Many things about Valparaiso, Chile reminded us of San Francisco. The hills, the port, the calling gulls, the adorable coffee shops, the brightly painted homes in a mish-mash of styles. If fact, in the 19th-century international sailors referred to Valparaiso as “little San Francisco”. But this historic city, which everyone calls Valpo for short, also has plenty of its own character and a wide range of attractions, hotels, and restaurants that draw local and international travelers. Rely on our city travel guide for the travel tips you need to explore Valparaiso.
The sprawling historic quarter of Valparaiso has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003 in recognition of the city’s architecture which was influenced by the utilitarian needs of a port city, the challenge of withstanding devastating fires and earthquakes (more shades of San Francisco), and the tastes and style brought in by its international population.
Settled in the 1500s by the Spanish, who valued the port, Valpo boomed as the most important port city on the Pacific Coast of South America until 1914 when the Panama Canal opened and re-routed commercial shipping away from the Valparaiso port.
Today, the port still operates and the Chilean Congress is here in a building constructed on top of a house where dictator Augusto Pinochet, a Valparaiso native, lived.
What to do in Valparaiso
The most emblematic innovation in Valparaiso is the city’s network of funiculars (locally called ascensores which means elevator in Spanish, however, all but one of them are actual funiculars). They transport people and goods up and down the hills that ring the city like an amphitheater. Over the years, many of the 30 original funiculars, which were built in the early 1900s, fell into disrepair. When we were in Valparaiso, there were 12 working funiculars in the city. They’re used by locals daily and have been protected and slowly restored as National Historic Monuments since 2008.
For travelers, the funiculars are a fun way to explore the city and see some history in action. The Concepcion funicular is the oldest. The Cerro Artilleria funicular (below) is one of the longest and offers great views across the city and port. The Palanco ascensor is the only one that’s an elevator (not a funicular) because of its very steep incline and it travels through a dramatic tunnel. Tickets are cheap but must be bought in cash.
Wear sensible shoes in Valparaiso. You’ll be doing a lot of walking to take in the architecture that earned much of the city its UNESCO status. Sure, many of the buildings are tatty around the edges. However, the combination of brightly painted wood and the use of tin and corrugated metal is noteworthy.
You’ll also be on your feet through a labyrinth of streets to experience the Museo a Cielo Abierto (Open Sky Museum). This free, casual, open-air street art museum was established in the Cerro Bellavista neighborhood in 1992. Today, many walls and fences have been turned into canvasses by Chilean artists who’ve created 20 cataloged murals in a variety of styles. Plenty of other works outside that core catalog have been added to the area over the years. There are also free and pay-for street art tours covering the Museo a Cielo Abierto and other parts of Valparaiso. Want more? Check out our full photo essay about street art in Valpariso.
Depending on who you ask, Nobel-prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was the voice of the people, a creative genius, or a shameless womanizer. Perhaps all three. In Chile, three of the late poet’s homes have been turned into intimate museums run by the Pablo Neruda Foundation.
Neruda loved the sea and he loved seaside Valparaiso and visitors to the city should make time for a visit to the La Sebastiana Neruda Museum (7,000 CLP or about US$8, allow at least an hour, audio tour in English included). Neruda named the house in honor of architect Sebastian Collado who started the project before selling the unfinished home to the poet. Tiny rooms are reached via narrow staircases on four distinct floors that all have great sea and city views. Quirky décor includes a cow-shaped punch bowl, a huge photo of Walt Whitman (one of Neruda’s heroes), a wooden carousel horse (pictured above), and bedroom furniture from a ship. For more, read our post about all of the Pablo Neruda museums in Chile including La Sebastiana, La Chascona, and Isla Negra.
The newer, cleaner, less gritty, and more affluent Viña del Mar area begins just down the coast practically abutting Valparaiso. There are many restaurants and hotels in Viña del Mar, but we just drove through. From Valparaiso, a coastal train connects to Viña del Mar and it’s a scenic ride. The coast north of Viña is dotted with small beachfront towns and new apartment buildings for escapees from Santiago.
Sleeping in Valparaiso
There are so many hotels in Valparaiso, from hostels to high end, that it can be hard to choose. For us, the most interesting options in town were in the mid-range boutique hotel category. Once you’ve chosen the category of hotel you’re interested in, decide which neighborhood you want to be based in. Remember, Valpo is a very hilly town that spreads across a series of small hills (cerros) separated by gullies and ravines. Getting between each cerro neighborhood can require quite a bit of uphill and downhill walking, so choose carefully.
