View of Valparaiso
Find a new color around every corner. | streetflash/Shutterstock
Find a new color around every corner. | streetflash/Shutterstock

This Maze-Like, Street-Art City Is Perched in a Gorgeous Corner of the World

Just past the vineyards, right next to the ocean.

One of Valparaiso’s mantras is “turn off the television and live your life”, which says a lot about the Chilean seaside city’s proudly bohemian character. Valparaiso’s open-minded, artistic culture is apparent in its abundance of independent stores, boutique hotels, and collectively-owned cafes, all in historic buildings decorated with colorful street art.

The city is an easy day trip from Santiago, just a quick 1.5 hour drive or bus ride from the capital. After passing the rolling vineyards of Chilean wine country, you’ll know you’re there when you hit the ocean.

Valparaiso’s most striking areas are its hills (cerros), where houses bundle on top of one another in a maze of colorful stairs and painted streets that end in imposingly steep and sudden cliff sides. Dozens of funicular elevators were installed over 100 years ago to help residents commute from the seaport to the hills, and several remain operational—which means any visit must include a ride. The views are spectacular and it really saves the strain on your knees.

You’ll also find steaming portside shrimp and cheese empanadas, plus signature cocktails that pack a punch. Lovingly nicknamed Valpo by its fiercely loyal inhabitants, the city’s quirky, timeless vibe is what makes it one of Chile’s most visited destinations. Here’s what to do while you’re there.

Murals painted on doors
Some places have a couple murals. Every street in Valparaiso is a canvas. | Unsplash/Luis Alfonso Orellana

Feast your eyes on art

It's hard not to feel giddy over Valparaiso’s free-spirited, artistic energy. Here, every wall, roof, door, and cobblestone is a canvas of world-class graffiti. Look out for the massive murals of internationally acclaimed Valparaiso street artist Inti Castro, whose altiplano-inspired artworks can be spotted throughout the city. You’ll also find murals from famous foreign art collectives including Berlin’s 1UP Crew on the Carcel Cerro and Colombian legend Stinkfish on Cerro Alegre.

To learn more about the city’s street art, check out the tip-based Valpo Street Art. Their English-based walking tours depart twice a day from Anibal Pinto square and will guide you past Valparaiso’s most prominent pieces, while also highlighting exciting new works. If you want to get behind a spray-can yourself, email the company to arrange a private graffiti workshop and leave your tag.

Painted stairs
Gray is boring. | Gubin Yury/Shutterstock

Art isn’t just on the streets, though. Check out boutique gallery Galería de Arte Bahía Utópica on Cerro Alegro for exhibitions featuring prominent Valparaiso artists. Here, you’ll find paintings by Grammy-awarded singer and porteño Mon Laferte, whose sad-eyed female protagonists reflect the harsh realities for women in Latin America.

For literature fairs, exhibitions, and theater performances, check out the uber-cool Cultural Park on Cerro Carcel, a former prison turned community garden and cultural center. Recently, the park inaugurated an exhibition of the huge Valparaiso-inspired engravings by Loro Coiron, a longtime local resident.

Painted door of Altamira bar
I hope the beer is colorful, too. | Cervecería Altamira

Party like a porteño

People from Valparaiso are called Porteños (from the Spanish word puerto, meaning port), and damn do porteños like to party. Valparaiso is a student city and the city’s bars are a thriving meeting point between locals and tourists. Start any night on the Cumming street, where you can find cheap liter beers to satisfy thirsty groups. If craft beer is more your thing, order a tasting flight at local beer venue Altamira. Altamira’s West Coast IPA won third best in its category at the World Beer Awards, but our personal fave is the Hazy.

When your thirst is quenched, it's time to hit the clubs. Valparaiso’s open-minded, inclusive vibe is apparent in its fun and unpretentious club scene. Mascara is a cult favorite that blasts 80s classics, attracting a bombastic crowd of queers, late-night party-goers, and tourists. For contemporary pop energy and non-stop dancing, go to gay club Pagano. If you’re looking for a swanky electro night on a rooftop, head to La Terraza—though, you may have to book tickets in advance.

