Like many other Chilean coastal towns and cities, Viña del Mar consists of two areas: one of winding streets and houses clinging precariously to the hills, while the other, lying between the hills and the sea, is built along the strict formality of the colonial era grid plan. Viña, often called the tourism capital of Chile, has an area of 172 square kilometers and just over 300 thousand inhabitants.
Cerro Castillo (Castle Hill)
Quinta Vergara is where the city’s main square,
There are two kilometers of beaches in the Reñaca district, which has recently become the new focus of holiday activities, with a wide selection of hotels, shopping centers, restaurants and discotheques. Only thirty years ago all this land was sand dune and forest, but today it is an important tourist and residential area with new neighborhoods, such as El Jardín del Mar, Las Golondrinas and Los Pinos, sprouting up almost overnight.
To the north of the city is this gastronomic district with restaurants that range from the unassuming
The center is formed in the shape of a rectangle, and bounded by the railway line in the south and the Marga Marga Estuary in the north. Towards the east the
The city is built on the grid system—locally called "de los nortes"—typical of colonial towns, with Avenida Libertad as its main axis. On the left of the Avenue six streets head off to the west, on the right seven head east. From north to south there are another fifteen streets. This is one of the most sought after residential neighborhoods, with houses that have the spirit of the past stamped firmly in their architecture. Today, many of what used to be private dwellings are now restaurants and pubs.
Viña del Mar has the slow pace of a provincial town. It is not uncommon to see the inhabitants stop whatever it is they are doing at around midday to have a cup of coffee in one of the many traditional cafeterias to be found here. At two in the afternoon, all of the local banks close for the day, and many stores shut for a siesta that lasts until 4:30. When they reopen, however, they serve customers late into the evening.
Most of the best restaurants in Viña del Mar can be found in three neighborhoods:
The Quinta Vergara and Avenida San Martín is the most important area in the city for fine dining. All along the street visitors will find restaurants featuring a diversity of menus and ambience. Because of fierce competition, restaurants have sought to attract the choosy diner with well-planned decor and original cuisine emphasizing creative house specialties. Most of these establishments feature domestic wines made from grapes produced in the rich volcanic soils of Chile.
Avowed carnivores might opt for meats on a skewer in Guris Brasileiros and Spanish food lovers for Basko Delicias del Mar. If in need of a pizza, go to Diego's. Fish and shellfish are elegantly served in Fornoni, while Tex-Mex cuisine can be had at Santa Fe. Nearby you will find the recently inaugurated Rincón Austriaco. Pastas and all things Italian can be had in Don Giovanni and grilled and skewered meats in La Parrilla El Gaucho. Sub Terras is an interesting pub in the area.
Running along the coast, Avenida Borgoño joins Reñaca with Concón. Dedicated mainly to fish and shellfish, it has recently become the second gastronomic center of the city. Here there are many local specialties, served in the traditional Chilean way, including the famous pescado frito (fish fried in batter), machas a la parmesana (shellfish topped with melted cheese) and caldillos (fish soups). You will also find more elaborate fish and shellfish dishes that give local ingredients a more international touch.
Within the group of restaurants serving mainly Chilean dishes are Don Chicho and El Albatros. In Higuerillas, more to the north, there are Don Enrique and La Perla del Pacífico.
One advantage of this area is the spectacular view offered from every restaurant of the untamed and sometimes raging ocean. Many of the restaurants, especially the more elegant ones, sit precariously right on the rocks and are constantly splashed by the foaming waves. A great part of the more rustic establishments can be found in the Higuerillas Cove area.
This area has been gradually becoming a very good alternative for lunch or dinner. To keep up with the competition, these restaurants are price conscious, and you will often get a cheaper meal here than elsewhere. The establishments themselves are often smaller, creating a more intimate and less formal atmosphere.
If in need of Chinese, try Pau-San. For a taste of the British Empire, Café Big Ben is a tea room, restaurant and pub. For traditional Viña seafood, there is Cafetería Samoiedo.
