Valpo, the Jewel of the Pacific, UNESCO City of Color and Steps, or just ‘very f@#king hilly’, Valparaíso is many different things to different people. The first stop on our tour of South America, Valparaiso was exciting for us for a range of reasons.
A weathered seaport with character and heart, colorful buildings adorn the city’s many hills or ‘cerros’. Amongst the vibrant buildings, a labyrinth of streets, stairways, and passages traverse the steep and hilly city. Strewn throughout the jumble, discover cozy cafes, century-old bars, and incredible street and mural art.
We spent the first days of our South American adventure, wandering the barrios, soaking up the brightly colored city’s sunny atmosphere, and enjoying fresh seafood by the water.
Here is the what, the where, and the how, to see this authentic Chilean port city.
When to Visit Valparaíso
Valparaíso has mild summers and cool winters. It can really be enjoyed any time of year. The best beach weather happens during the southern hemisphere’s summer between December and February. However, this is also the high season when you’ll find the most national and international tourists. The shoulder seasons on either side of summer, starting in November and ending in May, are also pleasant.
How to Get to Valparaíso
If you are embarking on a road trip of South America beginning in Santiago de Chile, as many do, this is a logical place to start as the closest seaside destination. Or, if you are following the original Pan Americana, Valparaíso marks the spot where the route turns west toward Argentina or north up South America’s western coastline.
Santiago to Valparaiso by Car
Valpraíso is a little over 100km from Santiago straight down Ruta 68. Despite a relatively short drive, the Chilean department of roads has managed to squeeze in three toll booths along the way. And they aren’t cheap either with the three tolls totaling $10 USD.
We tried to avoid toll roads but found it difficult with poor intel from Google leading us down closed roads. Or, along narrow dirt goat tracks that skirt the edge of the cliffs above the highway. Some quick maths told us we had probably spent far more on fuel dodging the toll than we had saved, without taking into consideration the extra 40 minutes it had added to our trip. Ultimately, the tolls while expensive are cheaper and easier than the alternative.
Paying for Tolls in Chile
Paying for tolls in Chile, outside of the capital Santiago, is straightforward as tolls can be paid in cash at the toll booth.
Tolls in Santiago, however, are automatic and locals use an electronic tag. If you are not going to be in Santiago long enough to warrant organizing your own tag through the department of transport, you can pay retrospectively after driving through a toll point, at COPEC petrol stations.
How to get to Valparaiso by Bus
While Valparaiso does not have its own airport, it is well-serviced by buses.
Regular buses run from all major hubs. The closest hub is Santiago.
How to Get Around Valparaíso
Despite the hills, walking is still the best way to discover Valparaiso. A labyrinth of paths and staircases wind through the jumbled assortment of colorful buildings and seaside homes strewn over the city’s many cerros. Most of the trendiest barrios (neighborhoods) perch atop these hills. Amongst the eclectic buildings, street artists have turned the town into a living gallery. Pick a destination from our list of what to do or where to eat, put on some comfy shoes, and get stepping.
If you have your own vehicle, driving in Valparaíso is no problem with ample parking and a more relaxed attitude to driving than in Santiago. In saying this, Valparaiso is a city that is enjoyable to wander and hike and has plenty of public transport, we recommend ditching the car.
The metro connects the seaside towns of Valparaíso and Vina del Mar before cutting inland toward Quilpe. It is an easy way to take a day trip from Valparaiso.
Valparaíso’s historic trolleybuses are some of the oldest in the world, some having been in service since the ’50s. The creaking, clattering trolleybuses are iconic and an easy way to see downtown Valpo, as they run one continuous loop, between Avenida Argentina and Plaza Wheelwright. You can hop off along the way and catch a funicular up the cerros.
These cable cars on railways ferry you up some of Valparaiso’s famed cerros. They are the perfect way to give your legs a rest after hiking the hilly town. The most famous funicular in town is the one that scales Cerro Concepcion. This historic funicular was constructed in 1883 and is an attraction in its own right.
Taxis and Uber
Both registered taxis or, better yet, Uber operate in the city and are recommended for getting around town after dark.
