The 10 Largest Cities in South America

December 13, 2023

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Black and white photograph of high-rise buildings in Sao Paolo, one of the largest cities in South America.

South America is full of amazing places, from the ancient ruins of the Incan Empire to the majestic Amazon Rainforest. The continent is also home to incredible cities, many founded by the Spanish and Portuguese colonists in the 15th and 16th centuries. These archaeological treasures are some of the Largest Cities in South America, with vibrant and rich cultures.

Over the past few centuries, South America has seen massive growth, largely thanks to booming industries and increased international trade. The cities have attracted migrants from all over the world, which has created a melting pot of diverse cultures.

Cities can be defined in various ways, from the city proper (its administrative boundaries) to the urban area (continuous built-up urban landscape). In this feature, we’ve looked at the most populated metropolitan areas in South America. A metropolitan area is a region that shares the same infrastructure, including transport networks and housing areas.

We’ve compiled a list of the ten largest cities in South America. Continue reading to find out why so many people call these amazing places home!

1. São Paulo, Brazil – 22.6 million

Photograph of São Paulo at sunset. Colorful shacks stand in the foreground and skyscrapers line the background. The sky is a bright yellow.
View of São Paulo at sunset

São Paulo, often called Sampa, is the largest city in South America, with a population of approximately 22.6 million. The city is South America’s economic center and has Latin America’s highest GDP. However, poverty is also widespread, particularly in the city suburbs. There are approximately 24,000 homeless people in São Paulo.

The Tupi people, who were divided into multiple tribes, were the first to occupy the region. In 1554, Portuguese priests founded the village of São Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga (meaning ‘Saint Paul of the Fields of Piratininga’ in Portuguese). The priests founded a Jesuit college in the village as part of a Catholic mission. Over the course of the following two centuries, São Paulo was incredibly poor and isolated.

The region’s prospects improved upon the discovery of gold in the area. People flocked to the area in the 1690s, and the town became a frequent stop for explorers seeking accommodation and food. São Paulo reached city status in 1711, and when the gold ran out, the city made its fortune growing sugar cane. Coffee production also helped expand the city from the mid-19th century.

Today, São Paulo is often considered Brazil’s most multicultural city. Many citizens have full or partial Italian ancestry due to the large influx of Italian immigrants to the city in the late 1800s. There are also large groups of Portuguese, African and Arab descendants, as well as German and French descent.

Did you know?

Most Paulistanosas are Roman Catholic, largely due to colonization and immigration from Catholic countries like Portugal and Spain.

2. Buenos Aires, Argentina – 15.5 million

Photograph of a row of colorful buildings in Buenos Aires. The building have different colored metal fences and window frames. The sky is a bright blue.
Colorful buildings in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Officially the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, this city is the most populated in Argentina. Buenos Aires is one of the most diverse cities in South America and has a rich mix of different religions and cultures. It’s often described as Latin America’s most European city, which can be seen in the architecture, food, and local dialects.

The region was established as Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre (‘City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Fair Winds’ in Spanish) by Spanish settlers in 1536. However, attacks from indigenous people meant these early settlers abandoned the region. A second settlement was established in 1580, which became permanent.

From its beginning, Buenos Aires has relied on trade. As Argentina’s chief port and the largest in South America, Buenos Aires accepts ships from all over the world and processes a diverse range of products. The city’s other main industries include food processing, metal work, and textile manufacturing.

Did you know?

One of the city’s most popular tourist attractions is a graveyard. The Recoleta Cemetery contains the graves of many notable people, such as Eva Perón (better known as Evita), Noble Prize winners and William Brown (the founder of the Argentine Navy).

3. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 13.7 million

Photograph of the Christ the Redeemer monument stood atop a grassy mountain overlooking the bay and city of Rio De Janeiro, on a sunny day
Christ the Redeemer monument overlooking the city and port of Rio De Janeiro

Europeans discovered Guanabara Bay in January 1502. The bay inspired the name Rio de Janeiro, meaning ‘River of January’, as the explorers mistakenly believed they had found the mouth of a river. The actual city wasn’t founded until 1565. Gold and diamonds were discovered in nearby Minas Gerais in the 17th century, which helped Rio de Janeiro become a popular port.

