This article has been updated on December 23, 2020
Valparaíso is a historical port city located on a Pacific coast about 140km west of Santiago de Chile. It has been founded in 1536 by conquistador Juan de Saavedra and because of its strategic position, it became one of the leading Pacific ports in the world of trade routes between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans right up to the introduction of the Panama Canal in 1914.
As a result of nearly 400 years of prosperity, the “Jewel of the Pacific”, as some like to call it, Valparaíso still thrives on its intercultural richness and vibrant history to this day. More historical facts about Valparaíso‘s are here on Britannica‘s site, in case you were interested.
Cultural capital of Chile
Valparaíso also claims to the cultural capital of Chile, at least according to some people. Whether that’s true or not, historically it has been home to many famous Chilean poets and artists, including the Nobel Price Laureates Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. Valparaíso however clearly still attracts the free-spirit creative souls even today. The steep hills the city is built on and its colourful houses with narrow alleys also add another special ingredient to the overall bohemian character of the place.
Valparaíso’s Street Art
Except for the city’s topography, the most dominant visual element of that bohemian character appears to be the city’s street art. It will hit you right in the face because it’s literally everywhere. I specifically liked the fact that in Valparaíso, the passion and love for arts seem to be more important than the art-making skills, because the levels of how these art pieces are executed vary a lot.
In other words, it feels rather unpretentious IMHO. I believe that in Valparaíso‘s street art there is no space for discrimination, there are no borders, no limits, giving a chance to all sorts of works: masterpieces, classics, kitsch made with love, work of wannabe artists, and so on. Bellow, there’s just a random selection of pictures here but the whole town is pretty much one huge street art gallery.
One can also enjoy the musicians playing on the streets or hear them practising an instrument from all directions – as I said above – you’re literally surrounded by that creative bohemian spirit. Basically, Valpa feels good if one’s into arts and bohemian vibe 🙂
Places not to miss in Valparaíso
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Although Valparaíso nearly has 300 000 population, the areas popular with tourists don’t stretch over the whole city. If you’re OK with the steep hills, the town is pretty much walkable for a medium fit person. I’d say that the attraction is the city and its general atmosphere, rather than some landmarks. But if I had to list few places that are not to be missed I’d have to begin with the cafés, restaurants, street art and general bohemian vibe at the two popular hills of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción.
To be more particular, I’d recommend checking some cool event at tranquil Parque Cultural and trying at least one of the funiculars, particularly either Ascensor Concepcion, Ascensor Reina Victoria or the vertical Polanco. FYI, many would agree if I said that riding a funicular in Valparaíso is a must. At about CLP$300 (€0.35) you’d be spared about a trillion stairs and feel like in a steampunk movie as a bonus.
If you were into poetry, you might consider visiting Pablo Neruda‘s former home La Sebastiana. For art lovers, there’s so many galleries and museums that it would be a confusing point of reference to give directions by galleries 🙂 The art nouveau and fine arts museum Palacio Baburizza however stands out a little.
When it comes to attractions nearby the city, you could also head further south to check a fishermen’s village of Isla Negra, another former home of the local legend Pablo Neruda. Well and then there’s Valparaíso‘s “nemesis” Viña del Mar, located only a few metro stops away, in case you were into flashy resorts. Oh yeah, and if you are into beaches, check out Playa Caleta Portales, Playa Reñaca or Playa Concón🙂
Go out in Valparaíso
For drinks, I’d say that you could find a perfect place to enjoy your glass of Malbec, a bottle of craft beer or few pisco sours. Calle Cumming however appears to hold a higher concentration of various bohemian and cosy looking establishments, in case you were into bar hopping. I’d drop few names of some cool establishments, only if nearly all of them didn’t seem very cool to me. To be honest, I just loved to wander around the narrow hilly alleys and I wanted to grab a beverage in each place 🙂
In case you were into clubbing, head downtown to the flat part of the city, turn left and follow the sound of the kick drum. Expect college crowds and everything it comes with 😉 I’ve also heard some indie, punk and rock concerts from my balcony so genre-wise, Valparaíso is rather diverse when it comes to music, or probably for any form of art in fact.
When talking about artistic diversity, I’d be wrong not no mention the traditional dance Cueca, a dance-lover should definitely check out when visiting Valparaíso. For more particular information about culture and events in the city, check out this listings site. If you’re keen on dancing, here‘s a brilliant Valparaíso-dance guide piece by Wanderlust Dancer 🙂
The in-your-head confrontation with the teenage you
Valparaíso is actually that kind of place which could make some people get metaphorically confronted with their hypothetical rebellious-versions of themselves in a form of a mild headfuck. You know, the moment when you were dreaming of picking an art course but your parents or something else made you pick a business management course instead?
Well here, when you sip your tasty Malbec in a stylish café, the thoughts of that hypothetical life you would have lived – how things could be different if you have committed to follow your dreams back then – just pop in, this time only to make the present, pragmatic you to remember that and realise about the importance of remembering our own dreams. “Only if it was that easy, right?”: the present you reacts 😉
The locals are very friendly in the tourist areas of the town. I’m however told not to wander too far outside of the tourist areas as it might be a dangerous activity in certain parts of town. Be aware. Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción are the two bohemian and tourist-friendly hills but this is something you’ll read about in every brochure.
