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

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.

Originally platted by Valdivia’s surveyor, Pedro de Gamboa, the Plaza de Armas is the center of a zona típica (area designated for its historical character) national monument. Until 1821, when the central market moved north to the Mapocho, it was also Santiago’s commercial center.

Construction began in 1748 on the oldest surviving landmark, the Catedral Metropolitana, but earthquakes and fires delayed its completion until 1830. Italian architect Joaquín Toesca designed its neoclassical facade, which was later modified with late-19th-century Tuscan touches.

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 Francophile Correo Central (Post Office, 1882) replaced the colonial government house.

Commerce monopolized the plaza’s south side; after the market moved, the handsome 19th-century arcade known as the Portal Fernández Concha replaced it (its current hot dog and sandwich stands make it less prestigious than it once was). Half a block east, dating from 1769, the Casa Colorada (Merced 860) houses the city museum. Another block-plus east, the national monument Iglesia de la Merced (Merced and MacIver) dates from 1795. The adjacent Museo de la Merced (MacIver 341, tel. 02/6649189, 9 a.m.–2 p.m. and 3–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., US$2) holds an assortment of ecclesiastical art.

One block west of the plaza, bounded by Bandera, Catedral, Morandé, and Compañía, the former Congreso de la República housed Chile’s legislature until the 1973 coup. The building suffered a whole series of setbacks, however, from its inception under President Manuel Montt in the 1850s: death of an architect, money shortages, and a fire. Finally finished in 1876, it suffered another destructive fire in 1895; by 1901, it was rebuilt and re-inaugurated in its present neoclassical style. It suffered earthquake damage in 1985, but has since had a seismic upgrade. Until recently, the Foreign Ministry occupied the building.

Immediately north of the ex-Congreso, the Foreign Ministry trains both Chilean and foreign diplomats at its Academia Diplomática Andrés Bello (Diplomatic Academy, Catedral 1183) in the renaissance-style Palacio Edwards (1888).

One block from the plaza’s southwest corner, the Palacio de la Real Aduana (Royal Customs House, Bandera 361) now accommodates the exceptional Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art). Immediately across the street and south of the Congreso, but facing Compañía, stand the neoclassical Tribunales de Justicia (Law Courts, 1912–1930). Another block west, Chañarcillo mining tycoon Francisco Ignacio Ossa Mercado inhabited the Moorish-style Palacio La Alhambra (1862), now housing the Sociedad de Bellas Artes (Compañía 1340, tel. 02/6980875), the fine arts society.

Half a block north of the plaza, the French-style Cuerpo de Bomberos (Paseo Puente), completed in 1893, resembles the post office. 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, on a lot once known as the “Dominicans’ trash dump,” stands the landmark Mercado Central, a major tourist draw for its seafood restaurants.

From 1913 until 1987, trains to Valparaíso, northern Chile, and Mendoza (Argentina) used Eiffel-influenced architect Emilio Jecquier’s monumental Estación Mapocho; closed in 1987 and reopened as a cultural center, it hosts Santiago’s annual book fair and other special events. In the nearby Cal y Canto Metro station, excavations have exposed parts of the foundations of the colonial Puente Cal y Canto bridge over the Mapocho.

Northeast of the Templo de Santo Domingo stand two remaining colonial residences. The mid-18th-century Posada del Corregidor (Esmeralda 749) is an adobe with a colonial corner pillar and balconies. Despite its name, no Spanish official ever worked or lived within; for nearly a century after 1830, it went by the ironic nickname “Filarmónica” because of the dance hall that operated within its walls. The Casa Manso de Velasco (Santo Domingo and MacIver), dating back to 1730, takes its name from colonial governor José Manso de Velasco (1737–1744), who was later viceroy of Peru.

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 garbage 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 structure (San Pablo 967, tel. 02/6968327, 7 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 7 a.m.–8 p.m. Fri., and 7 a.m.–6 p.m. Sat.), from 1872, is mainly the work of Fermín Vivaceta.

Streetside storefronts have concealed the original facade except on the Ismael Valdés Vergara side, where it faces the river and opens onto a fountain plaza; there are other entrances on San Pablo, Paseo Puente, and 21 de Mayo. 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 foreigners and locals alike. The smallish restaurants on the periphery are cheaper and nearly as good as the two or three that monopolize the prime central sites.

Plaza de Armas Museums

Museo Histórico Nacional (Palacio de la Real Audiencia)

After 1609, the Real Audiencia housed the 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), though its clock tower dates from the late-19th century.

Three years later, during the independence struggle, the first Congreso Nacional met here, but royalists restored the Real Audiencia from 1814 to 1817. In 1817, 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.

Following a professional makeover, this once moribund museum (Plaza de Armas 951, tel. 02/4117000, 10 a.m.–5:45 p.m. daily except Monday, US$1.20 Tues.–Sat., free Sun. and holidays) deserves a visit despite shortcomings. 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 pre-Columbian times through Spanish colonial rule, the subsequent establishment of church and state, and collapse of the Spanish empire; it then covers the early republic and its 19th-century expansion, the oligarchy that ruled parliament, and the failed reforms that resulted in the 1973 coup—where the story abruptly ends. An exhibit of presidential sashes includes that of General Pinochet, but there’s no account of the bloody coup and the abuses that followed it, let alone the return to democracy and Pinochet’s legal problems in both England and Chile. The museum also hosts special exhibits.

Museo de Santiago

Perhaps Santiago’s best-preserved colonial house, restored in 1977 after years of neglect, 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.

Only the two-story facade facing Merced, with its forged iron balconies, is truly original. The museum itself chronicles the city’s development from its founding by Valdivia through the evolution of colonial society, the independence era, and its transformation under 19th-century mayor Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna. The history is particularly vivid in the models of historic buildings and dioramas of events such as the 1863 fire that destroyed the Iglesia de la Compañía.

Undergoing yet another remodel, the Museo de Santiago (Merced 860, tel. 02/6330723, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat., 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun. and holidays, US$1) is due to reopen in 2013.

Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

The late architect Sergio Larraín García-Moreno donated a lifetime’s supply of acquisitions to stock this exceptional museum in the late 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-life-size Mapuche funerary statues. The museum also possesses Aguateca’s Stele 6, from a Late Classic Maya site in Guatemala’s Petén lowlands that’s suffered severe depredations from looters. Having suffered damage in the 2010 earthquake, the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Bandera 361, tel. 02/9281500, US$6 pp, US$2 for students; 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., closed during Semana Santa (Holy Week) and on May 1, Sept. 18 and 19, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, on other holidays, it closes at noon; children under age 13 free) is due to reopen in 2013.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Chile.

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