UPDATED 15 OCTOBER 2019
Whether you’re planning the city-vacay to end all city-vacays or wish to simply learn what that convenient layover metropolis has to offer, this guide to our fave 10 cities in South America is sure to offer some fabulous insights. Yes, the wilderness and sights of more remote destinations offer a wealth of rewards but all these exceptional cities can also offer that little sprinkle of extra: the best food, museums and undoubtedly the best introduction into the culture and history of their respective country. Rather than seeing them as an alternative to countryside roaming, see a city-visit in South America as the ideal springboard to further travel.
From beautiful Buenos Aires to marvellous Mexico City, cool Cartagena, vibrant Rio de Janeiro and so many more: here are the best ‘big lights’ hot-spots of all.
1. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Called the “Paris of the South” for good reason, Buenos Aires is perhaps the most European-like city in all of South America. Strolling along some of its quaintest streets brimming with chic cafés and cool boutiques, you’d be hard-pressed to not mistake this for the elegant French capital. Yet there’ something unmistakably Argentinian at play here: from the colourful street scenes to tango music wafting from shop windows; street dancing and boisterous crowds. This addictively sexy Latino vibe is unique to Buenos Aires and something you simply can’t find anywhere else in the world. Nope, not even Paris.
What to do in Buenos Aires
Boasting more theatres than any other city in the world, Buenos Aires is a great place for show-lovers. Teatro Colón, the grandest of them all, is revered for both its architecture and its entertainment although, to anyone visiting for the first time, the whole city will come across as a stunning open-air theatre. The central core (microcentro) is where the most famous historical landmarks are found: that amazing Plaza de Mayo, that sky reaching obelisk and Evita Peron’s beloved Casa Rosada. Yet we’d hazard to guess that you won’t spend too long ticking off those famous sites in the immediate centre. After all, Buenos Aires is best experienced close-up, in all those exquisite bohemian neighbourhoods that make a dozen villages of the sprawling metropolis.
Read our Insider’s Guide to Buenos Aires to know where to stay and where to head to for the best food, shopping, nightlife and seaside strolling.
2. Lima, Peru
Dubbed South America’s food capital (and the world, according to CNN) and one of the most historically pivotal cities of all, Lima was considered the Pre-Columbian capital of South America. The sheer number of world-class museums and ruins, in and around Lima, are testament to its prominence even before the Spaniards ever came ashore and the city offers an unparalleled introduction into the continent’s tumultuous history. Especially true when you consider that here lived some of the most prominent ancient civilizations of all (the Incas, Nascas, and Chimus) and the fact it became the centre of the New World post-colonisation.
What to do in Lima
The grand architecture of Lima can sometimes get lost in-between the hectic pace of the city but if you have a sightseeing plan and walking tour in mind, you will be handsomely rewarded. Don’t miss the Museum of the Inquisition – boasting one of the most extensive displays of inquisition-era relics, due primarily to the fact that this was the last place the brutal Spanish Inquisition came to an end. Most of the grand architecture is found in the central business district which, just between us, is also the most chaotic suburb – great to explore but not the best place to stay.
The seaside suburbs of Miraflores, Barranco and Larco Mar, right along the Pacific Coast, is where Lima shines best, the high coastal cliffs allowing hotels to offer outstanding coastal views. These gentrified neighbourhoods have given Lima its reputation back: although it’s always been a fascinating city to explore, it was bypassed for many years given its neglectful state. Yet over the last decade, and the sprucing up of these marvellous hoods, tourists are finally being enticed to stay a few days. Their rewards? Fantastic neo-classical architectural treasures, amazing local cuisine, excellent shopping (the best high-class souvenirs in all of Peru are found here) and, we think, one of the easiest and best introductions to South America for all first-time visitors.
3. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
One of the world’s most iconic cities and a true South American star, Rio de Janeiro is that flamboyant friend who always steals all the attention. But you forgive her because, after all, she boasts a startling harbour to rival Sydney’s, beaches to rival the Caribbean and a party atmosphere to match New Orleans.
