Survival Guide: A Weekend in Valparaiso

Summer is on its way and when the stifling heat waves soak the city of Santiago, the only two options for survival are to either languish in an apartment glued to an AC unit, or head to one of Chile’s prized coastal cities. Step up Valparaiso.

 View of Valparaiso. Photo by Zoe Baillargeon
View of Valparaiso. Photo by Zoe Baillargeon

Sprawled over seaside hills, Valparaiso is well known for its candy-colored houses, diverse architecture and stunning street art. Its historic past as a vital South American port during the second half of the 19th century brought immigrants in droves, and the resulting cultural melting pot gave the world a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bursting with culture, seafood fresh from the ocean, incredible views, and a thrilling energy, Valparaiso is the perfect escape from reality. Here are some of the best ways to experience the city over a weekend.

1. Take a city tour: A great city for walking, Valparaiso boasts an impressive range of introductory tours. Tours 4 Tips is the most popular option and offers trips every day at 10 am and 3 pm, lasting about three hours. Starting from Plaza Sotomayor, guides in red and white striped shirts take visitors around the port area, up to the historical district of Cerros Alegre and Concepcion, through the Parque Cultural de Valparaiso and the ex-jail that now serves as an artistic rehearsal and performance space, and more.

2. Explore Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion: As the two best historically preserved hills in the city, Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion are tourist hot spots during peak season, but they are still essential for a taste of the real Valparaiso.

Cobble-stoned streets ascend the hills, which are lined by some of the best examples of Valparaiso’s unique architecture and full of colorful houses outfitted with sheets of brightly painted corrugated iron. Narrow streets offer intimate moments to discover quaint stores, murals, and art.

The hills provide spectacular views of the city, the port and harbor, especially from Paseo Atkinson and Paseo Gervasoni. Located on Paseo Gervasoni, Fundacion Lukas is a charming museum honoring the life and works of one of Chile’s most prominent caricature artists. The fine arts museum in Palacio Baburizza is a must-see, housed in a beautiful art nouveau home.

Cerro Alegre and Concepcion also play host to some of the city's best restaurants and cafes, featuring both local cuisine and international fare at lauded restaurants such as Fauna and Restaurant La Concepcion. Café Brighton, poised above Plaza Anibal Pinto, is a gorgeous example of Victorian/Valparaiso architecture.

The hills are known for their nightlife and array of charmingly eccentric bars. The popular hangout El Viaje has an entire room designed to look like the inside of one of Valpo’s traditional trolley buses. Two other fun options are The Altamira brewing pub and The Clinic Bar (owned and maintained by Chile’s top satirical newspaper).

 Famous street art homage to Van Gogh on Cerro Concepcion. Photo by Zoe Baillargeon
Famous street art homage to Van Gogh on Cerro Concepcion. Photo by Zoe Baillargeon

3. Take in some street art: Valparaiso is highly praised for its street art, and rightfully so. As Chile’s prime city of art, there is an eclectic mix of styles adorning the walls of this city. The two best hills for viewing street art are Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion, but other great examples are scattered throughout the city, such as an outdoor museum of 20 murals located on Cerro Bellavista.

For those who want more information about the artists and their work, Street Art Tours meet up at Plaza Anibal Pinto (a 15 minute walk from Plaza Sotomayor) at 10.30am and 3.30pm everyday except Sunday to see some of the best pieces.

4. Take a funicular: A quintessential part of Valparaiso's history is its funiculars, hill-scaling “elevator” cars that are pulled up hillsides by cables. Many of the cars are also brightly painted and decorated. Most of the active funiculars can be found in the port and historical districts, and cost in the region of $100 - $300 CLP for a one-way trip.

 View from the top of Ascensor Artilleria. Photo by Zoe Baillargeon
View from the top of Ascensor Artilleria. Photo by Zoe Baillargeon

5. Visit Museo San Sebastian: Dr. Seuss would have felt right at home in poet Pablo Neruda’s Valparaiso house, La Sebastiana. A whimsical tower of curves and lines that rises like a multicolored tiered wedding cake from Cerro Bellavista, the brightly lit and uniquely decorated interior rooms and passageways are packed with Neruda’s collection of knick-knacks and souvenirs from his travels. Now a beautifully preserved museum, visitors can explore the house using an audio guide available in a variety of languages. Entry costs $5,000 CLP for adults and $2,000 for students and children.

Ride around in an old-fashioned Valparaiso street car: Even though Valparaiso is a modern city with plenty of micros, colectivos, and cars to get around in, one of the best ways to get in touch with the cultural heritage of the city is to catch a lift in one of the city’s historical trolleybuses, or “troles” as they are referred to by locals.

The troles themselves are things of beauty. These streamlined buses are painted bands of deep green and cream and cruise the streets via the cable system running overhead. Many of the original cars were designed and built by the famous Pullman-Standard Company, and the city’s inhabitants are rightly proud of this part of their city’s heritage.

Currently, the troles only follow a single route around the plan (the name for the urban grid part of the city from the coast to the base of the hills), but it’s a pleasant ride around the city, with the opportunity to admire the houses and architecture and feel like you’ve gone back to the 1950s.

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