Valparaíso, a bohemian port city on the chilean coast, has drawn the attention of many artists and musicians. “Valparaíso de mi amor” is called a famous song about the city by Lucho Barrios and it’s a kind of confession of love to Valparaíso. “Puerto loco” it was called by the famous chilean poet and Literature Nobel Prize Winner Pablo Neruda. But what is so special about Valparaíso that is was declared a UNECSO World Heritage site? What makes it so unique that it attracts thousands of visitants and artists? Let’s explore it together.
Hills and staircases
The most characteristic aspect of Valparaíso is that it consist of 42 hills, “los cerros” in Spanish. They form part of the identity of the “porteños”, the inhabitants of the port city. Every hill has it’s own identity, history and atmosphere. “Cerro Alegre” and “Cerro Concepción” are the touristic parts of the town. There are lots of nice little souvenir shops and cafés, for example “Café con cuento” where you can read a nice book or magazine while having a coffee or hot chocolate, “Fauna” which is also a hotel and has a nice terrace with view over the town ore “El Desayunador” where you can have breakfast all day long. The mayority of the backpacker’s hostels are located in Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción. Another nice place, but also touristy is “Cerro Bellavista” where you find “La Sebastiana”, one of the houses of Pablo Neruda. In “Cerro Carcel” you find the cultural centre “Parque Cultural de Valparaíso”. There are artistic and cultural exhibitions all year long and a nice green park to hang around and enjoy the day. If you want to escape from the tourists it’s better to go for a bikeride along the coast to Playa Ancha or other hills further up. But watch out for pickpockets.
As there are many hills in Valparaíso, there are also many staircases to go up to the hills. The staircases are also a meeting point where people sit down to chat, have a drink or smoke. There is usually a nice atmosphere but at nighttime you should be careful. The most famous staircases are “El Peral” right next to the main square Plaza Sotomayor, the staircase “Héctor Calvo” which leads up to Cerro Bellavista and has recently been restored with a pretty mosaic art work. One of the most famous staircases is the staircase “Cienfuegos” in Calle Serrano which has 162 steps.
If you don’t want to walk up so many steps, you might want to catch an elevator. The elevators in Valparaíso are an important part of the city’s identity. In the 19th century there were about 30 elevators working, 16 were declared historic monuments. Here is a list of the ones that are currently working (El Peral is currently being renovated but the construction working soon):
- Espíritu Santo
- Reina Victoria
- El Peral
- San Augustín
The elevator Polanco is the only vertical elevator that doesn’t have an angle. It leads up to Cerro Polanco where you have a beautiful view over the town. It’s worth having a walk along the streets of Cerro Polanco because in 2012 it was host of Chile’s first Street Art Festival “Polanco Graffestival”. Artists from all over Chile and Latin America created more than 30 works of art. Not many tourist know this, that’s why it’s worth to escape from touristic paths, wander around the streets and take some photos.
Valparaíso has lots of beautiful passages, promenades and viewpoints. As I would call the whole city itself a viewpoint, I will only name a few. Walking up the staircase El Peral you get to the viewpoint Paseo Yugoslavo in Cerro Alegre. It’s a nice place to hang around and enjoy the view, sometimes musicians play music. Also nice are Paseo Atkinson Paseo Gervasoni in Cerro Concepción. In Playa Ancha, going up the elevator Artillería you get to Paseo 21 de Mayo. It is a centre of social life of Cerro Playa Ancha. There are trees, benches, artisans selling there work and a spectacular view over the port. If you want to have a nice walk overlooking the ocean, you can go to the port and always walk to left along the ocean until you get to the beach Las Torpederas.
I will only point out three good museums in Valparaíso. One of them is La Sebastiana, one of the houses of the famous Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda, located in Calle Ferrari 692 in Cerro Bellavista. The other two houses are in Santiago and in Isla Negra (also a nice place to visit, about 1 hour away from Valparaíso). The house in Valparaíso was transformed to a museum by the Pablo Neruda Foundation and gives you a good idea about the poet’s life and work. There is also a nice little café and a terrace with a pretty view. It is opened from March to December: Tuesday to Sunday from 10:10 am to 6:00 pm
and January and February: Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30 am to 6:50. On Monday it is closed. The entrance is 6000 Chilean Pesos and 2000 for students. Another good museum is Museum Lukas, located in Paseo Gervasoni 448 in Cerro Concepción. It exposes an important collection of original works by the cartoonist, illustrator and chronicler Renzo Pecchenino, Lukas. He draw lots of places in Valparaíso, that’s why the museum is a good way of getting to know the history of the city. It is also located in a very nice area where you can enjoy a view over the city. The third museum that I will recommend is the “Museo al Cielo Abierto”, located in Epicuro 308. The origin of the museum is that art students from the Catholic University of Valparaíso had the idea to paint house walls in Cerro Bellavista with abstract paintings. Between 1960 and 1973 they painted about 60 walls all over the city. It’s not a typical museum, as it’s an open air museum and you can enjoy it walking around the town. There are different ways to start the circuit, for example from Plaza Victoria walking towards Calle Aldunate or from the Elevator Espíritu Santo. In Calle Aldunate there is a map of the paintings.
