Valparaiso is a colorful, graffiti haven on the coast of Chile. Less than 2 hrs away from Santiago, this port city boasts of vibrant murals and art covering its twisting and climbing alleys. Known amongst locals and travelers as Valpo, the city has quaint cafes at every turn, colorful houses dotting its hills and rickety, old funiculars climbing the city’s steep slopes. Pablo Neruda paid a tribute to Valparaiso’s bohemian character in the words: ‘Valparaíso, how absurd you are…you haven’t combed your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.’ Walking through Valparaiso is walking through a maze of spontaneous creativity, bursting political dissent and entangled crumbling structures. Here are some of our favorite things to do in the city along with practical travel information.
When to visit: Chile is in southern hemisphere so winter is from June to August while summer is December to February with January being the hottest month. However weather is Valparaiso is coastal Mediterranean type with mild winter and cool, dry summer which makes Valparaiso a year-round destination. November to March is peak tourist season with high rates and crowds while rest of the year is slow season with low rates and fewer visitors.
How to reach: The nearest airport is at Santiago, Chile. Valparaiso is about 1.5 hours drive away from the capital and is one of the best day trips from Santiago. Public buses to Valparaiso leave from Pajaritos bus station on the outskirts of Santiago and are a cheap, reliable option for budget travelers. The best way to get to Valparaiso is however by renting a car at the airport. C & I reached Valparaiso in less than 2 hrs and the route was beautiful, extremely scenic and passed through vineyards and foggy mountains.
How to get around: Seeing Valparaiso means walking to see the city and its famous street art. Valparaiso has very few tourist sites and they are concentrated around Plaza Sotomayer. Visitors will need to explore the hilly twisting roads, cobbled streets, and side alleys on foot to see the real Valparaiso. Another fun way to get to the top of steep hills is climbing the funicular railways. Buses, trams and taxis are also available in the city.
Where to stay: Valparaiso has lots of hostels for budget travelers; many hostels are concentrated around the Cerro Concepcion area. Cerro Allegre and Cerro Bellavista are other areas to find good hotels.
Where to eat: Cafes, bakeries and empanada eateries offer the most budget dining options. Fresh seafood is available in most restaurants and must for seafood lovers. Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion have many excellent eateries and restaurants that are popular with visitors. Many restaurants at the top of the hills offer excellent outdoor seating and views over the Pacific ocean.
What to pack: Key to packing for Valparaiso is layers. Walking up and down the hills is search of street art is a sweaty affair while the port areas and boat rides are chilly. Light wool jackets and sweaters are good choices. Scarves will be particularly useful when windy. While Chile is not a particularly conservative country, wearing shorts or cropped clothes might make visitors stand out as tourists. Upscale restaurants often require smart outfits for visitors. Since you will be walking a lot, good walking shoes are a must. Other packing essentials include plenty of sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. If you are planning to go to the beach or swimming in the Pacific then pack those flip flops, bathing suit and beach towel.
Safety tips: Compared to rest of Chile, Valparaiso has a reputation for being unsafe for travelers and visitors, especially at night. Pickpockets and purse or bag-snatching is fairly common. Purses or bags hung on the back of chairs, left unattended under tables or loosely held cameras and other electronics are easy targets. Care should be exercised while walking the streets and alleys in search of street art. Cars parked on the streets at night might get broken into, so it is better to park in designated parking for your hotel/hostel. The port area is a prime area for petty crimes during the day as well as night.
Best things to do in Valparaiso:
1. Take in the historic downtown and understand the history of Valparaiso
The colonial city of Valparaiso is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its historic status represents the architectural development that followed the booming sea trade towards the end of the 19th century. Valpo was a leading port city on the Pacific Coast till the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The historic quarter comprises seaport architecture, street markets, town squares, trolley cars, funicular elevators and more. Much of the historic quarter has maintained its style and appearance from the early 20th century and is a delight for visitors.
2. Admire Plaza Sotomayer and the impressive Navy building
Plaza Sotomayer is a large plaza and focal point in Valparaiso. Located next to the port, Plaza Sotomayer contains many attractions. The Edificio Armada de Chile, an architecturally stunning military fortress, is the headquarters of the Chilean Navy and dominates the plaza. The blue-grey façade is incredibly impressive as are the uniformed naval personnel in and around the area. Monumento a Los Heroes, a monument to mark the deaths of Chilean seamen and Navy martyrs who died in the 1879 War of the Pacific between Chile and Peru, is also located in the square. Plaza Sotomayer also has a nice but touristy street market, several souvenir stands and cafes and eateries lining the streets and visiting the plaza is one of the popular things to do in Valparaiso.
