Chilean beach resort cities like Viña del Mar often take a back seat to some of the country’s more adventure-fueled destinations like Patagonia, the Andes Mountains, and the Atacama Desert: but it’s time to change that way of thinking.
Though the deep blue Pacific can be chilly, the beaches here are beautiful and are complete with golden sand, dramatic rock formations and, at the end of the day, they're lighted by glorious sunsets. The city is also a stunner, with outdoor cafés fronting sunny plazas, palm-lined streets, and a working clock constructed entirely from flowers. Though it's a bit edgier and hillier, the neighboring city of Valparaíso features an up-and-coming food scene that's just as exciting as its legendary street art. (It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) Additionally, Valparaíso was beloved by Pablo Neruda, a famous Chilean poet, diplomat, and Nobel Prize recipient.
Where to Stay
Resembling the stern of a giant ship and set right on the beach, the Sheraton Miramar Hotel & Convention Center was built in the 1940s as the region’s first luxury hotel. It’s been renovated many times, and today, it’s a luxurious full-service resort complete with two pools (one inside and the other jutting out over the ocean), several restaurants, a well-equipped gym, and a pristine spa. Each of the resort’s 142 rooms are surprisingly spacious and feature balconies that overlook the ocean. The property is also popular with celebrities, especially during the International Song Festival, a five-day event that takes place each February and fills the city with top acts. Rates from $170 per night.
Where to Eat
Thanks to a sinuous coastline that stretches along the Pacific Ocean for more than 2,500 miles, seafood is popular with local chefs, particularly rosy-hued machas (the pale-pink razor clams that are native to the region) and congrio (also known as conger eels, which often show up accompanied by fish and shellfish in a Chilean soup called caldillo de congrio). Dine like a local on the sunny patio at Divino Pecado. Here, start with a tart pisco sour before moving on to your main course (We recommend either the plump machas broiled with gruyère and white wine, house-smoked salmon, or fresh pasta tossed with seafood.) Dishes range from around $15 to $18.
Set on popular and scenic Acapulco Beach, Chez Gerard serves beautifully plated ceviche that’s sprinkled with giant roasted corn kernels. Here, you’ll also find salads, grilled dishes, and lots of homemade pastas. When Meyling Tang opened Tres Peces, her fish-only restaurant in Valparaíso, people told her she was crazy. These days, lines form long before the restaurant opens. Decorated with fishing nets and photographs of local fishermen who supply each day’s catch, the sunny eatery features some hard-to-find Chilean delicacies like abalone, as well as delicious creations like shrimp pad Thai. Tip: Don’t skip the bread, either. The piping hot pan amasado (disc-shaped Chilean bread) is meant to be slathered with butter or oil, and then dabbed with spicy pebre (a Chilean condiment that resembles pico de gallo). The best part? Most of the dishes here are under $10.
If you're craving a cool, sweet treat after your meal, you're in luck: Chileans adore ice cream, and heladerias (ice cream shops), line the streets of nearly every city. One of the best is Emporio La Rosa, where you can find Chilean favorites like ulmo (which is flavored with rich palm honey), rose, anddulce de leche, along with classics like chocolate, vanilla, and mixed berry.
What to See and Do
You'll find La Sebastiana, (which was one of Naruda's three homes in Chile; now, it's a museum) atop Cerro Bellavista, a high hill that overlooks Valparaíso Bay. The eccentric, brightly colored, five-level house is a curio of Neruda’s collections. An audio tour uses interesting objects — a stuffed bird, a carousel horse, and a 17th-century map of the world featuring a misspelling of “Chili ”— to tell the story of the esteemed poet-turned-diplomat.
Afterwards, stroll through the painted streets of Valparaíso, where schools of fish and tilted skylines decorate buildings, and doorways have been transformed into magical entries. There are indoor galleries, too, including En Casa Dimalow (an artists’ market where street photographer Sebastian Runner shows his work). Also, be sure to visit País de Artesanos for handcrafted jewelry, ceramics, and leather goods; Chatarra Lab Bazar Design for textiles; and La Sucursal for bath salts made with minerals from the Atacama Desert.
Tame Valparaíso’s hills and ride one of the 15 funiculars that scale the mountain. The station at the base of the Reina Victoria lift is decorated with posters and photos, all of which detail the region's history. At the top, you can see the century-old wooden cogs that pulled you up the steep hill. Tickets under $1.
In Viña del Mar, take a stroll through the park at Quinta Vergara, which surrounds the Palacio Vergara, the former home of the Vergara family (the city's founding family). However, due to damage from an earthquake, the estate is closed indefinitely.
An ancient monolithic figure — or moai, which was brought over from Easter Island in the 1950s — towers over the entrance to the Fonck Museum of Archaeology and Natural History (tickets are about $4; the museum is cash-only). Inside, dioramas showcase Chile’s diverse natural world and there’s also a display of insects and a collection of important artifacts from Easter Island. The museum shop features a small collection of locally-made crafts. If you love jewelry, head across the street and visit Faba, where you can find excellent pieces crafted from lapis lazuli, a cobalt-colored stone mined throughout the country.
Just north of Viña del Mar, you'll find Concón, where giant red sand dunes rise toward the sky. During the summer months, sand-boarders transform the dunes into sledding hills and zoom down them on curved wooden planks. If you're feeling adventurous, consider renting your own board for about $2. If you're visiting in the winter, visit nearby La Boca de Pupuya for surfing and other fun watersports.
Wine enthusiasts will appreciate nearby Casablanca Valley, which is home to 21 vineyards (less than 30 miles from Viña del Mar). At Emiliana, you can interact with alpacas, peacocks, and chickens in an English-style garden as you taste organic wines paired with honey, artisanal chocolate, and local cheeses. Alternatively, after sipping sparkling wines in Viñamar’s elegant tasting room (which was built to emulate Palacio Vergara) head to the second-story porch for a delicious lunch that might start with sharp local cheese sprinkled with lavender blossoms, as well as pâté, ceviche, and/or a grilled salmon salad — all served on repurposed wine barrel staves. The main course (think grilled fish or short ribs) is sure to wow; however, you'll want to save room for dessert, which often includes meringues, homemade ice cream, and chocolate truffles.
Viña del Mar is about 75 miles away from downtown Santiago; the drive takes anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours, depending on traffic.
Pullman Bus offers safe, reliable and inexpensive transport from Santiago to Viña del Mar for under $9 each way. Buses leave about every 20 minutes and don’t require a reservation, but, if you’re traveling on Friday or over the weekend, it’s a good idea to book ahead.
Turbus is another budget-friendly option (though, it's important to note: Turbus only goes to Valparaíso). You can pick it up directly from Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport. From Valparaíso, you can either Uber, take the subway, or hop on the bus pick to Viña del Mar, which is less than 5 miles away. (Expect to pay about $1 for the bus, and up to $10 for an Uber.) Taxi prices are similar to Uber, but should be negotiated ahead of time.
In Santiago, bus service stops at both the main Alameda terminal and the smaller Los Pajaritos station (Terminal Pajaritos), which is often less crowded. The price is the same, but since buses don’t originate at Terminal Pajaritos (it’s a stop) you’ll need to be on time. Buses have bathrooms, but they don't supply toilet paper (as is the case in some public bathrooms in Chile), so come prepared.