A guide to Valparaíso, Chile's wildly creative coastal city

Long associated with poets and folk heroes, the free-spirited Chilean port city is today a canvas for the country’s best street artists. Explore its steep lanes and find galleries, dive bars and restaurants marching to the beat of their own drums.

Valparaíso’s Historic Quarter has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall
By Sarah Marshall
Published 7 Nov 2022, 10:15 GMT

Leaping from his car, Al Ramirez grabs a spray can from the boot and furiously gets to work. “In the street, all you have is your reputation,” says the incensed graffiti artist, as he retouches one of his murals, recently defaced with dripping scrawl. “When someone paints over your work, it’s like spitting in your face.”

Al, who’s on a mission to create the first guild of urban artists, is one of more than 400 artists in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso, where the authorities now accept graffiti as part of the city’s culture and appeal. Almost every shop front, house and pavement has been decorated to create one of the world’s largest unofficial open-air museums of street art. No wonder, then, graffitists are running out of space.

Valpo, as it’s affectionately known, is wide open to interpretation. To some, it’s nothing more than a scruffy, rundown town, where stray dogs howl long into the night; for others, it’s a bastion of liberation, freedom of speech and unfettered creativity, where lost, abandoned souls can find a happy home. 

Acceptance, equality and opportunity were building blocks for Valpo’s foundation. A port of call for commercial ships crossing the Atlantic and Pacific via the Strait of Magellan, it attracted thousands of immigrants in the late 1800s. But following the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914, its sparkle disappeared as traders switched to a more convenient route.

Abandoned mansions and brightly coloured houses still cover Valpo’s 45 hills. Towards the port, palm trees gifted from Brazil, an archway built by the British and what was Latin America’s first stock exchange all stand as vestiges of a time when money flowed as easily as the spray paint does today. 

This unplanned city has always embraced chaos. A warren of alleys propped precariously on steep slopes, homes were built haphazardly with whatever materials could be stolen from the port. Connecting neighbourhoods, steep stairwells transformed Valpo into a labyrinth of ladders. But take the wrong turn and — just like players of the board game — you could end up slithering down a serpentine alleyway back to square one.

Wherever you are, however, there’s always a view of the Pacific. When the fog lifts, it’s even possible to see the towering Argentine peak of Aconcagua. “I love walking to a viewpoint and just looking at the ocean,” says Sammy Espinosa (who works under the name Jeksy), one half of graffiti duo Un Kolor Distinto. “It gives me a sense of freedom.”

Along with his partner, Cynthia (known as Cines), Sammy has painted several multistorey buildings in the city. But he appreciates graffiti will always be a transient art form. “If you want something to last forever, you should put it on a canvas,” he tells me, aptly summing up the spirit of Valpo. 

Although defined by its past, this unconventional city thrives in the moment. And a legacy of independence lives on.

One of the many murals decorating Cerro Alegre in Valparaíso’s Historic Quarter.

One of the many murals decorating Cerro Alegre in Valparaíso’s Historic Quarter.

Photograph by Shutterstock

Things to see and do 

La Sebastiana
Self-styled ‘captain of the land’, Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda converted this house into a ship-shaped home in the 1960s, complete with eccentric paraphernalia acquired on foreign adventures. A French carousel horse, a stuffed emperor penguin chick and an Italian ceramic cow have all been playfully arranged here, reflecting the artist’s wry sense of humour. An audio guide weaves anecdotes with biographical details to paint a picture of one of South America’s most colourful characters. 

Museo Universitario del Grabado (MUG)
In the 1930s, Chile’s first school of engraving opened in the Valparaíso Province, pioneering a new art form. Featuring over 9,500 pieces by artists including Mapuche printmaker and painter Santos Chávez, this new museum is run by the University of Grabado. Having taken over 10 years to restore, the former 19th-century home is an equally impressive work of art. 

Valparaíso cultural park
Find artists sketching and dance troupes energetically rehearsing on the lawns of a former prison that’s been transformed into a buzzing arts centre. Hosting exhibitions and workshops, a gallery set in former cells has become a place for freedom of expression. Grab lunch in the laid-back theatre cafe or sit on the terrace walls to watch the sun go down. 

