One of the most popular places to visit in the country, La Serena is known for both its quaint historic center and beautiful broad beaches. This enticing combination sees crowds of domestic and foreign tourists head here each and every summer.
The second-oldest city in Chile after the capital Santiago, it was remarkably founded back in 1544 by the Spanish. Nicknamed the ‘City of Churches’, La Serena has a well-preserved center full of colonial architecture for you to check out. This is despite it having been razed by Indians, attacked by pirates and almost completely destroyed by an earthquake over the course of its long history.
Other than ambling around its old streets, the other main part of town to head is Avenida del Mar. As well as bordering the city’s seemingly endless beaches, it has plenty of hotels and condominiums to stay at. Here you can enjoy some fun water sports or try some of its superb seafood restaurants.
In addition to all these things to do in La Serena, you’re also not far from some top day trip destinations. Besides seeing isolated isles and cute little penguins, you can explore sweeping valleys and steamy rainforests or hit up its pisco distilleries. With so much going for it, the coastal city is definitely one of Northern Chile’s most rewarding places to visit.
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12. Fray Jorge National Park
Just under two hours’ drive south of town are the lovely landscapes and views of Fray Jorge National Park. A very beautiful spot to explore, it has some great hilly hikes and lush woodland trails to enjoy.
Most known for its small swathe of Valdivian temperate rainforest, the park is almost entirely made up of semiarid scrublands and desolate desert-like climes. Part of the Chilean Coastal Range, it was established in 1941 to protect this precarious ecosystem. Thought to be millions of years old, its rare trees and plants somehow eke out a living amidst the rolling mountains of the cordillera.
The contrast between the verdant forest and bleak valleys about it is what makes the park so special to visit. While wandering about its shady woods, watch out for eagles, chinchillas and foxes. You can also drink in divine panoramas of the sparkling Pacific before you.
11. Enchanted Valley
Not too far from the national park is another incredible, ancient attraction to head to. Fittingly known as the Enchanted Valley, it has lots of impressive petroglyphs, fossils and rock formations for visitors to examine.
Only discovered in 1946, Valle del Encanto contains an astounding collection of pre-Columbian rock art. Depicting dancing stick-men, animals and other mysterious shapes and characters, these date to between the second and seventh century AD. Left behind by the indigenous El Molle people among others, they lie dotted about a rugged canyon along a tributary of the Rio Limari.
Exploring the park and seeing the age-old etchings is an awe-inspiring experience with all its scenery being just as striking. You can also see plenty of tacitas here – dark holes in the rock used to ground ceremonial plants and food. As the historic site is quite exposed, make sure to bring a hat and some water with you.
10. Jardin del Corazon
Back in the center of La Serena is the absolutely gorgeous Jardin del Corazon. An oasis of peace and calm, it lies just a stone’s throw from Plaza de Armas and the colossal cathedral.
The largest landscaped Japanese garden in all of South America, it was officially unveiled in 1994 as part of celebrations for the city’s 450th anniversary. As well as a koi pond and colourful red pavilion, it contains pretty bonsais, stone lanterns and a rockery.
Ambling about its paths is a treat as trickling water features are set besides clumps of bamboo and immaculate lawns. Graceful swans, ducks and even some turtles can also be spotted, slowly making their way about its waterways. As it was completely unexpected, the garden ended up being one of our favorite stops in the whole city.
9. Trip to Coquimbo
Only twenty minutes’ drive away is the bustling port city of Coquimbo. An increasingly popular place to visit in recent years, it occupies a peninsula that juts out into the shimmering Pacific. Well worth a trip, it boasts some interesting historic sites and spellbinding coastal views.
Administratively part of Greater La Serena, its secluded natural harbour attracted the Spanish here all the way back in 1550. A flourishing gold and copper industry later led to the development of the port with the English Quarter now acting as the heart and soul of life in town. Here you can find a number of fine old buildings containing local shops, restaurants and some lively nightlife spots.
