Valparaíso might just be the world’s most beguiling city. Perched on the Pacific coast in Chile, this once-major port is now a hub of culture defined by its array of colourful buildings and artwork. Sprawled across a cluster of seaside hills, it is a maze of bright murals, painted walls, narrow alleys and patterned staircases. And inside, you will find some of the best art, music and food that this stunning country has to offer. Here are our top picks on fun things to do in Valparaíso, Chile.
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Things to do in Valparaíso: exploring the city
1. See the incredible street art
Street art is an intrinsic part of the history and identity of Valparaíso. During the years when Chile was under the grasp of a military dictatorship through the 1970s and 80s, an underground movement of artistic rebellion began here and spread throughout the country.
After the country returned to democracy, street art was made legal in Valparaíso (the only city in Chile where this is the case). It was a statement of expressive freedom, and the city has now become an explosion of colour. Its sloping hills and quirky streets are riddled with artwork, from wall paintings to giant murals on the side of buildings.
Our article on street art in Valparaíso details the emergence of this cultural phenomenon and the role it plays in the city today. When you arrive in the city, you won’t need to venture far on your own to see the examples for yourself; it is around every corner you turn. But if you want to learn about it with the guidance of a local expert, you can take a cultural and street art walking tour.
2. Take a free walking tour
Valparaíso is full of intriguing stories and hidden secrets. You can really get under the skin of this fascinating city with the help of someone who grew up here. We take walking tours in most cities we visit, but there was something extra special about the two we took in Valparaíso with Tours 4 Tips.
After we had a great time on the highlights tour (which covers the most popular spots), we signed up for the offbeat tour to learn more about the character of Valpo (as the locals call it). We learned about how each of the city’s 43 hills has its own neighbourhood and mini-culture.
The guides were excellent, and we got some free local drinks to try too! It’s based on the classic free walking tour model – you just tip at the end for however much you feel is right.
For something a bit different, there are various alternative walking tours in the city you can book in advance:
- Alma Porteña tour and dance workshop
- Small group food and drink tasting tour
- World heritage half-day walking tour
3. Try Don Sergio’s famous alfajores cakes
You can find many little wonders tucked away on the narrow backstreets of Valparaíso’s hills. One such gem is Artesanales Alfajores, a tiny bakery and dessert shop found along Pasaje Bavestrello on Cerro Concepción.
Artesanales Alfajores is run by the local legend Don Sergio, who will be waiting to greet you with a smile. Alfajores are a popular confection across South America, a bit like a cross between a biscuit and a cake, with two layers often filled with ‘dulce de leche’ caramel. Don Sergio’s are the best we’ve tried anywhere! He only makes 300 a day, so get there early to avoid missing out – and try one of his empanadas too.
4. Walk up the legendary staircases
As Valparaíso is a city built on steep hills, it’s not surprising that you will find numerous staircases for navigating between its neighbourhoods. And, like most things in the city, these have become a subject of artwork.
You will find colourful artworked staircases all over the city, but two in particular have achieved somewhat legend status. One block west of Plaza Sotomayor, Escalera Cienfuegos runs up alongside Ascensor Cordillera, one of the city’s oldest funiculars. It’s a towering flight of mosaic-patterned stairs that makes for a challenge to climb and a great photo opportunity.
On the other side of the city you will find the famous Piano Staircase on the slope of Cerro Concepción, along a road aptly called Beethoven. As the name suggests, the stairs are painted black and white to resemble the keys of a piano. The imagination of this city knows no bounds!
To take the challenge to the next level, you can try urban trekking in Valparaíso. This entails traversing the city by going up and down several of its famous staircases. Are you up for it?
5. Ride the funiculars
If Valparaíso’s staircases seem like far too much work to climb, you can just admire their beauty and instead take a ride up one of the city’s funiculars. There are seven of these escalators or ascensores in operation across the city, most of which are well over 100 years old. Nine more are being restored.
The historic funiculars of Valparaíso are among the reasons the city was chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a must to try while you’re here.
The funiculars are cheap to ride at just 300 Chilean pesos one way, or 600 for a return ticket. Ascensor Concepción is the oldest in the city, built in 1883, and Ascensor Reina Victoria is one of the most popular, with glorious views.
6. Visit Pablo Neruda’s house
Valparaíso was the birthplace of one of Chile’s national icons: Pablo Neruda. He was not only a key figure in Chilean politics for many decades, but also a renowned poet, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in the early 1970s.
Pablo Neruda’s former residence in Valparaíso has now been transformed into a museum dedicated to his life and works. It’s well worth the entry fee of 7,000 Chilean pesos (about 9 US dollars), and you’ll also get some great city views from the building. Allow about an hour for a visit.
7. Buy arts and crafts on Paseo Atkinson
If you want to take a piece of Valparaíso art home as a memento, you can buy some directly from the local artists at an informal marketplace on Paseo Atkinson. This is one of the city’s most beautiful passageways, running between Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre.
