Sand dunes & fireworks in Valparaíso, Chile’s most vibrant city
This city is SO COOL. A little shabby round the edges, and it will have you exhausted from all the hills and steps, but Valparaíso will have your eyes wide open in wonder at every turn. The centre is a beautiful mishmash of edgy graffiti and colonial architecture, and known for its happy-go-lucky party vibes. Every single morning, sea mist comes in and shrouds the entire city, so if you’re hoping to tick off some of your things to do in Valparaiso in the early morning you may be disappointed at certain viewpoints, but it typically clears by midday every day in the summer. There is a lot to see and experience in this part of Chile, so a longer travel pause here would do you no harm.
How to pronounce Valparaíso: bal-pah-rah-EE-soh
Valparaiso is a UNESCO world heritage city – not just site – so the whole centre is protected. While this sounds great and means that the overall look at feel of Valparaiso will forever remain unchanged, it has put pressure on those who live there. When a street in the centre burnt down, the residents were unable to afford to rebuild their houses, because the stringent UNESCO requirements of keeping the architecture exactly the same meant it was impossible to do without some sort of holy financial miracle. Your guide should take you down this very street if you join the Valparaiso free walking tour.
We spent 5 days over New Year’s Eve in Valparaiso after being assured by our Chilean friend that it was THE city to go for NYE, and they weren’t wrong! Valparaiso has the biggest firework display in South America, which is repeated in perfect harmony in 5 places along the coastline (luckily we were able to see them all from our hill!).
Safety in Valparaiso
Some parts of the city, including to the immediate west of Plaza Sotomayor (just past Starbucks) and around the bus terminal are a tad dodgy. Valpo is known by Chileans for its petty crime, so be extra careful at night, taking taxis where possible and sticking in groups. You should feel pretty quickly whether a street or group of people has a bad vibe, so always follow your gut instinct. The residential, upscale surroundings such as Reñaca and Viña del Mar to the North of Valparaiso are known as being much more safe. You do still have to check your change though to make sure it’s correct and that the notes are real!
Unfortunately, Valparaiso and its satellite towns do have a lot of stray dogs, and they often sound quite aggressive since they go around in packs However, we didn’t see any instances of them barking at humans; their aggression seems to just be territorial against other dogs.
9 things to do in Valparaiso & beyond
1. Take a lift up the Valpo cerros
Thanks to its high development through the wealth brought in by the port in the 19th century, Valparaiso is now the proud owner of a number funiculars, known in the city as ascensores. While at times rickety, 7 of the 16 are still fully functioning, and when you see the size of some of the hills of Valparaiso, you’ll see why they’re still absolutely necessary. It’s not called the City of Steps for nothing! A ride up the ascensores doesn’t cost much – as of 2019, the price of the funicular is only 1000 pesos (£1.15) to go up and down again – but sometimes the queues can leave you wondering whether the walk would really be that bad. In particular, the queue for the Ascensor Peral that goes up to Cerro Alegre always seems pretty long (seriously, just get a taxi or bus up to see the views); if you’re just interested in the experience of the Valparaiso funicular itself, a less tiresome option would be the Reina Victoria Ascensor in the city centre, which is a part of the Valparaiso free walking tour we’ll mention next. This takes you up to one of the nicest areas in Valparaiso, anyway.
2. Take the Valparaiso free walking tour
There are a few decent Valparaiso free walking tours. We went on the 3pm tour with Tours 4 Tips and spent 3 hours finding out about the history and culture of the city. The turnout for these tours is humongous, so they have 5-7 tours of around 12 people each shift, so there will always be groups in Spanish and English available. Be warned, there are guides from other tour companies who try to steal customers by telling them their Valparaiso free walking tour is the same but they donate X% of the tips to children with cancer, and then try to make you feel terrible if you turn them down. Leave all your Britishness aside and just walk away if you don’t feel comfortable. Any company that has to use cancer to compete is probably not providing an up-to-par service.
We really enjoyed the Valparaiso free walking tour we that stuck with, and learnt a lot about the history, culture and meanings behind a lot of the graffiti we came across. However, we were a little surprised that there were so many paid endorsements going on that it can feel a little like a sales pitch at every corner. We’re all for supporting local businesses, and are pretty used to guides making the odd ‘recommendation’ for where to spend our tourist peso, but making us stand around and listen awkwardly to the tour guide sing with a street performer and then pressuring us into making a donation left a bit of a sour taste. Although interesting, the tour is long and involved many hills and steps, so if it’s a hot day you will be exhausted by the end!