Rio is certainly a spot with plenty of sex appeal and an unmissable city to visit in South America.
Without a doubt, the most eclectic city of all in the continent, Rio’s array of run-down and overcrowded favelas offer that juxtaposition between rich and poor that isn’t so easy to see elsewhere. Sitting on a hotel rooftop sipping champagne in Copacabana, you’ve got the most exclusive real estate right in front of you and, behind you, some of the poorest shantytowns in the whole continent. The scene is confronting but essential to see: this is the reality in Brazil and an inherent part of its culture.
What to do in Rio
For visitors, the main attractions are undoubtedly Copacabana and Ipanema, the seaside hoods offering not just stupendous coastal views but easy access to the main highlights, like Sugarloaf Mountain and that eye-popping Christ the Redeemer statue. Unbeknownst to many, Rio also offers some excellent options for day-trips into nature: Corcovado itself is a wonderful escape from the bustle of the city, as is the Tijuca Forest.
Learn all there is to know in our Guide to Rio de Janeiro and you’ll understand why a fly-by overnight visit just ain’t going to cut it. This is a huge city with many historical, cultural and natural highlights, so give it the time it deserves!
Overcrowding in Copacabana may not sound particular positive and from a town planning and government administration perspective it probably isn’t. But the by-product of this overcrowding is a vibrant and exciting beachfront on Copacabana. With almost no public spaces spare the beach itself, locals spend huge amounts of their space time on the beach. This means that almost any time of day you will see people playing beach football, volleyball, just going for a swim or socialising whilst having a few Capirinas (Brazil‘s national drink) with friends. As a result Copacabana has to be one of the world’s most interesting and vibrant beachfront areas.
Ipanema Beach is similar although not as crowded and a little classier generally (although not completely as sections of Copacabana like Leme are actually some of the most exclusive areas in Rio). Both major beaches have a considerably tourism police presence.
Outside of these beach areas Rio has some amazing destinations that are worth visiting, such as Corcovado, Maracanã Stadium, Sugar Loaf Mountain and Tijuca Forest. Most of these can all be visited on a day tour and it’s not recommended to stay in any of these areas.
As mentioned above, many of the once lawless favelas of Rio have been cleaned up and it’s now quite easy to visit many of them and in some cases even go to them in the evening to visit restaurants and cafes. Babilônia favela, just behind Copacabana has the rustic but amazing Bar do Alto, which although it’s quite a steep climb, probably has one of Rio’s best views of Copacabana beach.
4. Mexico City, Mexico
At the height of the mighty Aztec Empire’s prominence, Mexico City had over a million residents and was one of the largest cities in the world – and that’s even before the arrival of the Europeans. Today, it is home to an estimated 8.8 million souls (almost twice that of Sydney) although given the constant flow of immigration, some experts believe the number could be as high as 30 million. This is one of the most densely-populated metropolis on our planet and, somewhat understandably, many get a bit antsy about stopping a few days, so they just they just fly straight to the Yucatan Peninsula. What a travesty!
Speak to anyone who’s spent some time in Mexico City, however, and they’ll tell you this is one of the most cultured and modern cities in South America. Immensely trendy, arty and avant-garde, Mexico City is like a puzzle made up of a million little pieces, each suburb offering something utterly unique. The best thing about Mexico City is that there’s hardly a single first-time visitor that isn’t blown away by how enticing and rewarding it is. As the oldest city in the Americas, Mexico’s capital has undergone a mind-boggling transition, time and time again. It is shining brightly, right now, so don’t miss out on all the fun!
What to do in Mexico City
From canal cruising to gourmet dining, museum-hopping (that could keep you busy for months on end), glorious theatre-going and fantastic archaeological-site visiting, you’ll find an absolute ton of interesting things to see and do here.
