South America's 10 Oldest Capitals

Quito

In the 16th–18th centuries, most of South America was a dependent territory of two European countries: Spain and Portugal. The lack of a centralized colonial system in the continent in the 19th century formed numerous independent states with their capitals that became popular travel destinations in modern times.

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Some cities in the Americas were founded by Native people long before the arrival of the Europeans. Highly developed indigenous civilizations flourished in the Western Hemisphere since 4000 BC.

"You must not judge people by their country. In South America, it is always wise to judge people by their altitude." – Paul Theroux, an American novelist.

The migration from Europe to South America in the 15–19th centuries began after the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean islands in 1497. Below is a list of the ten oldest capital cities in South America by their foundation.

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The 10 Oldest Capitals in South America

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10. Montevideo 

Officially founded as a city in 1726, Montevideo became the capital of independent Uruguay 100 years later. It offers the unique charm of cultural and historical heritage. There also are beautiful parks, boulevards, and gorgeous sandy beaches in the city.

Montevideo
Sculpture by Italian sculptor Emilio Fiaschi in front of the historic French-style Hotel Casino Carrasco (Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius | cc by-sa)


Montevideo's historic architecture is eclectic, featuring Art Deco and Spanish colonial styles with the 1920s–1940s functionalism in equal measure. In some details of the buildings, you can find traditional preferences of the largest European immigrant groups: Spanish, Italian, French, and German. 

Palacio Salvo, the tallest structure in Uruguay's capital, is the most impressive building. It stands on Independence Square. The 26-story skyscraper, built by the Italian architect Mario Palanti at the beginning of the 20th century, has Art Deco style, so fashionable in those times.

9. Paramaribo

Founded in 1640 by French colonists, the city of Paramaribo with Suriname's entire territory came under the Netherlands' rule three decades later until 1975, when the country achieved independence. It is on the left bank of the Suriname River, near the Atlantic Ocean. 

Paramaribo
White and wooden buildings in the historical center of Paramaribo (Photo by BID Ciudades Sostenibles | cc by-nc-sa)


Since 2002, the white and wooden historical center of Paramaribo is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The overwhelming majority of its 17th–18th-century buildings have the Dutch colonial style. Cultural diversity is reflected here in religious temples. While walking around Paramaribo, you can see a synagogue and a mosque built next to each other.

8. Caracas 

Caracas, Venezuela's capital, is framed within a picturesque mountain valley of the Maritime Andes, at an altitude of 900 m (3000 ft) above sea level and separated by a national park from the Caribbean Sea about 15 km (9 mi).

Caracas
Morning in Caracas (Photo by Stig Nygaard | cc by)


Spanish colonists founded the city in 1567 on a site of the Caracas tribe settlement. Although it was one of the first cities in South America, very little ancient architecture has survived in Caracas. Travelers often bypass Venezuela's capital. Even so, Caracas captivates by delicious food, cultural diversity, vibrant nightlife, and an ideal climate. 

7. Santiago

In 1541, Spanish colonists founded Santiago surrounded by beautiful nature, the magnificence of which is impossible not to appreciate. Snowy ridges of the Andes in the east make the city extraordinarily picturesque. By the way, it lies in a zone of high seismicity and has survived many earthquakes since then.

Santiago
Modern Santiago, with the Andes in the background (Photo by alobos life | cc by-nc)


Located compactly, all sights of Chile's capital are convenient in the eyes of a tourist. In principle, you do not even need to use public transportation, as without rushing in a couple of days, it is possible to visit them all. You can find a mix of different styles and cultures everywhere in the city, especially in its urbanism: well-preserved colonial-style houses stand next to modern high-rise buildings.

6. Sucre

Founded in 1539, Sucre lies in a beautiful mountain valley at the foot of the eastern cordillera of the Andes, the south of Bolivia's central part. It has a specific atmosphere that you can not find in any other city in the country.

Sucre
Old Town of Sucre (Photo by Orlando Contreras López | cc by-nc-nd)


Bolivia's capital attracts thousands of tourists every year thanks to its well-preserved city center with 18th–19th-century buildings, called White City by locals – a lot of white colonial buildings have survived here. Since 1991, the Old Town of Sucre has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If you want to get to the Chutillos Carnival and see colorful folk dances of all the peoples of South America, it is better to come at the end of August. 

Almost the most famous traces of the Cretaceous geological period are a few kilometers from the city. In 1985, workers found over 450 dinosaur tracks of 15 different species at an old cement quarry named Cretaceous Park.

5. Bogotá

Spanish colonialists founded Bogotá in 1538 in the area that Native people called Bacatá. Since 1886, it has been Colombia's capital. Although the city is located almost at the equator, it is not hot due to its height over 2.6 km (1.6 mi) above sea level.

Bogota graffiti
Candelaria Graffiti (Photo by nigel burgher | cc by; cropped)


Because of many revolutions, wars, armed uprisings, there are not so many monuments of the 16th–17th centuries in Bogotá, unlike other South American capitals. Still, the city is rich in unique museums, where you can see, for example, gold of the pre-Colombian era or paintings by Cubist and Impressionist artists. 