The Portuguese Royal Family and Lisbon nobles fled to Rio de Janeiro following Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal in 1807. In the following years, there was a large influx of slaves to the city and it became America’s largest slave port. Approximately 900,000 African slaves passed through Valongo Wharf between 1811 to 1831.

Rio de Janeiro is well known for its beautiful beaches, hills and tropical forests. One of Brazil’s most iconic landmarks is the Christ The Redeemer monument, which stands 30 meters (98 ft) high on top of an 8-meter (26 ft) pedestal. The statue stands atop the 700-meter (2,300 ft) Corcovado mountain, which overlooks the city.

Did you know?

Rio de Janeiro hosts the world’s biggest carnival, starting on the Friday before Lent and ending on Ash Wednesday. The event attracts millions of visitors each year.

4. Bogotá, Colombia – 11.5 million

Aerial photograph of Bogotá, Columbia on a sunny day. Tree-covered mountains surround the skyscrapers
Aerial view of Bogotá, Columbia, showing skyscrapers surrounded by mountains

Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá is the largest city in the country and the fourth largest in South America. Indigenous people originally populated the region, before the Spanish invaded it. Bogotá was founded and named the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada in 1538.

The city is a fusion of different cultures from around the world. Many of the city’s public buildings were designed by the French architect Gastón Lelarge. North America has also heavily influenced Bogotá since the 20th century. In recent years, shopping malls have become increasingly common in the city.

Bogotá’s airport, El Dorado International Airport, handles Latin America’s largest cargo volume and the third-highest volume of passengers. Many airlines use the airport as a stopover point for planes flying to other South American nations.

Did you know?

The city is 2,640 meters (8,660 feet) above sea level; the high altitude can take visitors a while to accumulate.

5. Lima, Peru – 11.2 million

Photograph of Lima, Peru. Skyscrapers are on top of the cliffs overlooking a road and the Pacific Ocean
Edge of Lima, Peru, looking out to the Pacific Ocean

Next on our list is Lima, the capital of Peru, home to approximately one-third of the nation’s population. The metropolitan area covers 2,672.28 square kilometers (1,031.77 square miles).

The region of modern-day Lima was occupied by pre-Inca settlers, but the city wasn’t built until 1535 by Spaniards. It was thought the location was suitable for a new city because to it was relatively close to the coast, but with enough distance so that it wouldn’t fall victim to pirates or invasion.

Lima is Peru’s industrial and economic center, and one of Latin America’s leading financial powers. Booming industries, such as textiles, food and clothing, have attracted migrants from the countryside and other areas of Peru. The country is also known for its natural resources, including copper, silver, gold and petroleum.

Did you know?

Lima was called ‘The City of the Kings’ or ‘La Ciudad de Los Reyes’ by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro. This may have been because he founded the city on Three Kings Day (an important Catholic holiday) or to honor Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor at the time.

6. Santiago, Chile – 6.9 million

Photograph of Santiago in Chile. The Andes Mountains are pictured behind the city's skyscrapers and a green golf course is spread out in front
Cityscape of Santiago, Chile, surrounded by the Andes Mountains and a golf course

Chile’s capital, Santiago, is the country’s largest city and the sixth largest in South America. Chile is one of the most urbanized countries in the world; 6.9 million of Chile’s total 19.6 million population live in Santiago.

The city was founded in 1541 by Pedro de Valdivia, a Spanish conquistador. The region had previously been occupied by the Picunches, who were under Inca rule from the 15th century. Growth was slow during the Spanish colonial rule. The original city was only a few mud and straw houses in a grid layout. In late 1541, Santiago was attacked by a local indigenous group called Michimalonco, who destroyed most buildings. The Spanish reclaimed control and rebuilt their city, although it wasn’t until the 18th century that Santiago had a proper infrastructure.

Santiago is the heart of many of Chile’s industries. Various products are produced in the city, including food, clothes and textiles. Santiago is also a bustling financial hub, with a stock exchange, major bank branches and various insurance companies. The city is also central to Chile’s railroad network, enabling inhabitants to travel in and outside Santiago.

Did you know?

