It’s no surprise that Valparaíso has the word “paradise” in its name, though it may not be the type of paradise you’re used to – it’s not all palm trees, daiquiris and white sand beaches. But if you’re into deep-rooted culture, vibrant color, and sweeping, beautiful vistas, look no further than this lively port city.
The city of Valparaíso is built on 42 hills along the Pacific coast. A port city by nature, it has all the characteristics of a city run by sailors– port life is still alive and kicking, especially in the flat neighborhoods adjacent to the waterfront. The main attraction of the city is its colorful hillsides, spotted with bright pastel-painted homes, unique street art, and century-old funiculars (ascensors). In fact, the town is so culturally intriguing that it was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003.
If you’re looking to shed a couple pounds or work on those calves, you’ve come to the right place. Almost everything you’ll want to do or see will require scaling the city’s many hills, a tough but worthy feat. Most hills have funiculars that will take you to the top, but be sure to walk up a few! The winding roads that lead to the hilltops are filled with street art and culture.
1. Paseo 21 de Mayo on Cerro Artillería gives a nice view of they bay and the cranes and containers stacked on the bustling Valpo port. Take the Acensor Artillería to the top from Plaza Aduana.
2. Mirador Diego Portales on Cerro Barón is one of the best views of all of Valparaíso’s vibrant hillsides. Take the bus or metro to Barón– no need to use the ascensor, as the walk up is short and easy.
3. Cerro Cordillera can be somewhat seedy, so be careful. However, there’s a beautiful viewpoint on Calle Merlet.
When you get sick of the colorful cityscapes (as if that were possible), there are plenty of other options to get you through the day. An open-air art museum, Museo a Cielo Abierto, is situated on Cerro Bellavista, and is directly accessible via the Asensor Espíritu Santo.
In the true spirit of the country, you may also decide to take a day to honor one of Chile’s favorite celebrities. Beloved Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is not only known for his beautiful words, but his fabulous houses. Yes, he owned many homes, several of which are accessible from Valparaiso. Although, the truth is that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. So, unless you are Neruda’s biggest diehard fan, take my advice and visit Isla Negra. Though it certainly isn’t the most convenient of his homes to get to, I’d wager that Neruda’s estate in Isla Negra is one of the prettiest. A beachside cottage, his home sits next to the crashing waves of the Pacific. So, after you’ve spent an hour perusing his many collections and ship-themed house, you can relax on the small cove beach next door. Get a little culture, get a little tan… it’s the perfect day trip. The home is about an hour outside of the city by bus– check for tickets at the Pullman desk in the main bus station.
Public transportation in the city isn’t fancy, but it’s easy to use and a good way to get around. The buses will take you most anywhere and are an affordable alternative to taxis. The newly constructed metro system runs along the shore and is clean, fast, and modern.
If you’re looking for great budget accommodations, I highly recommend Angel Hostel, which is located at the bottom of Cerro Cárcel and just next to the Cerro Concepción funicular. I spent five nights there and thoroughly enjoyed my stay. The staff is wonderful, the beds are surprisingly comfortable, and the location is ideal. Some might try to convince you that staying on Cerro Concepción is the way to go, but I have to disagree. Being on top of the hill requires that you descend every time you want to go anywhere. Staying at the base of the hill gives you easy access to all public transportation, grocery stores, and funiculars. If you have a bit more cash to spend, I recommend staying in the same area– Cerro Concepción is a central spot that will give you a lot of freedom.
A note on safety: Valparaíso is a safe place, and you shouldn’t feel intimidated or scared to explore this fascinating cultural hotspot. However, as in anywhere in the world, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and be cautious of your belongings. Don’t whip out your iPhone on the bus or when strolling the port. It’s simply a matter of street smarts. At one point on our trip, we were shooed away from Cerro Cordillera by a police officer who felt that it was unsafe for three young girls to be there alone. I’m not saying don’t visit that hill (as it does have some lovely views)– just be smart. The port area of town is also still lively and traditional in nature. To put it bluntly, here’s where you’ll find lots of liquor stores and brothels. Though it’s not dangerous, this is the seediest part of town, and you should be aware of that when strolling its narrow corridors.
If you have an extra day or two in Valparaíso, be sure it check out Viña del Mar, a lovely beach town just minutes away!