So you’ve decided to go to South America and are not sure whether to visit Lima or Santiago? You have nothing to worry about. Both cities are fascinating, so no matter which one you choose, you won’t be disappointed.
That said, we believe that any Lima vs. Santiago analysis has a clear winner. To us, it’s Lima. Peru’s capital is a cultural powerhouse with a UNESCO listed Old Town, tall cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, delicious cuisine, and a fantastic nightlife.
Santiago is beautiful too and in some ways better than Lima. We have friends there and visit frequently. Full disclaimer: one of us grew up in Lima and loves the city dearly. The other one of us likes them both the same.
Lima or Santiago
Both cities are quite different. Santiago is inland. The Andes mountain range towers above the city. It feels and looks more like a mountain city. Lima on the other hand is next to the Pacific Ocean. However, the Andes are pretty close.
Lima is one of the biggest cities in South America, with a population of over 9 million people in the metropolitan area, while Santiago has a population of around 7 million in its metropolitan area. Lima is older and was the center of the Spanish Colony.
In Lima you can see ancient archaeological remains, colonial architecture, and contemporary buildings. Santiago looks more modern. The city’s skyline is contemporary and features the tallest buildings in the region. No wonder it’s been dubbed Sanhattan, comparing it to Manhattan.
If You Have to Choose
Choosing between Santiago or Lima depends on your tastes and fancies. Choose Lima if you like archaeology. The city has a couple of breathtaking archaeological remains. Lima also excels in architecture. It’s Old Town has some of the best and oldest colonial architecture in the Americas.
Choose Santiago if you like trekking and the mountains. Few cities in the world have such spectacular mountains so nearby. Wine lovers should also choose Santiago. A couple of valleys near the city produce some of the best wine in the world.
If you like food, choose Lima. We are convinced that its cuisine is the best in the Americas and amongst the best in the world. Lima’s nightlife is a bit more varied and fun than Santiago’s. On the other hand, Santiago’s malls are world famous.
Before the Spanish founded Lima in 1535, the area had been inhabited by indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Huaca Pucllana is perhaps the most famous archaeological remain in Lima. It’s located in the Miraflores district and dates back to around 200 AD.
The Old Town is recognized by UNESCO for its outstanding cultural significance and its status as a well-preserved example of Spanish colonial urban planning. Some of the buildings in the center date back to the early 16th Century.
Lima today is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city that attracts people from all over the world. That’s why its cuisine is so varied and rich. You can spend weeks trying different food from all over the world. Lima is also the gateway to Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
The main sights to visit depend on how many days you’ll spend in Lima. It’s got too many! There are a couple of fascinating archaeological remains in the middle of the city. Plus two world class museums dedicated to ancient cultures: Gold Museum and Larco Herrera Museum.
We love historic architecture and the mix between European and Native American cultures. Lima’s Old Town is the epitome of such a mix. Some of the buildings you must see are the Cathedral, the Saint Francis Convent and its catacombs, and Torre Tagle Palace.
We hang out with friends and socialize in Barranco and Miraflores. These two hoods are next to the ocean. The views are epic. You will see historic architecture and contemporary buildings. Some of the best restaurants, bars, and clubs are in these neighborhoods.
I love walking aimlessly around the Old Town. Unlike in Europe, Lima’s Old Town is inhabited by locals. The center is alive, real, and completely multicultural. Walk along Jr de la Union Street, the pedestrian main drag. There are countless eateries where you can rest and people watch.
Explore the two main squares: Plaza de Armas, and Plaza San Martin. Enter as many churches as you want. Once done with the old head to Miraflores to see the new. Larco Street is Lima’s most famous street. Parque Kennedy its most popular park.
Walk to Parque del Amor and its giant sculpture of a couple kissing. Cross the bridge over the sea and discover Barranco. El Puente de los Suspiros, the Bridge of Sights, is a popular hangout. Continue to the Pedro de Osma museum.
Due to its mild weather all year round, Lima is perfect for outdoor activities. You can walk all around the Old Town. Another fun thing we always do, is walk along the coast, above the cliffs that overlook the ocean.
You can bike and walk along a string of lovely parks with tall trees and all sorts of trees. You can paraglide too! If you are into shopping, visit LarcoMar. It’s an outdoor mall perched on the cliff with epic ocean views.
The eastern edge of Lima is bordered by the Andes. You can see the mountains from the city. If you are into trekking or rafting, you will be in heaven. Since we are a bit obsessed with ancient cultures, we always go to Pachacamac, in the outskirts of the city.
The best places to stay in Lima are in Miraflores and Barranco. We strongly recommend staying there. Both are safe neighborhoods with lots of shops, restaurants and bars. Besides, you can go to the center relatively fast.
Our favorite hotel in Barranco is Hotel B. It’s an old mansion turned into a fancy boutique hotel. It’s got lots of art and style. The rooftop bar is a very popular local hang out, especially at night. The rooms are big and plush.
The JW Marriot Hotel is a tall tower overlooking the ocean, next to LarcoMar. The best rooms are big and have sea views. The hotel has a gym, an outdoor pool, a bar, and two restaurants.
