Downtown Santiago encompasses the triangular area bounded by the Río Mapocho to the north, the Alameda to the south, and the north-south running autopista to the west.
One aspect of central Santiago that visitors are quick to notice is its network of pedestrian-only streets, elegantly paved in alternating lines of white and grey stone. This network is formed principally by three streets: Paseo Ahumada, extending from the Alameda to the Plaza de Armas (with a slightly seedier extension north to the Mercado Central along Calle Puente); Calle Estado, running parallel to Paseo Ahumado; and the intersecting Paseo Huérfanos, crossing much of the city centre between Calle MacIver (near the Cerro Santa Lucía) in the east and Calle Teatinos a few hundred metres to the west.
The traditional heart of the city is the Plaza de Armas, a handsome public square filled with trees, fountains and monuments. This is a spot where families still come to stroll. Among the buildings facing the plaza is the low, neoclassical Iglesia Catedral, built in stages between 1748 and 1789, with an interior that includes three naves, along with numerous paintings and gold inlays. On the south side of the cathedral is the Museo de la Catedral, which displays religious imagery, paintings and documents.
Three buildings occupy the north side of the Plaza de Armas: the Correo Central, the Municipalidad de Santiago and, between these two buildings, the Palacio de la Real Audiencia. This last building is now home to the Museo Histórico Nacional (www.dibam.cl/historico_nacional), which presents a broad overview of Chilean history from pre-Hispanic times.
Located at the corner of Merced and MacIver, the 18th-century Basílica de la Merced features three parallel naves, a beautifully carved wooden pulpit, various works of art, and an impressive number of carved stone tablets.
The Palacio Real Casa de Aduana, the former customs house completed in 1807, is now home to the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Bandera 361 at Compañía, tel. 56 2 6887348, www.precolombino.cl), which displays archaeological items found in various regions of Chile and other parts of the western hemisphere as far north as Mexico.