Port and fishermen
Valparaíso has always been an important seaport and it’s the most important container and passenger port in Chile transferring 10 million tons per year and receiving about 50 cruise ship. At Plaza Sotomayor you can have a good view on the port and the containers. As I’m from Germany, the port reminded me a bit of Hamburg. Port workers work 24 hours. There are some little boats that take you on a tour around the port for a couple of dollars.
As Valparaíso is right near the ocean, it is known for its delicious seafood caught by local fishermen. If you want to enjoy a good meal, you should either go to Caleta de Membrillo o Caleta Portales. Both are traditional places where you eat the fresh fish and seafood recently caught by local fisherman. “Mis nietos” is a good restaurant at Caleta de Membrillo. At Caleta Portales you also find a nice beach where you can see pelicans and the local fish market, but it’s only opened early in the morning. From Caleta Portales you can have a nice walk to Muelle Barón, a jetty where you can spot seals.
There a lots of good restaurants in Valparaíso, so I will only name a few. If you would like to try traditional food, you should go to the Mercado Centralwhich is similar to a traditional food court and includes different restaurants. It is very close to Plaza Echaurren between Calle Blanco and Calle Cochrane. Another traditional place is Mercado El Cardonal located in Avenida Uruguay 125. On the first floor you find a market with fresh fruits and vegetables and on the second floor you find different restaurants. The markets, “mercados” are an important part of Chilean and Latin-American social life and commerce. So it’s definitely worth to have a look. Traditional maritime food that you should try: Pastel de Jaiba, Locos con Mayonesa, Paila Marina, Machas a la Parmesana.
If you like more international food, here are some other restaurant tips:
- El Pimentón, Avenida Ecuador 27 (Traditional Food)
- Delicias Express, Urriola 358 (Empanadas)
- Restaurant and Hotel “Fauna”, Paseo Dimalow 166 (Traditional and international food)Café ViaVia, Almirante Montt 217
- Lupita&Sancho, Avenida Ecuador 207 (Mexican Food)
- Café República Independiente de Playa Ancha, Avenida Playa Ancha 30
- BAMBU, Independencia 1709 (Vegetarian Food)
- Pizzeria Ecuador, Avenida Ecuador 277
- Sushi Mori, Urriola 662
Bars and nightlife
You won’t get to know Valparaíso if you don’t know its nightlife. At nighttime the city transforms itself. One nice streets with bars is Avenida Cumming. There you find for example “El Viaje” and “El Canario”. There is usually life music in “El Canario” and jazz night on Wednesdays in “El Viaje”. If you prefer to go to a club or disco, you should go to Avenida Errazuriz, for example to “Pachanguero”. In “Joinvito” there are Salsa and Bachata Lessons on Wednesday nights. A more typical place, where the real “porteños” go, is Bar Liberty, the oldest bar of the port, located on Plaza Echaurren. There you should have a red wine and listen to local musicians playing folklore music. Chile’s traditional dance is the “Cueca”. If you want to see a traditional place where locals go to dance “Cueca” and where you probably will not find tourists, you should go to “Rincón de las Guitarras” in Calle Freire 431. Typical drinks that you should not miss are: Pisco Sour, Piscola, Terremoto and Borgoña. Pisco is the typical chilean strong alcohol.
Street Art and social Movements
Valparaíso is full of colours. Colourful houses, paintings and street art brighten up the port city. Chilean street art was born in Valparaíso in the 1960s. There are no regulations about the paintings, so the artists can just knock on someones door and ask if they can paint their house. Street art in Chile has always had a political background. It first exploded during the government of the first dmocratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, that it disappeared during Pinochet’s dictatorship and revived in the 90s. The best way to get to know it is walking around the city. The five parts of the town where you will best get to know the street art are: Cerro Puerto, Cerro Alegre, Cerro Cárcel, Cerro Polanco and Cerro Van Buren. If you prefer to go on a tour, there is the “Valpo Street Art tour”.
Valparaíso is also a university town. The four important universities in Valparaíso are:Federico Santa María Technical University, Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso, Playa Ancha University of Educational Sciences and University of Valparaíso. Because of the presence of many students the town has always been a place of social movements. The student movement that fights for free education is very big in Valparaíso. In the last years there have appeared a lot of NGOs which try to protect the environment, the public places and to improve the everyday life of the “porteños”. Unfortunately the town invests more money in tourism and port industry than in public affairs.