The charming Plaza Colombia is a charming plaza, especially great for children, located in the main restaurant area of the city, where you can start your tour off with a delicious meal at Rincón Austríaco. Continuing along the same street, you will reach the local Casino. If you are in a gambling mood, you can try flinging your hard-earned pesos at the fruit machines or the roulette table, but don't get carried away. Now that your pockets are almost empty, (or full, depending on your luck) leave the Casino and walk south to Valparaíso Avenue. The commercial center of the city by day, at night it transforms into a huge street theater with buskers, clowns, mimes and other performers. Stroll a while through the crowds and enjoy the shows. From here, you can take a walk down to the coast to one of the popular beaches in the area, like Playa Marisol and Playa Los Marineros.
Reloj de Flores (Flower Clock)
Start the tour at the famous Reloj de Flores (Flower Clock), with its multi-colored floral decorations centered around a huge time-piece donated by Switzerland in 1962 during the world cup of soccer held in Chile that year. Nearby is Caleta Abarca cove, a rocky section of coastline, battered by foaming waves. Moving north along the coast, you will see on the right-hand side the old Ross Palace, which now houses the Arabic Union Club. Depending on the time of day, you can stop there for refreshments. A bit further up along the coast there is a wonderful vantage point to stop and take in the ocean next to Wulff Castle. The castle is home to the Maritime Museum, open every day except Monday. Just inland from here can be seen the Palacio Presidencial, the President's official summer house, perched on top of Castillo Hill with a magnificent garden running down the hillside. If the flag is raised, President Lagos is at home.
If you are feeling tired after so much walking, maybe it is time to abandon the pedestrian world for a while, and take a Victoria. These are horse-drawn carriages which regularly leave and return to Plaza Vergara, and their prices can often be negotiated with the driver.
Playa Los Marineros
This tour is perfect for those who like to feel the caress of a fresh sea breeze on the face. Start at the stretch of beach called Los Marineros (the Sailors). Los Marineros comes to an end by a large rock, on the other side of which begins Borgoño Avenue and Salinas beach. Small and protected from the coastal winds by a large containment wall, this is a good place for families looking for somewhere safe to go swimming with the children. A couple kilometers further on, you will find the Sea Lion Promontory. You can spend hours watching these fascinating beasts, so sluggish on land, yet so adept in the water, their mournful howling drifting up from the rocks and waves.
After a long stretch of rocky, beach-less coastline, the huge Oceanic Rock looms up into the sky. Even though it has been declared a Nature Sanctuary, the place unfortunately looks dirty and unkempt, thanks to the litter left behind by many of its visitors. In Chile, the culture of respecting and protecting the environment is still in its infancy. Taking a last look back towards Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, before they disappear behind the rocks, carry on north-bound.
Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, the inhabitants of central Chile were an indigenous people known as the Changos, who called the area now occupied by Viña del Mar Peuco, which meant, “here, there is water.” With the coming of the Europeans, the land was transformed and by 1580 the whole area had become an encomienda, or estate granted to a conquistador. Vineyards were planted here, hence the name Viña del Mar, "vines by the sea."
A century later, these same lands were divided into two: south of the Marga-Marga estuary up to Barón Hill was known as “The Homestead of the Seven Sisters,” while the area northwards, all the way to Concón, retained the original name.
The following century saw many rich Portuguese merchants sailing into the bay of Valparaíso. One of these was Francisco Álvares, who was so enchanted by this new land that he bought it, installing his estate house in the area that is now the Quinta Vergara park. His wife, Dolores Pérez, was a great lover of plants and transformed the surrounding countryside with gardens and orchards. In the mid-nineteenth century, these were greatly added to by their son who brought back new species from his voyages in Australia and the Far East.
