Valpo, as the locals call Valparaiso, is the bohemian jewel of Chile. As you drive into the city, you are met with colorful houses on the hills, a maze of electrical wires, winding roads in some areas too small for even just one car at a time, stray dogs (quiltros), wonderful murals, and street art and finally the Pacific Ocean and you are thinking to yourself “What a wonderful mess, this is!”.
Things to do in Valparaiso are diverse and plentiful from enjoying the beaches, walking around admiring the amazing street art, admiring the talent of the street performers, riding up to all the hills by way of the funicular, sand-boarding on the Concon Dunes, sampling fresh local cuisine or just relaxing at a bar listening to live music.
Recent History of Valparaiso
Valparaiso was a major stopover port for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans until the Panama Canal was built. During this time, Valpo experienced rapid growth, and a lot of European sailors settled in Valparaiso, or as it was known back then “Little San Francisco”. With a slowdown of the port business after the Panama Canal was built and a major earthquake in 1906, Valparaiso was experiencing a major economic downfall and was abandoned by many wealthy families. Since then, Valparaiso has rediscovered itself by attracting artists and cultural entrepreneurs and nowadays is a major educational center with four universities and several vocational schools. How hard it must be to concentrate on studying in this city!
Since the 1990s Valparaiso has also been the home of the Chilean National Congress, and in 2003 UNESCO declared Valparaiso’s historic center as a World Heritage Site. Valparaiso is the home of Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, Chile’s first public library, and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world, El Mercurio de Valparaíso.
Recently it has also become a cruise line port which has introduced even more tourists to this city.
Where is Valparaiso?
Valparaiso is about 115 km west of Chile’s capital, Santiago, on the Pacific Ocean. To get here you can take a bus, which takes about 2 hours, or rent a car which is a little quicker but also gives you the option of stopping in Casablanca Valley for some delicious wine. We stopped at Bodegas RE for brunch and a tour, and still talk about how good the brunch was!
Valparaiso is a city of 43 hills that are connected in some of the most ridiculous ways. To get around, your best bet may be on foot, but there are also trolleys, buses, and funiculars you can utilize when you get tired of the never-ending stairs.
Things to do in Valparaiso
Get Lost in the City
The number one thing to do in Valparaiso is just let yourself get lost in this city. It is unlike any other city we’ve ever been to. It draws you in an unexpected way. You think you know where you are going and what you want to see, but then a mural catches your eye, and then a building that looks cool, and then a winding road that must lead somewhere interesting, and the view from those stairs must be amazing, and then you find yourself having no idea how you got there in the first place. That’s the beauty of Valparaiso!
As two engineers we must admit, we were fascinated with the maze of wires that run through the city too, just looking at it you know there was no plan to put all that together. It is complete chaos! I would hate to be the one working on one of those poles.
If you are looking for a more structured and informational tour, hopping on one of the free city tours is the way to go. Tours are led by city enthusiasts, most likely wearing Where’s Waldo? shirts, that love their city and want to share its beauty, history, and culture with you. And do not forget to tip them at the end, do not be that guy! Any amount of $5 or more would be appropriate.
Street art is unavoidable, it is everywhere and it is beautiful. Some are pure works of art, and some have hidden and/or blatant political messages. Chileans are passionate about their political views, and whether you agree with them or not, remember you are an outsider and try to be respectful.
Take the Valpo Street Art tour, to learn about the history of the city and street art. They offer tours for tips and some tours that are more structured and educational for a small fee. It is a great way to learn about the art, artists, and history of the city.
Try to find artwork by Un Kolor Distinto, a couple from Santiago that moved to Valparaiso to make art. Their most prominent art pieces are the four huge murals on the highest building in Valparaiso, but there is a lot more of their artwork hidden throughout the city.
Dance in the Streets
Street performers come around the popular squares in town a few times a day, and they are seriously talented. People gather around them and it becomes a street party pretty quick. Once again, make sure you tip them when the tip jar comes around. Anyone who makes your hips move deserves a tip!
Ride a Funicular
There are 16 functional historical elevators that you can ride on in Valpo. They were constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries and are still going strong. They are a great way to give your feet a break and connect you from one hill to the next bigger hill, and these rides provide great views of the city. Bring cash to pay for the ride, it costs around 600 CLP round trip.
Hang Out at the Beach
Even though the entire length of Chile is on the Pacific Ocean, there are not that many places where you can swim. Valparaiso and Viña del Mar are some of those places, so take advantage and enjoy the beach. You can take the metro from Valparaiso to Playa Caleta Portales and dip your toes in the water, or hang out at one of the restaurants with an adult beverage. For us Floridians, the water was too cold, plus the currents can be very strong, so be careful if you are not used to it. The view of the city is great from here too.
Ring in the New Year in Valpo
Even without any celebration, Valpo feels like a party town, add in New Year’s Eve celebrations and you have a party you will not soon forget. For New Year’s Eve, Valparaiso puts on the biggest fireworks show in South America. Numerous barges are set up in the harbor and are synchronized to perfection for the fireworks show which lasts about 20 minutes. After the show, the real party starts and people gather in the streets, street performers show up and it goes on like that for hours.
PRO TIP: Over 1 million people come to Valparaiso for the NYE celebration, that is 4 times more than the city’s population, which means you have to plan ahead. The hotel reservations book up quickly. The restaurants either have prix fixe menus or are completely closed, and the ones that stay open book up quickly. Try to arrive the day ahead, otherwise you may be stuck in traffic for hours. Also do not plan to use your car to get around the city that night since most roads will be closed, and the police are everywhere.
Visit La Sebastiana Museo de Pablo Nerudo
A house turned into a museum, of the most prominent poet, diplomat, and politician in Valpo, Pablo Neruda. He was a champion of art and culture in Chile, but especially in Valparaiso. The house is located in Cerro Florida, and you will get some amazing views from up here, but to get to the best views you usually have to work for it, so put some comfortable shoes on since it is a hefty uphill hike.
Go Sandboarding on Concon Dunes
Mini desert located in the middle of the developed area, the perfect spot for sandboarding, lessons and tours offered in the city, hiking, and sunset watching. Whatever you decide to do there don’t forget to wear comfy shoes and bring water and sunscreen.
Eat and Drink Your Way Around Valpo
The food is fresh and delicious. Casablanca Valley is only 30 minutes away, so the wine selection is great, and don’t forget about pisco. At the port, you can meet local fishermen as they come in from the harbor at the end of the day and you know seafood is going to be fresh! Chile is known for its ceviche and Valpo is the best place to try it!
There is no better way to finish this post than with an excerpt from Neruda’s Ode to Valparaiso poem, to show Valparaiso’s resilience:
Here I conclude this ode, Valparaíso:
so little like a destitute undershirt,
hanging raggedly in your windows
rocking in the wind of the ocean,
saturated with all the sorrows of your land,
receiving the dew of the seas,
the kiss of the wide irritable ocean
that with all its strength
beats against your stones.
It couldn’t knock you down,
because within your southern chest are tattooed:
struggle, hope, solidarity and happiness
like anchors that withstand
the waves of the earth.