Street art tours
A sommelier and local graffiti artist Al Ramirez lead tours through the city’s ever-evolving street art gallery. Learn about the gritty style wars and the ethics of overwriting pieces never designed to last forever. There’s also a chance to tag walls and visit artists, such as world-renowned duo Un Kolor Distinto, in their homes. 

Historical cemeteries
Over the centuries, South Americans have built some of the world’s most beautiful final resting places. Doric columns flank the entrance of hilltop Cementerio Number 1, where tombs were intentionally given the best views of the city. Visit Cementerio Number 3 to see the grave of the ‘Chilean Robin Hood’, serial killer/folk hero Émile Dubois, which has been a virtual shrine ever since his death in 1907. 

Riding the funiculars
Built from the late 1800s to ease the strain of navigating near-vertical hills, around half of the city’s original 31 acensores still trundle up and down the slopes. Two of the most popular and easily accessible are Reina Victoria and El Peral, both on Cerro Alegre hill. 

Watching fisherfolk
Given its coastline stretches for almost 2,500 miles, it’s hardly surprising one of Chile’s main industries is fishing. Arrive early in the morning to witness small boats unload their hauls at Caleta Portales cove, where some of the strongest guilds operate. Wander along the pier to find fisherfolk preparing nets, and queue up with gulls and pelicans for ceviche served from wooden shacks.

La Sebastiana, the nautical-themed former home of Nobel laureate, poet Pablo Neruda.

La Sebastiana, the nautical-themed former home of Nobel laureate, poet Pablo Neruda.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Where to Shop

La Dulcería
You won’t need a golden ticket to enter Valparaíso’s very own Willy Wonka factory — just follow a trail of white ants painted along San Enrique. Boiled sweets, fruit jellies and chocolate moustache-shaped lollipops are among the creations handmade on site. Watch artisans rapidly mould and slice a soft, caramelised paste before it solidifies into hard candy. 

La Vida Porteña
Tucked behind the groaning wooden cogs of the El Peral funicular, this upmarket souvenir shop specialises in gifts nostalgically inspired by Valpo’s rich past. Leather toiletry bags hark back to the days when steam ships would carry travellers to the dock, while local food products include neatly labelled jars of Chilean smoked chilli pepper condiment merkén.

Galería Espacio Rojo
Lured by the ocean, gallerist Cristián Vega-Rojo spent 10 years transforming a 19th-century, sea-view manor house into one of the best places to view works by Chile’s emerging artists. Find pretty paintings hanging alongside bold street art canvases, all sold for negotiable prices. Not just a shop, this is a place to learn about Valpo’s past and ponder its future. 

Sammy Espinoza, of street art duo Un Kolor Distinto.

Sammy Espinoza, of street art duo Un Kolor Distinto.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Where to stay

Hotel WineBox Valparaíso
Kiwi winemaker Grant Phelps and his Chilean architect girlfriend Camila Ulloa are proud of the fact that only one truck-load of waste was produced in the building of this sustainable hotel, constructed from shipping containers. Determined to take the snobbery out of wine drinking, the pair plan to offer tastings in their trendy terrace bar, where bathtubs have been converted into benches. 

A mix of cultural styles reflects the colourful past of this historic family home, a short walk from art gallery Palacio Baburizza. Baroque cherubs and Buddha statues decorate rooms adorned with azulejo tiles and carved wooden doors imported from England. Healthy breakfasts use ingredients sourced locally and herbs from an on-site garden fed by a drip-irrigation system. 

Casa Higueras
Be transported back to Valpo’s heyday in this 1920s mansion house, where an air of sophistication still swirls through wood-panelled corridors. Switch between an elegant drawing room, bedroom balcony or infinity pool for superb views of the port and bay — but save sunsets for the rooftop bar. A discreet doorway leads into Cerro Alegre, one of the prettiest neighbourhoods. 

CasaBlu Hotel is located in the heart of Cerro Alegre, famous for its street art.

CasaBlu Hotel is located in the heart of Cerro Alegre, famous for its street art.

Photograph by CasaBlu Hotel

Where to eat 

Delicias Express
Empanadas are a fast food staple. Around 90 different varieties are available at this small shop near the port, with prices starting at less than £1. Pull up a stool at the counter, where wi-fi is freely available, or ‘grab and go’ for a stroll around the streets of Cerro Alegre. 

