If you’re looking to plan a trip to South America, you might be overwhelmed with all the options you’ll have – I know I was before I started traveling South America! Distances are massive and opportunities to explore unique towns and historic cultural centers are endless.
You’ll have your pick from some of the best bucket list destinations as you add South American cities to your itinerary.
From sprawling capitals to tiny, remote cities jam-packed with adventurous things to do, this guide to the best cities in South America has a mix of the very best that the continent has to offer. Plus, we’re sharing the guides you’ll need to plan your dream trip!
Best Cities in South America
1. La Paz, Bolivia
If you haven’t heard much about Bolivia travel or about La Paz in general, you’re not alone. La Paz, Bolivia is still a mostly off-the-beaten path travel destination, but not for lack of things to do, incredible landscapes, and super cheap travel.
Highlights of La Paz include the fascinating Witches Market, where you’ll learn so much about indigenous traditions and culture, riding cable cars across the city for incredible views, and exploring the historic center with its beautiful architecture. Day trip options are endless, too, and include canyons, snow-capped mountains, and much more.
La Paz is also a great jumping-off point for further exploring Bolivia, including the otherworldly Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats, Lake Titicaca, and the stunning Madidi National Park on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest. Don’t wait until Bolivia gets popular to plan your trip – it’s well worth exploring now!
2. Baños, Ecuador
If the sprawling metropolis of La Paz isn’t the travel experience you’re looking for, one of the nicest small cities in South America is Baños, Ecuador. This small town wedged between the Andes Mountain and the Amazon Rainforest in the center of Ecuador is the country’s adventure sports capital. However, it has plenty to do if you’re looking for rest and relaxation.
Baños is a fantastic adventure travel destination and the best place for bungee jumping, paragliding, and even canyoning, an exhilarating adventure sport that involves repelling down a series of waterfalls.
It also has countless waterfalls nearby, and the “Ruta de las Cascadas” is an excellent bike route that takes you past several of them!
Baños is also home to countless hostels, small hotels, and eco-lodges, plus some excellent cafes, bars, and restaurants to keep you busy. Enjoy some relaxation by visiting the natural thermal baths heated by volcanic activity from Volcán Tungurahua, or visiting the Instagram-famous swing over the edge of the world for a beautiful view over the city.
Read More: Ultimate Travel Guide to Baños, Ecuador
3. Medellin, Colombia
World, take note: Medellin’s transformation from a dangerous metropolis to a thriving, bustling city, digital nomad destination, and South American travel hub is complete. The change you’ll see in Medellin is remarkable, and this favorite Colombian city is well worth a visit.
Don’t get sucked into the tourist trap things to do in Medellin that only highlight the city’s dark past (ahem, Pablo Escobar tours). Visit the parks, local markets like the Placita de Flores, cheer at a crazy fútbol (soccer) game, and take in the views by riding the cable cars and ending the day with a sunset drink at a rooftop bar.
While you could easily stay put in Medellin for weeks or months without getting bored, there’s plenty to do outside the city as well. Here you’re at the heart of coffee country – some of the world’s best! – so take advantage by visiting a coffee farm.
You’ll also love Guatapé – this colorful small town and the massive Peñón de Guatapé, one of the most famous landmarks in South America.
4. Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
With just around 26,000 inhabitants, the tiny city of Colonia del Sacramento is a far cry from some of the massive and sprawling cities in South America you’ll find on the rest of this list. However, this charming city on the Rio de la Plata is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a colonial gem, making it a highlight of a trip to Uruguay.
Just wandering the historic center is more than enough to keep you busy on a day trip: with its quaint cobblestone streets, historic lighthouse, museums, and old city walls, there are plenty of areas to explore. Colonia is also close to several beaches, but they won’t be as pristine as those near Punta del Este.
Colonia del Sacramento is an easy one-hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires on the Buquebus, which connects the Argentine capital with both Colonia and Montevideo and offers several daily ferries. It’s a favorite day trip from Buenos Aires, though an overnight will allow you more time to explore the city with fewer tourists.
5. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires is unlike any other city in South America. A unique mix of European architecture and culture with New York hustle and bustle, Buenos Aires has a fascinating mix of influences that you won’t find anywhere else in Latin America.
There are so many things to do in Buenos Aires that you’ll never get bored: from free tango lessons at La Catedral to bike rides through the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve and tours of the historic (and haunted?) Recoleta cemetery, you’ll find something to do no matter your interest.
Plus, Buenos Aires has excellent food: the world’s greatest steaks and Malbec wine, choripan (sausage sandwiches with chimichurri), fugazetta pizza, and spectacular medialunas (croissants) and other facturas (pastries), heavily featuring dulce de leche.
Buenos Aires is also an extremely affordable destination for travelers, and you’ll be surprised to see how far your travel dollars take you, even in some of the best Buenos Aires neighborhoods like Palermo and Recoleta.
6. Quito, Ecuador
After traveling all around South America, I’ve come to the conclusion that Quito, Ecuador is one of the very BEST cities in South America to visit. I might be biased – I did spend two years living here, after all – but this stunning city in Ecuador has so much to offer travelers, whether you’re planning on spending just a few hours or a few weeks here.
One of the highlights of Quito is the gorgeous Old Town Quito, considered one of the most extensive and well-preserved colonial centers in Latin America. Spend a few hours touring this easily walkable neighborhood, and climb the bell towers and spire of the Basilica del Voto Nacional for a stunning view.
Beyond just the historic city, the layout of this metropolis in the Andes is gorgeous, with mountains and volcanoes surrounding all of Quito. You’ll get a stunning 360-degree view from the top of the TelefériQo cable car, which heads halfway up the side of the Pichincha Volcano, one of the most impressive volcanoes in Ecuador.
Quito is also a perfect spot to base yourself for a short trip to Ecuador, as there are countless excellent day trips from Quito and overnights that will bring you to some of the most beautiful spots in Ecuador – with any itinerary less than ten days in Ecuador, I recommend basing yourself in Quito.
7. Cusco, Peru
At the heart of Peru’s Sacred Valley, Cusco is one of South America’s most enchanting and beloved cities. With its fascinating mix of Incan and colonial historic architecture, easy access to nearby Incan ruins and natural wonders, and proximity to Machu Picchu, this city has plenty to offer.
The historic center of Cusco is a gem, filled with historic churches, plazas, and remnants of Incan walls across unique neighborhoods like San Blas and San Cristobal, known for their lookout points that give gorgeous views over the city. There are countless things to do in Cusco, though wandering and exploring is an easy favorite.
Get out of central Cusco for a day by taking one of the countless Cusco day trips to stunning spots like Rainbow Mountain, Humantay Lake, or towns famous for their Incan ruins like Pisac and Ollantaytambo.
Don’t make the same mistake that many travelers make, and breeze through Cusco on your way to Machu Picchu! This complex and beautiful city has so much to offer that just a day spent acclimatizing before moving on won’t do it justice.
8. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro has everything you might want from a city in South America. With a variety of spectacular beaches, incredible coastal and mountain views, plenty of cultural events and activities, and cool day trips from Rio de Janeiro, you’ll have a hard time narrowing down your itinerary in Rio de Janeiro.
Of course, a must-visit destination in Rio de Janeiro is the Christ the Redeemer statue, one of the most famous landmarks in South America. Purchase a skip-the-line ticket online to save time when visiting this iconic monument on Corcovado, then head to Sugarloaf mountain for another one of Rio’s iconic views, which you’ll access by cable car.
Spend the rest of your time in Rio enjoying great food, lively nightlife, beautiful beaches, and unique cultural experiences. Get ready for the trip of a lifetime to one of the greatest cities in South America.
9. Cartagena, Colombia
Located on Colombia’s dreamy Caribbean coast, Cartagena is one of the most popular cities to visit in Colombia, and it’s easy to see why. With a perfect combination of old architecture with a fascinating history (and UNESCO World Heritage status!) and modern luxury, there is something for every kind of traveler in Cartagena.