3. Admire the art in Baburizza Palace
This is a remarkable piece of architecture, first being built by an Italian, then sold to an up-and-coming Croatian businessman when the original owner died after only 1 year of the palace being built. The new owner, Baburizza, had a penchant for buying up pieces of art during his business trips to Europe, and before long he’d filled his property with it. Having no family, the palace and artwork were left to the city of Valparaiso when he died, leaving Valpo with a huge wealth of culture. Even if you don’t decide to go into the Baburizza Palace, it has some cracking views of Valparaiso just outside. The Baburizza Palace is open to visitors from 10am to 6pm Tuesday to Sunday, and entry costs 4000 pesos.
4. Check the murals in the ‘Museo a Cielo Abierto’
The Museo a Cielo Abierto, or Open Air/Sky Museum, is a labyrinth of murals painted along the streets of Cerro Bellavista. It was started in 1992 by famous Chilean artists who came to make their mark on the walls of Valparaiso. You can access these streets by either taking the Ascensor Pasteur from Plaza Victoria, or Ascensor Espíritu Santo. Though free to visit, it’s one for the real art-appreciators, as the Museo a Cielo Abierto murals are generally less vibrant and elaborate than the graffiti in our next point in the list of things to do in Valparaiso, Paseo Gervasoni.
5. Stroll along Paseo Gervasoni
This is a walkway that will take you through several of the most vibrant streets in Valparaiso. The streets and alleys are layered thick with interesting, at times thought-provoking graffiti – probably the best in the city – and there are several coffee shops in which to sit and soak up your edgy surroundings. It’s located on Cerro Concepción, from Templeman to Papudu, and culminates in the Mirador Gervasoni, from which to look out over the city. Note that the Valparaiso free walking tour will cover Paseo Gervasoni!
6. Cook up a storm
Valparaiso has a number of highly-rated cooking classes, probably the most frequently recommended being Chilean Cuisine. 40,000 pesos will get you 5 hours of quality class time, including a trip to the local market to pick up fresh ingredients. There are morning and afternoon classes every day except Sundays, in which only a morning class is offered. You’ll cook up a full Chilean meal, complete with pisco sours, of course!
7. Sun yourself on Reñaca beach
Being a port city, beaches in Valparaiso itself aren’t really in existence, but luckily there’s plenty just outside it. And when it comes to beaches around Valparaiso, Reñaca wins hands down. It’s around 45 minutes from the Valpo centre by bus (costing no more than a pound) then many, many flights of stairs down from the main road, and although always busy it’s a great place to catch some rays and swim in the arctic-temperature Pacific. It’s one of the few places you can actually swim as most of the coast (including Viña del Mar) is red-flagged due to dangerously strong currents – we actually watched a small boat get capsized and stranded after its one-man crew lost control in the currents and headed scarily close to the rocks. He had to be rescued by the slowest-sailing coastguard in all of human history.
8. Nip to Viña del Mar
Viña del Mar is technically a separate town from Valparaiso, though the two blend into each other without a gap. Buses go regularly between the two; pick them up from almost anywhere the road that runs along the sea in Valpo. You’ll see the name of the destination on a placard on front of the bus, but you can also look out for the route number 601. You can also take the metro to Viña del Mar station, from which you’ll have to walk 15 minutes or so to Viña’s town centre.
Viña del Mar was built up in the 90s solely as an upscale holiday resort for rich Chileans, so it still has a quaint little vacation vibe, despite being blended with a giant metropolis. For this reason, there is fantastic shopping in Viña del Mar, in Viña Shopping and the other malls that surround it, and lots of food options further inland, from sushi to steak.
The beach at Viña is still worth the visit despite the red flag meaning a lack of swimming, as the sand is clean and the pier provides a great viewpoint of the coast. Plus, it’s a well-deserved break from the hustle and bustle of port town Valpo. There is also a free walking tour available here, but we dodged it after our hostel told us the key attraction on the tour was a roundabout with a clock made from flowers (passed many times on the bus – 1/10 don’t bother visiting). Viña was only built at the end of the last century as a holiday resort, so you’re not missing out on much history by skipping the tour.
