South America’s Pacific Coast, Valparaíso is an easy day trip from Santiago but it deserves more time than that.
Funicular lifts are a unique feature of a city where the architecture is truly fascinating.
Commerce is important to its economy, but so is tourism.
Cruise ships regularly call into this port city whose “golden age” was the 19th century when there was significant immigration from Europe, not just the Spanish who first arrived towards the middle of the 16th century.
When the Panama Canal opened, Valparaiso did decline somewhat but that should not deter visitors.
Head to the historic quarter that typifies the “golden age” of the city.
3- Viña del Mar
Vina Del Mar, a city of around 330,000 close to Valparaiso, sharply contrasts the larger port city.
It is a city of parks, palaces and leafy avenues before you reach the tower blocks looking down on the large beach.
Vina del Mar is nicknamed “Garden City”, with botanical gardens also a feature.
Visitors will find accommodation, bars, restaurants and casinos perfect for a beach holiday.
It has a famous annual music festival and among the places to visit are the Quinta Vergara Amphitheatre in the Quinta Vergara Park, the 20th century Vergara Palace and the Artequin Museum.
In the Museum of Archaeology and History Francisco Fonck, you can see stone moai sculptures from Easter Island as well as some shrunken heads.
Recommended tour: Full Day Group Tour to Vina Del Mar, Valparaiso, Casablanca and Reñaca
4- Punta Arenas
Another coastal city, but this time in the deep south of Chile, Punta Arenas is an interesting base from which to explore the Tierra del Fuego archipelago and the stunning Torres del Paine National Park.
It is a mix of old wooden houses with tin roofs and modern malls and commercial buildings.
Petrochemicals are the basis of the economy and a significant reason for its growth.
It is on the Magellan Strait, and in the main square, Plaza Munos Gamero, there is a memorial to Ferdinand Magellan, the famous explorer.
A replica of his ship is in Museo Nao Victoria Museum.
The city’s population is around 125,000, with a tiny minority attending the southernmost Hindu temple in the world.
Iquique is arguably the most popular seaside resort in Chile and attracts everything from shoppers (duty-free status of course!) to surfers, paragliders and those looking for a casino.
It has lovely beaches and a huge sand dune overlooking it.
You will find Iquique in Northern Chile, 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) from Santiago and behind it sits the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world.
Its population has now gone past 200,000, with significant immigration from many parts of the world.
Tourists swell those numbers.
It was part of Peru until the end of the 19th century.
Charles Darwen and the Beagle were visitors during the 19th century.
This beach resort city is just over 300 kilometres (almost 190 miles) north of Iquique.
It is a relaxing place that attracts locals and overseas visitors, especially from neighbouring Bolivia.
Morro Cliff towers over the city known for its bustling markets and lovely plazas.
Lauca National Park is an enjoyable day trip from the city as is the Azapa Valley.
Today, the population is approximately 230,000.
The city’s highlights are the Museo Histórico y de Armas War Museum, the work of Gustave Eiffel and San Marcos Cathedral.
Recommended tour: Arica 10000 Years of History
This is another coastal city close to the Atacama Desert, halfway between Santiago and Iquique.
It is an industrial centre with many modern buildings, including tower blocks.
There is a historic district with an old plaza and Bario Historico has plenty of old buildings.
In recent times, the waterfront and piers have been upgraded and there’s an impressive rock arch, Monumento Natural La Portada.
The population is close to 390,000, with copper mining an important contributor to the local economy.
Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert) is a famous sculpture landmark close by in the Atacama.
Recommended tour: Mining Route and Desert Hand Tour Antofagasta
Calama on Rio Loa is a dry city, “dry” meaning limited rainfall rather than no alcohol.
There is rarely more than 5 mm (0.2 inches) of rain annually.
It is the nearest large city to Antofagasta and has a population of approximately 150,000.
Visitors to the Atacama Desert often head out from this city.
A little to the north, Chuquicamata is a huge open-pit copper mine, while the nearby village of Chiu Chiu is where you will find a 17th-century adobe church.
In Los Flamencos National Reserve, Valle de la Luna reveals a moonlike landscape with mountains and impressive rock formations.
9- La Serena
This is Chile’s second oldest city and another one with lovely beaches.
La Serena is equidistant between Santiago and Antofagasta; its population is just above 200,000.
Reminders of its colonial times still exist in the form of old stone churches, boulevards, and architecture in general.
The Archaeological Museum is probably its main attraction otherwise.
The Faro Lighthouse and Iglesia de San Francisco are other landmarks.
Chilean tourists head there in numbers in the early months of the year, but it remains relatively quiet at other times.
If you like wine or exploring rural villages, indulge on a day trip.
- La Serena and Coquimbo Private City Tour Including Lunch (perfect for a cruise ship shore excursion).
- Elqui Valley and Vicuña Private Tour Including Lunch
Concepción is the third-largest city in the country and is on the Pacific Coast, 600 kilometres (380 miles) south of Valparaiso.
This Chielan city dates back to the 16th century and, for a couple of decades, was the capital of Chile.
Concepcion is close to where the Biobío River enters the Pacific.
The river connects inland regions rich in agriculture, forest and mining.
Employment opportunities are good for the population of 220,000, many of whom are Catholic, as are the majority in all Chile’s cities.
Concepcion is known for its musical traditions while it is also an important university city.
One of its nicknames is the “Chilean Capital of Rock”.
Recommended tour: Ranquil Tour Of Vineyards And Costumbristas Parties from Conception
This city of around 250,000 is 670 kilometres (4i6 miles) south of Santiago.