What to Do in Valparaíso
Mercado El Cardonal
The heart of every Latin American town or city is the central market or mercado. Bustling, loud, and smelly El Cardonal is particularly known for its fresh produce sourced from nearby Limache. It is the perfect place to pick up fresh produce and get a feel for the local culture. Keep your belongings close as you wander the maze of stalls and find some fresh produce. Don’t be afraid to haggle or walk away if the gringo tax is too high.
After you have finished shopping, head upstairs. The second floor is devoted to simple homestyle restaurants or picadas that specialize in seafood. Here you’ll find some of the best seafood in the city for some of the most reasonable prices. Ceviche, empanadas, and soups are some of the delicious ‘mariscos’ or seafood, specialties of the region.
- Address: Uruguay 125, Valparaíso, Chile
- Hours: Daily from 5:00 am – 6:00 pm
Discover the Street and Mural Art of Valparaiso
With so many alleys and passages, Valparaíso was an urban artist’s dream, even before street art was legalized in 1990. Today the city’s walls, buildings, and staircases have been turned into an outdoor gallery by artists from all over the world.
There is a free street art walking tour that you can take. Alternatively, discover the art as a matter of course as you make your way through the town. Spot the commissioned murals by famed local duo Un Kolor Distinto whose pieces have become synonymous with the street art scene here.
One of the most famous barrios, on one of the most famous cerros, Concepción has become a must-see tourist attraction. The neighborhood is covered in incredible murals and street art and littered with eclectic stores, art galleries, restaurants, and cafes. Climb the stairs or take the funicular to the top. Visit in the late afternoon to see it in the magic hour and catch the dramatic sunset over the pacific.
Some other cerros worth exploring include Cerro Alegre, Cerro Bellavista, and Cerro Cordillera.
Museo Naval y Maritimo
Seafarers and historians will appreciate Chile’s national maritime museum. The museum holds an impressive collection of art, models, and artifacts documenting a long naval tradition. Much of the collection is dedicated to the War of the Pacific which Chile fought against Peru and Bolivia.
- Address: Paseo Veintiuno de Mayo 45, Playa Ancha, Valparaíso, Chile
- Hours: Tuesday – Sunday from 10:00 am – 5:30 pm
La Sebastiana, Museo de Pablo Neru
Literary buffs may want to explore the seaside house of Noble Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. The house, balanced precariously on cerro Bellavista offers sweeping views over Valparaiso. La Sebastiana has been turned into a museum preserving belongings and furniture to give insight into one of Chile’s most famed literary icons.
- Address: Ricardo de Ferrari 692, Valparaíso, Chile
- Hours: Tuesday – Sunday from 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Where to Eat and Drink in Valparaíso
One of the most appealing things about Valparaíso (at least for us) is the thriving culinary scene. From street food to home-style picadas and rustic meals to tablecloth affairs, there’s something for everyone here, all centered around the port’s abundant seafood.
The relaxed coastal atmosphere and panoramic views make it the perfect place to sample Chile’s favorite cocktail, the pisco sour, as you watch the setting sun throw even more color across the vibrant city as it disappears into the Pacific Ocean.
The bohemian nature of the city has also attracted a strong cafe culture. Cozy coffee houses occupy historic buildings, with brightly colored facades. They are the perfect place to take a rest while wandering the town.
Here are a few of our favorite bars, restaurants, and cafes in Valparaíso.
Incredible empanadas. Cheap, tasty, and in a wide variety of flavors. This is the spot to grab a snack as you explore Valparaíso on foot.
- Address: Almirante Montt 554, Valparaíso, Chile
- Hours: Daily from 12:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Mercado El Cardonal
The ‘food court’ above the central market is one of the best and cheapest places to get your hands on some of Valparaíso’s famed seafood.
- Address: Uruguay 125, Valparaíso, Chile
- Hours: Daily from 5:00 am – 6:00 pm
A Valpo institution and first-rate dining experience. Cafe Turri offers fine dining and fantastic service. The historic building that houses the restaurant has some of the best views in the city.