I’d say that the general advice, applicable to nearly any tourist destination is: don’t flash your valuables around and use common sense. More in-depth info about safety in Latin America could be found here, in case you were interested.
- Collectivos. Those are basically a shared taxis with fixed-ish routes, a rather common method of transportation in Valparaíso. Once you work out the routes (they often depart from the Plaza Anibal Pinto at the bottom of Cerro Concepción), you’ll just wait in the car for more passengers and off you go;
- Funiculars: As I’ve mentioned above, for about CLP$300 (€0.35) you’d be spared about a trillion stairs while getting a cool steampunk experience at the same time;
- Micros: AKA small city buses are the cheapest option you can get. For CLP$250-300 (€0,30-0,35). Apologies, their official website appears to be offline ):
- Taxi: My experience tells me that they are exactly the same as most of the taxi drivers in the world, especially if you’re a foreigner. Driving you around for miles and charging the hell out of you ):
- Metro: Rather than metro it’s a modern and comfy train that runs from the city to Viña del Mar. Fares range depending on the time of day (peak vs off-peak) and the distance travelled. A value card of a minimum of CLP$1350 (€1.55) must be purchased.
How to get there from Santiago?
- To get to Valparaíso from Santiago – head to Pajaritos Metro station, which is also a bus terminal towards Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. There are various bus companies running this journey. I paid 3200,-CLP (€4.20) for mine. The journey is pleasant and it takes about 90 minutes.
- From Valparaíso bus terminal, try to take a city bus for 300,-CLP (ask the people, they will help you), unless you fancy supporting a taxi driver who will rip you off and charge you 8200,-CLP (€10.70) for taking you few miles up to Cerro Alegre, as it happened to me upon my arrival.
Where to stay
I’d personally stay in either Cerro Concepción or Cerro Alegre to be right in the middle of it all. And so I did. I’ve stayed in an Airbnb’s Lucia’s place in a room called Habitación doble con la mejor vista al mar at Cerro Concepción. I must say that this was one of the best places I’ve stayed in during the whole duration of my 8 months long trip. For only $12 a night I had my own fully furnished room with a balcony that proved the name of the place right as it came with one of the best views in the world..
The house is a very old posh place, previously owned by one of the richer Valparaisans with wooden floors and large tiled bathrooms and a great terrace. I mean heavens. The age of the place came with its signs of for example creaking staircase and a bit outdated kitchen but the overall atmosphere, as well as the friendliness of the owner Maria and her semi-permanent tenants, made me feel like at home from the first minute onward. I’d go back straight away 😉
I believe that I’d be not very far from the truth if I said that if someone measured the presence of art per square metre, Valparaíso would rank somewhere near the top, if not at the very top when it comes to Latin America, if not the World. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there’s a lack of art in the Latin World, all the opposite.
It’s the concentration and variety of art that so special in this town. And the bonus is that in Valparaíso I haven’t heard a single reggaeton tune that otherwise dominates the whole Latin World, which you can read about more here, in case you were interested 😉
Anyway, if you are an open-minded free soul, please don’t miss this lovely town if you were ever nearby 😉 However, to be objective, I must say that Valparaíso is not for everyone, one has to be keen on a specific kind of vibe. I’m talking about the overall atmosphere of the city that is created by the contrast of certain grittiness and the ever-present bohemian spirit. I guess that you either love it or you hate it.
For those, seeking luxury and sparkling clean modern, resorty sort of places (such as the neighbouring Viña del Mar), this town might appear “dirty, crime-infested slum” as one of the travellers pointed out in a discussion on the infamous blue&white social network. My reply to him was: “I guess that we are two very different kinds of people”. So what kind of a person are you?
Are you contemplating to take a Spanish course?
In case you were considering taking some Spanish classes, I can recommend this course. You’ll be blessed to get to know two great people. The course is kind of custom made, adapted to your needs, given that you like Valparaíso and its perks, for instance, my teacher was a poet.
FYI – I’m not paid or given any advantages to recommend Interactive Spanish Course at all – I just felt improvements in my conversational Spanish (I’ve asked for) + I felt very welcomed.
What would I do differently with my current knowledge if I went to Valparaíso now?
I would definitely stay longer and take more Spanish classes in order to get more contact with the friendly and always-willing-to-help locals. I’d be more culturally active to enjoy all of the perks Valparaíso has to offer. And I’d go there with a girlfriend ‘cos it’s a very romantic place.
- Culture, events, shopping and so on: Valpa events website AKA local Time Out
- Dance Guide to the city by Wanderlust Dancer could be found here
- History of the Valparaíso by Chile Culture
- UNESCO: Valparaíso historic quarter page is a nice read, in case you were interested
Traveller’s Guide to Chile
For more complex information about the whole country that includes basic history, cuisine, general tourism info and safety, popular as well as off the beaten path places to visit in Chile, please click here.
Featured image by Michelle Maria from Pixabay