The high walkway runs along a wide terrace with spectacular views across the city, ocean and distant mountains. You will often find artists gathering and setting up pop-up market stalls to sell their work. We were lucky to meet local legend Cuellimangui here, a street artist whose work can be seen everywhere around the city.
8. Visit an urban community centre in an old prison
Parque Cultural de Valparaiso is no ordinary community centre. The impressive building and project has been repurposed from the grounds of an infamous old political prison on Cárcel Hill, which was in operation during the military dictatorship.
It is emblematic of the city’s character that a site of such darkness and misery has been transformed into a place of expression and art. It is often channelled into encouraging young talent, as we found when we visited during a youth dance workshop.
Inside the centre’s complex you can discover art exhibitions, theatrical performances, discussion events and various classes and workshops. These often take place outside in the prison’s old grassy exercise yards, surrounded by fantastic city views from the hilltop setting.
9. Watch the adrenaline-fuelled downhill biking race
Once every year in February, the world of urban biking descends on Valparaíso for an epic event: the Red Bull downhill race on Cerro Abajo. The city couldn’t have been designed better for such an event, with the race route descending staircases, rooftops and passageways towards the glorious city ocean.
The race has been held for 17 consecutive years and is massively popular in the city. Crowds pour out in force, with cheering spectators lining the track from top to bottom. The video below shows a point-of-view recording of last year’s winning run… it’s not for the faint-hearted! But it is a great day out if you happen to be in Valpo when it’s on.
Things to do in Valparaíso: food and drink
10. Eat Valpo food in a local restaurant
There’s a lot to love about Chilean food, and Valparaíso has its own special take on it. As you may expect of a port city, seafood figures heavily in the local cuisine. You can eat a great version of ceviche here – a concoction of raw fish chunks marinated in citrus juices. (I have to admit though… I prefer the Peruvian style of ceviche.)
We had a delicious three-course meal (delicious ceviche starter) with a bottle of local red in Almacén Nacional, a homely restaurant in a gorgeous location on Cerro Alegre. It’s one of the cheaper places to eat in this popular touristy area.
Our guide on the walking tour gave us a tip for a proper local lunch too: Taller Blanco, an upstairs restaurant near the seafront on Blanco Sur. It’s only open until about 4pm, and serves a lovely variety of authentic local dishes.
Read Lauren On Location’s guide to Valparaíso restaurants for some more ideas on where to eat.
11. Check out the food markets
Early risers in Valparaíso can find a slice of the local food culture at Caleta Portales, a fish market that opens at 7am. It’s a bit of a trek from the city centre; you can walk the four kilometres or so along the seafront (a lovely morning walk) or take the metro and get off at the Portales stop.
You’ll need to get there early to buy the best catches, or if you’re feeling peckish you can grab some ready-to-eat ceviche. There are a few restaurants dotted around too, although they’re far from the best in town. This is also a great spot for wildlife – by the pier you can often see sea lions and pelicans.
Back towards the city centre, Mercado El Cardonal is a large and hectic indoor market close to the main bus terminal. It’s always busy, and you can buy cut-price fruit and vegetables here. This was our go-to for buying ingredients to cook dishes back at our hostel.
12. Have a night out at a rock bar
Valparaíso is at the heart of the rock and metal music scene in Chile. The Rockódromo Festival is held every February at Parque Alejo Barrios, at the tip of the headland to the west of the city overlooking the ocean.
There is no shortage of hangouts around the city either to find regular live music or a rockin’ playlist. We hit El Sektor for a few beers one evening after a recommendation from our guide. It’s a grungy little bar on the corner of Parque Italia, a few blocks east of the main tourist area of the city.
We loved this place. If you like bars that are slightly rough around the edges, play heavy music and have a bit of an attitude, you’ll love it here too. We found it packed with locals out to have a good time. And how can you not have a good time when beer is sold by the litre at crazy low prices?
13. Drink in a 19th-century bar
Liberty Bar in Valparaíso’s port neighbourhood is somewhat of a local institution. It first opened its doors in 1897 and has been a mainstay of the local drinking scene for over a century.
The bar thrived through the city’s golden age, before the opening of the Panama Canal, when it welcomed many visiting explorers and traders stopping by at the port. It survived the subsequent depression and years of political turmoil, and is now a legendary local drinking den.
You’ll find Bar Liberty on Plaza Echaurren. Stop by for a few drinks or a traditional lunch in this relic of the city’s social history. Look out for the hats hung on hooks behind the bar; legend has it these are collected from unsuspecting punters who fall asleep drinking.
14. Go beer-trekking in Quilpué
Valparaíso’s close neighbour town Quilpué plays host to a unique and alternative drinking activity: beer trekking! On this peculiar (but very cool) tour, you can get active outdoors while sampling the best local beers.
The tour begins with a pick-up in Valparaíso. After a short ride to reach Quilpué, the ‘Sun City’, the host Javier will tell you the town’s stories at a leisurely pace before escaping into the countryside and the woods, with occasional stops for beer-tasting. It finishes on a hill with fantastic views, and of course some more beer.