The undoubted highlight however is the gigantic Cruz del Tercer Milenio that overlooks the entire city and bordering ocean. Perched atop El Vigia hill, the 83-metre-high cross is the tallest monument on the continent. From up high, its viewing platform guarantees phenomenal panoramas of Coquimbo, the coast and communities immediately below it.
8. Catedral De San Bartolome
Rising up dramatically above Plaza de Armas is one of the city’s major landmarks: the centuries old Catedral De San Bartolome. Rather simple in comparison with many other churches in the country, it still showcases some exquisite architecture and arresting artworks.
While a parish church has remarkably stood in the same exact spot since 1549, the current cathedral and its soaring belltower were only completed in 1856. Other than admiring its neoclassical facade, you can snap pics of the sturdy columns and stained-glass windows lining its nave. Painted ceilings, wooden pews and fine religious artworks also decorate its cavernous interior.
A peaceful spot to spend some time, the charming cathedral is one of La Serena’s standout symbols and sights. From the square in front of it, you can also get some fantastic photos of its lofty spire.
7. La Recova Municipal Market
In contrast to the quiet cathedral, exploring La Recova Municipal Market promises to be a colourful and chaotic affair. Humming with energy, all its countless cafes and restaurants, stalls and shops are located just a short walk away.
Although its origins impressively date to colonial times, La Recova’s current site was set up in 1795 to group the city’s merchants together. Crammed about its central plaza are now 140 or so stands to peruse selling everything under the sun.
The perfect place to pick up souvenirs, its vendors display lots of cool clothing, crafts and jewellery. Others specialize in leather goods and stone carvings or Alpaca wool products and rocks uncovered in the Atacama Desert. After shopping til you drop, grab some food at one of its eateries and watch the world go by.
6. Plaza de Armas
Bordered by many of La Serena’s most picturesque buildings, Plaza de Armas is a wonderful place to wander around. Since being founded more than 450 years ago, the tree-shaded square has served as the centre of life in town.
Now home to pretty green spaces, paths and fountains, it was here in 1549 that conquistador Pedro de Valdivia ordered his men to re-establish the city after an earlier Spanish settlement was destroyed. Over the years, important and impressive edifices like the cathedral, town hall and Teatro Centenario sprung up all around it.
Known locally as the ‘Park of Bare Behinds’ due to all its nude Greek statues, the plaza also contains a lovely fountain and flowerbeds. Numerous community events are held here with tango classes and crafts markets being the pick of the bunch.
5. Punta Choros
Yet another idyllic spot to visit, not too far from La Serena, is Punta Choros which lies roughly ninety minutes’ drive north up the coast. Particularly popular in summer, the sleepy fishing village is known for its beaches, nature reserves, wildlife and water sports.
Each year, hordes of both Chilean and foreign tourists pack out the pueblo’s dusty streets and enjoy its surrounding coastline. Aside from lounging on the beach, they come to splash about in the ocean and kayak, surf and scuba dive.
The main appeal however is Isla Damas offshore and the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve. Here visitors can see the adorable creatures up close with dolphins, sea lions and sea otters also regularly spotted. As there is quite a lot to see and do nearby, it’s a good idea to spend a night at Punta Choros to make the most of it.
4. Avenida del Mar
Running its way all along the city’s beachfront is the must-visit Avenida del Mar. One of La Serena’s top attractions, it is lined by hundreds of hotels and guesthouses, shops, restaurants and bars.
Stretching over six kilometers in length, ‘Seafront Avenue’ is mostly overlooked by high-rises while its sprawling sands give way to the rather rough waves of the Pacific. Many holidaymakers stay here to make the most of its broad beaches, enjoy some seafood and try fun water sports. Other than surfing and windsurfing, you can walk or cycle along the coast or relax at its waterfront restaurants.
One of the avenue’s defining features is its iconic lighthouse that towers above the vast swathes of sand surrounding it. Built in the 1950s, its 28-metre-tall tower and arresting architectural style make for some fabulous photos.