9. Climb the Concón Sand Dunes
This ended up being one of our favourite things to do in Valparaiso. Well, just outside of Valpo, but it’s not far. If you fancy something a little more adventurous, hop on an hour bus to Concón (catch the 601 bus from the road that runs along the sea in Valparaíso, or from Plaza Colombia in Viña del Mar), alighting as soon as you see the sand dunes – opposite a food court with Subway (we somehow forgot to get off and ended up walking a very long way back up the hill.) The sand dunes here are huge, and more or less empty of people. Take a walk over them until you see the sea – the rocky coast is a sight to behold! Great place for a picnic or just a sunbathe. Apart from the aforementioned Subway, there’s not much to buy around there so come prepared. Afterwards, you can try your knees at a spot of sand-duning; there are sandboard renters at the roadside of each dune. It is possible to walk back from Concón to Reñaca and get a bus from there, but once we had walked it we couldn’t work out why we hadn’t just gotten a bus from Concón (a few lapses in brain power that day).
Where to stay in Valparaiso, Chile
If you’re looking for swanky coffee and parties near all the key things to do in Valparaiso, the Cerro Concepción area is where it’s at. Our friends stayed at Casa Volante Hostal, which has a really open vibe and is right in the heart of the city.
However, if you’re looking for real hospitality in somewhere more chilled, we cannot recommend enough the Costa Azul B&B – and thus it made it comfortably into our favourite hostels of South America. It’s a little further out of the town, high up on Cerro Alegre; about a 20 minute bus ride from the centre which will cost you peanuts. It’s run by a Slovenian couple who are the most amazingly friendly hosts we’ve ever known outside of AirBnB. They cook you breakfast to order with a beaming smile every morning, and the options are 5*. Choose from a stack of American pancakes, gluten-free banana pancakes (hands down the best!), fried egg & toast or a large selection of fruit with granola, plus you get coffee, tea and a fresh fruit juice. We cannot stress enough how great this breakfast is!!! You also have panoramic views of the whole city, and while basic the beds are decent (opt for a double room if you can – the only downside of this place is no lockers, and it is pretty far from all the top things to do in Valparaiso.
Any if you prefer something a little closer to the beach, nearby Viña del Mar (15-20 minutes from the centre by bus) is the next town along and is a favourite holiday destination amongst Chileans. We stayed for a few days there at Street Garden Hostel, which was a beautifully quaint little place.
Where to eat & drink in Valparaiso
We tried to cook dinner ourselves a fair bit in Valparaíso because NYE gets expensive and the food isn’t always cheap. However, you can get some banging lunch menus (menu del día = starter + main) down in the centre for around 3-4000 pesos, in the vicinity of £4. Check out the area around Bernardo O’Higgins and Brasil streets for some of these small restaurants.
For amazing rooftop views, there is a bar called The Clinic on the street ‘Abtao’ opposite the Iglesia Luterana de la Santa Cruz. Other viewpoints include Mirador Paseo nearby, and Paseo Dimalow which has a few expensive bars along it – it’s also conveniently next to the Reina Victoria Ascensor / public lift which is worth a ride to avoid the hill! Go here at sunset/dusk for the most amazing views.
Next to the Reina Victoria Ascensor (at the bottom), there is an excellent craft beer cocktail bar, where you can get such experimental delights as Pale Ale martinis, Cheladas/Micheladas and Beerinhas & Beergaritas (basically any cocktail with beer worked into the recipe). Although the staff we experienced were rude to the point that Andy almost walked out, the place has a really cool vibe so we’d still recommend trying it out and hoping that by now the customer service has improved.
Many of the clubs are on the seafront, and they’re the big, multi-storey sticky-floored type of clubs that we used to love in our uni days. As these days are a little behind us, we didn’t end up checking any of them out, although they are supposedly decent. The street garden hostel would organise nights to particular clubs or to the big casino in Viña del Mar.
How to get to Valparaiso from Santiago
Since this city is only 115km from the capital, most people are coming to Valparaiso from Santiago. There are regular buses (2-3 times an hour, regular) run by both Turbus and Pullman. Although this is only a 1h45m bus, you can bizarrely still buy semi and full cama seats (for an explanation of this, check out our guide on what to look for in a night bus in South America). These leave from the Alameda bus terminal in Santiago, and cost an average of 6000 pesos. They can get booked up on weekends and bank holidays, but you can book ahead online at busbud.
Though Valparaiso does have several airports in its vicinity, they do not currently offer commercial flights.
How long to stay in Valparaíso: 4-5 days
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