Street Art and Ceviche – 25 Best things to do in Valparaiso
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Valparaiso is a colorful, graffiti haven on the coast of Chile. The port city of Valparaiso is popularly known as Valpo and boasts of vibrant murals and art covering its twisting and climbing alleys. The city has quaint cafes at every turn, colorful houses dotting its hills and rickety, old funiculars climbing the city’s steep slopes. The art and character of Valpo are its main tourist attractions.
Our time in Valparaiso was – in a word – idyllic! I spent mornings exploring street art and strolled into charming cafés for lunch. I almost always ordered fresh seafood and drank refreshing pisco sours while watching the sunset over the Pacific. If you are planning a trip to Chile, then you must absolutely head down to Valparaiso – it is just 1.5 hrs away by bus from Santiago. Follow our list of best things to do in Valparaiso for the time of your lives. We highly recommend spending at least 2 to 3 days to fully enjoy this beautiful coastal city.
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. You won’t regret it. Here are our 25 favorite things to do in the city along with practical travel information.
Best things to do in Valparaiso:
Historic Downtown District
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. The architecture style is a mish-mash of Colonial Spanish and British influences. Main attractions include Plaza Sotomayer and Reloj Turri, a historical clock tower.
Plaza Sotomayer and 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 is a popular thing to do.
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 the somewhat rocky ride to the top of the hills. Valpo’s funiculars are basically cable cars which are pulled up and lowered down a steep incline and used to ferry people up the hills. Funiculars ascend large heights in a short span of time and offer great views; going up a funicular is one of the must things to do in Valparaiso. Some of the popular funiculars are Ascensor Reina Victoria, Ascensor Artilleria, and Ascensor Baron. Many of these offer a short, fun ride for under 200 pesos. Ascensor Concepcion, oldest of all funiculars, was closed for restoration when C & I were in Valpo; we used Ascensor Reina Victoria to explore Cerros Concepcion. Funiculars are the cheapest and easiest way to go up the hills and we highly recommend carrying loose change for the tickets.
Cerros Valparaíso and Miradors (Hills of Valparaíso and Viewpoints)
The plains and main port area are surrounded by about 42 hills, creating a 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 bustling 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. Plaza El Descanso on Cerro Concepción is a pretty little street covered in doodles and mirrors. Cerro Allegre has jugglers, musicians, and street artists performing at every turn is bustling with local activity and is delightful to take a stroll. We found the most interesting thrift and curios shops, independent art galleries, and lots of knick-knacks wandering down the alleys. We recommend riding a funicular up the hills and take the alleys or staircases filled with stunning art on your way down. 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.
Free Walking Tours
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.
Art and Culture
Exploring street art is one of ‘Must’ things to do in Valparaiso. 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, Templeman Street on Cerro Alegre, and Paseo Gervasoni in Cerro Concepcion. Museum a Cielo Abierto (Open Air Museum) on Cerro Bellavista is a collection of 20 beautiful murals created from 1969 to 1972 by students from the Art Institute of Valparaiso. The Valpo government and local entrepreneurs support the street art culture and provide patronage to artists. Cafes, bars, and hotels are happy to display street art on their walls. Getting lost in a decrepit alleyway and stumbling upon beautiful street art is a unique Valpo experience.
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. There are even stairs painted to look like a piano – needless to say they are the most Instagrammable spots in Valparaiso. I would recommend everyone to be cautious when exploring isolated streets for art as petty crimes are often reported in Valparaiso. I always held my camera firmly by its strap and was generally aware of my surroundings while walking in Valparaiso.
Pablo Neruda’s home – 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. Visitors have to climb a steep hill to reach the home but La Sebastiana is completely worth it. 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.
Naval and Maritime Museum
Museo Maritimo Nacional celebrates the naval and maritime history of Chile and is great for naval aficionados. It is a great place to learn about Chile’s maritime victory in the 19th century War of the Pacific. The museum has a variety of fascinating exhibits including cannons that guard the entrance, 19th-century navigation equipment, naval ship furniture, naval uniforms, weapons, and historical paintings and documents.
Fine Art Museum
Palacio Baburizza, a building in art nouveau style, displays a stunning blend of various architectural styles. Located at the end of Cerro Allegre, Palacio Baburizza houses the Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Art Museum) and is a must for art lovers. The exhibits also have plenty of information about original palace owners.
Museum of Natural History
Museo de Historia Natural de Valparaiso has free admission and is perfect for families with children, though the information is in Spanish. The collection focuses on animals and minerals found around the port city and is great to explore the natural history of Central Chile.
Churches and Cathedrals
Apart from the top tourist attractions, Valparaiso also offers many other things to do in the forms of cathedrals and churches. These religious attractions are a great place to understand the spiritual beginnings of Valparaiso. Valparaiso Cathedral or St. James Cathedral of the Catholic Church is an impressive building and the largest church in town.
St Paul’s Cathedral
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
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.
Explore Local cuisine
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. Another great place is Bar Cinzano, a bar that has been in service for over 116 years. They serve delicious Creole cuisine and play great Latin American music. Bar La Playa is another good bar with good food and nice music.