Tres Peces
Co-founder Meyling Tang has taught local fishermen to use social media to sell their daily catch to local restaurants 
and businesses. Without the middlemen, the team behind this informal seafood restaurant keeps prices remarkably low. 
Open from Wednesday to Sunday for lunch, the nine-person terrace fills quickly. Try slithers of pickled bull kelp, an endemic seaweed championed as a superfood.

La Caperucita y el Lobo
After setting up shop at her grandmother’s charming higgledy-piggledy house, Carolina Gatica and her partner Leonardo de la Iglesia soon earned a place on the ‘World’s 50 Best’ list with their whimsical restaurant, whose name translates as ‘little Red Riding Hood and the wolf’. Traditional family recipes — upscaled here with considerable gastronomic flair — are served inside cosy rooms and on an outdoor terrace overlooking the city. 

Terrace bar at Hotel WineBox Valparaíso, built from shipping containers.

Terrace bar at Hotel WineBox Valparaíso, built from shipping containers.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Where to go for nightlife

Bar del Tio
A cut above its grungy, boho neighbours, this downtown cocktail bar attracts grown-ups who still want to have fun. Sip a pisco sprinkled with smoky Chilean condiment merkén and nibble on tapas in a cool, clandestine space straight out of Brooklyn or Berlin. 

Bar de Pisco
Chile’s first ever pisco bar reputedly opened on this site in the 1800s, and the latest incarnation doesn’t disappoint with its jaw-dropping selection of alcoholic, amber-hued nectars. The cocktail menu ranges from classics to more curious creations to be enjoyed on a sun-splashed patio or at gigs at the adjoining Café Vinilo. 

Cervecera Altamira
Take a break from rocket-fuel piscos by sampling ales and IPAs concocted by one of Chile’s top independent microbreweries. Working stills and metal kegs sit behind glass panels in this rough-and-ready gastropub beneath the Ascensor Reina Victoria, inspired by the first brewers who set up shop here in 1825. 

Explore like a local 

Stairway to heaven
Multi-floored arcades provide shortcuts between neighbourhoods on different elevations. Famously snapped by Magnum photographer Sergio Larrain in the 1950s, Pasaje Bavestrello, on Alvaro Besa, is an Instagram staple. Pop into La Verbena Deco Almacén, a tiny shop here that sells coffees and retro home decor.

Irregular dining
Nothing in Valpo happens early, so breakfast is always after 8am. A cheaper option to a late lunch, meanwhile, is afternoon tea, known as once, served from 5-7pm. Meaning ‘11’ in Spanish, it refers to the number of letters in ‘aguardiente’, the fire water that accompanies light snacks here. Try finger sandwiches on the terrace of Restaurant La Concepción

Head for the hills
While Cerro Alegre and Restaurant La Concepción are popular tourist stops, Bellavista and Florida are the hills where Valpo’s residents prefer to hang out. Head to the rooftop bar of Verso Hotel, on Bellavista, or venture further afield to Barón Bar, on Barón Hill, for more sky-high music and dancing. 

 Paseo Gervasoni, a vibrant walkway in the Historic Quarter.

 Paseo Gervasoni, a vibrant walkway in the Historic Quarter.

Photograph by Shutterstock

Getting there & around

British Airways flies direct between the UK and Santiago four times a week from Heathrow. ba.com
Average flight time: 15h. 
European carriers such as Iberia and Air France offer one-stop flights via their respective European hubs.  

Most hotels offer free transfers from the international airport in Santiago. The journey takes around an hour. It’s possible to explore most of the city’s attractions on foot, although be careful carrying valuables such as cameras in dark alleys in either the early or late hours. For guided tours, Gary James runs excellent tailor-made half- of full-day tours through andBeyond

When to go

Spring (September to October) and autumn (March to April) are the most pleasant periods to visit Valparaíso, although the climate is mild throughout the year. The longest days are at the height of summer in January, with highs of a comfortable 21C, although sea fog can roll in at any time.

More information

Rough Guide to Chile. RRP: £16.99
Canto General, by Pablo Neruda. RRP: £21
Neruda (2016). Dir: Pablo Larraín

How to do it

Booking.com offers four nights B&B in Valparaíso at Hotel Casa Higueras, from £1,842 per person based on two sharing. Includes hotel transfers and flights from Heathrow to Santiago. 

Published in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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