Viña del Mar, translated as “Vineyard by the Sea,” overflows with flowers, beaches, seafood, and quirky sites. Even though it’s Chile’s fourth largest city, it seems both much smaller and somehow more spacious than neighboring Valparaíso. Walk through its neighborhoods and explore its manicured gardens. Soak up the sun on your pick of golden, white, or black sand beaches. Eat a lunch of freshly caught fish and white wine from the Casablanca Valley. From the local castle, watch mesmerized as waves crash below you under its glass-bottomed floor. Go to a club and party until dawn. Viña lets you go at whatever pace, so move as fast or as slow as you want here.
What to Do in Viña del Mar
Viña del Mar has some of the best beaches in all of Chile. Expect warm, sun-kissed sand but cold water due to the Humboldt Current. Tanning and relaxing are the main activities, especially at Playa Reñaca, a glamorous see-and-be-seen type of beach. A little bit away from town in Concon, Play Negra offers fewer crowds and black sand. For those wanting to stay in Viña proper, Play Caleta Abarca has plenty of space, surrounding gardens, and the bonus of being only a short 15-minute walk from the city center. Be discerning should you want to go for a swim—lethal riptides have occurred in Playa Los Lilenes and Playa Los Marineros. Beaches protected by coves will generally be less risky for swimming.
In addition to its beaches, Viña is also known for its vibrant nightlife. The Casino Municipal is one of the most famous casinos in the country and it also houses Ovo, a popular club that has theme parties and bumps beats until dawn while showering revelers with confetti. For electronic music, live bands, and three floors of dancing, go to Café Journal. Chile’s largest gay club, Club Divino, is the place to see drag queens and go-go dancers.
Other sites and activities worth checking out include the following.
Wulf Castle: Gustav Wulff, a German merchant, built this stone castle as a home in the early 1900s. Entrance is free, and from Castillo Wulff’s tower, the views of Viña are stunning, equally rivaled by the sights of the waves crashing below the castle’s glass-bottomed bridge. Spend a tranquil afternoon here learning about the eccentric owner, watching pelicans rest on the neighboring rocky outcroppings, and enjoying the sounds of the ocean.
Flower Clock: This GPS-controlled flower clock blooms year-round and was built to celebrate Viña hosting the 1962 World Cup. The face of the clock is entirely made of flowers whose heights are strictly maintained so as not to get in the way of the 8- to 10-foot-long white metal hands. Every 15 minutes, you can hear the clock chime, and it also plays seasonal music. Open to the public 24/7, see it during the afternoon when the sun gives its red and pink blooms a slight glow. Located above Playa Caleta Abarca, it is free to view and lit at night.
Festivals: Viña holds the largest music festival in Latin America, Festival Internacional de la Canción de Viña del Mar (Viña del Mar International Song Festival). Each summer, the Quinta Vergara Amphitheater hosts the festival which brings in huge names in pop, rock, reggaeton, salsa, folk, and more. Singing competitions are also held, showcasing up and coming talent. Viña annually holds the Festival Internacional de Cine de Viña del Mar (the Viña del Mar International Film Festival) in the spring which brings in talented filmmakers from throughout Latin America. New Year’s Eve is one of the best times to see Viña literally come aglow though, as the largest fireworks display in the country gets sets off from its and Valparaíso’s shores. Enjoy the buzz of watching in the crowd, or stay in and see it from any elevated hotel with a panoramic ocean view.
Where to Stay in Viña del Mar
Stay on or as close to the beach as you can. After all, that’s why most people come to Viña. Though Viña’s reputation for luxury might make you think budget options are few, there’s definitely some cheap to mid-range hostels and bed and breakfasts. Book early, though, if you are planning on coming in the summer months of December through February. Great locations to stay include the area around the Casino Municipal, the Reñaca Bajo (lower Reñaca neighborhood), and Playa Caleta Abarca.
The Casino Municipal area has some of the best restaurants, bars, and clubs in the city. Both the beach and the Metro are only a few blocks away, and the area has both budget-friendly and luxury accommodations. The Reñaca lower neighborhood has easy access to one of the best beaches of the region, a less touristy feel, and excellent dining options. Prices are steeper than in the city center. An option close to the center with panoramic ocean views and beach access as soon as you walk outside is the Sheraton at Playa Cleta Abarca. Jutting out into the sea and not close to any other buildings, expect a peaceful night’s sleep here. Plus, it’s a short commute to Valparaíso from here, as it’s on the edge of town.
Where to Eat in Viña del Mar
Locally-produced wine and fresh caught fish and seafood are Viña's quintessential fare. However, you can also stick with Chilean fast food, like empanadas (savory meat or vegetables encased in bread) or completos (fully loaded hot dogs). Calle Valparaiso has lots of budget-friendly options, while up north Estero Marga Marga is a street known for fine-dining. If you want to buy super fresh seafood directly from fishermen, consider making the short trip to neighboring Valparaiso to the main fish market, Caleta Portales.
Viña has a range of international food options including: Italian, Mexican, Austrian, and Japanese restaurants. Vegetarians and vegans have plenty of options as well, and the health restaurant Green Lab even has macrobiotic dishes on their menu.
Some of Viña del Mar's food and beverage specialties include:
Fresh Fish: Opt for the reinata (pomfret) or merluza (hake) when trying your first fish in town. Both are caught daily just off the shore and can be tried at most seafood restaurants. Both soft and white, the pomfret is milder than the hake. Though soft, pomfret are firm enough to be ideal for grilling, while hake will generally be baked or poached.
Machas a la Parmigiana: Created by an Italian immigrant in Viña del Mar in the 1950s, Machas a la ParmigianaI is a dish of baked razor clams, white wine, cream, and Parmesan cheese. Considered a classic Chilean food, this lemony-garlic dish is a must-try.
White wine: The cool vineyards of the Casablanca Valley are only a 40-minute drive by car and an ideal day trip, should you want to sample some of the finest white wines in the country. For those that can only try a glass in Viña, plenty of restaurants in town will carry sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and pinot noir from the neighboring valley. You can also stop by La Vinoteca close to the city center, and purchase a few bottles to create your own tasting.
Alfajors: Viña has quite a few bakeries and chocolate shops, and this is the most popular order of most Chileans when they go into one. An alfajor is a soft sugar cookie sandwich with dulce de leche (sweetened milk, heated until it undergoes a Maillard reaction, giving it a caramel-like flavor) in the middle. In Viña, people like to coat them in melted chocolate, let the chocolate form a candy shell, and eat it once cooled.