Astonishingly, there are also some pre-Colombian ruins in Mexico City itself, including some in the city’s most famous square – the Zócalo. This is still very much the cultural and popular heart of Mexico City, with its impossibly oversized Mexican flagpole and adjoining institutions, the eye-popping Cathedral and Presidential Palace. The square is the main location for festivals, celebrations and protests: a kind of civic stage for whatever important event is happening in Mexico at the time. Outside the city, the sites get even more enticing. If you have time, make a trip to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Teotihuacan Pyramids, both well worth a day trip. Guadeloupe is the second-most visited Roman Catholic site in the world (after the Vatican) and is a very important pilgrimage site for Mexicans who remain, like most Central Americans, fervently religious.
The safety aspect is always a huge concern for those wishing for a longer stayover in Mexico City. Our general Mexico Safety Guide can certainly help you keep safe when visiting the country but do keep in mind that the capital is so huge, it can easily be considered a ‘whole world into itself’. Made up of over 350 suburbs, Mexico City boasts some unsavoury corners but, as tourist, there’d be absolutely no reason for you to go anywhere near them. Plus, the city boasts one of the highest police-to-civilian ratios in South America and as long as you stick to the most touristed areas, you won’t have to worry about anything outside of the usual ‘big city’ concerns.
See what we fit into a 4-day Discover Mexico City tour.
5. Sao Paulo, Brazil
Often overlooked in favour of its much more prominent neighbour further north, Sao Paulo is mostly renowned for being South America’s wealthiest city. Apparently, the city boasts the highest rate of helicopter ownership, per capita, on earth and it is indeed true that the buzzing of overhead blades is one of the city’s most iconic ‘sounds’. To many, the city appears like an episode of some futuristic TV show, the elite hopping between rooftops as they head to the office or beach house.
So why is Sao Paulo so overlooked by tourists, you ask? Well, probably because it lacks any ‘big name’ attractions and because, as a whole, it just comes across as a gargantuan concrete jungle with few truly stand-out beautiful features (aside from the helicopter superhighway, of course). Moreover, given that Rio is so close by and boasts an inarguably sexier skyline, it’s no wonder SP always plays second fiddle. Ironically though, Rio isn’t even seen as such a desirable location to live, within Brazil itself. Once you’ve ‘made it’ in life, locals say, Sao Paulo is the only city you’ll want to live in.
What to do in Sao Paulo
Essentially, it’s the highly-coveted lifestyle of Sao Paulo that is its biggest attraction. Consider it a kind of Latin New York: this is probably the most culturally-diverse city in the entire continent (German, Italian, Japanese and Chinese, just to name a few) and boasts a stunning array of superb cuisines, shopping, bars, cafés, museums and parks. Yes, if you’re really into the buzz of cities, Sao Paulo may just be the best choice for you yet.
6. La Paz, Bolivia
The jaw-dropping setting of La Paz, framed by the jagged spine of the Cordillera Real, isn’t the only thing that makes this city a real ‘breath-taking beauty’. Part of it has to do with the eye-popping altitude of 3,600m – this is, after all, the world’s highest capital, administrative only though it may be.
The sparkling star of the Bolivian roadshow is an anomaly in many ways which is kinda funny, since it’s also one of the most authentic South American cities of all. La Paz doesn’t actually boast a whole lot of singular highlights (much like Sao Paulo) but it does offer the kind of culturally-immersive experience you simply can’t find anywhere else, possibly because it’s one of the poorest countries in the continent and also one with the highest indigenous population. This is the traditional side of South America almost all postcard and travel brochures depict yet, among its peers which are all so intent in joining the 21st century, it stands alone in its quirkiness.
This is the South America everyone needs to see.