We locals have always known about the city’s cuisine. So when people ask us is Lima worth visiting, we always answer, only if you like to eat! Stop for lunch and a pisco sour in Maury, in the Old Town. They invented the Peruvian cocktail!
For Peruvian Japanese we always go to Maido. Though not cheap, it’s worth every penny. Chifa is Peruvian Chinese cuisine. Chifa Ti Ti in Miraflores is the best restaurant in the city. We’ve been going for ages.
Our favorite Peruvian restaurant is La Huaca, a fancy place overlooking the archaeological remains in Miraflores. Isolina in Barranco is also good. My favorite food in Lima is sea food. I love eating in La Rosa Nautica, an elegant restaurant on a pier over the ocean.
One of the things we like about Lima the most is how multicultural it is. Lima has sizable Japanese, Chinese, African, and European communities. Besides, people from the Amazon, the Andes, and the coast migrated to the city and contributed to its unique flair.
For live Creole, Andean and Afro Peruvian live music go to a Peña. Our favorites are Peña Del Carajo or Dama Juana in Barranco. We Limenos go to La Noche de Barranco to listen to genres like criollo and jazz.
Keep an eye out for events in historic venues like the Teatro Municipal de Lima or the Gran Teatro Nacional, which host live music performances. There are festivals and cultural events all year round, such as the massive Señor de los Milagros procession every October.
We are not exaggerating when we say that traffic in Lima sucks. Big time. It’s probably the city’s biggest flaw. Moving from place to place can take for ages. You can walk without a glitch in Barranco, Miraflores, and the Old Town.
To go from place to place take a taxi. There aren’t expensive and most taxi hailing apps work in the country. You can take the Metropolitano Bus from the Center to Miraflores and Barranco. It can be faster than a taxi.
Biking is another fun way of moving around the city. There are dedicated bike lanes everywhere. Our favorite ride is along the ocean, on top of the cliffs. Go in the afternoon to watch a killer sunset. At night grab a taxi.
I’m an Environmental Attorney and have dedicated significant time to exploring Paracas. The National Reserve lies approximately 170 miles (260 km) away from Lima. I recommend to leave early in the morning to Pachacamac and then to Paracas, along the same route.
This peninsula offers sightings of flamingos, penguins, and sea lions. Consider taking a boat to the islands just offshore. The beaches are absolutely splendid. When my family and I visit, we always opt to stay at Hotel Paracas.
Another recommendation of mine is Caral, the oldest city in the Americas. The Archaeological Remains, recognized by UNESCO, date back an astounding 5000 years. Caral is 112 miles (180 km) to the north of Lima. If possible, consider spending a night at Empedrada Ranch & Lodge.
What’s Special about Lima
Lima is special because of its people. No other city in the Americas is as diverse as Lima. Peruvians are funny, warm, cultured and fantastic hosts. Go out one night, hit the dance floor, share some beers and make new friends.
I personally love the seafront. It’s very impressive. Even if you visit in winter, you can check out the beaches. As if that was not enough, then you have the mountains a step away. I find this combination super cool.
Sorry to repeat it again, but the food is in a league of its own. The cocktails and drinks too. There are simply way too many restaurants and bars to mention here. To enjoy the city, all you have to do is ignore the traffic!
Santiago de Chile
Santiago de Chile is the capital and largest city of Chile. It’s nestled in a valley surrounded by the Andes Mountains to the east and the Chilean Coastal Range to the west. The Mapocho River runs through the city.
Spanish conquistadors founded Santiago in 1541. It quickly became a significant colonial administrative center. The city boasts a rich cultural scene, with numerous museums, theaters, and art galleries. It’s also known for its lively street markets and vibrant neighborhoods like Bellavista.
The city is also home to several parks, including Parque Metropolitano on San Cristóbal Hill, offering panoramic views of Santiago. It’s home to the headquarters of many national and international companies and enormous shopping malls. That’s why it’s got so many towers.
If you spend 3 days in Santiago you will be able to see its main sights. Key landmarks in the historic center include the Plaza de Armas, the Post Office, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the presidential palace, La Moneda.
Bellavista is a popular neighborhood with various shops, galleries, restaurants, and bars. It’s a great place to explore local art and crafts. Local people gravitate to Bellavista to eat, have a drink, and party at night. The other fun hub is Lastarria.
It’s famous for its cultural attractions, restaurants, and a lively atmosphere. Santa Lucía Hill is nearby. Costanera Center is in upscale Providencia. One of the largest shopping malls in South America, is home to the tallest building in Latin America: Gran Torre Santiago.
Santiago has several museums that are worth your time. The National Museum of Art showcases a diverse collection of Chilean and international art. The Museum of Memory and Human Rights documents human rights abuses during Chile’s military dictatorship.
For live music, go to the Municipal Theatre, famous for its stunning neoclassical architecture and its opera, ballet and classical music concerts. In Bellavista go to La Chascona. One of the former homes of the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, is now a museum.
Lastarria has the Gabriela Mistral Center. This cultural center hosts a variety of artistic events, including exhibitions, concerts, theater performances, and more. Finally, go to the Visual Arts Museum, dedicated to contemporary Chilean art that often features rotating exhibitions.