3. Explore the alleys bursting with graffiti, murals and more
The narrow alleyways and staircases of Valparaiso are bursting with every type of street art conceivable. Some of the areas that are the best showcases of street art are Museo a Cielo Abierto (a collection of 20 beautiful murals), Templeman Street on Cerro Alegre, Paseo Gervasoni in Cerro Concepcion. Local government and entrepreneurs support the local street art culture and cafes, bars and hotels are happy to display works of art on their walls. Be cautious when exploring the streets as petty crimes are often reported in Valparaiso. It is advisable to hold cameras firmly and be aware of surroundings.
4. Ride the rickety, old funiculars to the top of the steep hills
Rickety is probably most over-used but incredibly fitting way to describe the funiculars or Ascensores of Valparaiso. About 8 of the original 26 funicular railways, built to ascend the many hills within the city, are still active. Constructed in late 19th– early 20th century, the faded bare funiculars offer a memorable if somewhat rocky ride to the top of the hills and are the most popular among things to do especially for families with children. S-boy really enjoyed his rides in the funicular and was amazed as we kept climbing uphill. Some of the popular funiculars are Ascensor Reina Victoria, Ascensor Artilleria & Ascensor Baron and offer a short, fun ride for 100 pesos. Ascensor Concepcion, oldest of all funiculars, was closed for restoration when C & I were in Valpo.
5. Admire the beautiful views of the Pacific from atop the Cerros Valparaíso (Hills of Valparaíso)
The plains and main port area are surrounded by about 42 hills, creating unique geographic setting for the city of Valparaiso. All of these hills or Cerros offer breathtaking views of the city nestled on the slopes, the busting port and the Pacific Ocean. Cerro Concepcion, a hill bursting with street art, cafes and shops, is one of the best Cerros to enjoy the views. is Ride a funicular up the hills and take the alleys or staircases filled with stunning art on your way down.
6. Climb down a never ending staircase full of art
The many hills of Valparaiso are full of stairs that make descending the steep slopes easier. Artists have exploited the many lines and contours of the staircases and surrounding houses to create staggering three-dimensional works of art. Paseo Gervasoni in Cerro Concepcion has many colorful stairs. Posing with the street art and staircases is one of the most popular things to do in Valparaiso.
7. Take a walking tour of the city
Valparaiso is a walking city. Free Tour Valparaiso and Tours 4 Tips both offer free walking tours that take visitors up and down the streets in search of Valpo’s most colorful areas and beautiful art. The tours usually start at a central meeting point, constitute a mixture of walking, trams or buses and may or may not include lunch stops. The English speaking guides are very knowledgeable and share lots of historical information. The tours are free; tips upwards of 6000 pesos per person are ideal.
8. Be inspired by Pablo Neruda and understand why he called Valparaiso home at La Sebastiana
Pablo Neruda, Chile’s Nobel prize winning poet, loved the City of Valparaiso. His unique, modernist home, La Sebastiana, is open to visitors; entrance is first-come, first-served so it is better to visit earlier in the day. The 4 story home has 360 degree views of the city and beautiful collection of Neruda’s prized possessions. The home offers excellent opportunities to learn more about Pablo Neruda and his life n the city of Valpo.
9. See the colorful hills of Valparaiso from the water
C & I took a boat ride from the port for 3000 pesos each and this was easily one of our favorite things to do in Valparaiso. The weather was perfect for the boat ride, not too windy. The hills of Valparaiso and the colorful houses look beautiful as they gently rise over the blue water of the Pacific. The boat ride lasts 30 mins and we even saw sleeping sea lions. Our tiny boat navigating next to the majestic navy fleet and giant cargo ships made for some impressive photo opportunities.
10. Visit the many museums to learn more about Valparaiso and Chile
Valparaiso has a great number of museums. Museo Maritimo Nacional celebrates the naval and maritime history of Chile and is great for naval aficionados. Palacio Baburizza, displaying stunning blend of various architectural styles, houses the Fine Art Museum and is a must for art lovers. Museo de Historia Natural de Valparaiso has free admission and is perfect for families with children though information is in Spanish. The collection focuses on animals and minerals found around the port city.
11. Dine in the many quaint cafes lining the streets
The streets of Valparaiso are dotted with charming little cafes offering delicious, local food. Colorful restaurants tempt you in with a chalkboard menu full of fresh seafood from the ocean. For the best cafes, eateries and restaurants head over to Cerro Concepcion and wander through its many alleys. The restaurants here all offer great views of the Pacific Ocean. We had an early dinner at Restaurant La Concepcion and absolutely loved it. For what to eat, read the next on my list of things to do.