15. Taste the famous local wines
Chile is a great country for wine-lovers (that’s us), and Valparaíso doesn’t disappoint. The city is about 40 kilometres from the Casablanca Valley wine region, and you can catch buses there every 15 minutes from the main bus terminal. Once you arrive in the town of Casablanca you can grab a taxi out to the wineries in the valley – not the easiest way to do it, but definitely the cheapest, and in our opinion the most fun.
You can instead choose to take a private wine tour to the Casablanca Valley, with pick-up and drop-off included so you don’t need to worry about transport. The trip includes guided tours and tastings at Casas Del Bosque and Emiliana, two of the best-rated wineries in the region.
As a third option, you don’t even need to leave the city limits to sample the best local red stuff. You can take a seat with a view at one of the wine bars on the hills, or…
16. Stay at a wine-themed hotel
If I ever had a hotel custom-designed to include all my favourite things, it would probably look a lot like Winebox Valparaíso. Built using recycled containers and daubed with bright colours and murals, this place fits right into the city’s image. What’s even better is that it is totally themed upon wine.
Believe it or not, this is the first hotel in the southern hemisphere to make its own wine, which you can enjoy with spectacular views from its rooftop terrace. And somehow, every room on the premises has an ocean view too. Pretty cool, huh?
You’d expect a place like this to cost an arm and a leg, but it’s far from being the most expensive place in town, with rooms available from $90. It’s worth it for the novelty value alone, and to stay a night in the most recycled hotel on the entire American continent. You can book a stay here.
17. Try a cooking class
For a true insight into Valparaíso’s culinary traditions that you can recreate at home after your travels, you can’t go wrong with a cooking class. They’re always fun and insightful, and one of our favourite things to do when backpacking.
A Chilean cuisine cooking class in Valparaíso begins with a tour to the local market with a chef to choose fresh ingredients and seek out local wines. You’re then taught to make a selection of traditional dishes for a full-on Chilean multi-course meal, which you can then enjoy eating with the group, wines and pisco sour cocktails included.
Things to do in Valparaíso: day trips
18. Hike to Cerro La Campana
Not many hikes come with a recommendation by Charles Darwin, but that’s what you get with the trail to Cerro La Campana. The legendary explorer and naturalist docked in Valparaíso in 1834 to explore inland towards the Andes. After acquiring some horses, he led an excursion to the hill’s summit.
He retold the experience with glowing fondness, writing “who can avoid admiring the wonderful force which has upheaved these mountains?” Today, the path to the summit is marked with a plaque dedicated to Darwin’s visit.
La Campana National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is located about 25 kilometres inland from Valparaíso. This is the setting for the trek to the peak of Cerro La Campana (also known as the Bell Mountain due to its shape), passing through pristine nature of oak forests and gurgling streams. On a clear day, from the top you can see all the way to Aconcagua, the highest peak in the southern hemisphere.
You can take hike this historic trail on a full-day guided trek to Cerro La Campana from Valparaíso.
19. Take a trip round the coast to Viña del Mar
A stone’s throw around the coast from Valparaíso, the coastal city of Viña del Mar offers a very different Chilean experience. Known as the Garden City, it combines lush outdoor green spaces with stretches of gorgeous sandy beach (featured in our collection of the best beaches in South America), so you can see why it’s a popular resort destination. There is lots more to explore underneath the surface too, with a fascinating cultural heritage waiting to be discovered.
Buses run between Valparaíso to Viña del Mar frequently throughout the day, and tickets are cheap. You can find and book a ticket in advance on Busbud or simply turn up at the Valparaíso’s main Rodoviário terminal. The guys at Tours 4 Tips run a free walking tour in Viña del Mar, or you can just wander the beaches and neighbourhoods at your own pace.
Another option is to combine a trip to Viña del Mar with other prime spots on a four-hour Pacific coastal tour from Valparaíso. This includes sightseeing in Viña del Mar and a drive further out to the coastal towns of Reñaca and Concón.
20. Go horse-riding in the Chilean countryside
One of the traditional ways to discover the wealth of countryside near Valparaíso is on horseback. The scenic mountains of Quebrada Escobares are just a half-hour drive from the city, providing the perfect terrain for a Chilean countryside horse-riding tour.
You will be kitted up at a ranch by friendly expert guides before riding high up into the hills for some breathtaking valley views. Note this tour isn’t ideal for complete beginners – you’ll need at least some basic experience with horses.
21. Learn to surf and sandboard
Valparaíso’s hilly coastal setting makes it highly conducive to adventure sports. You can make the most of this on a surf and sandboard adventure, a full day’s introduction to these popular local pastimes.
This is a great option for active travellers who want to try something a bit different. You’ll learn to surf on a nearby beach with a local instructor, before heading up to the hills for some ocean-view sandboarding, broken up with a picnic and cocktails.
Surfing is hugely popular throughout South America. If you’re heading to Peru on your travels, check out our Lima surf guide to see how you can hit up the local scene there too.
Map of things to do in Valparaíso
See the map below for the sights and activities we’ve covered in this article:
Have you been to Valparaíso and have something else to suggest? Let us know in the comments below.
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