What to do in La Paz
Whatever you end up doing in La Paz, trust that you’ll be doing them very slowly. Altitude can be a real issue so do ensure you have plenty of days to soak up the street scenes, the great food and the amazing shopping whilst still having plenty of downtime every day – you’ll certainly need it. The most unmissable highlights here are the weird and wonderful Witches’ Markets (its unmentionable spell=concoctions are taken very seriously), the Coca Museum (dedicated to the continent’s most infamous crop) and a ride up the highest cable-car network in the world is surely worthy of some effort. Some say La Paz isn’t for everyone and although that may well be true, you just won’t find a more ‘classic’ city to visit in South America. Given enough decades, all other major cities will end up looking and feeling the same. Trust that La Paz probably never will.
Read our guide to Things to do in La Paz, where we detail the areas you’ll want to explore in this very sprawling city.
7. Cartagena, Colombia
If you’d love your big city to look like a painted postcard, then Cartagena may be more to your liking. Lapped by the warm waters of the Caribbean and boasting almost five centuries of fascinating maritime history, Cartagena is Colombia’s most colourful petal. Revered for its UNESCO-listed colonial-era core (which is as picturesque as they come) Cartagena is also a gateway to some of Colombia’s most enchanting Caribbean islands so if you’re in the market for a city + R&R vacation on some ridiculously beautiful beach, then this will certainly hit the spot.
What to do in Catagena
We’re not sure about you but give us a seaside historic walled town, chock-full of great shops, cafés and restaurants and we could get hopelessly ‘stuck’ for days on end. That’s Cartagena’s UNESCO-listed Old Town in a nutshell – a magnificent maze littered with beautiful plazas framed by stone arches, awe-inspiring mansions and churches that have stood the test of time and fascinating museums that retell the story of this city, once the richest in the New World. The whole centre is walkable and easy to navigate, making it even more enticing. The seaside fortress, S. Felipe, is famous for being the only one in the Americas that was never invaded and, nowadays, for offering swoon-worthy sunset views. Just off the shores, a short ferry-ride away, you’ll find an array of powdery-white beaches, the kind that attract American tourists and Bogota-dwellers in droves, every single weekend. Oh, did we mention the idyllic, tropical, year-round climate? Yep…Cartagena has that too.
Discover more of the amazing Things to do in Cartagena.
8. Quito, Ecuador
For those who’d love to visit a city in South America that isn’t besieged by hordes of visitors at the height of tourist season and offers a myriad of surprises, Quito is absolutely tailor-made. We love sending guests here – or, more often than not – convincing them that a 2 or 3-day layover on the way to the Galapagos Islands is really worthwhile. The feedback always runs along similar lines ‘Oh, gosh, this city is wonderful, I had no idea!” Yes, yes, we KNOW!
The Ecuadorian capital is a perfect example of what the whole country offers: it’s underrated and lesser-visited yet offers an immense array of highlights. Small, compact, framed by snow-capped peaks and centred on a historic core that is charming to a fault, Quito is one of the most liveable and rewarding capitals of all.
What to do in Quito
First up, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get stuck into Quito’s Old Town Centre. The grandiose architecture here is out of this world, with a mammoth cathedral that’ll make your head spin (alongside at least 40 other churches), almost two dozen convents and monasteries (one of which is home to the oldest brewery in the southern hemisphere) and a fantastic array of culinary gems. The food and beer scene in Quito is arguably the biggest worst-kept secret and given the city is so affordable, it just makes for a very (very) enjoyable few days. Once you’ve had your fill of iglesias and cervezas, head 4,000m up Pichincha’s side on a cable-car that offers drop-dead-gorgeous-views (do pick a clear day) and, just for kicks, hop between hemisphere at the Equator line, it’s jolly good fun.
Get all the info, and more, on our Things to do in Quito guide.
9. Santiago, Chile
Bustling but orderly, modern, classy and laid-back, Santiago offers hassle-free layovers that are wonderful if you’re visiting South America for the very first time (baby steps and all that). You need not dive into La Paz immediately! If you’d like to acclimatise to the culture, food and frenetic chaos of South America at a leisurely pace then this is just the right city to visit first.
