Valparaíso is a port city in Chile known for its street art, brightly colored houses, steep hillsides, and vibrant culture. Called the “jewel of the Pacific,” Valparaíso, Chile is a popular tourist destination offering appeal and a bohemian side of life in the country. There is a lot of fun things to do in Valparaíso, Chile.
Also called the “San Francisco of South America” by the sailors who once arrived in the port, the nickname certainly fits. Navigating the city means constantly walking up steep hills or down them, though there are old and creaky funiculars to help with some of the burn.
The benefit of the steep hills is there are lots of lookouts or miradors at every turn. You can enjoy the views of this interesting and unique city. It has the feel of a fishing village with an interesting and colorful side.
Valpo, as it’s often called by locals and tourists alike, is no stiff city. It’s the casual and laid-back neighbor of Santiago, the capital city. They are only an hour and a half away by bus or car but couldn’t be more different.
I’ll be honest—by the way, people absolutely gush about this city, I had my expectation set way too high. I arrived a bit baffled trying to see the charm in the heavily graffitied homes. The earthquake that hit right when we were at the coast didn’t help my impression. However, go beneath the surface, keep your expectations in check, and enjoy as it’ll surprise you. Valparaíso’s definitely a must-see when you go to Chile.
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Spanish explorers arrived in Valparaíso in 1536 and it was named after the ship commander’s hometown of Valparaíso de Arriba, Spain (Valley of Paradise). We learned during a walking tour that the settlement was never actually a founded city however, it grew due to its location. The “greater Valparaíso” region is the second-largest metropolitan area in Chile.
It quickly became the main seaport in Chile and a major stopover for all ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. All ships to the Americas had to pass through it to refuel before the Panama Canal passageway was built. It saw a golden age in the 19th century as a result.
The opening of the Panama Canal dealt a serious blow to the city’s economy. Valparaíso went through a revitalization effort when people started to move out due to the decreasing need for the port. This paved the way for artists and cultural entrepreneurs to move into the city’s hillside historic districts and for them to attract tourists. Now, Valparaíso is a popular tourist destination and is receiving growing attention from cruises as well.
In 2003, the historic quarter of Valparaíso was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. According to UNESCO, “the Historic Quarter of the Seaport City of Valparaíso represents an extraordinary example of the industrial-age heritage associated with the international sea trade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Earthquakes in and Around Valparaíso
You might expect that someone who has traveled as often as I have would learn that Chile is subject to a lot of earthquakes. You would be wrong. I truly had no idea about it until the earthquake hit. It was an 8.3.
It was our second day in Valparaíso and the city was buzzing with excitement for the Independence Day celebration. We decided to go to Plaza Sotomayor, right near our hotel, for a celebratory show.
Around 45 minutes into the show, the earthquake hit. I have only been in an earthquake once and it felt nothing like this. In fact, we weren’t really sure what was going on. It felt like someone was intermittently pushing my chair.
Then we noticed people kept looking back towards the water. After maybe 30 seconds, we realized what was happening. We later learned that five years earlier, an earthquake and a tsunami hit not far from Valparaíso and caused significant damage.
We were evacuated to higher ground, and when we got to the tsunami safe zone, an aftershock hit, driving us higher. It was a crazy long night, but we were ok following the rather harrowing experience. You can read all about it in this post about the earthquake.
I would still recommend visiting Valparaíso. However, I recommend NOT staying by the water as we did. And, inquire about the evacuation procedures where you stay so you don’t learn you were locked out of your hotel at 1 in the morning! Also, it’s a good idea to research things like this before traveling somewhere so you’re better prepared than we were!
Go on a Walking Tour
One of the best ways to learn about a new city you’re visiting and to learn how to navigate it is with a tour. I love free walking tours and have found them generally to be quite good. And it makes sense, as you’re paying a tip for a great tour but not paying a standard fee, so they really have to work for it.
Wander the streets for artwork and explore the local squares. Learn the history of this interesting city and how to navigate the hills by funicular. There are a lot of interesting places to visit and getting a local guide is a great way to do that.
Ride the Many Funiculars
The first funicular was built in Valparaíso in 1883 to help navigate the 42 hills of the city. Today, there are 9 funiculars (acensors) in operation in Valparaíso. There were up to 30 at one time, though many were pulled from use as they require modernization. 7 are in the process of being restored and may be available for use in the future.
When you see the ones that are in use, you’ll be thankful for the ones that got pulled! Though, they are still fun to ride.