There are plenty of things to do in Cartagena. You’ll enjoy exploring the historic streets with museums, ornate churches, beautiful shops, and hip restaurants within the old Walled City, then retreating to modern Bocagrande with its glimmering skyscrapers that sit oceanfront just a few minutes away.
Cartagena is also an excellent choice for an affordable Caribbean vacation, especially if you head to nearby Isla Barú with its famous white-sand beach, Playa Blanca, or to the nearby Rosario Islands. These islands are some of the most underrated islands in the Caribbean, where you’ll find accommodations for every budget – even hostels!
While visiting Cartagena can get expensive, especially compared to other cities in Colombia, it’s a must on every Colombian coastal backpacking route.
10. Valparaiso, Chile
Get your hiking shoes on because the hilly coastal city of Valparaiso, Chile will have you climbing some huge hills to explore the town. Don’t let this deter you – it also means you’re in for some killer views of the ocean and the colorful, historic houses that cling perilously to the hillsides.
This unique, quirky city is a joy to experience and a must for any traveler visiting Chile. To avoid walking the hills, take the funicular from the port up the hillside for a stunning view. From there, you can explore the hilly neighborhoods, which are filled with beautiful murals, lookouts with stunning views, and historic architecture.
You’ll stumble upon more cute cafes, bars, shops, and restaurants than you could ever visit in a single trip.
Valparaiso is within minutes of Viña del Mar, with its lovely beaches and upscale shopping and dining, and is an easy, affordable bus ride of under two hours to Santiago. It’s a great, small, bohemian city you’ll wish you had more time to enjoy.
11. Bogotá, Colombia
Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá is lofted high in the Andes Mountains, and it is one of the biggest capital cities in South America.
Don’t let the hustle and bustle of the city dissuade you from a visit: from a beautiful historic center, incredible mountain and city views, great food, and enough cultural events and activities to make your head spin, you’d be hard-pressed not to fall in love with Bogotá.
If you’re looking for this big city’s charm, head straight to La Candelaria, the city’s beautiful, walkable historic center complete with lovely street art, nice cafes and restaurants, and plenty of hostels and boutique hotels. From museums and ornate churches to sprawling plazas, exploring this neighborhood is a must.
Another highlight of any trip to Bogotá is a visit to Montserrate, a mountain rising high over downtown Bogotá and accessible by cable car or funicular. If you think the views on the way up are impressive, just wait until you get to the top!
Bogotá is also one of the best cities in South America to start your trip: its international airport is one of South America’s busiest, making it a transportation hub for the rest of this northern section of the continent. You’ll find regular flights in and out across the rest of the continent and affordable buses ready to take you across the rest of Colombia and beyond.
While you should take basic travel safety precautions no matter where you travel – at home and abroad! – you’ll feel safe in Bogotá, even if you solo travel in Bogotá.
12. Montevideo, Uruguay
You won’t generally hear much about Montevideo as a travel destination, but don’t let this deter you: I LOVED the time I spent in the capital of Uruguay, and found that there are so many reasons to travel to Montevideo. While many travelers compare Montevideo to a smaller and more relaxed Buenos Aires, this hidden gem of a city has plenty that makes it uniquely its own.
Start your visit to Montevideo by exploring its charming old town, filled with tree-lined streets, flea markets, historic architecture, and the famous Mercado del Puerto. It is easily walkable, and many streets are pedestrian-only, making exploring a must on any traveler’s itinerary.
You can even take a free walking tour of colonial Montevideo to get your bearings.
Montevideo is also home to museums, galleries, cultural events, shops, cafes, and bars, plus even a few beaches, all easily accessible by affordable public transport, though this compact city is quite walkable.
From Montevideo, you’ll find plenty of transportation options across the country to Uruguay’s many beaches, from lively Punta del Este to the windswept hippie magnet of Punta del Diablo. There are also multiple daily ferries to Buenos Aires, and a busy international airport.
