There are lots of different things that appeal to travelers who are curious to explore South America. For example, there are fascinating archaeological sites, rain forests with abundant wildlife, hiking and backpacking opportunities for adventure, and delicious food no matter where you go.
For first-time travelers to South America, many people choose to stick to the cities for ease of transportation and fewer language barriers. Although the more remote areas of the continent are truly worth a visit as well, today we’re focusing on the top urban destinations to use as your home base. There are lots of places in and around each of these cities that you can start learning about once you settle on where to begin. To start, here are some incredible cities to visit in South America.
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Buenos Aires, Argentina
For a cosmopolitan city that has incredible food, lively music, and of course the tango, look no further than Buenos Aires. This South American city has tons to see and do, with a bit of a European feel, so embrace the cross-over and relax at a table of a café to watch the world go by. This is also one of the most family-friendly cities to visit in South America and there are lots of museums and cultural attractions that kids will enjoy as well. Top things to do in Buenos Aires include the Museo de los Ninos, Palermo Soho, and the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires. Café Tortonis is the oldest bar in the city, so stop by for a drink.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro is a city that belongs on every world traveler’s bucket list. Here you can enjoy white sands and sunshine during the day and an exciting nightlife scene after the sun goes down. It’s famous for hosting the vibrant Carnival celebration each year, but also a religious destination for travelers looking to see the Christ the Redeemer statue. Other top attractions are Prainha Beach and the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil.
Uyuni is a town in Bolivia that serves as the home base for many travelers looking to see the Salar de Uyuni. This is the largest salt flat in the world and a haven for photographers who want to capture this incredible place in photos. You can take a tour in a 4×4 vehicle with a local guide, and many tours last for three or four days. One recommended place to stay in Uyuni is the Hotel de Sal Luna Salada. It’s upscale, decorated in the traditional style, and is in a great location that looks out over the salt flats. Stay here for the views and to experience what it’s like to stay in a hotel that’s actually made of salt. Another attraction here is the antique train cemetery that’s just three kilometers outside of Uyuni
Cusco is a popular home base for travelers looking to visit Machu Picchu, but there is much more to this Peruvian city than just the famous ruins. It was once the capital of the Incan empire and still filled with history today in attractions like La Catedral and Sacsayhuamán. Other things to see are the church of Santo Domingo, the Plaza de Armas, and the Qoriacancha Palace. There’s also a strong sense of mestizo and Amerindian culture here, which lends itself well to festivals and authentic handicrafts.
The big attraction that draws tourists to Ipiales, Colombia is the Santuario de las Lajas. This is an impressive neo-Gothic church on a bridge that crosses a gorge. It is in the southern Colombian Department of Nariño and truly a sight to see. There are many myths and mysteries associated with this very unique church to learn about when you’re here. The city of Ipiales is on the Columbian border next to Ecuador, and there’s a bus station a bit out of town. Also fun to check out here is the Plaza Los Mártires, which is a Saturday market about 10 minutes from the town center on foot.
Chile is known as an ideal place for outdoor adventure, and many adventurers start their journey in Santiago. Not only does this city have a fascinating mix of old-world architecture and modern skyscrapers, but it also has one of the most unique and hearty cuisines on the continent. It’s easy to discover dance clubs and funky cafes in Bellavista and beautiful art in Forest Park. When you visit, make sure to check out Barrio Bellavista, Parque Bicentenario, and La Chascona Casa Museo.
Wine lovers will instantly fall in love with Mendoza, Argentina because this area has hundreds of vineyards to explore and sample. The city itself is located east of Mount Aconcagua, which is a towering mountain peak that is also favored among outdoor enthusiasts. Come here for your most epic, skiing, climbing, rafting, and trekking adventures and you won’t be disappointed. Top things to do in Mendoza include Parque Provincial Aconcagua, the Parque General San Martin, and Taninas wine tastings.
Colombia is a South American country that often gets overlooked by travelers, but that would be a mistake. Ráquira is known as the ceramics capital of Colombia, which makes it a great place to visit for art lovers. Come here to shop for authentic toys, bowls, jars, and even Christmas decorations. There are lots of workshops in the village. La Candelaria Monastery, pictured here, is also located in Ráquira. You can reach this part of Columbia by bus, and it’s about 45 minutes southwest of Villa de Leyva. One recommended accommodations option is the Hosteria San Fermin, which can accommodate both couples and larger groups and has a restaurant that serves breakfast.
Valparaiso is another incredible South American city to visit in Chile. It’s a port city on the coast and known for having a bohemian culture, lovely views of the sea, and colorful buildings. This is also a great place to visit if you love the nightlife scene. Stay at one of the city’s hip boutique hotels, such as the Palacio Astoreca Hotel or the Fauna Hotel. Top things to do here include checking out La Sebastiana (Pablo Neurda’s house), Cerro Conception, Paseo Gervasoni, and Ascensor Reina Victoria. It’s also fun to join a walking tour here to get to know the city a bit better. Museums in the city are the Museum Maritimo Nacional, Palacio Baburizza, and Villa Victoria. Horseback riding is also popular in the countryside regions around Valparaiso, so get outside and active while you’re here too!
Sao Paulo, Brazil
For art and culture that is characteristically Brazilian, Sao Paulo is the place to be. This vibrant city is incredibly diverse and has international cuisine to please every palate. Come to the Jardins District for the best options. It’s easy to spend a whole week or longer here exploring the different neighborhoods, shopping centers, and museums. There’s a botanical garden in town worth checking out, as well as the Catavento Cultural e Educacional and Pinacoteca do Estado de Sao Paulo.
Lima is another city worth checking out in Peru because it is brimming with history. Here you can see ancient archeological sites, cathedrals, and palaces that date back to the 1500s. This is a city of neighborhoods, so take some time to explore the ones that appeal to you most. Each has something a little different to offer. There are nice beachfront areas to relax at, and lots of nice hotels to choose from to make your stay comfortable. Parque de la Reserva is also a beautiful place to visit here.
Another great city to visit in Colombia is Bogota, which is packed with people, energy, and passion. Come here for eclectic dining, regional wines, and food festivals. For these reasons, Bogota is a top city to visit for foodies from all over the world. When you visit, make sure to take a walk through La Candelaria, which is a historic district, and go shopping on the north side of the city. There’s also a gold museum called Museo del Oro that’s fun to check out.