Such pastoral pursuits were probably less important for the development of the city, however, than another event that took place during the same period, the arrival of the railway linking Valparaiso to the central valley region. With this new communication, the city grew rapidly and prospered, building the Viña del Mar train station. Meanwhile, José Francisco Vergara Etchevers, the assistant engineer on the project and by marriage a large landowner in the city, went on to help develop the town in many other ways. He ceded lands to be used for the water supply, a school, the cemetery and a slaughterhouse. He sold the property along the tracks which later became Álvares and Viana Streets and put up mansions that looked on to the present-day Avenida Valparaíso. Vergara later moved on to politics, becoming the Minister of the Interior in the government of Domingo Santa María and War Minister under Aníbal Pinto. He also fought in the War of the Pacific.
The railway had a profound effect on the city. The doctor Teodoro Von Scroeders encouraged the building of a new station to give people access to thermal baths nearby. Shroeders also planned the development of the Castillo Hill neighborhood. Along the train route, ever more neighborhoods were springing up, including Recreo in 1894, whose name, Spanish for recreation, alludes to the custom of local inhabitants of passing their leisure time looking out at the sea. Around this period two city dignitaries by the names of Luis Barros Borgoño and Alfredo Azancot (architects responsible for the Rioja and Carrasco Palaces), undertook the redevelopment of the Recreo shoreline, filling in the original reefs and replacing them with a beach and creating one of the most popular resorts along the coastline.
New stops were also created for the trains at Chorrillos and El Salto, the latter being named after a nearby waterfall. Neighboring landowner and politician Benjamín Vicuña Mackena then took his part in the creation of the present day Garden City. It was Mackena's influence that first led to Viña del Mar being developed as a seaside holiday resort. He proposed the creation of plazas and parks, of more attention put into landscaping, of new and more flamboyant hotels to emphasize the town's recreational credentials. These changes were highly successful, both with the inhabitants of Viña del Mar, as well as people living in the surrounding area. The Caleta Abarca cove area was the sector initially chosen for this of development.
By 1878, the growth in the population had spurred the need for establishing some form of municipal authority. Permission to organize such a body was requested from the Governor of Valparaíso, who took a year to reply in the affirmative. This heralded a golden period in the history of Viña del Mar; new industries and public institutions made their appearance, and many new businesses opened on Libertad Avenue. In part, this was also the result of the economic success being enjoyed by merchants in neighboring and then extremely prosperous Valparaíso.
Local industry, led by the sugar refinery, demanded modernization, which led to the installment of electric light in 1882, giving Viña del Mar a status enjoyed by a highly select club of cities around the world. This was the same year Paris was electrified.
In 1889, José Francisco Vergara died. His lands were divided among his children, with his daughter Blanca inheriting everything south of the Marga-Marga, and Salvador, his son, taking the northern territories, which he started to urbanize in 1892. The major earthquake of 1906 destroyed much of the city, and a huge task of reconstruction was undertaken by the local inhabitants. It was during that period that such ostentatious projects as the Vergara and Carrasco Palaces, the Délano mansion (that was to become the Fonck Museum), and Wulff Castle were undertaken. By the 1930s, Viña del Mar was deemed so important that even the federal government stepped in to help, partly financing the Hotel O'Higgins and Municipal Theatre in Plaza Vergara, as well as the Presidential Palace, the Municipal Casino, Salinas resort, and an urbanization program for the whole stretch of coastline between Reñaca and Concón.
By then, Avenida Valparaíso was completely built-up, with a preponderance of large, neo-classical buildings, modeled after European architecture with its dislike, at the time, for the excesses of baroque. This tendency was reinforced by European immigrants who built in the manner of their homelands using easily obtainable materials like wood. Still today, it is the English colonial and neo-gothic architectural styles that predominate in Viña del Mar.
During the 1950s, the Caleta Abarca resort took shape, as did the Marina and Perú Avenues. The 60s and 70s also saw the city's face change, with special emphasis placed on the development of the Reñaca district, with the construction of numerous hotels and other tourist infrastructure that completely transformed this previously industrial sector. And so it was that in 126 years, a coastal vineyard became the modern "Vines by the Sea" tourist resort.