Candelaria district is one of the brightest and most creative spots in the city. Here colorful graffiti drawings decorate almost all buildings.

4. Asunción 

Founded by the Spaniards in 1537, Asunción is the capital of Paraguay. Since then, the Jesuit monastic order extended its rule to the country and influenced its capital's historical development until the 19th century. 

Asuncion
Presidential Palace (Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius | cc by-sa)


Asunción is a large, diverse, and dynamic city that surprises at every turn around the clock. The historic center seems to have been transferred straight from 17th-century Spain. You can also visit many beautiful churches and monasteries built by the Jesuits in the 16th–18th centuries on the city's southeastern outskirts.

3. Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, is usually associated with Evita, tango, and football. It is a city that harmoniously combines the romanticism of Europe and the passion of South America. 

Buenos Aires
View of Buenos Aires with the Neoclassical Palace of the Argentine National Congress in the foreground (Photo by Deensel | cc by)


In 1536 the Spanish conquistadors founded Buenos Aires in the area inhabited by the indigenous population, Querandí. The colonists resisted Indian attacks for five years, but in 1541 they were forced to leave the settlement, which remained abandoned until its rebuilding in 1580.

The emigration of Europeans to Argentina had a dominant impact on Buenos Aires' architecture. The old part of the city, with its colonial architecture, resembles Paris or Madrid. Walking around the city, sometimes you even forget that you are in South America.

2. Lima 

Lima, the Peruvian capital, was founded under the City of King's name by the Spanish conquerors in 1535. Before, the Ichma people lived in the territory of the present-day city. 

Lima
Plaza Mayor is the birthplace of Lima (Photo by James C. | cc by-sa)


The historic center of Lima was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Its colonial buildings are a mixture of Spanish and Native American styles, resulting in the so-called Creole style, which became Lima's hallmark. Besides them and modern skyscrapers, you can also find a clay pyramid, an ancient archeological complex built in the 4th century, and even 16th-century catacombs in the city.

Lima has long been the culinary capital of all of South America. Gourmets come here for new flavors, freshest ceviche, flan pie with cream and coconut, mate tea with coca leaves, and the most popular pisco sour cocktail in Peru.

1. Quito 

Founded by the Spaniards in 1534 on an Indian village site and named after the Indian tribe Kitu ethnonym, Quito is the heart of Ecuador and the oldest of all South American capitals. 

Quito
The Church and Convent of St. Francis is the largest architectural ensemble among the historical structures of colonial Latin America


In 1978, together with the Polish Kraków, Quito became the first city inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The city is rich in Baroque gems, for example, the 16th-century Roman Catholic complex, 17th century St. Dominic monasteries, and 18th-century La Compañía church.

Located in a large valley of the Andes, surrounded by volcanic peaks, the city has spectacular composition: you can see the steep emerald slopes of mountains from every spot – this gives a specific charm.

The World's Oldest Capital Cities

For the oldest capital cities in other parts of the world, read:


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13 comments

  1. I'd love to take an extended vacation and visit all of these capitals. I love all the history.

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  2. Those all look amazing. I've always loved traveling to historic places like these. I think it would be awesome to explore them.

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  3. I love both the cultural and historical significance of these cities. I would love to visit all of them.

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  4. I just can't wait to travel again. I miss going to historic places. Quito looks so stunning, and I definitely need to add it to my bucketlist.

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  5. OMG! your post just made me want to go pack my bags and leave to South America :)
    anas

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  6. Great list! Caracas and Santiago are two cities which I want to visit. Maybe after the pandemic! I can't wait to travel back!

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  7. What fantastic places to visit to see not only the culture but such rich history. I've always wanted to visit Lima and Buenos Aires, but all of these places look like I could learn so much! Thanks for the list!

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  8. Amazing photos! I would loved tour around South America and visit all these cities. I love how colourful they are and full of history. I hope the world opens up soon again so we can all enjoy these beautiful places!

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  9. We loved our visit to South American in 2020 before the world shut down. We saw several of these great capital cities. Montevideo might have been our favourite! But then we missed Santiago as a day trip. And our trip got derailed just before we were set to arrive in Lima. Definitely lots of reasons to head back when we can.

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  10. I am now going to check this continent and its culture in detail. The Spanish influence lingers on in the old cities. Quito and Lima, I dream of visiting. But now, the list grows with these recommendations.

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  11. I didn’t realize that Suriname got its independence from the Netherlands just back in 1975. I like learning about history of the places I’m about to visit. This post is well written.

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  12. I have not visited South America yet. I have wanted to visit Buenos Aires, Santiago, Caracas and see the street art in Bogotá for a very long time. Montevideo wasn’t even on my radar before this and your image is gorgeous! I will be adding it to my bucket list.

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  13. Great post! Thanks for these great travel information!

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