Elevators to avoid the hills
Very much preferable to stairs. | Chile Travel

Get lost (in a good way)

The best way to navigate Valparaiso is not to navigate it at all. Pick one of several central cerros and get lost exploring the riddle of streets. The whole town is a bit like a scavenger hunt. You may not be able to keep track of which furniculars you ride up and which lead you down, but the point is to ride as many of the old-school elevator cars as possible. Or get your workout on the numerous stairs, often painted a different color on every step or like piano keys. You might even find a slide in lieu of stairs next to Ascensor Reina Victoria. Or follow hidden passageways to the Chicory Restaurant and enjoy stunning sea views.

If you are down by the port, walk a little off the beaten track to visit the Mercado Puerto, a recently restored market with magnificent historical architecture that sells artisanal fare. Trek higher into the hills to find La Sebastiana on Cerro Florida, the former house of poet laureate Pablo Neruda. Walk through the vibrantly decorated rooms and admire the poet’s eccentric possessions while learning about his life and work.

Doughy, fresh-baked empanadas
Empanadas for breakfast, for dinner, for dessert… | @le_pato_empanaderia

Feast on seafood and the doughiest baked empanadas

Start at the caleta portales market for all things fresh fish. Here you’ll see local fisherman literally bringing in their fresh haul to the dozens of restaurants that line the beachfront. Nearly all the menus here serve up traditional Chilean seafood favorites: try the Caldillo Congrio, a cilantro-infused eel soup, or the succulent “machas” — clams bathed in parmesan. And if you’re looking for those oozy cheese shrimp empanadas, this is the place to find them. Word of advice, blow before you bite—these fried pastry delights are served piping hot.

In Chile, seaside empanadas tend to be fried, but Valparaiso has a fair amount of bakeries if you’re looking for the country’s traditional oven-baked option. If you lust after a thicker dough without the oily residue, wader into pretty much any bakery and explore their menu. One hole in the wall worth a stop is Le Pató, which has deliciously doughy, fresh-baked empanadas with vegan, vegetarian, and meat fillings.

In the downtown area, track down the locally loved J Cruz restaurant, which is tucked away in an unassuming alley. This restaurant is said to be the birthplace of the national fast-food dish chorillana, which is a fantasy of fries, sliced beef, onion, and sausage topped off with a few fried eggs. Chorillana is very much a sharing platter—you’ll get one loaded plate with several forks to serve everyone at your table.

In Cerro Florida, look for the coveted pasta restaurant Fatto in Casa, a secret gem located inside a family home. Their hours are not fixed, so check to see if it is open before visiting.

Rooftop bar at Verso Hotel on Cerro Florida
Top of the hill for top of the world views. | Verso Hotel

Where to stay in Valparaiso

Fancy a rooftop with a 360-degree view, craft cocktails, and hot tubs? Of course you do. Check out the wonderful Verso Hotel on Cerro Florida. In keeping with Valparaiso's artistic soul, all nineteen of Verso’s minimalist, modern rooms are decorated with a verse by a notable Latin American poet.

The rooftop restaurant has signature dishes sourced from local ingredients based on classical Chilean cuisine. Don’t forget the cocktails either: the Porteño Sour, a Valparaiso twist on Chile’s emblematic pisco sour, is absolutely delicious. And yes, you can sip your cocktail while enjoying the hot tub.

View of colorful buildings tucked into the hillside
I’ll stay in every building, thank you. | f11photo/Shutterstock

For a more traditional Valparaiso option in the heart of Cerro Alegre, try out Hotel Boutique Acontraluz, which has rooms with private balconies overlooking the sea. It promotes itself as the perfect spot for a romantic getaway and is popular with couples.

For travelers looking to go all out, Hotel Casa Higueras’ is a sprawling 1920s mansion with sea views. It’s best to visit in summer so you can make use of the exquisite infinity pool and spacious private gardens.

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Charis McGowan is a contributor for Thrillist.