To say that this place is trendy would be doing it a disservice - Valparaiso oozes cool through the cracks of its graffiti covered pavement. It’s got it’s own unique vibe, almost the antithesis of what we experienced in Chile’s more serious capital Santiago. The architecture, the people and the atmosphere here are all welcoming, fun and laid back.
This is probably something to do with its fascinating history as one of the wealthiest and most important ports in the world. As the major stop off point on the sea route from Europe to North America Valparaiso became fantastically wealthy in the late 19th century. After the Panama Canal was opened at the beginning of the 20th century, basically cutting out the need to stop in Valparaiso, the city underwent something of a riches to rags transformation.
The money quickly seeped out of the city and left an almost blank canvas from which this incredible culture has grown. The grand buildings have been repurposed as boutique hotels, hip restaurants and funky bars. It’s a hotbed of artists and musicians and has a young feel to it thanks to its 4 universities and large student population.
Though it doesn’t really have many tourist attractions as such, there are loads of cool things to do in Valparaiso. Here’s our top 5.
Check Out Valparaiso’s Awesome Graffiti
Graffiti is absolutely everywhere in Valpo as it's affectionately nicknamed. Blank walls, stairways and even pavements get the treatment with vast works of colourful, thought provoking graffiti.
Many of the most famous street artists in South America have come here to leave their mark, even though it’s technically illegal to do without the property owner’s permission.
There are free walking tours that have been specifically created around the more famous pieces and you’ll learn more about the artists and their work. Equally, if guided tours are not your thing then you can’t help but run into amazing street art at every turn. Simply wander through the streets and keep your eyes peeled, Valparaiso is like a giant open air art gallery.
Take in the Views of Valparaiso
The most enduring image of Valparaiso is of the colourful houses ascending high into the hills. Whilst you can see the hills from virtually anywhere in the city, we found one of the best viewpoints was from Cerro Carcel, not far from the Cementerio de Disidentes.
From here you get virtually uninterrupted visibility and because you’re actually on the hill you can also see the multi-coloured, largely wooden structures close up. With pinks, yellows and blues splattered across the landscape like an artist’s easel, we found it difficult to drag ourselves away.
Ride Valparaiso’s Funiculars & Catch the Electric Trolleybus
Because Valparaiso is built high into the hills that surround the port, the city developed a unique network of funiculars as a way of getting around. If you have no idea what a funicular is (I’d never heard of one before visiting Valpo), they’re basically outdoor elevators that look like sheds on train tracks, angled on impossibly steep gradients on the hillside. And they’re great fun! They’re also extremely convenient and save you a lot of time and effort, particularly when you’re going uphill.
The funiculars in Valparaiso are pretty cheap to ride and there are dozens of them dotted around the city. The most famous one is probably the Ascensor Concepción which is the oldest funicular in the city (having opened an unbelievable 150 years ago!) and provides a route up to the trendy Cerro Concepción area with its narrow cobbled streets and views out across the port. We tended to just spontaneously jump on whenever we saw a funicular to see where it went - it was great fun and we ended up in all sorts of interesting places.
We’re not trainspotter types, but the electric trolleybus is another unique way to get around Valparaiso and in fact it’s the only one of its kind left in South America. They’re like a tram that runs on the road rather than on its own tracks but are still attached to electric power cables above. Many of the buses are part of the original fleet from the 1950’s lending them an authentic retro look. They follow a single route now so we caught the trolleybus from the city centre and just rode it until it looped back.
Sample a Valparaiso Pisco Sours
There is a long running debate about the origin of Pisco, a brandy-like spirit made from grapes, with both Chile and Peru claiming it as their own creation. Now I’m not going to pick sides in this argument, but I will say that the best Pisco Sours we tasted was in Valparaiso, which incidentally is where this delicious cocktail was supposedly invented. Although there’s plenty of disagreement about that as well.
Pisco Sours is a heady mix of Pisco, lime, syrup, bitters and egg whites and results in a rich, frothy and tangy cocktail. We had our first one in a beautiful old restaurant that was attached to a hotel in the Cerro Concepción area with stunning views over the city. Needless to say, we sampled a few more after that and fell in love with the drink.
Slide Down to Antonia Wines Boutique Wine Bar
Antonia's wine bar has got a great reputation amongst visitors and residents alike and as soon as you arrive you begin to see why. It’s positioned at the top of the Ascensor Reina Victoria funicular, and reached by a giant slide that takes you down to the level below. Yes, that’s a slide, as in the children's playground favourite!
There aren’t many tables, but you can sit out front and witness grown adults living out their juvenile fantasies by repeatedly swishing down the slide, or take one of the few tables out back with nice views out across the hills.
Once you’re seated, one of the staff will ask you about the kind of wines you enjoy and pick something from their selection that matches your tastes. They’ll also usually bring you out a small tapas style selection of cured meats and cheeses to accompany your drinks. It’s not pretentious in the slightest, we know virtually nothing about wine and they were extremely accommodating. We bought by the glass, but you can also purchase by the bottle.
Valparaiso was by far our favourite city in Chile. Now that's not particularly hard considering we only visited 3, but actually I’d go so far as saying it was one of the top cities we’ve visited in South America. Chile’s unofficial capital of culture, it’s got a ramshackle, laid back charm that instantly sucked us in. You’ll find plenty of cool things to do in Valparaiso.
Have we convinced you to get Valpo on your South America bucket list? Is it similar to anywhere you've visited? Already been to Valpo? Did you get up to anything there that we didn't include?! Let us know in the comments below.