Picture-perfect Valparaiso is only perfect as long as you don ‘t zoom in. The narrow streets up the hills, the many escalators taking tourists up those same hills, the stories about poet Pablo Neruda: they are all romantic. But… Valparaiso is also an urban mess.
Stumbling around in the alleys is a great adventure, admittedly. But despite the relatively small size it has big-city problems: some areas that feel unsafe especially at night, and occasional muggings of tourists. When careful you will probably be fine… otherwise escape to the much beterr organized Vina del Mar just around the corner.
Valparaiso has always been important for Chile. Strategically, as the navy still has its headquarters here. Economically, as (with huge ups and downs) lots of trade went through the port. Politically because the legislative seat of the country is here, the modern U-shaped Congreso Nacional close to the bus terminal.
That terminal is in the not so affluent eastern part of the city center, where hundreds of people are selling stuff on the street. This has a distinctly Latin, chaotic feel to it. The area (including the Mercado Cardonal) is loud and bustling during the day, and pretty dead at night.
Strangely enough the seaside city is mostly cut off from the sea by its harbour and a suburban train running along the coast. The more picturesque areas are on the hills (cerros).
Cerros Carcel & Panteon are close together. The beautiful Cemetery 1&2 are there, around the corner you will find the Parque Cultural de Valparaiso: a former prison now turned into an impressive arts center, cafe, rehearsal space and community centre. It’s a wonder of urban regeneration.
Cerro Bellavista boasts La Sebastiana, the former house of poet Pablo Neruda. Be early to be allowed in, there can be crowds and huge tourist groups in high season. When you walk down the hill from there, you will encounter the Museo a Cielo Abierto, the Open Sky museum, for pieces of street art.
Cerro Alegre on the western edge of the city center is probably the most touristy area, full of escalators (Ascensor Concepcion is the oldest of Valparaiso) and funky coffee bars and vegan places. It truly is beautiful. Around the corner is the old port area, around the Plaza Sotomayor. The navy HQ building (Armada de Chile) is there, nearby is Muelle Prat where you can hop on tourist boats for a ride in the harbour. In the evening this entire area is dodgy, as is the entire walk along the coast from here back to the other parts of the city.
Food and drinks
We didn’t stay in the touristy Cerro Alegre area, where you have all the choice in the world. We were in the eastern part of the center (because of the excellent La Joya hostal). That one has a pretty funky (but not cheap) burger restaurant as well. What we can definitely recommend otherwise is the massive Del Barrio, along the big Pedro Montt road, which has ample rooftop space and live music and a wide-ranging menu.
Activities / things to do
Most things have already been mentioned in the general info part. If not, you will find more info below:
- La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s house
- Cerro Alegre area
- Parque Cultural Valparaiso
- Museo de Bellas Artes, in the Cerro Concepcion area, a decent modern art museum
- Congreso Nacional
- Valpo Street Art Tours: free tours from Plaza Sotomayor, daily at 10am & 3pm. You only pay tips, between 5k and 10k is normal
- Vina del Mar: a solid hour walking from Valparaiso at least, along a hidden path along the coast. Alternatively and much easier you can take the suburban train… but then you miss some surprises. Still on the Valparaiso side is a concrete block in the sea which hosts sea wulves. A kilometre further is a sort of fish market which attracts the same sea wulves and many birds. You can photograph all of them up close especially in the morning. Rather an amazing sight
- once you arrive in Vina del Mar, there are obviously pristine beaches. Vina del Mar is also known as the garden city. To get a taste of that, walk to the massive amphitheatre which is in the middle of a lush park. The suburban trains stop closeby
Getting to Valparaiso and getting around
- the airport: is pretty close to the city. But because Valparaiso is so close to the capital, most people choose the bus
- bus: a two hour ride from Santiago, the chaotic bus terminal is in the heart of Valparaiso. There are also direct connections to the north (Antofagasta, Calama) and south (Talca and beyond)
- within the city: within the center you can walk, or take escalators up the hill. As said, there is a suburban train mainly running along the coast, which makes it especially worthwhile for going to Vina del Mar
- Weather: in contrast to what you might expect, this coastal town is not that warm. The fierce wind cools it down quite a lot, and the current from the Pacific is refreshening. You can still have a good beach day in Vina del Mar, but even in summer it isn’t an oven. In winter you can expect moderate weather, with lots of clouds and rain coming in from the sea
- Safety: is an issue especially in the old port and in the deserted parts of the center at night. Don’t show off valuables and use your wits and you will be fine, but Valparaiso is one of the very few places in Chile where you need to be careful