There are hundreds of stray dogs roaming around, so expect poop on sidewalks and a barking contest at night. Most dogs won’t bite but they can and will chase you down the street. They are also tons of stray cats usually lying lazily on stairway steps, perfectly still until you decide to take a picture, in which case they run away and at best you catch the tail—it’s almost as if they expect to get paid to pose.
It’s cold at night, even in summer. Valparaíso is usually much cooler than Santiago because it’s by the sea. The weather changes quickly as well—it can go from cloudy to sunny in a matter of minutes—and the temperature drops at night. Basically, around 6 p.m., you should change from shorts and t-shirt to jeans and sweater. Don’t expect heating in the summer even if it’s 10⁰C at night—just hope for hot water in the shower and pile up the blankets.
It’s likely that you will pick up a free map at one point, but they are pretty useless. First, the only great accurate free map is the one from the official Punto de información turística. There are four of them—bus station, Muelle Prat, Ascensor Espíritu Santo and Pérgola de las Flores. All the other “Valparaíso tourist map” are sponsored by businesses, like tours, bars or restaurants, so they basically show a cartoonish drawing of a few landmarks around their place and that’s it. Second, in most cerros, you’re better off memorizing murals and using them as landmarks than trying to decipher the twists and turns on the map.
Valparaíso is full of tourists. In the most popular cerros, it gets pretty ridiculous when you see ten people all taking a picture of the same mural. But since you’re also a tourist taking pictures of walls, you can’t really complain. If you’re tired of overhearing conversations in French, English or Dutch, get away from Cerro Alegre and Concepción.
Valparaíso is huge. See point above, tourists usually stick to Cerro Alegre and Concepción, the port and a few famous funiculars like Artillería, Espíritu Santo, Concepción and Reina Victoria. But there are 45 hills to explore and while most of them won’t have hostels, bars, French bakeries and fancy restaurants, they offer unique viewpoints over the port or other neighbouring hills.
Don’t expect an amazing mural or a landmark at every street corner. You can climb the steepest stairs ever and end up in a regular neighbourhood uphill with the usual minimarket and botilleria. Valparaíso isn’t an amusement park, it’s a city with schools, hospitals, police stations and residents.
Elevators can be out of service—they’re old!—and some stairways are fenced (and locked) at one end or another. There’s nothing more frustrating than climbing a long and steep stairway and discover you have to go turn around because it’s gated and closed.
Each cerro has its own sights and atmosphere. Some are wealthier than other—the houses should give you a clue.
Eating in Valparaíso is tricky. There are some great, fancy restaurants uphill—you usually have to know where you’re going, book ahead and bring your credit card for that gourmet experience with a view. Downhill, food is consistently awful except for a few selected places. I’m serious, I think I tried every bakery or small eatery around Condell, Cumming and Bellavista and everything was consistently bad, from empanadas to chicken. This year, I briefly met a French backpacker who had been there for a few days, and I asked her if she could recommend a restaurant. “Well… the one we went to last night with my friend was great,” she replied. “Except that three of them are currently in the bathroom, they’ve been sick ever since.” So yeah, that’s Valpo for you. It’s a port, it does booze better than food.
Staying in Valparaíso requires a bit of planning. First, to find a suitable hostel, hotel, room, apartment or whatever. If you’re not super fit, avoid staying uphill. If you do want to sleep, avoid staying downhill. Yeah, I’m telling you, it’s tricky. Second, you also need to plan your day if you’re staying uphill because it’s unlikely you will enjoy going back and forth—just don’t forget your camera or sweater. Finally, remember that there aren’t many businesses in less touristy cerros. At most, you’ll find a minimarket and prices will be higher than in town, so if you need groceries, go to one of the supermarkets downhill.