Temuco is a great place to learn more about the Mapuche people who resisted Spanish attempts to take their territory.
In the late 1800s, Chile expanded southwards, long after the Spanish had gone.
You will find colourful markets, lovely local handicrafts and traditional buildings.
The countryside here is beautiful, with the Conguillio National Park fairly close.
Plaza Anibal Pinto is its heart, a square filled with palm trees.
The Regional Museum of Araucania has traditional Mapuche costumes, decorative objects and archaeological artifacts such as funerary urns.
Recommended tour: Volcano, Snowboarding and Skiing
Valdivia is a university city in the south, hence the youthful “feel” and many cheap bars, cafes and restaurants.
It sits where the Calle Araucana and Cruces Rivers meet.
Modern buildings and old colonial ones exist in this picturesque city, attracting significant German immigration in the 19th century.
They brought with them the ability to brew beer, and there is an annual “bierfest” where you can enjoy beer and German music.
It’s worth visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art, which occupies an old brewery building, the seafood market and the botanical gardens.
Recommended tour: Punucapa Nature Sanctuary, wetlands, biodiversity and culture
13- Puente Alto
Puente Alto lies just south of Santiago and has a population not far short of 500,000, with a significant additional number in the immediate vicinity.
The metro link with the capital ensures that citizens can easily reach Santiago for employment.
There’s plenty to keep children amused, including the Mampato Amusement Park with trains, bicycles, trampolines and even a Wild West Show.
The public park, Pueblito Las Vizcacaes, is a recent addition and offers kayaking, animals, sports and picnic facilities.
Talca is 255 kilometres (158 miles) south of Santiago in the Maule Region and has a population of around 200,000.
Its economy involves both manufacturing and agriculture, with wine production important.
Its origins date back to 1692, with its role in achieving Chile’s independence widely recognised.
Chile’s 1818 Declaration of Independence was signed here.
Plaza de Armas, the main square, is home to the O’Higginiano and Fine Arts Museum, with both art and historical exhibits.
Concerts and plays are staged nearby at the modern Maule Regional Theatre.
In Northern Chilean Patagonia, Coyhaique has good infrastructure for those visiting the city, such as hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and good shopping.
It’s a comfortable base from which to explore the beautiful region of which it is part.
Mountaineering, trekking and fly fishing in the Simpson River are outdoor activities.
You may see cougar as you walk and its favourite prey, deer.
If you want to visit Chilean Patagonia in the south, you are likely to pass through this city.
Head to the craft market in the main square to look for ceramics and woollen products.
16- Puerto Montt
Puerto Montt is a popular port city in the Lake District of Southern Chile, acting as a gateway to the Andes and the Patagonian fjords.
Santiago is 1,055 kilometres (655 miles) to its north.
Today’s population approaches 250,000, a far cry from its beginnings in the mid-19th Century, with employment available in agriculture, salmon aquaculture, cattle, forestry and tourism.
The 19th-century neoclassical wooden cathedral is in the main square, Plaza de Armas.
Casa del Arte Diego Rivera is a local gallery displaying the work of both local and national artists.
You should also wander around Caleta de Angelmó Market and take photos of the active volcano, Calbuco.
- Private Tour: Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas and Vicente Peres Rosales National Park
- Frutillar, Puerto Varas, and Petrohué Waterfalls Excursion from Puerto Montt
- Puerto Montt: Full day at Chiloé Island, Castro and Dalcahue
Castro in the Lake District is the capital of Chiloe Island, famous for its culture with unique houses called palafitos on stilts above the water.
Its many wooden churches throughout the island are built in a style unique to the city.
Plaza de Armas in the main square has a yellow, 20th-century Church, San Francisco, with two steeples.
The Museum of Modern Art Chiloé is also worth a visit.
In terms of cuisine, Castro has curanto, a Chilote dish of potatoes, shellfish and meat cooked in a hole in the ground.
Pack a rain jacket and warm clothing because showers are frequent at any time of the year.
Recommended tour: Puerto Montt: Full day at Chiloé Island, Castro and Dalcahue
Curicó, in central Chile’s Maule Region, south of Santiago, is famous for its wineries.
The city has a population of 130,000, with almost 20,000 more in the immediate rural area.
Each March, the Wine Harvest Festival of Chile is held in its square, Plaza de Armas, a beautiful place with a fountain and ornate wrought-iron bandstand.
The tree-lined Manso de Velasco promenade has several political monuments.
Radal Siete Tazas National Park, just to its south, is where you will find interesting rock formations and waterfalls.
Surfing and the beach are two of this city’s main attractions.
Surfers head to Pichilemu from all over the world in the hope of experiencing waves as high as 9 metres (30 feet).
It regularly hosts international competitions.
You can still enjoy the beach even if you are not a surfer; go windsurfing, kite surfing, sailing or fishing.
Away from the beach, walk around the fruit and vegetable market to see a real splash of colour.
In the summer season, open-air concerts are a regular event once people leave the beach.
Pichilemu is southwest of Santiago, and although one of Chile’s smaller cities, it is lively.
20- Puerto Varas
Few cities are as picturesque as Puerto Varas, the “city of roses” with two imposing volcanoes, Osorno and Calbuco, and the Llanquihue Lake.
This is the Lake District in Southern Chile.
Its colonial heritage includes German influences to the extent you can imagine yourself in Bavaria when you visit.
The nearby Vicente Perez Rosales National Park is very popular in a region where outdoor activities offer so much.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, with impressive towers and coloured red and white, is the city’s main religious landmark.