Stretching from the icy glaciers of Chile all the way to Cartagena’s Caribbean coast, South America is a colossal continent. The diverse countries are full of cities waiting to be discovered. Some are colonial, some are cosmopolitan. Some are stunning, while some have a slightly more raffish charm to them. With so many to choose from, it can be slightly daunting knowing where to visit. We’ve whittled it down to the top 10 cities to visit in South America, to help you plan your trip to the continent.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
As the locals say, ‘on the eighth day God created Rio’. And with its combination of tropical rainforests, golden beaches lapped by azure waters, forested mountain peaks and a World Wonder thrown in for good measure, there’s little doubt that Rio is one of the best cities to visit in South America. The best way to view this creation is to take a cable car to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. And the views from atop of Dois Irmãos definitely make the trek worthwhile.
A huge seaside city, the essence of Rio de Janeiro is to simply have fun. One thing the city is famous for is throwing a great party. Every year Carnival, the world’s greatest street party, takes over the city. Samba dancers in vibrant feathered creations turn out in full force, dancing to the heart-pounding music.
However, if your stay doesn’t coincide with this flamboyant time of year, your visit will still be full of festivity. Glamorous, laid-back, tropical, creative and friendly. We think you’ll struggle to find someone who has visited Rio and hasn’t fallen in love with this great city.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Steak, tango, red wine and football. Buenos Aires, the ‘Paris of South America’, is known for many things. It has a reputation for being seductive, elegant and sophisticated, making it one of the best cities to visit in South America. With theatres, opera houses, galleries, and French and Italian influenced architecture it’s overflowing with culture. Buenos Aires has a lot going for it and a lot to keep you entertained.
A great way to spend a day here is to explore the barrios, walking from one neighbourhood to the next. They all have distinct personalities. The lively La Boca is known for the rows of colourful houses whereas San Telmo is famous for its eclectic markets. The elegant Recoleta has a lavish cemetery while the trendy Palermo is great for people watching.
When it comes to the evening activities you’ll need to adjust your body clock. New York is called the city that never sleeps yet Argentina certainly gives it a run for its money. Restaurants don’t start serving till 10pm and the nightlife doesn’t kick off until 1am. For an authentic experience of Buenos Aires, join the night owls and dance till the sun rises.
Facing the Caribbean coast, Cartagena has much more than just its wonderful location to boast about. A 16th-century port, Cartagena’s history is just as colourful as the vibrantly painted houses that line the streets. The Old Town is full of beautiful colonial buildings, an open-air museum telling stories of the city’s intriguing past.
Cartagena is the perfect city to explore on foot. The heat and humidity can take their toll while you’re exploring, a great excuse to stop at one of many bars and restaurants. The fortified walls previously protected the city from invasion while today it shelters it from the coastal winds. The fortress, the most extensive in South America, is a great walking platform around the city.
Outside of the Old Town there is plenty more to discover. Getsemani is a vibrant place to get an insight into local life, street art creatively displaying the spirit of the neighbourhood. For sweeping views over the city, climb to the top of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas while learning about the 17th and 18th-century history of pirates, sieges and leprosy.
Santiago is on the way up, one of the most up and coming cities to visit in South America. A bustling metropolis, it’s starting to give neighbouring cities a run for their money. The food scene is evolving into something very special. Named the next Next Great Food City, there are a number of restaurants in Santiago experimenting with what can be created with local ingredients. Innovative chefs are redefining what Chilean cuisine is and using Santiago as the venue to show off these experiments. If you’re a foodie you’d be a fool to give this city a miss.
Neighbourhoods are emerging and reinventing themselves. Barrio Italia has welcomed restaurants, galleries and shops into the historic buildings and has become the bohemian centre of the city. Barrio Yungay is the firm favourite for backpackers who are drawn to the dive bars and beer hall found in the graffiti-covered streets.
While these new cosmopolitan offerings are changing the face of Santiago for the better, the stunning sight of the Andes is just as astounding as they’ve always been. For the best views, head to Parque Metropolitano also known as Cerro San Cristóbal.
La Paz, Bolivia
At an altitude of 3,600m, it’s not La Paz’s views of the jagged glacier-topped Cordillera Real that will take your breath away. Bolivia’s third-largest city doesn’t have a checklist of sights to tick off or that one headline-grabbing attraction. Instead what will keep you occupied and charmed here is walking through the streets. If you’re looking for unique cities to visit in South America then look no further.
Wander through the large food market, inspect the bizarre and gruesome things on offer in the witches market, and enjoy the intriguing architectural style, a combination of concrete blocks against dramatic Gothic spires. In 2014 the city introduced Mi Teleférico, the world’s highest cable car network. This transformed the city, lifting people up out of the traffic and turning an hour drive into a thrilling ten-minute journey through the sky. As well as saving many residents from commuter hell, the views of the city and the insight into life of the locals are captivating.
