When I first visited Valparaíso on a budget 15 years ago, the impression it made on me was rather bad. The UNESCO-listed harbour full of tourists and the centre full of banks and offices were in too strong a contrast with the disgustingly poor, dirty and rundown suburbs up the hills. I remember taking a myriad black and white photographs of those slums to show my friends that the “city of a thousand colours”, as Valparaíso is nicknamed, was a scam. Hiking indefatigably the streets of Valparaíso, I was even at a loss to find things to do. Has the city changed so much? Did I visit the wrong neighbourhoods or did my teenage eyes see only what they were looking for? The fact is that this time, both Anna and I loved the place!
How to describe Valpo?
Like a many-coloured blanket slipping down the hills and into the ocean is Valparaíso, one of Chile’s major towns and unquestionably its major harbour. A city of sailors and students, “Valpo” seems to be reinventing itself every day, with imagination and chutzpa. It strikes with an urging sense of spontaneous creativity that we would expect from some neighbourhoods in Berlin or Barcelona.
The whole town is a canvas for the most colourful urban art, and a playground for artists. It’s a city that is not only lively and liveable – but also very much alive. It’s a place to be entertained and mesmerised, which offers every week a gazillion things to do on a budget.
Add to this a labyrinth of streets, alleys and stairs, that bring you up and down to unexpected terraces; a vista on the ocean from all possible angles; and a history of being “the Jewel of the Pacific”. You now get a fair idea of why many people, Chileans and foreigners alike, fall in love with Valparaíso.
Perfect things to do in Valparaíso on a budget
First, a summary of the things to do in Valparaíso:
- Walk up the hills to amazing sea views or take century-old funiculars
- Fill your memory card with street art shots
- Watch the sea lions on the oceanfront
- Attend an event in one of the abandoned factories
- Snack at the food market or enjoy a sustainable meal at one of the community-run eateries
- Visit Palacio Baburizza, a very good fine arts museum on Paseo Yugoslavo
- Learn about Natural Science
- Check out the Parque Cultural
- Visit La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s house
- Explore the Dissidents Cemetery
- Dance at Mil Tambores festival on the 1st weekend of October
- Try a local craft beer, pisco sour and the national hot-dog
- Chill at the city beach or at Laguna Verde
Treasure hunt the viewpoints
Stretched on 45 different hills, there certainly are many viewpoints in Valparaíso – your legs will quickly notice that. In fact, Porteños (the inhabitants of Valparaíso) don’t speak in terms of neighbourhoods (“barrios“) but in terms of hills (“cerros“). Some stunning views on the port and the ocean will catch you unexpectedly, at the corner of a random street.
The most famous of these terraces –and therefore the most crowded– are in the centre, on Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre, the two main touristy areas. That’s where you’ll find Paseo Yugoslavo, Paseo Gervasoni and the Paseo Atkinson.
We really liked Paseo 21 de Mayo, Bismarck Square and the viewpoint at the Valparaiso Cultural Park; the last two are perfect places for a picnic with a view. But the best is to stroll around and follow your instinct to discover your own favourites.
Ride the century-old funiculars
A solution was found at the end of the XIXth century to connect these hills with the port and the city centre (called “plan”). Enter the funiculars.
Out of the 30 original funiculars, only 16 still exist to this day and they’re listed National Historic Monuments. Only 7 of them are still in function nowadays.
It’s a pretty fun and unusual experience to go up on one of the century-old funiculars, or “ascensores” as they’re called here. It’s cheap too, at 100 pesos each way. The oldest ones are Reina Victoria, El Peral and Artillería, all in the centre.
Follow the street art
You’ve surely read it somewhere, Valpo is famous for its collection of murals,scattered all around town. Street art fans will enjoy all the colourful pieces made by artists from all over South America. Even if some of them don’t seem to you particularly stunning, the sheer quantity creates a pattern that gives light and colours to the city.
Add to this the joyful way locals have in reclaiming the streets with guerrilla gardening, mosaics or street decorations. That makes the mere fact of wandering the streets one of the top things to do in Valparaíso!
Check the weekly events calendar
Ever since we entered Chile 1,300 km south from here, we heard of Valparaíso (or ‘Valpo‘ as it is affectionately called) as the cultural capital of Chile, where independent theatre, dance and art in general has a chance to make itself heard.
A weekly program is independently published and includes many free or very cheap artistic events. You find it in most artsy bars in the centre, or at any venue that showcases events.
“Visit” the abandoned rail yard
Several abandoned houses and factories have been occupied –”recuperated” as they say here– and organise canteens, workshops and events.
