Plaza de Armas is the heart of historic Santiago and one of the best places to understand the history of the city. The plaza is a huge open square with a fountain in the center, filled with trees and benches, and surrounded by some very important historic buildings.
Let’s start with the most important building, Catedral Metropolitana. It was built in 1775 and the fifth church to be built on the site. It is also the seat of the Archbishop of Chile. The Palacio Arzobispal de Santiago, the main offices of the Archbishop, are next to the cathedral. The Museo de Arte Sagrado (Museum of Sacred Art) is accessed from inside the cathedral.
I wasn’t expecting much on the inside, but it is massive and rivals some of the cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe. That’s not a surprise because the design was conceived by Bavarian Jesuits. I was very impressed.
One important section of the cathedral is the altar of Santa Teresa de los Andes, Chile’s first saint.
On the northwest corner is the Correo Central, or the main branch of the Chilean Post Office. It wasn’t originally built as a post office. It was actually the first house of Santiago’s founder, Pedro de Valdivia, and later served as the presidential palace from 1817-1846.
Palacio de la Real Audiencia
The yellow building with the clock tower is the Palacio de la Real Audiencia. It was built in 1808 and housed Chile’s first National Congress. It was also the location of the offices of Chile’s liberator and first president, Bernardo O’Higgins.
Palacio de la Real Audiencia doesn’t serves as a government building anymore. It’s now the Museo Histórico Nacional, which is worth a visit. Everything is in Spanish, but there are some very interesting artifacts from Chilean history inside. Admission is CLP $600 (as of April 2014).
The best part of visiting the museum is the chance to climb up the bell tower for a bird’s eye view of Plaza de Armas. The tour is given in Spanish with stops at every level, but even if you don’t understand Spanish, an amazing view can speak any language.
Municipalidad de Santiago
The building on the northeast corner is the Municipalidad de Santiago, built in 1785. It still functions as the city hall and is closed to the public.
On the southeast corner of the plaza on Merced is a very historic building. Casa Colorada, one of the few remaining colonial buildings in Santiago, was built in 1770 for Don Mateo de Toro Zambrano, a Spanish Royal Governor. There’s a city museum inside, Museo de Santiago. It was temporarily closed for renovations during my visit.
Portal Fernández Concha
On the south side of Plaza de Armas is Portal Fernández Concha. The ground floor corridor nearest the plaza is jam packed with cheap fast food stalls and restaurants serving Chilean specialties. It’s a great place to experience a quick meal Chilean-style at an amazing price.