The hills in Valparaíso, Chile are ridiculously steep. You can pretty much eat whatever you want when you visit (hello, empanadas!) as you will burn off everything negotiating the hills. The funiculars not only help to keep you from wanting to pitch yourself from one of the lookouts but they are a tourist attraction in their own right.
Ascensor Concepción Prat is the oldest in the city. Funicular Cerro Artillería is one of the most popular as it offers some of the best views. My favorite was the Reina Victoria Acensor (Queen Victoria Funicular). It was said that Queen Victoria attended the opening. However, it opened in 1902 and she died in 1901, so I guess not!
At the top of the Reina Victoria are a few large paintings inspired by a cartoonist named Lucas. (There is also a museum dedicated to his work call the “House of Lucas.”) They are a satire of a group of people with animal shapes and faces. And, there’s a slide that you can go down for fun.
Try a Pisco
There is an ongoing debate between Chile and Peru as to who created the pisco sour. Both countries claim it and that’s ok! It just means when you go to either country, you should definitely try it!
I love pisco sours and drank more than a few when I was in Chile. One of my favorite places to go was Hotel Gervasoni in Cerro Concepción. It’s at the top of one of the big hills that Valparaíso rests on. They have an outdoor patio with incredible views. Enjoy a pisco sour (or two) while taking in the view, especially good at sunset.
Climb to Cerro Concepción
A popular place to visit is in Cerro Concepción. Take the funicular with the same name and wander this neighborhood. You’ll see a number of great viewpoints and one of the most popular are Mirador Atkinson. Stroll down the beautiful Paseo Gervasoni.
This area has a lot of restaurants and small shops and you’ll see talented local artists along the street selling their artwork.
Concepción, the name of the neighborhood (barrio) and the hill, is a fun maze of streets with lots of street art. If you’re there around sunset, head to the bright yellow house at the top of the hill for views over the Pacific.
Hotel Gervasoni that I mentioned earlier with the great rooftop deck for pisco sours is in this neighborhood.
Visit the Sea Lions
The walking tour I took ended at the port. Someone approached us to offer a group rate for a private boat. A few of us decided to do it and it was so much fun! It’s a great way to meet people while enjoying ocean views of the city. You can also find boats that will leave when full with people and offer 30-minute rides with a guide.
I do see some boat tours as part of day tours. However, if you speak even a little Spanish, consider going to the harbor directly. If you do a walking tour that ends in the port area, ask around in your group if others want to go. You’ll get a better rate with a group.
The ride was around an hour and I even got to drive the boat for a bit! (And, without crashing it—even better!) We got to see a lot of sea lions lounging in the sun. There were a couple of military warships in for security for the Independence Day celebrations. And lots of pelicans! This is also where cruise ships come in so may see one of those as well.
Once you get back to the port, there’s a great little area with locals selling handicrafts and souvenirs which is worth wandering around.
Muelle Prat, the seaport of Valparaíso, is located here on a map, right next to Plaza Sotomayor.
Visit Plaza Sotomayor
Before or after going to the port, take a walk through Plaza Sotomayor. It was named after Rafael Sotomayor. It’s a large plaza, or square, in Valparaíso right next to the Prat seaport and it’s the most important civic square in the city. It has many names—originally Plaza de la Aduana (Customs Square), Plaza del Palacio (Palace Square), and Plaza Intendencia (Intendency Square). It’s now recognized as a historic district.
In the center of the square is a large monument built to pay homage to the Chilean sailors who died in two battles. (The Battle of Iquique and the Battle of Pinta Gruesa).
The Chilean Navy headquarters is located in this square. There are some interesting buildings in the area worth walking around to see. However, the area past the plaza and away from the port is sketchy and should be avoided. We were told that police patrol and tell people to leave, which is a shame as there are some beautiful old churches there!
Our guide told us a funny story of a man who was walking in this neighborhood next to an old woman. He was approached by a policeman who asked if he knew who he was walking with. The man shrugged and said, “no, just an old woman.” It turned out she was one of the drug “kingpen” in the city at the time!
Wander to See the Street Art
Valparaíso is one of the graffiti capitals of South America. It’s known around the world for its street art and it’s actually legal here. You’ll see it all—from spray can graffiti to beautifully detailed murals.
Wander down any street in the maze that is Valparaíso and you’re likely to find street art before long. There are some beautiful classic murals and some really interesting and creative mixed-media ones as well.