And don’t forget to set aside a Sunday afternoon to watch the unexpected pass time of wrestling cholitas. La Paz isn’t for everyone. It’s dizzy, gritty and chaotic but also exhilarating and enthralling with an endearing rough around the edges charm.
Quito has been named by some as South America’s most beautiful city. While this is a title with some hot competition, as this list proves, Quito’s stunning setting is unquestionable. This colonial city is found in a valley in-between two active volcanoes, encasing the city with magnificent views. When the sun burns through the mist, you’ll be able to see the majestic snow-capped peaks.
For the best views of this mountainous landscape, jump in the TelefériQo. Starting at 2,950m altitude, the gondola takes you up another 1,000m for dramatic views from the top of Pichincha Volcano. The world’s very first UNESCO World Heritage city, awarded back in 1978, Quito was founded on the ruins of an Inca city back in the 16th century.
The colonial old town still stands today with many churches, convents and monasteries. Climb the towers of the dramatic gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional, decorated with turtles and iguanas, for more jaw-dropping views of the city. One thing is for sure, Quito shouldn’t be viewed as just the gateway to the Galapagos Islands.
A visit to Cusco takes you back in time to when the Incas ruled. The gateway to the wonder that is Machu Picchu, Cusco was once the Inca capital. Built on the ruins of ancient temples and palaces, the rich history of this city is fascinating. Plaza de Armas is the heart of the city and an ideal starting point of any walking tour, the dramatic Cathedral of Santo the impressive crowning glory of the square.
Famous ruins and fortresses shape the city, making it one of the best cities to visit in South America for a history buff. One of the best ways to see Cusco is from Sacsayhuaman, the Inca ruins just a 45 minute walk or a quick drive from the centre of Cusco. With Cusco built in the shape of a prancing panther, Sacsayhuaman is the head of this ferocious animal. Spend an afternoon here strolling around the three-tiered walls zig-zagging over the grass, overlooking the incredible views of Cusco with a few fluffy llamas for company.
Cusco is home to a lively nightlife, earning the nickname ‘party capital of Peru’. Lively bars and clubs surround the square, playing electronic, hip-hop and dance music till the early hours with street vendors on hand for when you make the journey back to your hotel.
The story of Medellin’s reinvention is one for the record books. Forget the nickname of ‘the most dangerous city on earth’. Over the past 25 years, Medellin has left this reputation far behind and is now considered one of the safest big cities in South America, as well as one of the most innovative. And thank goodness, as Medellin has a lot to offer.
Built in the Aburrá Valley enclosed by green mountains, if you arrive at night you’ll be met with an incredible sight, the city lights twinkling below you. While if you turn up during the day, it’s likely you’ll see the sky dotted with paragliders, one of the city’s most popular adventure activities. With pleasant spring-like temperatures all year round, there are dozens of parks to enjoy. Plaza Botero is one of the favourite, home to 23 sculptures by the renowed Colombian artist Fernando Botero.
Taking a ride on the city’s metrocable is an absolute must. Built twenty years ago, it has played a huge part in reducing the violence in the city. Flying over the barrios on the way to Parque Arvi, a national park, keep your eyes down to spot the colourful graffiti painted on the roofs of the houses.
Valparaíso’s initial appearance could put people off from exploring it. However, for those who do they’ll be rewarded with a bohemian culture, brightly coloured houses, exquisite street art and marvellous seaside views. It’s beautiful yet vulnerable, gritty yet charming.
It’s nicknamed the ‘Jewel of the Pacific’ and is easily one of South America’s most underrated destinations. The city has recently been given a face lift, with efforts made to open a host of top-tier restaurants and boutique hotels to cater for the growing number of visitors.
The best ways to view this city is one one of the nine funicular railways taking you up and down the steep slopes. The city’s Historic Quarter became a UNESCO site due to it being an excellent example of 19th century urban development. Stroll through the narrow lanes to admire the historic buildings along the seaside and appreciate the architecture and design. If you love history, street art and bohemian vibes, Valparaíso is must.
São Paulo, Brazil
The largest city in Brazil, São Paulo will engulf you. It may take you a couple of days to get your head around the world’s third largest metropolis. However, once you’ve got your bearings it’ll keep you here for a few days, maybe even a couple of weeks.
While it’s not a location that will have you grabbing for your camera any time soon, it’s a sophisticated city with a melting pot of cultures. With influences from Japan, Italy, Lebanon, Germans and a growing number of Peruvians and Bolivians, to name just a few, the city has a unique fusion of culture. This fantastic collection of influences makes for a list of excellent restaurants where you can try pretty much anything.
There are plenty of cool and unusual attractions in Sao Paulo alongside the museums and cathedrals. Visit Beco do Batman, Batman Alley, an open air gallery of street art attracting artists from all over the world. Or how about the world’s previous highest Lego tower, made of 500,000 pieces, till Milan snatched the title in 2015? And of course there are plenty of shopping options, from high-end designer clothes to markets full of antiques and handicrafts.