- Address: Templeman 147, Valparaíso, Chile
- Hours: Monday – Saturday from 1:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Fast wifi and decent espresso coffee located centrally right on the Plaza Sotomayor. A little on the expensive side but conveniently on the way if you are exploring downtown.
- Address: Plaza local 9, Sotomayor 33, Valparaíso, Chile
- Monday – Friday from 8:00 am – 9:00 pm
- Saturday & Sunday from 10:00 am – 9:00 pm
Café del Jardín Valparaíso
A cozy cafe with great coffee and a simple homemade food menu. The service is friendly and the cafe has a great atmosphere.
- Address: Urriola 585, Valparaíso, Chile
- Monday – Saturday from 8:00 am – 10:00 pm
- Sunday from 8:00 am – 9:00 pm
An iconic part of Valparaíso or an ancient relic depending on who you speak to. A good litmus test for Valparaíso, if you don’t like this ramshackle, seaport tavern, you may not like much of what Valparaíso is about. This is a must-visit for the cultural experience and atmosphere more so than the food, service, or prices.
- Address: Plaza Aníbal Pinto 1882, Valparaíso, Chile
- Hours: Monday to Sunday from 8:00 am – 2:00 am
Day Trips from Valparaíso
Viña del Mar
The resort city of Viña del Mar is the refined, polite, and gentrified version of Valparaíso. It also has the nicest beach in the area. It’s an easy day trip from Valparaíso whether you take your own vehicle or jump on the metro.
If you are visiting in early February, the Viña del Mar International Song Festival is one of the biggest events in the region’s calendar. The oldest and largest music festival in Latin America sees western pop stars appearing alongside a bevy of Latin artists.
The Vineyards of Casablanca
The picturesque valley of Casablanca is home to one of Chile’s most exciting and fastest-growing wine regions. Only forty kilometers from Valparaíso, this is an easy day trip whether you drive yourself or take one of the many buses that leave regularly.
Take a day trip to this fishing village and former whaling station. Just forty minutes from Valparaíso, this beautiful beach feels a million miles from the bustling port and is a good place to relax and spend a night or two if you are overlanding.
Where To Stay in Valparaíso
Camping With Your Vehicle
As with the rest of Chile, camping in your vehicle is unrestricted in Valparaíso, however, locals may ask for a ‘fee’ to park or camp in certain areas. This is especially true of the car park close to the ocean. Valparaíso has also developed a reputation as a rough-and-tumble sort of place with a slightly higher risk of crime than other areas in Chile. Be sensible, park in a well-lit area, and ask the locals for their advice and to keep an eye out for you.
From rustic bed and breakfasts in historic buildings to ramshackle hostels to sleek modern apartments, Valparaíso has an array of accommodation options for any style or budget.
La Casa Azul Hostel
Cute and cozy dormitory-style accommodation, La Casa Azul Hostel has beds for just $12 USD per night. With views, a simple breakfast, and a good atmosphere, it is a fantastic budget option.
La Galería B&B
Situated right in the heart of Valparaiso in the Barrio Concepcion, this simple yet comfortable bed and breakfast has everything you need for your stay in Valparaiso. Additionally, it offers beautiful views of the city and warm attentive staff. Rooms start from less than $50 USD per night.
Located in arguably the best location in Valparaíso on Cerro Alegre, the boutique Augusta Hotel has everything you need and more to enjoy your stay in Valpo. All gorgeously appointed, these modern apartments have floor to ceiling windows providing spectacular sea or mountain views. Rooms start from $70 USD.
Is Valparaiso Safe?
Valparaíso has developed a reputation as a rough-and-tumble seaport which in the light of day probably adds to its character. However, it also poses the question of just how safe the city is. As with most destinations in South America, care should be taken.
Given the layout of the city, with its numerous passageways and alleys, the opportunity for crime can be increased. Be mindful of your surroundings and exit points. Avoid dressing or accessorizing in a way that might attract attention or flashing valuables or cash. Put your camera in your backpack when you’re not using it. If you get held up for your belongings, hand them over.
Walking around after dark is not recommended especially given the availability of cheap registered taxis and even uber.
As long as basic precautions are taken, Valparaíso can be safely enjoyed safely!
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