13. Salvador, Brazil
Located in the northeast corner of Brazil, Salvador is a beautiful and culturally rich city that is considered one of the best places to visit in Brazil. With a thriving Carnival celebration, great beaches, and a beautiful historic center, there is plenty to see and do on a trip to Salvador.
When you’re not hitting the beaches, you’ll love exploring Salvador’s old capital, including beautiful plazas lined with colorful buildings, old churches (including the famous Igreja e Convento de São Francisco), and wandering cobblestone streets.
There are also plenty of great day trips from Salvador to consider, including island destinations like Morro de São Paulo on Tinharé Island, and beach spots like Itacaré.
Salvador is also a place to learn about the dark history of Brazil’s colonial period. As the first capital of Brazil and an important port city for the sugar trade, Salvador was home to the first market selling enslaved peoples from Africa in the Americas.
An obligatory part of a visit to Salvador is learning about this history and experiencing the unique mix of African, Portuguese, and indigenous cultures that blend in Salvador today.
14. Ushuaia, Argentina
If you’re interested in exploring the stunningly beautiful southern tip of South America, Patagonia, consider starting your trip in Ushuaia, Argentina.
This relatively small city, known as the world’s most southern city, is also a gateway city for cruises to Antarctica. However, most travelers use the city as the starting point for an adventure in Patagonia.
One of the best things to do in Ushuaia proper is to visit Tierra del Fuego National Park. Here you’ll find plenty of gorgeous hiking trails where you can hike independently or with a guide. One of the best trails is the Laguna Esmeralda trail, which takes you to a remote lake surrounded by towering snow-capped mountains on all sides.
While the city doesn’t have much to offer travelers, its unique and enviable location makes it an incredible base for exploring one of the most beautiful areas of the continent.
15. Arequipa, Peru
Skip right over Lima (my LEAST favorite city in South America, by far) and head straight for the charming Peruvian city or Arequipa. Known as the “White City” for its abundance of architecture made from white volcanic stone, Arequipa is surrounded by several beautiful snow-capped volcanoes, adding to the city’s beauty.
You’ll have more than enough to do in Arequipa’s historic center. Make sure to visit the city’s cathedral and the impressive Santa Catalina Monastery, whose red walls and winding interior streets will make you feel like you’ve left the White City and headed somewhere entirely different.
If you’re looking for a more adventurous trip, consider hiking El Misti Volcano – it’s a two-day trek, though doable, and doesn’t require special equipment to reach the summit.
From Arequipa, you’ll be within driving distance of some of Peru’s most impressive sites. Lake Titicaca, on the border of Bolivia, is about 4.5 hours from Arequipa, while the stunning Colca Canyon is about 2.5 hours drive. This makes Arequipa an easy addition to a Southern Peru itinerary.
While Arequipa might not be one of the most well-known South American cities, it deserves a spot on any list of the most charming destinations in South America. Whether you’re traveling solo, backpacking, or are on an unforgettable Peru family vacation, Arequipa is an excellent addition to your itinerary.
16. Santiago, Chile
Santiago, Chile is a unique combination of bustling, modern capital city and history, quite unique in Latin America.
It’s home to South America’s largest skyscraper, Gran Torre Santiago, plus ultra-modern museums, big firms, and is one of Latin America’s most important financial centers. On the other hand, you’ll also find historic churches and plazas, the art deco Mercado Central, and plenty of quaint, tree-lined streets in the travelers-favorite neighborhood of Bellavista.
Nowhere is this more on display than in the Plaza de Armas, where Santiago’s historic cathedral sits just across the street from a giant glass shopping mall, towering many stories above it.
Whether you find the unique contrast of Santiago fascinating or off-putting, the is plenty to keep you busy and things to enjoy here. Make sure to eat at the Mercado Central, wander Bellavista and appreciate the street art, and climb Santa Lucia hill for an impressive view.