12. Eat the freshest Ceviche and down a Pisco Sour
Valpo was our first introduction to eating ceviche in Latin America. The ceviches at restaurants in Valparaiso are made from fresh fish caught from the ocean that very day and delicious. During our trip we ate a lot of ceviches at Santiago and Easter Island, but the ones we ate in Valparaiso remain our favorite. A side note for the novice, ceviche is a dish often made with raw fish, seasoned with lime, chili peppers and served cold, so be careful if you are allergic or can’t consume raw fish. The perfect accompaniment to the ceviche is Pisco Sour, a South American classic.
13. Learn to make a ceviche and other popular Chilean dishes by taking a cooking class
An interesting way to learn about a new country is through understanding the local cuisine and its influences. What better way to do it than by taking a Chilean cooking class that teaches you to recreate some of the most popular dishes along with planning a menu, a trip to the local market to buy fresh ingredients and then learning the recipe with special tips and instructions. Did I mention that the food samplings and wine are included in most experiences? That alone makes this one of the popular things to do in Valparaiso, Chile.
14. Watch the sunset over the colorful homes from Mirador Diego Portales at Cerro Baron
Cerro Baron, one of the hills located to the very east of Valparaiso, offers beautiful views of the harbor and the colorful city spread over the many hills. Visitors can take Ascensor Baron, Valpo’s 1st electric funicular built in 1906, to Mirador Diego Portales, a scenic lookout point over the harbor.
15. Take in the busting activity of the port at Muelle Prat or see fishing activity at Caletas Portales
Valparaiso is a seaport city. Though its importance and dominion over sea routes has declined through the years, the port area is still a colorful hub of activity. Cargo ships, transport ships and small tourist boats of every color offering 30 mins boat rides dock here. The Chile navy fleet with its battleships can be viewed in the harbor as well. An alternative to Muelle Prat is Caletas Portales, the scenic fishing pier with an abundance of seabirds, dogs and sea lions, to watch the Chilean fishermen bring in the morning catch. Also visit Muelle Baron, an abandoned pier and pedestrian boardwalk, to see many sea lions sunning themselves.
Apart from these top attractions, Valparaiso also offers many other things to do in the forms of cathedrals, churches, beaches and even a lighthouse.
Churches and Cathedrals:
Valparaiso Cathedral or St. James Cathedral of the Catholic Church is an impressive building and the largest church in town. Iglesia Saint Paul (St Paul’s Cathedral) located in Concepcion area has a rather interesting story behind its discrete appearance. The Catholic Church allowed Saint Paul’s to be built only if it had an exterior design (such as lacking a tower) that would not identify it as a church. The organ inside the church is one of the oldest in the region. San Francisco church and its brick tower, located in Baron hill, is a historic monument and served as a lighthouse to boats arriving in the port city since it was one of the first recognizable monuments as seen from the sea. Valparaiso is also nick-named ‘Pancho’ because of the conspicuous church building.
Beaches and lighthouse:
Playa Las Torpederas is Valparaiso’s main beach with calm water is popular among locals. The beach has great sunset views. Playa Las Torpederas, a sandy beach, offers beautiful views of the colorful houses of Valparaiso and the harbor. Food and empanadas at the beach are delicious. Lighthouse Punta Ángeles was the first one to be built in Chile to assist the boats in indicating Valparaiso port entrance. The lighthouse open to tourists and is visited by about 2000 people every year.
Outdoor activities in Valparaiso, other than walking and boat rides, are concentrated around horse riding. Many companies offer short to multi-day horseback riding tours from Valparaiso to Vina del Mar and other coastal areas as well as deep into the Chilean countryside.
Drive along the coast:
Most visitors from Santiago drive in via Route 68, see Valparaiso and Vina del Mar then return to Santiago. As alternative is to drive the coast line from Vina del Mar to Valpo and continue on the coastal route past the beaches and lighthouse, turn inland and then join the highway. The coastal route offers beautiful views and is great for a romantic drive.
Planning to visit Valparaiso? I can answer any questions or trip-planning queries. Do you love Valpo? Let me know how much. Find anything that I missed out on in this beautiful city? Tell me in comments below.
I visited Valparaiso, Chile in September 2017.
Dotted Globe has got you covered with many posts on Valparaiso and Chile. Read more and find out why Valpo is so popular among tourists!