Vineyards and the Andes Mountains surround the city. You only have to travel an hour to reach the ocean or the mountain range.

7. Belo Horizonte, Brazil – 6.2 million

Aerial photograph of Praça da liberdade (Liberty Square). The green space is surrounded by skyscrapers and roads
Praça da liberdade (Liberty Square) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Belo Horizonte was Brazil’s first modern planned city, founded in 1897. A Brazilian explorer, João Leite da Silva Ortiz, had previously settled in the region in 1701 to lead a gold rush expedition. However, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century when Brazil became a republic and Belo Horizonte was chosen to be a new state capital.

The government encouraged growth by offering free lots and funding for people to build houses in the city. Belo Horizonte’s layout was inspired by the grid design of Washington, D.C., in the US and La Plata in Argentina. Although the city was originally designed with an area of 8 square miles (20 square kilometers), the city currently has an area of approximately 127 square miles (331 square kilometers).

Due to industrial expansion, Belo Horizonte experienced further growth in the early 20th century. The city retained its original publishing, textiles and furniture industries and established new electrical generating facilities and plants.

Did you know?

The Mineirão football stadium is located in Belo Horizonte. It was a venue during the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and hosted some matches during the 2016 Summer Olympics.

8. Brasília, Brazil – 4.9 million

Photograph of the domed white exterior of Brasília's national museum. The building has a ring circling it.
MUSEU Nacional da República (National Museum) in Brasília

Located in Brazil’s highlands, Brasília is the federal capital of the country. The city was designed and built by Urban planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyerin 1956. Its innovative and imaginative design helped it become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Brasília was the first modern city to be named a World Heritage Site.

Due to its UNESCO status, the local government has encouraged non-polluting industries such as software, film and geology (study of gemstones). Other important industries include food processing, publishing and construction.

Initially, Brasília lacked recreational facilities. This has improved in recent years, however, and multiple sporting grounds, swimming pools and cinemas have popped up all over the city.

Did you know?

An artificial lake called Paranoá was built to help supply water to the city and to help control humidity. The village of Vila Amaury, which housed many of the construction workers, is submerged in the lake.

9. Recife, Brazil – 4.3 million

Photograph of Marco Zero Square in Recife Brazil. Buildigns with domed turrets are stood on the shore of the water and two red and white boats are moored next to the dock
Marco Zero Square in Recife Brazil, overlooking the water

The city of Recife was founded in 1537 by an early Portuguese colony. Many of the settlers were fishermen and the region became a way station for passing ships. In the 17th century, Recife flourished as the capital of New Holland (a Dutch colony). However, the Portuguese reclaimed the city in 1654.

The city is often called the ‘Venice of Brazil’ due to the many rivers, waterways and bridges that criss-cross through it.

Recife is one of Brazil’s leading financial and business centers. The city has an international airport and two international seaports which helps encourage trade and industries such as shipbuilding, chocolate manufacturing and electronics.

Did you know?

The name ‘Recife’ comes from the Portuguese word for ‘reef’, which refers to the long reef that runs parallel to the city’s shoreline.

10. Porto Alegre, Brazil – 4.2 million

Photograph of Porto Alegre in Brazil at night. The buildings are lit up by golden lights, which reflect on the river that flows through it
City of Porto Alegre, Brazil, lit up at night

With a population of approximately 4.2 million people, Porto Alegre in Brazil is the tenth largest city in South America. It’s situated near the Atlantic Ocean, at the junction of five short and deep rivers. The five rivers all flow into the Patos Lagoon, which is the largest lagoon in Brazil.

Porto Alegre (meaning ‘joyful harbor in Portuguese) was founded in 1769 by Manuel Jorge Gomes de Sepúlveda, a Portuguese military officer. However, the official date of the city’s foundation is 1772 and a few colonists from the Azores had already settled in the region in 1742/1743.

The city has over 70 neighborhoods, although most of the population lives in the Zona Norte (Northern Zone). This zone is also the location for most of the city’s economic activity.

Did you know?

In 2017,Porto Alegre was ranked 39th out of the top 50 most violent cities in the world. At the time, the city had a rate of 40.96 homicides per 100,000 residents.

Data Sources:
World Population Review: Largest Cities

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