Try Empanadas, Ceviches and Pisco Sours
Valpo was where we first ate ceviche in Latin America. Ceviche is a dish that originated in Peru and has become increasingly popular throughout Latin America. It is often made with raw fish and seasoned with lime and chili peppers. Ceviche is served cold and tastes delicious. However, it is not recommended if you are allergic to seafood or can’t consume raw fish. The ceviches at restaurants in Valparaiso are made from fresh fish caught from the ocean, often from the ‘catch of the day’ and are very delicious. During our trip, we ate a lot of different Ceviches in Santiago and on Easter Island, but the ones we ate in Valparaiso remain our favorite. The perfect accompaniment to the ceviche is Pisco Sour, a South American classic cocktail. Valpo also has some of the best empanadas in the country. Le Pato has great empanadas and a variety of delicious meat and veg fillings. Delicias Express also has great empanadas and 81 different types of fillings enclosed in a crispy crust.
Chilean Cooking Class
I enjoy knowing a destination through its local cuisine and culinary influences. In Valparaiso, you can take a Chilean cooking class and learn to recreate most popular Chilean dishes. The classes teach you right from the basics of planning a dinner menu, buying fresh ingredients from the local market, and then making the recipe with special tips and instructions. Valpo’s food market, Mercado Cardonal, is a delight to visit – with enticing fresh produce and invigorating Latin American music. Did I mention that the cooking classes include sampling your creations and lots of wine? That alone makes this one of the popular things to do in Valparaiso, Chile.
Valparaiso from the water
Harbor Boat Ride
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. We highly recommend this boat ride for everyone as one of the ‘must’ things to do
Valparaiso is a seaport city and visiting the harbor and fishing piers is a popular thing to do. Though its importance and dominion over sea routes have 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 dock at Muelle Prat. The Chilean Naval Fleet with its majestic battleships can be viewed from the harbor as well. The small tourist boats offer 30-minute boat rides that take visitors around the coast and offer beautiful views of Valparaiso from the water.
A great alternative to the port area of Muelle Prat is Caletas Portales, the scenic fishing pier of Valparaiso. Caletas Portales is always full of seabirds, dogs, and sea lions and is a great place to watch the Chilean fishermen bring in the morning catch.
Muelle Baron is an abandoned pier and pedestrian boardwalk and good to take the kids for a walk. Here visitors are often able to see many sea lions sunning themselves.
Playa Las Torpederas Beach
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 is open to tourists and visited by about 2000 people every year.
Getting away from Valparaiso
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. An alternative is to drive the coastline 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.
Day trip to Vina del Mar
Vina del Mar is Valparaiso’s polished cousin. If Valpo is cool and hippie in character, Vina del Mar is uppity and chic. Vina del Mar is full of trendy hotels and restaurants serving international cuisine. The city is just 8 km distance from Valpo and makes a great day trip or weekend getaway.
How to reach Valparaiso
The nearest airport is at Santiago, Chile. Since it is less than 2 hrs away from Santiago, Valparaiso can be easily accessed by bus or car 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. If you are planning a trip by bus from Santiago to Valparaiso, read my in-depth guide before you go. The best way to get to Valparaiso is however by renting a car at the airport. C & I reached Valparaiso in 1.5 hrs and the route was beautiful, extremely scenic and passed through vineyards and foggy mountains.
When to visit
Chile lies in the Southern Hemisphere so winter in Chile is from June to August while summer is from December to February. January is usually the hottest month of the year. However, the weather is Valparaiso is a coastal Mediterranean type with mild winter and cool, dry summer which makes Valparaiso a year-round destination. November to March is peak tourist season in Valpo with high hotel rates and lots of crowds while rest of the year is the slow season with below average rates and fewer visitors.
How to get around
Valparaiso can be easily seen by walking to various attractions in the city and its famous street art. Most tourist sites in the city are concentrated around Plaza Sotomayer. Visitors need to explore the hilly twisting roads, cobbled streets, and side alleys on foot to experience 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 and can be used to get around.
Where to stay
Just like H Rado and other best hostels in Santiago, Valparaiso also has lots of hostels for budget travelers, including solo females and couples. Many of these are concentrated around the Cerro Concepcion area. Cerro Allegre and Cerro Bellavista are great for finding good hotels. Here’s a selection of properties to fit all budgets on your trip to Valparaiso.
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 of the Pacific Ocean.
What to pack
Key to packing for Valparaiso is layers. Walking up and down the hills in 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, a bathing suit and beach towel.
Safety tips for traveling in Valparaiso
When people came to know we were traveling to Chile, many asked us whether it is safe. Many visitors view travel in Latin America as unsafe. However, it is really unfair to lump Chile together with Venezuela and other relatively unsafe Latin American destinations. Chile is one of the safest South American countries to visit, period.
Now coming to Valparaiso: compared to the rest of Chile, the city does have a reputation of being unsafe for travelers and visitors, especially at night. Pickpockets and purse or bag-snatching are 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. However, as long as you exercise normal caution and avoid being seen as a target, you should be totally safe in Valparaiso.
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.