South America can be a daunting continent for travelers. Where to go and what to see in such a vast land can be overwhelming, but this list of South America’s top 10 cities will easy transform any timid traveler into a confident one. Get to know the best spots for discovering this varied continent’s culture from coast to coast.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Famous for tango, this Argentine gem of a city is a must-see for anyone who loves great wine, fabulous food and world-class museums. The cultural opportunities of Buenos Aires are unparalleled as the city boasts many places to discover Argentine culture, like the beautiful Teatro Colón to catch an opera or a modern art performance. Choose from the enormous restaurant scene and satisfy any food craving you may have, from classic Argentine asado to Asian fushion. Don’t forget to check out the city’s hauntingly beautiful cemetery, La Recoleta, and connect with the deep history of porteño culture.
Cartagena is synonymous with charm. This northern coastal city of Colombia boasts cobblestone streets and architecture full of colors that evoke the Caribbean. Take a walk through one of Cartagena’s gorgeous cathedrals or ride through this historical city in a horse-drawn carriage to get a different view of the Old Town. Explore Spanish forts or simply relax on the beach. Cartagena truly has it all thanks to its rich cultural, historical and natural wonders.
Lake Titicaca, Peru
To get an unparalleled look into the culture of Peru, head to Lake Titicaca. The area is home to various native communities that provide travelers with a first-hand look into the history of this South American nation. What makes Lake Titicaca so special is the 40 or so islands that are home to the indigenous people. These floating islands are only accessible by boat, which takes about 40 minutes from the shore and is well worth spending the time and money to learn how the indigenous people care for the islands and cultivate their livelihood there.
The Ecuadorian capital city is set high in the foothills of the Andean mountains, and offers plenty for travelers to see and do from its 9,350 feet altitude. Once the site of an ancient Incan city, the land now holds Ecuador’s premiere city. Quito is home to a rich cultural history, and visitors can discover the excellently preserved colonial center and its churches from the 16th and 17th centuries. Other churches, buildings and the main square, Plaza Grande, showcase an ornate blend of native Ecuadorian, European and Moorish styles. The intense array of architecture in Quito is complemented by the range of restaurants, shops and markets to round out a top South American city.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
No exploration of South America would be complete without a trip to the ‘Cidade Maravilhosa,’ or ‘Marvelous City’ of Rio. The dynamic landscape of Rio, with granite mountains meeting the sea, is a sight in itself, but there’s always something more to explore, like the local botanical gardens or the Hippodrome Gávea. Discover the laid back nature of the Carioca culture and spend a day at any one of the famous beaches here. Come nightfall, enjoy the expansive restaurant scene and then some dancing in one of the many colorful neighborhoods.
Step outside the traditional stop of Santiago and into a charming seaside town that is full of character. Colorful houses and bohemian-like neighborhoods dot the hillsides of the city that are just right for wandering to find that perfect café. Or, take a graffiti tour and get to know the artistic vibe of Valparaíso outside of the museums (which are also worth a visit). The city is also home of famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, whose house is now a museum for travelers to explore. With plenty of restaurant and nightlife options along the water and up in the hills, Valparaíso is a city that can’t be missed.
La Paz, Bolivia
Bolivia’s capital of La Paz has many travelers buzzing. Despite its reputation for being a bit congested, experiencing this city at 10,000 feet is without compare in South America. Adventurous travelers will enjoy the selection of street food to choose from or may even try cocoa leaf tea, which is said to help with altitude sickness. With a wealth of museums to get grounded in Bolivia’s history and markets to get to know their culture, La Paz is easily more charming than congested.
The small South American nation of Paraguay was once a critical gateway for explorers, and its capital Asunción played a significant role. Nicknamed the ‘Mother of Cities,’ Asunción served as a jumping off point for travelers, and should be considered today as a must-see for anyone traveling through the continent. The National Cathedral and Municipal Museum are two important sites to visit, but don’t miss strolling through the plazas and the local outdoor market either. The restaurant scene is constantly expanding and improving, with gourmet burgers, wood fire pizza and traditional asado topping the menus.
The coastal city of Lima boasts gorgeous views of the Pacific, modern high rises and ancient sites all within its city limits. It’s definitely shed an old stereotype that it lacked any stylish architecture, and the city is now to home some of the best restaurants in all of South America. Lima’s museums offer insights into indigenous culture and art, but there’s also plenty of outdoor activities including paragliding, surfing, and rock wall climbing, making this an all-inclusive city.
In recent years, Colombia’s second largest city has transformed from one of the most dangerous cities on earth to a bustling urban metropolis. Thanks to notorious drug-lord Pablo Escobar, the spotlight has very much been on Medellin for its dark, unlawful activities but he also helped illuminate the city’s natural splendour to the world. Its modest, year-round climate gives the city its nickname the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ – and its stunning backdrop of jagged mountains put a spring into the native’s steps. Learn to dance salsa, a traditional dance and music that proves that these Latino rhythms run firmly through the local’s blood. Reggeaton pounds from the host of bars scattered across the city for those looking to drink and dance the night away, or for the adventurous-types who prefer to spend their days exploring its lush landscapes – a plethora of hiking trails await. Top tip: Make you try the coffee.