Valparaiso is a city on the coast of Chile, about a 2-3 hour bus ride west of Santiago. It is known as a haven for artists and inspiration to all. When immigrants started moving to the city in the 19th century they began building their homes from what was left on the shores of the port city – metal siding and buckets of paint discarded by ships after they used these materials as ballast. These poor immigrants began making their houses out of these scavenged items and this method of construction is what started the colourful patchwork design you see splashed on the hills of the city. Now, much of the metropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage site with strict rules on keeping the original charms of Valparaiso, pronounced: Val-para-ee-so by the way. This was my favourite city during my 7-month trip around the South American continent, and here is what you need to do to get the most out of your time in Valp:
Go on the Free Walking Tour
Chile and many other South American countries have adopted the European-born tradition of free walking tours. In Chile the main company is Tours for Tips. You can just show up at the time and meeting point and they will hold your hand and point out the most important spots in the city. Some young hostel-goers don’t see the point in these tours but I’d highly recommend them. They give you an idea of the layout of the city, ensure you don’t miss a big site, and the guides are available to answer any questions. Plus, it’s free! Although please go equipped with a cash tip. You may be a poor traveller but the guides often do these tours as a way to put themselves through university and the tips are their only income. So go with a will to learn and a generous heart!
Open Air Museum or Street Art in General
Valparaiso is known for its amazing street art that is extremely hard to miss, it is literally on every corner. The Open Air Museum is simply a space where artists could be intentional about their work but it is not the only place to see great art in the city. What not all maps will tell you is that Valparaiso is made up of hills so the neighbourhoods are split up by these physical barriers. I stayed on Cerro Alegre, (Happy Hill), while the Museo a Cielo Abierto (Open Air Museum) is on the Cerro Bellavista (Beautiful View Hill). In my opinion, the art in the official Museo, (remember it is street art so visiting the museum is just wandering through that part of town), is good but beautiful art can be seen everywhere. I would recommend wandering through the Cerro Alegre area to take a peek at the art and maybe grab lunch as there are many amazing restaurants and empanada places in this zone.
Pablo Neruda’s House (Or Houses!)
If you don’t know who Pablo Neruda is, he is worth a Google search. He is praised as being one of the best poets of the 20th century and if you can try to get a copy of some of his work in both the original Spanish and the translated English, it is a great way to work on improving your language skills. Once you’ve skimmed his most famous work – Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Cancion Desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Desperation) you will have a genuine appreciation for his work and can fangirl properly.
“La Sebastiana” is the name of his house in Valparaiso and has one of the quirkiest floor plans you will ever encounter. If you want to step up your fangirling you can bus to his other house in “La Isla Negra”, or “The Black Island” (which isn’t actually an island – just the name for a municipality). His house in Isla Negra is by far his coolest (he has another in Santiago) and stores all of his eclectic collections from glass bottles to seashells. It is about an hour bus ride south from Valparaiso and there is nothing else to do in the town, but Pablo’s house is worth the hassle if you have time.
Take the Ascensors! (Elevators)
Valparaiso is a city that crawls over about 45 hills, estimates vary depending on who you ask, but you are sure to get tired of all that walking! So hop in one of the elevators that can bring you up from one street circling the base of a hill, to the peak of another. These are not your typical, hotel/skyscraper elevators but are out-door funicular- style methods of transportation and are a life-saver after busy tourist days! If you are unsure of how it works don’t be afraid to ask a local. They are inexpensive to use and don’t forget to take the opportunity at the top to take gorgeous photos of the city!
Not all Fine Arts Museums are created equal but this one is worth a visit! The collection of inspiring art is housed in an early 1990s mansion, or palace with gorgeous nooks and crannies that make viewing these pieces an adventure in itself. The building has a unique origin story, which should definitely pester your guide about. When I was there they had an amazing free exhibit in the basement of the building about an indigenous group in Patagonia so don’t forget to ask what they have going on when you are there! Art is not everyone’s cup of tea but as Valp is known for being an artistic hub, you can’t pass up this museum.
Valparaiso was the most inspiring city I have ever visited. It is unique in architecture, geography and brimming with art. This article discusses 5 Must-Do activities: make sure you take the Free Walking Tour, hit up the Open Air Museum, visit at least one of Pablo Neruda’s houses, take an Elevator, and drop by the Palicio Baburizzo!