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Valparaíso historic centre

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 33.0394 S 71.6295 W
No:285        (list of all attractions)
Category:Cities and towns
Values:Architecture, Visual
Address:South America, Chile, V Valparaíso, centre of Valparaíso
UNESCO World Heritage status:"Historic Quarter of the Seaport City of Valparaíso", 2003, No.959
Period of flourishing:around 1840 - 1914
Area:approximately 70 ha
Valparaíso, at Ascensor Artilleria
Valparaíso, Las Brujas restaurant at Ascensor Artilleria / , Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Valparaíso is a city with its own style. Incredibly steep streets on the hillsides are lined with buildings in gaudy colors and in many places still are working weird technical devices - funiculars with dilapidated vagons. From most places in the city opens a fine view towards the immense Pacific ocean.

This city was booming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But - as the Panama Channel was opened in 1914, the fortunes changed and the development of Valparaíso slowed down. The historical architecture with all the funiculars and steep streets was conserved in time like a fly in amber.

Colourful houses in Valparaíso
Colourful houses in Valparaíso / Beatrice Murch, / CC BY-SA 2.0

Rise of the metropolis

First European, who reached the site of future city, was Juan de Saavedra in 1536. Valparaíso was established by Pedro de Valdivia in 1544 and for long time remained a silent village.

The peculiar urban network of Valparaíso started to develop after a disastrous earthquake in 1730 - the survivors now moved away from the small, dangerous seaside plains and built their new houses on the hillsides.

The importance of Valparaíso increased when Chile became independent in 1810. The city became the main port of the new country and helped to develop independent economy - port of Valparaíso secured trade with United States and other Pacific countries, making Chile less independent from Spain.

The successful economy of Chile attracted numerous immigrants from Europe and the United States. Thus in the middle of the 19th century Valparaíso became a cosmopolitan metropolis. Unfortunately most of newcomers did not have much luck here and ended up living in favelas - shanty towns.

Nevertheless successful development of city continued and economy was diversified. Valparaíso was not only a port city. In the region around the city developed agriculture and mining (including the mining of the unique resources of salpetre) and more and more industries were built. In 1852 there started a development of a railway system. In the city appeared warehouse districts, banks, diplomatic missions and representatives of foreign companies.

In 1906 the city experienced a devastating earthquake again. This time Valparaíso was full with vigour and ambitious rebuilding was started, now modernizing the city. By this time Valparaíso was the main economical centre of Chile.


What could not do the arcane powers of nature, was done by the deed of human thousands of kilometres from Valparaíso. In 1914 there opened the Panama Channel and Valparaíso immediately was thrown from a limelight to the backwater of global economy. Santiago took over the incentive and became the main political and economical centre of Chile.

Valparaíso, office of navy
Valparaíso, office of navy / Photocapy, / CC BY-SA 2.0

Slower development of Valparaíso continued - but the weak economics left the city centre unchanged for long decades. Yes, this is the harsh truth - the value of well preserved historical towns often comes through decades and centuries of misery and powerty.

The historical values of Valparaíso have been preserved very well. Many houses, streets and also - funiculars - still are here, mostly intact - but also dilapidated. The fortunes though have changed again and now the economy in the city improves.

Neighborhoods in the hills

Valparaíso has numerous diverse neighborhoods with distinct architecture and planning traditions.

Down, in the plains between the hills and the ocean are located quartals with the late 19th century buildings - ornate and rather typical for this period in European cities. Central features here are Plaza Echaurren and La Matríz Church, built in 1842 (the first church was built here in 1658). The construction of this church marked the moment when Valparaíso turned into city. This church has been rebuilt four times after the earthquakes and attacks of pirates.

Like an enormous amphitheatre above the plains rise steep hills, all densely covered with buildings. Each hill has got a different neighborhood. Some of these neighborhoods developed as ethnic enclaves - thus Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción were constructed mainly by the German and English immigrants.

Funicular in Valparaíso
Funicular in Valparaíso / Jack Zalium, / CC BY 2.0

Funiculars - elevators

Amazing feature of Valparaíso is the system of funiculars ("ascensores" or elevators) - a unique monument of industrial heritage. Elevators of Valparaíso represent simple vagons mounted on a triangular platform with wheels. These vagons are dragged up and down a very steep slope with a cable. There is a system of two vagons - when one goes down, another moves upwards.

Vagons are made of wood and metal, they are very simple, rustic. Gauge of the track is 1600 mm.

The oldest "ascensor" - Concepción Elevator - was inaugurated in 1883 - ten years after the first such device was introduced in San Francisco.

In total in the city existed up to 26 - 30 funiculars, built in 1883 - 1932. There is no other city in the world with such a high number of funiculars. Nowadays some 4 - 12 funiculars still are operational. Some of the most spectacular are Polanco Funicular and Artillería Funicular.


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