Check out the Museo a Cielo Abierto for 20 murals done by students from Universidad Católica’s Instituto de Arte near the top of Ascensor Espíritu Santo. Templeman Street on Cerro Alegre is also a great place to go, and there are so many others.
Many of the buildings have bright colors, and we were told it’s believed so they are more visible at night. We saw a sign ‘We are not hippies we are happiest,” which seems perfect for this bohemian city.
Check Out La Sebastiana
One of three houses owned by one of Chile’s most loved is in Valparaíso, La Sebastiana. Pablo Neruda, a poet, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature had this home built near the top of one of Cerro Florida, one of Valpo’s many hills.
It’s a bit of a trek to get to, but it’s worth visiting. La Sebastiana is now a museum in his honor, preserved in its original state. It’s interesting to walk through and you can do it without a guide. This home provides great insight into who he was as a man including the things that he loved the most. It also offers some incredible city views.
La Chascona in Santiago is a bit quirky and this one is very different. It’s packed full of collectibles and has an amazing view. When he had it built, his one requirement was that he be able to see all of Valparaíso from the home. I’d say it was a success.
One of my favorite things was a stunning mosaic of a map of Patagonia created by an artist in tan, black, and white. The living room has a large carousel horse and a round fireplace designed by Neruda himself. And there are a number of gorgeous stained glass pieces.
According to Tripadvisor, this is the #1 thing to do in Valparaíso. I really enjoyed it and you won’t want to miss it.
La Sebastiana is located at Ricardo de Ferrari 692, Valparaíso, Chile. It’s open from Tuesday to Saturday from 11 to 5. Tickets cost 7,000 CLP ($9.60 USD). You can buy tickets online now which is great and I highly recommend it as it gets busy.
Parque Cultural de Valparaíso
Originally a Spanish fort built in the early 1800s, this structure later became a prison used to house and torture political prisoners when Pinochet controlled the country. It was a prison until 1999 when a new one was built. The space has been reborn and is now a large community space for culture, art, and social gathering. This place is much beloved by the people of Valparaíso.
It was created through a joint venture and a desire to install culture in a park open to the community. In 2020, there was a national architecture content to redefine the building. More than 118 joined the content, and the winner was chosen to redesign the structure for its current use. The old prison cell block remains, fitted to be used for artistic displays.
It’s a unique space filled with many large rooms used for dance, music, theater, and other artistic practices. There’s also a theater with 300 seats and a large visual arts room.
You can see the art of the former prisoners, people practicing dance routines, and an occasional exhibition.
See Avenida Brasil
For something a little off the tourist path, take a stroll down Avenida Brasil. It was created in around 1880, originally known as Great Avenue. The name was later changed in the late 19th century to pay homage to the country of Brazil.
It runs for around a mile (1.6 km) and it’s one of the main arteries in the city. It’s a wide central grassy park lined by rows of palm trees. Many of the grassy areas have large statues and even an archway. There’s also some beautiful street art to enjoy during the walk.
Explore Cerro Alegre
Another of Valparaíso’s impressive hills is Cerro Alegre. It is next to Cerro Concepción so you can easily see both together if you choose.
Take the Ascensor El Peral built in 1902 over 170 feet (54 meters) at a 48-degree gradient. It’s located immediately behind Plaza Sotomayor and the Plaza de Justicia. The entrance is not easy to see, however, there is a large sign.
This neighborhood has all of the energy and color of Valparaíso’s and is a great representation of this city. Meander through the alleyways and cobblestone streets to the Museum of Fine Arts (Museo de Bellas Artes). There are a lot of small shops, old-school bakeries, art galleries, and boutiques. You get the feeling of more of a small town than a large city here.
Look out over the port as you walk up and down the staircases decorated with street art and graffiti. You’ll see locals mingling with tourists here and street artists painting, juggling, and showing the fun vibe of this city.
When to Go to Valparaíso, Chile
Peak season to visit Valparaíso is in the summer, from December to February. Average temperatures during the summer are around 72°F (22°C) and they don’t tend to get more than a few degrees hotter.
If you want to avoid the tourist crowds, try September or October. It’s still nice weather for travel but not quite as busy. In the winter, lows average around 45°F (7°C).
Temperatures are pretty moderate overall so there isn’t really a bad time to go. However, it does rain a bit between May and September, with a peak generally in June.
How to Get to Valparaíso, Chile
The most common way to get to Valparaíso is by taking a bus from Santiago. You can get there from the Metro on the red metro line 1, Pajaritos stop.
