With its mix of colonial and modern architecture, its location at the foot of the Andes, and its celebrated cuisine and wine, Santiago, Chile, is one of the most beguiling cities in South America. In addition to being a pleasurable place to visit, it also functions as a satisfying jumping-off point to other attractions in this land. Valparaíso, a coastal city of some 275,000 residents, situated roughly 75 miles northwest of the Chilean capital, is one such destination.
Settled by Spanish explorers in the mid-1500s and built among hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Valparaíso came to be an important port centuries later for vessels that passed through the Straits of Magellan and hugged the western coast of South America. But the city’s fortunes began to dim with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and the decrease of shipping traffic that followed. In time, many families began relocating to more prosperous spots, like Santiago and nearby Viña del Mar, and by the late 20th century, Valparaíso was very much a place in decline.
But then a renaissance started taking hold, thanks largely to artists who began taking up residence there. They slowly began turning parts of town into a sort of living urban canvas, painting colorful murals and other graffiti art on the walls of buildings that lined many of Valparaíso’s twisting streets and alleys. That helped to attract an influx of new residents, and locals and visitors alike began to better appreciate what the city had to offer — and to better care for it. In 1996, the World Monuments Fund named Valparaíso’s system of vintage funiculars, known as ascensores, one of the world’s most endangered treasures. Then in 2003, the historic quarter was declared to be a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Valparaíso is organized in a series of hills, or cerros, and I spent most of my two days in town wandering the labyrinthine lanes in two of the most historic, Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción.
It was that area where I found the most vivid and extensive examples of the street art that endows the city with so much of its personality. The small shops, restaurants, cafés and hotels, some of which were constructed with corrugated tin roofs and built right into cliffs, are quite charming, as are the cobblestone streets that wind through town (and the calf-burning climbs they induce). Oftentimes, I stopped not only to catch my breath but also to take in views of the Valparaíso harbor, with freighters moored next to Chilean navy battleships and tugs cutting through the gray-blue waters. And every time I paused, I was reminded of a scaled-down San Francisco or Lisbon.
In the early 1920s, a pair of immigrants from then-Yugoslavia took up residence in the Cerro Alegre district of Valparaíso. One was Pascal Baburizza, and he and his family moved into an imposing art nouveau structure that had been built several years earlier. Just across the street, Francisco Petrinovic constructed a Victorian-gothic mansion of similar size and stature for his English-born wife. In time, those residences became regarded as among the most fashionable in Valparaíso. Decades later, the Palacio Baburizza houses the city’s most notable fine art museum, and the Petrinovic domicile is a 23-room boutique hotel called Palacio Astoreca.
Easily recognizable for the oxblood-red walls and white trim of its exterior, Palacio Astoreca has five levels. Rooms are located on the top two, and as one might expect in a former home, they vary greatly in size and configuration, with each boasting a different style and aesthetic. The lobby is on the ground level, as is a spacious library and a fireplace. A Swedish-Chilean couple own the property, and when restoring the dilapidated mansion to its former glory, they deftly endowed it with a sense of old and new, keeping the original ceiling moldings, wood paneling, light fixtures and parquet flooring while furnishing it with settees, sofas and tables made in modern and art deco styles.
My room, No. 17, was a comfortable and spacious chamber with wood floors, gray-white walls and a king-size bed with a sleek headboard and wooden wings upholstered with red velvet. French doors open to a terrace overlooking the park, and I enjoyed taking coffee there on occasion, and listening to different bands playing under the shade of the hardwoods.
Alegre restaurant, one level down from the Palacio Astoreca lobby, is a pleasant space with windows that allow diners to gaze across the park. I enjoyed the sumptuous breakfast buffet my two mornings there, especially the bowls of fresh blueberries and raspberries augmented with a dollop of honey from a nearby apiary. The six-course tasting menu at lunch was a triumph, opening as it did with a spectacular shrimp and whitefish ceviche and including a small fillet with baby zucchini and eggplant.
Not surprisingly, the seafood in Valparaíso is especially good, and one eatery of note is La Concepción, located just a brief walk from Palacio Astoreca. I relished a meal I had on the terrace overlooking the harbor, and the ceviche, with pieces of raw Chilean sea bass and shrimp cured by lime juice and mixed with bits of avocado and chile peppers, was ethereal. So were the baked clams I later enjoyed with a Chardonnay from the Casablanca Valley, located a mere 60 miles away.
I also fell hard for the place I took my lunch the following day. Named Pasta e Vino, it too boasted sweeping ocean views as well as a multilevel veranda shaded by pergolas. My main course of corn and potato gnocchi with pulled pork was superb alongside a Carménère, a distant relative of Merlot that once flourished in the Bordeaux region of France and is now regarded as the national grape of Chile.
Just as enjoyable were the rides I took on the famous funiculars that run up and down the city’s biggest hills. The oldest ascensor in town has been operating since 1883, and several others date back to the early 1900s. At one point, there were 26 of these vehicles around the city, but only about eight are still in use, allowing visitors to sightsee without having to climb hundreds of steps per day. `
Another essential attraction is the aforementioned Palacio Baburizza, the city’s fine arts museum that reopened in 2012 after being closed for 15 years. Housed in a stately structure in Cerro Alegre, it offers a wide range of impressionist work from European artists of the mid-to-late 19th century, some pieces of which came from the personal collection of the mansion’s longtime owner. Considerable space is also devoted to works by Chilean painters, several of whom specialized in depicting scenes from Valparaíso when it was very much in its prime. The city may be worlds away from that depiction now, but the beauty of its painted coastline is still well worth the trek.
The steep hills and winding streets of Valparaíso mean that parking is not only challenging but spaces are scarce. Therefore, the best way to reach the coastal city is by hiring a car service for the hour-and-a-half drive northwest of Santiago.
It’s also important to note that Valparaíso is still a city in transition, so caution must be taken when sightseeing. Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción are the safest areas, but be aware of your belongings and surroundings, particularly at night.