Skip link for screen readers

South America's great cities have histories stretching back hundreds of years to the times of Spanish and Portuguese conquest, some even further. They have been the epicentres of colonial rule, homes of royalty and viceroyalty, and the sites of revolutions, independence movements, dictatorships and the establishment of democracy. Their links with Europe throughout the colonial period imported sophisticated Spanish culture to much of South America, and Portuguese culture to Brazil. This has left many of the cities with well established artistic and cultural heritages, magnificent cathedrals and palaces, and universities.

The first great city in Brazil was Salvador, on the north eastern coast of Bahia. Founded in 1549, it was Brazil's first capital, and because of its location was one of the main ports for trade with Europe and the Portuguese empire. The state of Bahia was one of the richest in Brazil, through its production of sugarcane and tobacco. Rio de Janeiro, now a cosmopolitan metropolis known for its beaches, was from 1808-1821 the capital of the Portuguese empire. This move paved the way for a number of royal palaces to be built, and enhancing the city's culture, fine arts and architecture - a legacy which can still be seen today. This importance led to Rio remain the capital of Brazil through its independence, until 1960 when it was transferred to the newly built city of Brasilia.

In Peru, the city of Lima was founded in 1535 on the site of a much older settlement, evidenced by the adobe pyramid of Huaca Pucllana dating to around 200-700 AD. It was named 'The City of Kings', and became the administrative centre of the Viceroyalty of Peru, and wealthy through the trade of silver and gold passing through its sea-port at Callao. Remains of the lavish colonial period can be seen in the old city's palaces, cathedral, and convents, while the later Republican period is characterised by highly ornate wooden balconies on the outside of the buildings. Meanwhile, Cusco was also conquered by the Spanish invaders, who took the opportunity to loot the precious metals from the Inca temples and palaces. They were able to destroy many of the Inca buildings and use their foundations to build their own houses, churches and convents. Cusco became a wealthy city through agriculture, cattle farming, and mining for precious metals. It was also an important religious centre in the Andes, drawing many artists and craftsmen to work for the church, leading to an artistic style known as the Cusco school. Paintings in this style can still be seen in galleries and churches throughout Cusco.

Explore some of our favourite holidays
Suggestions & Recommendations

Lima

Peru's coastal capital has a rich history and is today famed for its world-class restaurants, museums and art galleries.

Cusco

Cusco is a beautiful city shaped by a mix of Inca and Catholic beliefs. It is close to the Sacred Valley & Machu Picchu.

Quito

Quito's colonial centre is one of the continent's finest, with magnificent baroque churches and large squares.

Rio de Janeiro

Rio is famed for its iconic sights and fabulous beaches, but also offers a historic centre and coastal forest hikes.

Salvador da Bahia

The colourful streets of Salvador are the best place to experience Afro-Portuguese culture in Brazil.

Buenos Aires

Cosmopolitan Buenos Aires is famed for its wide avenues, upmarket barrios, old-time cafes and traditional tango halls.

Santiago de Chile

Santiago is situated at the foot of the Andes, with nearby wine tasting and hiking opportunities.

La Paz

La Paz is a bustling city full of local life, spread out in a canyon and overlooked by the Illimani mountain.

Bogota

Surrounded by the high peaks of the Andes, Bogotá is a high altitude and often high octane capital, steeped in history and cu…