This is the case of a large building on the coast where trains used to be parked and repaired. It’s now the home of an indoor rock climbing wall, among others. Outdoor theatre and other art performances are organised there. Cement walls covered in tags, palette wood benches and up-cycle creativity; if that’s your kind of vibes, you’ll love the place! You’ll find it on your favourite online map by looking up “Tornamesa“.
Right behind it is the so-called “Slowest Train in the World“: an old wagon re-purposed as a cafe. Don’t misinterpret the name, the wagon is at a complete standstill, of course. Inside, disparate furniture and old objects have been gathered to create a vintage atmosphere. There’s even a “museum” at the back, which rather resembles the attic of my great-great-grandfather. Our coffee was really bad but the waiter was crazy in a very friendly and colourful way.
Watch the sea lions
We read on several occasions that you had to take an expensive boat tour to maybe be lucky enough to see sea lions. No one seems to mention seeing them from the coast. And yet we did see sea lions, right from the city coastline!
Was it the right time of year? Was it a special gathering of the Sea Lions Club, or the Otary Club, but without the fancy seal? Fact is, they were sunbathing on that piece of cement which is all that’s left of the old Barón pier. In fact, if you look up “seal’s resting place” on your favourite online map, you’ll see what I’m talking about!
If you’ve been reading Green Mochila before, you know how much we love markets. It’s the best way to have a cheap, local meal made with 0-km ingredients. Therefore a good way to meet people and get to know a part of the local culture; it’s overall among the best things to do on a budget.
The historic harbour market near Plaza Echaurren is unfortunately closed; but all the surrounding streets are now selling produce and snacks. For more snacks and street food, check Plaza O’Higgins and the bordering Calle Pedro Montt.
Check also Caleta Portales, further north-east along the coast; that’s where the fishermen and -women sell their daily catch. Many restaurants will prepare something for you on the spot. We personally didn’t buy anything there, but really enjoyed the atmosphere.
Enjoy a meal at a community-run eatery
This was one of our favourite things to do in Valparaíso: find some quirky place for a cheap meal. A girl who gave us a lift to Santiago also gave us a long list of her beloved bars and eateries in Valpo. Many of them are vegan, vegetarian, or community-run; they reminded us a lot of the leftist squats scene in Berlin.
Govinda’s is a vegetarian/vegan restaurant on Parque Italia.
The Komedor Vegetariano is an inexpensive eatery on Calle Morris, close to Plaza O’Higgins.
La Vitamínica Porteña is the tiniest of places in Calle Huito; it serves a fully vegan set menu, cheap, very healthy but not very filling.
Visit the Fine Arts Museum in Palacio Baburizza
Even art lovers will find things to do in Valparaíso. Palacio Baburizza is a beautiful neoclassical building right on Paseo Yugoslavo. It showcases two floors of works by national and international artists, among which many impressionists. Check the collection on this website.
Don’t miss the Chilean artists’ representations of the city and its harbour in the XIXth century; it will give you a new look on Valparaíso, the Jewel of the Pacific.
Learn at the Museum of Natural Science
If you’re interested in archaeology and natural science, this place is for you. It shows the biodiversity of the central part of Chile; an area that comprises the ocean, islands, the coast, the valley, the river and the mountains. So they’ve got quite a lot on their plate there!
Yet the entrance is free and they have audioguides in Spanish, English and Portuguese (que legal, garrotos!). It’s on Calle Condell, behind Plaza Victoria.
Spend time at Parque Cultural de Valparaíso
This Cultural Park is as hard to describe as Valparaíso is. Maybe it’s because they have a lot in common: the same cultural atmosphere; the same mishmash of purposes; the same urgency to live and to share.
Part of the place is the few remaining walls of an old prison, with boards telling its story in the heart of the city. Right beside is a community garden, with educational activities. On the same land there’s a building with a gallery, a theatre and a cafe. And in between is a large park with a great view on the city and the Pacific ocean.
Check their activities in yoga, dance, circus, theatre, etc. at the time of your visit. Entrance to the park is free but it’s closed on Mondays.
Enter one of Pablo Neruda’s house, La Sebastiana
We didn’t visit La Sebastiana, but it’s among the most famous things to do in Valparaíso; so this list couldn’t overlook it. For as much as we love reading, we’re not too fussy about seeing where a writer sat, slept and pooed.
Still, La Sebastiana is supposed to be a quirky building that represents well the mindset of Pablo Neruda, the Nobel-prize winning poet. It’s on top of Cerro Florida and delivers, together with the museum house, a spectacular view on the city. Entrance costs $7,000 CLP ($10 USD).
