After nearly 100 years of decline, Chile’s historic port city is bouncing back with a Unesco World Heritage nod and a 34 billion peso urban redevelopment plan.

Don’t call it a comeback, because South America’s newest must-see destination has been working towards revitalization for years. Nearly 125km northwest of the Chilean capital Santiago, coastal Valparaiso was a key player in the 19th-century maritime trade between Europe and North America. It was home to Latin America’s first stock market in 1898, Chile’s first public library in 1873 and in 1827 was the birthplace of El Mercurio, the world’s oldest Spanish-language newspaper continuously in print.

Less urban grid than charming, semi-organised chaos, Valparaiso’s cobblestoned streets haphazardly climb 42 steep hills that brush against the Pacific. British funiculars were installed in the 1880s to navigate the winding mounds, and a community of students, artists and middle-class sailors soon set up shop. Intellectuals like Chile’s national poet Pablo Neruda, who wrote Oda a Valparaiso and threw bibulous parties at his oceanfront residence on Valparaiso’s Mount Florida, settled here in the early 20th Century. Brightly painted two- and three-storey homes line the hillsides to this day, giving Valparaiso one of the most distinctive panoramas this side of San Francisco.

But the 20th Century was not kind to Neruda’s adopted home of “dishevelled hills”, as he famously wrote in Oda a Valparaiso. An offshore earthquake struck in 1906, killing 3,000 and flattening the residential neighbourhoods of El Almendral and Puerto. In 1914, the Panama Canal opened, robbing the port of both New World consequence and global commerce, and a succession of mayors with questionable economic acumen botched funding for the upkeep of the city’s historic structures and funiculars. Architectural landmarks like Palacio Baburizza, the fine arts museum founded by a Croatian-Chilean minerals magnate in 1916, fell into grave disrepair and eventually shuttered in 1997. Wealthy residents fled for the pristine beaches and fashionable casinos of nearby Viña del Mar, just 8km to the west, which they nicknamed the sexy blonde to Valparaiso’s dumpy brunette. The hillside homes were boarded up or abandoned and claimed by vermin and squatters, some of who had a pyromaniac bent.

Clearly, something had to give. That something was 34 billion Chilean pesos in rehabilitation funds from the Chilean government and a Latin American lending institution called the Inter-American Development Bank. Three years after the city was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003, then-president Ricardo Lagos unveiled the Valparaiso Recovery and Urban Development Program (PRDUV). It was a bold endeavour to protect Valparaiso’s historic cerros (hills), funiculars and public institutions like Palacio Baburizza and Parque Cultural, a prison turned artists’ collective that was issued a governmental eviction after seven unknown arsonists ravaged the space in the early 2000s.

Nearly six years after the plan launched, the investment began paying off. In September 2012, Palacio Baburizza triumphantly reopened after a 15-year hiatus. An exuberant architectural blend of Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles, Baburizza occupies a prominent building on the pedestrian walkway Paseo Yugoslavia. On its inaugural weekend, 2,000 visitors came to celebrate the redevelopment program’s success, including current Chilean president Sebastian Piñera. Formerly a residence, Baburizza now functions as a museum, proudly displaying a private collection of early 20th-century European art. It plans to add visiting exhibitions in the future, and a cafe is being built in the newly remodelled basement, set to open later this year.

The museum’s next-door neighbour is Palacio Astoreca, a graceful Victorian mansion that reopened as a boutique hotel in October 2012. An architectural landmark erected by a local captain of industry in 1923, the building fell into disrepair after changing ownership some 15 times in the ensuing decades. In 2009, a Swiss-Chilean couple invested three years and 2.3 billion Chilean pesos renovating Astoreca, which now has 23 rooms, a chic spa and a waterfront restaurant, Alegre, headed by a chef who studied under el Bulli’s revered Ferran Adria. Alegre has become Valparaiso’s hottest table, booked nightly by locals, hotel guests and day-trippers from Santiago.

But the rebirth of Valparaiso was not all smooth sailing. From the moment PRDUV’s plan was announced, sceptical locals questioned everything, from the speed at which streets would be renovated, to the initiatives geared at controlling the city’s pervasive stray dog population.

Palacio Baburizza’s return greatly allayed public concern, as did the restoration of crumbling streets on tony Cerro Concepcíon as well as in poorer districts on Cerros Toro and Cordillera. Private investment in buildings like Palacio Astoreca is also encouraging real estate development citywide, including burgeoning areas like Cerro Yungay. Nearly 18,000 stray dogs were sterilised.

After a 9.4 billion peso renovation, the fire-besieged former jail of Parque Cultural is now a major cultural institution, welcoming 170,000 visitors per year. In 2011, it launched an annual festival called Puerto de Ideas, or Port of Ideas, a creative conference that brings Latin American and global scholars, artists and scientists to Valparaiso for a series of lectures and exhibitions. Programming resembles interdisciplinary, cross-cultural TED talks, though, at about three Chilean pesos each, Puerto de Ideas’ sessions are considerably more affordable. The third conference is scheduled for 8 to 10 November 2013.

Valparaiso’s beloved funiculars have also been fully restored, and function with the sort of creaking, early 20th-century construction that lends them considerable charm. They grunt their way through the city, carrying locals and a new wave of international travellers from the cerros to the port below. Well-heeled residents and vacationers sip cocktails and Carmenere, Chile’s signature red wine, at Palacio Astoreca’s outdoor tables, while students talk for hours over microbrews in candlelit, portside pubs. The pedestrian waterfront along Cerro Alegre is full once again, with visitors and locals strolling along in the city’s languid, poetic style. Here, in Valparaiso, there is no time like the present.