There are a number of bus ticket booths and the best-known companies are Pullman and Turbus. Both run frequently, every 15 to 20 minutes from around 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Both are similar for comfort and safety ratings and the trip will take around 90 minutes.
Once you get to Valparaíso, it’s a 25-minute walk to the city center. Alternatively, there is a bus (the 505 to Plaza Sotomayor), or grab a taxi.
There are also a number of great tour options for day trips from Santiago. You can see the best of Valparaíso along with neighbor Viña del Mar. There’s even a tour to visit the Casablanca wine region outside of Valpo. If you’re a wine lover, Casablanca is the top white wine region known for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Check it out!
Where to Stay in Valparaíso, Chile
I do not recommend staying on the waterfront given my experience and the frequency of earthquakes. The hotel I stayed at was right on the water and shut down without any directions posted. At 1 am, when we ventured back down the hills, we were unable to enter our hotel and had to find another place to sleep. So, do yourself a favor and steer clear of the waterfront temptation!
- Budget: Maki Hostel Valparaiso—This comfortable hostel offers a variety of rooms including private rooms with private bathrooms. It’s in a fun and safe neighborhood and it’s a comfortable place with friendly and helpful staff.
- Mid-Range: Grand Hotel Gervasoni—If I were planning a trip back to Valpo, this is where I’d stay. We had a drink on their rooftop patio with amazing views and this hotel is gorgeous and surprisingly affordable. (Hotels are generally very affordable, though this is less than many). This large boutique hotel was built in 1870 and bridges the balance between traditional and modern.
- Unique: Winebox Valparaíso—This is the first container hotel in Valpo and worth considering for its uniqueness alone! It’s also the first urban winery in Valpo and they allow tourists and hotel guests to taste the winemaker’s barrels. On second thought, maybe I’d stay here! It’s a brightly-colored and fun-looking place worth checking out!
- Luxury: Hotel Boutique Acontraluz—Nestled in the Cerro Alegre neighborhood, this boutique hotel offers comfortable luxury. It has a rooftop terrace with amazing views, free wifi, free breakfast, and more. It’s close to Paseo Gervasoni and Paseo Atkinson and lots of wonderful bars and restaurants.
Things to Eat in Valparaíso
Valpo is on the water, so you can’t go wrong with fish when you’re here. One of my favorite dishes is ceviche and it’s plentiful, good, and cheap here. It’s a raw fish that is marinated and cooked in lemon juice. It’s then served with garlic, cilantro, onions, cumin, and olive oil. Yum. It’s a staple of Chile, Peru, and this part of South America.
Empanadas are popular here, as in Santiago. They are baked or fried dough pastries filled with seafood, cheese, beef, or pino made of ground beef, olive, onion, and egg. Don’t forget the Chilean hot sauce.
Completos are also popular here and it’s Chile’s take on a hot dog. It’s a beloved food here served with chopped tomato, cheese, mayo, and sauerkraut. I’m not a huge fan of hot dogs so I didn’t try one, but people absolutely rave about them!
Humitas are also popular, and they are the Chilean version of tamales. They are wrapped in corn husks and made of ground corn, basil, paprika, and onion. Then, they are steamed or boiled.
Places to Eat in Valparaíso, Chile
As you might expect in a town that’s as popular with tourists as Valparaíso, there are a lot of great restaurants. Some popular favorites:
- La Concepción is a favorite of locals in the old part of town. It has stunning views and high-quality food including ceviche, lamb, and local seafood.
- Caleta Portales is a great place to go for fresh seafood. It’s located in a fishing area and another favorite with locals.
- El Peral—Located above the Ascensor El Peral, this place is old school with the menu written on chalkboards every morning. Seafood is a big part of the menu and they’re known for their fresh juices.
- Delicias Express—The ultimate cheap and tasty fast food place, they make some of the best empanadas in town with over 60 different varieties.
You might read other articles about Bar Cinzano, a local institution that sadly closed. We had the opportunity to go and were a bit disappointed given how people raved about it. It was a cool place to go but had definitely passed its peak.
Does Valparaíso Chile Live Up to the Hype?
Valparaíso, for me, was a slow burn. It didn’t take my breath away when I first got there, but I quickly saw what others do. There’s definitely charm beneath some of the grit and it’s worth visiting this enchanting seaside city that captivated a Nobel-laureate poet and tourists alike.
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