We wanted to be based in the Cerro Alegre neighborhood which has a high concentration of the activities, attractions, and restaurants for travelers. That’s where we found the MM450 Hotel Boutique. Opened in 2012 as the Mercado Moderno Hotel, this place was reimagined by its new owner, a Chilean designer, who created a spot-on reflection of the neighborhood’s easy chic.
The 3-level hotel is airy and light-filled with 10 minimalist rooms in organic colors (lots of white, gray, and earth tones) ranging from 170 square feet (16 square meters) to 300 square feet (28 square meters) with original wood floors and great beds. Some of the larger rooms have bathrooms with skylights and partial sea views. A lot of space has been preserved as shared patios and gardens that smell like jasmine. A new bar and restaurant called Social 450 recently opened, adding to the eating and drinking options in this part of town.
Eating in Valparaiso
Though the city has it’s share of rip-off, low-quality, tourist-trap restaurants, Valparaiso also has some worthy eating options if you know where to look.
Pasta e Vino is packed for reason. The loft-like space has an open kitchen, an English menu, and English-speaking staff who start you off with an amuse-bouche and some excellent homemade breads as you tackle the menu. We had trouble choosing between the 11 kinds of ravioli, nine gnocchis, and four fettuccine dishes so we asked for some recommendations. We never would have ordered the morcilla (blood sausage) ravioli, but we’re glad we took our waiter’s advice. It was one of the best dishes we had all year: moist, tender, and rich in a moderately creamy leek sauce. Another winning recommendation was a bottle of Emiliano 2016 organic “Coyam” blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon, carmenere, mourvedre, malbec, grenache, and tempranillo that was spicy and earthy. Make a reservation.
Staff at the MM450 hotel recommended a casual restaurant called Malandrino il Pizzaiolo and we’re glad they did. Just around the corner from the hotel, the pizza here had excellent crust and sauce and was made in a real wood-burning oven. The menu also included pasta dishes and salads plus wine, beer, and cocktails.
Though Chile has thousands of miles of Pacific coastline and some of the richest waters in the world, Chileans don’t eat much fish or seafood (most of the catch is exported). Also, fishing quotas have been reduced in recent years and illegal fishing is a growing problem and this creates a challenging environment for non-industrial fishermen. Tres Peces restaurant in Valparaiso is trying to get more Chileans eating sustainably caught fish and seafood.
Opened in 2018 by three partners (hence the name), the casual restaurant (wood floor, wood tables and chairs, high ceilings, and a wall covered in photos of their fishermen) is a way of funding their larger educational and fishing policy change efforts. The menu changes daily based on what they get from a network of more than 40 artisanal fishermen across Chile. Prices are extremely reasonable (when we were there all entrees were 6,500 CLP/US$8, all mains were 7,500 CLP/US$9, all wines were 15,000 CLP/US$18 per bottle, and all homemade desserts were 3,500 CLP/$US4).
While prices are low, standards are high. Highlights from our lunch at Tres Peces included Caldillo de Congrio, a beloved conger eel soup, which was a buttery rich broth laden with bright cilantro and tender eel served in a charmingly-chipped laminated tin cup.
The most ambitious restaurant in town is Restaurante Puerto Claro. Opened in 2018 and named for the name the Spanish gave to the port in Valparaiso, this bistro-like space (exposed brick, brown leather banquettes, weathered wood floor) in a restored building offers four seasonal ala carte menus and a changing 7-course tasting menu.
Black napkins, bespoke cocktails, an extensive wine list, and live jazz nights are sophisticated touches, but it’s the food that surprises. A cold giant clam appetizer was tender and sweet with bright parsley and grated truffle on top in a tangy citrus broth. Sweetbreads were crunchy on the outside and just tender (not mushy) on the inside and energized with zingy pickled mussels. A main course of braised shank cubes in a fragrant and thick mushroom gravy with a side of grits was hearty and satisfying, especially when paired with a glass of Chilean syrah.
A Valparaiso travel warning
Valparaiso is a port town and tourism is not its primary focus. There’s a grittiness here that is mostly a harmless part of the city’s DNA. However, violence is not unheard of. For example, the Friday before we arrived in Valparaiso, a male Canadian tourist was killed with a knife in broad daylight after he refused to give his backpack to a thief. During our visit, almost everyone we met warned us to be careful. Also, we encountered a few very aggressive dogs on the street.
In his poem “Ode to Valparaiso,” Pablo Neruda says, in part, “VALPARAÍSO, what an absurdity you are, how crazy: a crazy port. What a head of disheveled hills, that you never finish combing. Never did you have time to dress yourself, and always you were surprised by life.”
Here’s more about travel in Chile