Pablo Neruda certainly had a fascinating life and wrote fascinating works. But unless you’re a die-hard fan, spare the money.
Stroll the Dissidents Cemetery
The “Cementerio Disidentes” is one of those places we’d have liked to know about at the time of our visit. Even our Couchsurfing host didn’t mention it – maybe he’s not into cemeteries.
It’s the resting place for hundreds of European and North American Protestants, freethinkers, and other non-Catholics who died in Chile. And it looks absolutely beautiful on the photos, reminding us of Buenos Aires’ Recoleta cemetery, or Paris’ Père Lachaise.
We know that not everyone is interested in cemeteries and their eerie charm of past glory. The more decayed, the better, we find. But here we’re talking about fine XIXth century architecture, with marble and intriguing masonic symbols. It’s right in the centre and with a great view, so there’s no reason not to give it a look. Gates open from 10 am until 5 pm.
Two other cemeteries nearby, including the neoclassical Cementerio Numero 2, are also worth checking out.
We did visit Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. Read about it here.
Dance at the Mil Tambores festival
On the first weekend of October each year, the sound of drums invade the whole city. It’s a festival celebrating the arrival of springtime with traditional dances, concerts, markets and workshops.
Like everything people do in Valparaíso, it’s an occasion to celebrate life and give it artistic and political dimensions. If you’re around at that time, don’t miss it, but book your accommodation beforehand!
Go out like a student
Although we certainly don’t see it as one of the things to do on a budget, it can be that the students atmosphere of Valparaíso gets you going at night.
Our host and his girlfriend took us out for a Pisco Sour and a couple of local craft beers. There’s really a lot of activity around Plaza Aníbal Pinto and calle Cumming. It seems to be a famous hub for gringos, but also for locals. There are chilled bars and dancing places, so you can’t go wrong.
Chileans have understood perfectly the concept of munchies and invented the completo. It’s a hot-dog with veggies, mashed avocado and a ton of ketchup, mayo and the national spicy sauce (ají chileno). The best place seems to be at the bottom of calle Almirante; you’ll find all kinds of completos with cheese instead of the sausage (“quesopleto“), or chips (“papapleto“), etc. It’s certainly not a delicacy but it fills you up when you most need it!
Chill at the city beach
You’ll find it easily, it’s the one behind the containers and the abandoned buildings. It’s not the most glamorous, but it ticks the box. I guess that some Porteños with an active life are happy to find a beach at hand after work.
There is another beach behind the Playa Ancha hill: Playa Las Torpederas, with an old lighthouse nearby offering a nice view.
Honestly, for a short ride with public transportation, you can find better in Viña del Mar or in…
It’s only a 30-min ride to reach Laguna Verde, south of Valparaíso and there are buses that go there directly. The beach is therefore very accessible but nonetheless not crowded. It’s a small town beach with a small town flair; very relaxing after the fuss of the city, but not a wild experience either.
Take the local bus number 520 in direction of Laguna Verde – Playa Ancha. It leaves from opposite Plaza O’Higgins and goes along Calle Pedro Montt and Calle Blanco (please do correct me in the comments if this has changed).
Is Valparaíso safe?
In the centre, not a single time did we have a moment of doubt. Of course, we follow the usual rules of common sense: don’t show off your valuables; don’t keep your things unattended; don’t wander off where it’s dark and looks like a quagmire. Also don’t walk at night, especially outside of busy areas.
It’s said that you should be careful around the old port, and also further up the hills. Similarly to Brazil’s favelas or Colombia’s slums: the poorer peeps live the further up, so the more caliente it gets. Basically if you’ve been walking up for a while and see that it looks more rundown than before, turn around.
How to get to Valparaíso
Valpo is only a 2-hour bus ride from Santiago. There are buses leaving every 10-20 minutes from the Pajaritos bus terminal. The one in Valparaíso is at Plaza O’Higgins, at a walking distance from the town centre. By car, it’s a 1,5-hour drive on the Route 68.
Where to go after Valpo
Attached to Valparaiso is the richer and cleaner city of Viña del Mar. With its beaches, its many restaurants, malls and casinos, it’s worth a couple of day-trips. We recommend: the botanic gardens and the spectacle of the fishermen and -women at night.
If you haven’t spent enough time in Santiago yet, of course that’s always an option.
But if it’s time to move on, you can go north to the cool little town of La Serena, the gateway to stargazers’ paradise Valle del Elqui; or south to Pichilemu, the surf capital of Chile. Further to the east, it’s Argentina with Mendoza and Mount Aconcagua, the giant of rock.
Read our articles about these destinations for more inspiration:
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