Santiago has been on an upward rise for the last few years, no doubt aided by the myriad of fantastic airline connection from all over the world – and non-stop, from New Zealand. For Australians, this is about the best springboard for South America travels and if anything should convenience you to stay here a few days upon setting foot in the continent, this ought to do the trick: since Saveur named Santiago the ‘next’ culinary hot-spot in Latin America back in 2015, the city has taken some seriously delectable strides forward, to the point where it gives all others – yes, even Lima – a real run for its seafood delicacies. One quick trip to the Mercado Central and we know you’ll be hooked. Yet above and beyond the latest ‘craze’, Santiago is a supremely beautiful city that sits in a deep valley surrounded by a crown of amazing Andean peaks and sublimely close to some of the country’s best-known wine-producing valleys.
And what could be better than that?
What to do in Santiago
May as well blow your mind right from the get-go: head up Cerro S. Cristobal on the funicular and get an eye-full of those starting views on day 1 – everything will seem so much more manageable at street-level if you do. Avenida Alameda, which stretches for 8km, is the hub of the Santiago action and you’ll find most points of interest either on or close to it – use the excellent Metro system to get around in this city, it runs like a Swiss-clock (no joke). Start your walking tour in the 16th century Plaza de Armas (the epicentre of the city’s best architectural marvels), take in the culinary delights of La Vega Market (the largest market in the city is a great place for lunch on the go) and head for a souvenir shopping trip to Barrio Italia, one of the trendiest hoods in Santiago. If visiting in winter, you’ll have some of Chile’s best skiing stations within a few hours’ drive and, at any other time of year, those wine-tasting tours will be screaming your name!
10. Arequipa, Peru
You’d think that an entire city built entirely out of white volcanic rock ought to be a household name nowadays but, alas, that’s definitely not the case with Arequipa. Mind you, those who love the place and visit, time and time again, don’t mind the city being a tad overlooked. This way, they get this fabulous hidden gem all to themselves!
Arequipa is the base-town for trips to Colca Canyon, the reputed (and disputed) deepest canyon in the world, which also happens to be about the best place in all of South America to watch Andean Condors take to the skies. But this Andean beauty is so much more than a mere ‘stopover’ spot. It boasts a remarkable cluster of colonial-era buildings, perhaps the single most beautiful convent in the continent and one of the most unforgettable landscapes of all: not one, not two but three extraordinary volcanoes framing it as if it were a painting.
Arequipa is, put simply, one of the loveliest cities in South America.
What to do in Arequipa
Small, compact and easy to navigate on foot, Arequipa is the Peruvian city you’ll want to move to and feels more like an overgrown village than a large metropolis. What Arequipa is famous for, in Peru, is its distinctive cuisine, which is spicier than elsewhere in Peru and absolutely delicious. You’ll find of ‘local’ eateries serving up delicious menu del dia lunches for just a few bucks but you should definitely be on the lookout for stuffed peppers (rocoto relleno), prawn soup (chupe de camarones) and chicken (pollo) cooked 101 different ways. Oh, this is one of the best cities to try cuy (grilled guinea pig) that famous Peruvian delicacy that has visitors either licking their fingers or running for cover. You choose.
Aside from the food, you’ll want to spend a few hours admiring the (really and truly) beautiful S. Catalina Monastery and the baroque Old Town, now a UNESCO-protected treasure. Head to Plaza de Arms and pick one of the bars for a sundowner with a side-serve of people-watching and, oh yes, and do make a trip out to Colca Canyon, this is truly an absolute spectacle of nature you shouldn’t miss.
Arequipa is our favourite City of Food, Culture and Nature and you’d be crazy to miss it!
Eight other ways to plan your South America Tour:
Now you have read about how to plan your trip if you the buzz of cities, read one of the other ways to plan your South America Tour and make your trip unforgettable.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”