A Place More Bohemian Than San Francisco

A Place More Bohemian Than San Francisco

By Sanjena Sathian

Valaparaiso at dusk
SourceRichard I'Anson/Getty


Because Neruda had good taste in cities.

By Sanjena Sathian

The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.

I live in San Francisco, which means I believe almost any other city on the planet is inferior. But I’ll make an exception and allow a tie for Valparaíso, the gorgeous, undulating town just an hour from Chile’s capital, Santiago. 

That’s in part because Valparaíso and San Francisco are the loveliest of cousins. Both hilly, full of pastel and riotously colored houses and in possession of enormous texture — the poor next to the rich next to the sea next to the mountains. And Valparaíso might even have more of the San Francisco vibe than techified-Googlified SF itself has these days. 

Chile, for one, is not the most trodden of travel destinations. Too often it’s overshadowed by its neighboring countries and remains better known for mining disasters and student protests than for vacations. But it’s emerging as a place to linger and relish. I recommend sandboarding in the north in the Atacama Desert. There are also the pisco vineyards, where you can taste Chile’s (and Peru’s) signature alcohol, a potent brandy. Out of everywhere along the long spine of this country, though, nowhere is more worth relishing than Valparaíso, or Valpo, as those in the know call it. 

One of those in the know: law student Pia Romeros Covarrubias, who served as my more-than-capable tour guide through the hills — cerros in local parlance. And Pia says any visitor should do as we did and walk. Which means a bit of panting and sighing your way up some steep angles. Pacing the streets is how you find the best views of all the colors nestled into the hills during the daytime and all the pretty layers of bright lights at night. Wandering will also carry you through a slew of delicious food options (and lots of $10 lunch specials!). Seafood eaters have it good here: Down some local fish with a casual lunch cerveza and enter a pleasant afternoon food coma. 

For the intellectuals: museums too. The Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes, recently renovated, is located in a gorgeous mansion in the city. Best of all for this book geek is the city’s Pablo Neruda history. The Nobel Prize-winning poet lived in Valpo in a house called La Sebastiana — a place decked out to look like the innards of a sea captain’s den — during the 1940s, while seeking refuge from anti-Communist sentiments on the continent. 

how absurd you are,
what a madman,
crazy port,
what a head
lumped with hills,
tousled hair,
you haven’t combed your hair,
you’ve never had time to get dressed,
has always surprised you …

— Excerpt from “Ode to Valparaiso,” Pablo Neruda

It’s not all sunshine and ponies: The hills are easy to get lost in, and you might find yourself in a bad neighborhood quickly. Tip: the higher up you go, the rougher the neighborhoods get, in general. And Pia also warns that earthquakes always threaten — and you ought to have a plan for those. 

At night, check out Casa Cervecera Altamira, a local brewery. If dancin’ is your thing, try Discothéque de Castillo over in Viña del Mar, or Piedra Feliz in Valpo proper. It’s pretty much every party you’d ever want all in one location: jazz, tango, electronic music and salsa. What you absolutely can’t miss, though, is pisco. Try El Bar de Pisco in Cerro Alegre or, improbably, Glasgow. It’s an Irish bar. “They have the best pisco ever,” Pia swears.