15 Best Cities to Visit in South America
South America, a continent of beautiful natural sites, paradisiacal beaches and of course, some amazing cities full of culture, vibrance and great food. South America has some of the most iconic cities in the world such as Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires as well as beautiful smaller cities and towns beckoning to be discovered. They are full of culture, identity, some amazing food scenes and great architecture and museums. Whether you’re looking for your next city break or a place to combine urban culture and adventure, there’s a city in South America for you. Here are 15 of the best cities to visit in South America for you to add to your bucket list today.
TOP TIPS FOR VISITING CITIES IN SOUTH AMERICA
↠ Take your time. South America is a huge continent with varying seasons and cultures. The distances are pretty huge. Unless you have 6 months – 1 year you’d be foolish to think you’ll see it all in one trip!
↠ Cities in Latin America often get a bad rep when it comes to safety but you’ll find that they are similar to every other city in the world. Keep your valuables safe and have your wits about you and there’s no need to worry.
↠ Try something different. South America has so much to offer, even in the cities and travelling to this part of the world can give you a whole list of bucket list experiences to try. Why not try tango in Buenos Aires? or learn to surf in Lima? Get cultured in Cusco?
↠ Trains don’t really exist in South America as they do in Europe so get ready for long bus trips or flying.
↠ Plant-based eating in South American cities is great and it’s growing every day- be sure not to miss the growing amount of great places to eat.
↠ In most South American cities, I have found Airbnb to be the best option for booking accommodation. It’s better value in most places and you’ll find much more varied types of accommodation from local apartments to beachside penthouses.
THE BEST CITIES TO VISIT IN SOUTH AMERICA
Quite easily the best city in South America for many, Buenos Aires is a little slice of Europe in South America. Home to many world-class museums, theatres and tango shows it’s a city that will keep you entertained for much longer than a weekend. It has some of the best plant-based restaurants in South America, plenty of green space right in the city centre and both colonial and modern architecture that give character to the skyline. Unique neighbourhoods to explore include Recoleta and it’s monumental cemetery, Palermo and Palermo Soho for their restaurant and cafe scene and boho San Telmo for their amazing Sunday kitsch market. If you’re a football fan, make sure to also get tickets for a game- Argentinians take two things very seriously football and pizza.
RIO DE JANEIRO
The city of endless beaches, caipirinhas, samba, football and açai, Rio de Janeiro is one of South America’s most beautiful and fascinating cities. One of the best things to do is get yourself up high to one of the amazing viewpoints to really realise the beauty of this coastline, pristine waters and golden beaches. It’s also one of the only cities in the world with a national park inside the city itself, so why not walk up through it to the world-famous Christ the Redeemer? During the day spend your time on the beach eating açai by the cup-full, exploring the historical centre, seeing landmarks like Sugarloaf Mountain and Lage Park and by night dance away to Brazilian samba while sipping on caipirinhas. If you love to party then you might also want to visit in February as the city shuts down and takes to the streets for the largest multi-day street party in the world, carnival.
As one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Bolivia, Sucre tends to be the firm favourite with travellers in Bolivia. As the countries’ past capital Sucre is full of grand colonial buildings, beautiful cathedrals and museums where you can learn about it’s past. The best things to do here are to wander around and admire all the white-washed buildings and terracotta roof tiles, visit Sucre Cathedral, Freedom House and the Treasure Museum.
As one of the best cities to visit in South America and one of the most cultural, Cusco is one of my personal favourites. Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire for three centuries until the Spanish Conquest, making it a hot pot of local, mystical Andean culture as well as its colonial history. Not only is Cusco the gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu it’s a world-class destination in its own right, so it’s safe to say you’ll find yourself here at some point when in Peru. Cusco is full of beautiful colonial architecture, a vibrant food scene and local culture Cusco was, for me, and for many, the most beautiful city in Peru. There’ nothing better to do here in the town itself that walk around the historic centre and admiring the architecture as well as visiting the fantastic main cathedral on Plaza de Armas.
This little city in central-southern Ecuador should definitely be high on your South America bucket list. At the heart of this small city is the beautifully preserved colonial centre, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in which you can admire all the colonial buildings and cathedral around the main square. The new blue-domed cathedral is one of the most beautiful in Ecuador. Walk the cobbled streets and admire the old, intricate street signs and sample some traditional Ecuadorian dishes; my favourite is Locro de Papas, a delicious potato soup topped with corn and avocado. While there are many things to do around Cuenca, spend some time just relaxing and strolling the streets; the beauty here is all about not knowing what turning the next corner might hold.
For your guide on the best places to visit in Ecuador check out the bucket list guide here.
What’s a trip to South America without visiting Patagonia and Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world? Ushuaia is a clapboard city that really feels isolated from anywhere else in the world -the next stop south in Antarctica and Buenos Aires is more than 3,000km away. While there isn’t that much to do in the city itself this area is all about what’s outside the city. Make sure you take a hiking trip to Laguna Esmerelda and into the Martial Mountains to see the infamous glacier. Of course, don’t go home without spotting some wild penguins on these shores. In town, the Maritime Museum and the ‘Museo del Fin del Mundo’ are also worth a peek.
COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO, URUGUAY
Not exactly a city, yet this beautiful colonial town sitting just across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires, couldn’t be missed off this list. The old colonial town of Colonia is an absolute gem. You could easily spend 2 whole days here taking in the old cobblestone alleyways, strolling around the historical centre drinking coffee, taking in the marina and relaxing on the beaches. One of the best things to do in Colonia is walking up to the top of the lighthouse, which gives fantastic views over the historical centre and the Rio de la Plata. The pace of life is very slow in Colonia and this is the perfect place to relax in for a day or two before heading back to bustling Buenos Aires.
For the perfect Uruguay travel guide check out our 2-week itinerary here.
SALVADOR, BAHIA, BRAZIL
Salvador is the perfect destination for Brazilian culture and superb beaches. Salvador is a melting pot of Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian culture and it’s the perfect destination to get to know some amazing Afro-Brazilian food, dance, culture and superb colonial architecture and I’d highly recommend adding it to any Brazil itinerary. Some of the best things to see in Salvador are the Igreja e Convento de São Francisco, Modelo Market for local foods and crafts as well as the Barra Lighthouse. Spend your mornings exploring the city and escape to the many beaches for an afternoon of sun and coconut sipping as the clear water laps at your feet.
Arequipa is one of Peru’s most charming little cities and best cities to visit in South America. Composed mainly of chalky white volcanic rock, Arequipa’s squat and medieval-looking buildings transport you back to Spain. Known as the ‘white city’ it’s the cultural centre of Southern Peru and its sprawling with history, culture and a vibrant food scene that has to be explored. The best thing you can do in Arequipa? Just walked around and soak up the uniquely Peruvian atmosphere in a uniquely European-feel setting. Make sure to also visit the Santa Catalina Monastery, the main cathedral which takes up one whole block and take in the dramatic volcanic views surrounding the city at sunset.
For more, check out these 5 Things to Do in Arequipa Peru
Cartagena de Indias is Colombia’s most visited city and for good reason. With vividly-coloured colonial buildings, cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages this city is something out of a fairytale. There isn’t a shortage of things to do in Cartagena and you’ll easily be able to fill up a couple of days in this colonial paradise. It is rife with life and you spend your days walking its picturesque streets, sipping cocktails on its white-sand beaches and soaking up the colonial charm. The best areas to visit and base yourself in are in the Old Walled City and Getsemani. If after a few days in the city you’re yearning for beaches, head to the nearby Rosario islands for white sands, turquoise waters and pure relaxation.
For further reading check out 10 Unmissable Things To Do In Cartagena, Colombia and Where To Eat In Cartagena, Colombia (Healthy + Vegan)
Iquitos really is a city like no other and definitely one of the best cities to visit in South America. Located in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, you’re only way in is by plane or by boat along the Amazon River. It’s Iquitos’ isolation through the centuries that have made it so special- the city is still widely removed from the latest technology and advancements and it’s a great insight into the past and modern Amazon culture. In Iquitos, you’ll notice several European-style buildings that date back to the rubber boom and some of the best to visit are Casa de Fierro and St. John the Baptist Cathedral. Iquitos is after all the gateway to the Amazon so while you’re here make sure to also explore your surroundings. I’d highly recommend digging deeper into the use and ceremonies around Ayahuasca as well as the medicinal plants and herbs found in the Amazon.
Valparaiso is Chile’s most bohemian city and it’s full of patrimonial houses and buildings, skilled and politically-charged street art, ancient funiculars and houses that cling to the steep hill-sides. The historical centre of Valparaiso was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003 in an effort to conserve its unique culture, heritage and immigrant influenced architecture. Here you’ll find the steep and lively streets of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion on which you can stroll around, check out the street art and savour a coffee in a nearby cafe. This area also provides a beautiful view of the port and the Pacific Ocean beyond. As it’s located under 2 hours from Santiago, Chile’s capital it’s a must, if even as a day trip.
For more check out A Short Travel Guide to Valparaiso, Chile
LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
The highest capital city in the world, La Paz stands at a whopping 3,640m above sea level. It’s a city surrounded by high Andean peaks and volcanoes as well as other stunning natural sites. In La Paz the best neighbourhoods to visit and explore are El Centro and Sopocachi- the trendy bohemian neighbourhood and highlights include Plaza Murillo, the Coca Museum and the Witches Market. A little outside the city centre make sure not to miss Valle de la Luna, a mesmerising moon-like valley full of unusual rock formations and the infamous Death Road, a little to the north of La Paz.
If you’re a wine fan then Chile and Argentina will already be on your radar and Mendoza is at the centre of Argentinean winemaking, particularly Malbec. While the centre of the city itself is a lovely place to take a walk or spend the afternoon or evening, the real highlight of Mendoza is getting out into the vineyards. Mendoza has several winemaking valleys such as Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley and the best thing to do in to rent a car and tour a few vineyards all while sampling the delicious wines on offer. It’s the perfect city to visit in South America for those who love food (meat especially) and wine.
Today the bustling, hillside metropolis of Medellin is, without doubt, one of the best cities to visit in Colombia. A centre of arts, culture, drama and a thriving food scene but that wasn’t always the case. With a turbulent past and some of the poorest communa or neighbourhoods in Colombia, a visit to Medellin is an opportunity to learn about Colombia’s past and how far it’s come. There is plenty to do here from taking the heaven-bound cable cars for a great view of the city, exploring some fascinating museums and checking out some famous flower markets. The highlight, however, is a tour of Communa 13 which was once one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Medellin. Make sure not to miss the Cathedral in the Centre and Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero’s sculptures in Plaza Botero.
Do you have any comments or questions about the best cities to visit in South America? Leave them below, I’d love to hear from you.
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