Thanks to its innumerable accommodation options and all the outstanding beaches alongside it, we divided our time between the center of La Serena and Avenida del Mar.
3. Go to the beach
As the city is one of Chile’s top beach destinations, you can hardly visit and not spend at least some time sunning yourself on its gorgeous sands. Lying alongside the endless Avenida del Mar, they also offer up some great outdoor activities and water sports.
Perfectly equipped for short or long stays, the dozen beaches lining La Serena are home to countless hotels and condominiums. Besides being just a short stroll from its soft sands, these lie right next to seafood restaurants and beachfront bars.
While Playa El Faro, the nearest beach to town alongside the lighthouse, does get quite crowded, the rest are quite quiet for the most part. The strong rip currents and large waves do however mean that swimming is often unadvisable. You can easily rent equipment though to either surf or windsurf atop its sizeable swells. In the evening, spectacular sunsets coat the ocean’s surface a mesmerizing mix of bright reds, yellows and oranges.
2. Isla Damas
Not to be missed out on, the scenic and serene Isla Damas is of course one of the main reasons that people visit the coastal city. Set just a short boat ride from Punta Choros, its delightful beaches and turquoise waters are a treat to visit. One of the main highlights of our time in Chile, the island is most known for its remarkable marine life.
Part of the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve, it lies alongside two other small isles that also serve as important breeding sites for the black and white birds. Sea lions and sea otters can also be spied sunning themselves on its sands or clambering about its rugged rocks. From time to time, dolphins, turtles and even whales can be sighted in the cold waters surrounding the isle.
Taking a tour of the national reserve was a memorable experience thanks to all the amazing wildlife we saw. As you explore the island, your guide will teach you all about the rare animals and birds you come across.
1. Elqui Valley
The other place that everyone visits is the enchanting Elqui Valley. Lying at the edge of the Atacama Desert, it stretches ninety kilometers and boasts loads of beautiful landscapes and scenery. It is its dark star-studded night skies and pisco distilleries that attract most people, however.
From La Serena, it takes just an hour to reach Vicuna. One of the valley’s main villages, the birthplace of the famed Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral has an attractive historic centre to amble around. You can also stargaze here at one of its observatories or sample some stiff drinks at its traditional distillery.
If you have more time, you can venture further into the valley to see the small town of Pisco Elqui or even remoter Cochiguaz. Wherever you go, you’re guaranteed lovely views over the mountains and all the verdant vineyards that coat their slopes. If possible, it is worth spending a few days here to get a feel for the country’s rural regions.
Where to Stay in La Serena
When visiting La Serena, visitors basically have two options of where to stay: the historic center and Avenida del Mar. While the former allows you to explore its charming old churches and museums on foot, the latter is ideal for a chill beach holiday. If possible, split your time between the two to get the best of both worlds.
If you want to holiday-it-up in style at the beach, then the Hotel Club La Serena is an excellent choice. Set just south of the city’s iconic lighthouse, the four-star hotel overlooks the ocean while remaining just five minutes’ drive from the centre. On top of comfy, spacious rooms, guests can make use of its on-site swimming pool and top-class restaurant.
Not far away is the equally relaxing Domos Dream which is located roughly five blocks back from the beach. At the three-star hotel, visitors stay in cool dome-shaped structures dotted around its garden and poolside area. It is particularly highly rated for its peaceful atmosphere, big buffet breakfast and friendly, welcoming staff.
How to get to La Serena
As it is an important tourist destination, La Serena is very well connected to the rest of the country.
Many arrive at La Florida Airport which has regular flights to Santiago, Antofagasta and a few other Chilean cities. It then only takes twenty minutes to reach the center of town from the terminal.
The city also has a long-distance bus station that connects visitors to various cities up and down the country’s coastline.
Once you arrive, you can either walk around its center or take a quick bus or taxi ride to its beaches.