When we are in Santiago we usually spend lots of time outdoors. Our favorite spot is San Cristóbal Hill. It’s between Bellavista and Providencia. The hill offers spectacular views of Santiago and is home to the Virgin Mary statue.
Adjacent to Lastarria, the Metropolitan Park along the Mapocho River is a lovely place for a leisurely stroll, picnicking, or simply enjoying the outdoors. Santa Lucia Hill is adjacent to Lastarria. It offers panoramic views of Santiago and has historical significance.
If you are into wine, you have to go to the Maipo Valley. It’s easily accessible from Santiago, with some wineries being less than an hour’s drive from the city center. Local people go over the weekends.
The best places to stay in Santiago are in Lastarria and Bellavista. My husband and I go at least once a year to Santiago and we always stay at The Singular, in Lastarria. It’s a totally refurbished 1917 building with extra plush rooms.
The Singular has the best spa in the city and a rooftop pool with unforgettable views. If you want a boutique hotel, stay at Hotel Magnolia in Lastarria, a fancy 1929 mansion. I’m a bit of a nerd and love reading in its library lounge.
If you are traveling with your partner, stay at Castillo Rojo Hotel. The 1923 house is next to the park. The best rooms are big and have authentic art and designer furniture. The service is in a class of its own.
Since Santiago is a modern metropolis, it’s got all types of restaurants and bars. However, we keep going to same places. Our favorite place to eat in the city is the Mercado Central. The busting market is known for its fresh seafood.
La Vega in Recoleta, south of the Old Town, is the other local market where you can try authentic Chilean food. Patio Bellavista is a complex of bars and restaurants in Bellavista. Local artists visit to eat and socialize.
You have to eat while enjoying Santiago’s epic views. Hotel Cumbres Lastarria Sky Bar is a fancy restaurant overlooking San Cristóbal Hill and beyond. In Providencia go to Alto Maipo. Their wine list is as impressive as the views of the Andes.
Nestled in the heart of Lastarria, Blondie nightclub is the place to be for alternative and electronic music. Their lineup includes local and international performers. The sound system is top notch, and it’s got several dance floors.
Not far off, Centro Cultural Amanda hosts a diverse array of shows. We are talking about acoustic concerts, local musical acts, and captivating jazz ensembles. Casa en el Aire specializes in the enchanting sounds of Latin American music, including bolero, trova, and cumbia.
To revel in live renditions of cueca, trova, and authentic Chilean folk melodies, make your way to Peña del Nano Parra, also in Bellavista. Around the bend, Fausto Discotheque stands as the preeminent LGBTQ+ nightclub in Santiago. We always end up dancing there!
Santiago has a well-developed public transportation system, including buses and a modern metro system. The metro is safe and fast. You can go from Providencia, to the Center and Bellavista in no time. Buses crisscross the entire city.
Buses accept cash and the convenient Bip! Card. Ask around which bus to take and you will be helped. Chileans are really nice guests and are always willing to help. Taxis are not expensive and safe too. We usually take them at night.
You can walk in the center, Providencia, and Bellavista. The terrain is flat and most attractions are close to each other. You can also bike in the city. We usually do so next to the Mapocho River. The city has an easy to use public bike sharing system.
Valparaiso and Viña del Mar are the two most popular day trips from Santiago. Valparaíso is a coastal city with colorful hillsides, historic funiculars, and a bohemian atmosphere. It’s about 75 miles (120 kilometers) from Santiago. You can take a public bus there.
Viña del Mar, is a coastal resort city renowned for its beautiful beaches, gardens, and entertainment options. Located about 75 miles (120 kilometers from Santiago), it’s easily accessible by frequent bus services. Buses connect Viña del Mar and Valparaíso in approximately half an hour.
The closest vineyards to Santiago are in the Maipo Valley, some 12 to 18 miles (20 to 30 kilometers) from the city. We have to be honest. It’s hard and pointless to go on your own. It’s more practical and efficient to use guided tours.
What’s Special about Santiago de Chile
Granted, the city is not that famous outside of South America. That’s why people keep asking us is Santiago worth visiting? Absolutely! The city is a world class metropolis that attracts people from all over South America and the world.
Santiago is in constant change. Though it embraces the future, it takes care and feels proud about its past. No other city in Chile tells the story of the country as Santiago. People from the majestic Patagonia and from the northern deserts meet in the city.
Besides, the city has state of the art facilities. The shopping and culinary scene has nothing to envy from other metropolis. We left the best for last. Chileans are splendid people. You will be treated professionally and with warmth.
We believe Lima is a better destination. The mixture of cultures, the different layers of history, and its incredible culture makes it one of the most fascinating cities on earth. It seems like the most representative city of South America.
That said, any Santiago vs Lima analysis depends on you. The good news is, you can’t go wrong. Go to Lima first and on your next trip to South America visit Santiago. Some people may like Santiago better!
We believe you must spend there at least 3 days in Lima. Most tourists go ahead and visit Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Perhaps, if you have a week, you can visit Santiago.
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