There’s something intrinsically magical about being up high. Hidden away in snowy mountain peaks, often with a distinct separation from the rest of the world both culturally and physically, the world’s highest cities have a special appeal all their own. Soar to new heights, from Bolivia’s Altiplano capital of La Paz to Cusco’s cobblestoned streets, in this list of some of the world’s highest cities.
La Paz, Bolivia
Bolivia is home to dozens of towns that are nestled above 11,000’, including its administrative capital, La Paz. With a population closing in on 2 million people, this is the highest capital city in the entire world, with some of its neighborhoods, like El Alto, situated at 13,615’ high. The city is cradled between behemoth mountains, including the imposing Mt. Illimani, whose snowy peak provides peekaboo views throughout the city streets. Many visitors of La Paz keep altitude sickness at bay by chewing coca leaves and sipping coca tea, although you’ll definitely want to schedule some time to acclimate in another city before flying straight to La Paz from sea level.
Lhasa, Tibet, China
Also called the “Roof of the World,” Lhasa, the lofty capital city of Tibet, offers up intoxicating cultural traditions that will awe even the most experienced travelers. Serene monasteries nestled in alpine valleys, colorful prayer flags floating on the breeze, and hearty mountain cuisine, from butter tea to dumplings, are just some of the things that visitors can look forward to in Lhasa. If you can take the dizzying elevation of 11,995’, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip that can’t be missed.
This stunning high-altitude town, surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes, sits just 15 miles south of the equator, making a trip here even more enticing. Make a visit to the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) to experience life along the Earth's middle firsthand. Back in town, Quito’s mix of Gothic cathedrals, prismatic street art, and cobblestone streets take on a new light at an elevation of 9,350’. Combat any dizzy spells in your first few days with plenty of fluids and a heaping plate of carbs in the form of local specialties like salchipapas, a combo of sausage and fries, or llapingachos, fried potato cakes.
As the capital of possibly the highest-elevation country in the world, Thimphu falls a bit short of the heights of its fellow elevated capitals. But at 8,688’ high, you’ll certainly still feel its altitude. The “Land of the Thunder Dragon” is home to many cities that meet the criteria of being high elevation including what is thought to be the oldest settlement in the country, Samdrup Jongkhar at 11,483’. Bhutan also happens to be home to the highest unclimbed mountain in the world, Gangkhar Puensum, which soars to 24,840’ high and gives mountaineers something to strive for. And if you’re interested in continuing your pursuit of Bhutan’s superlatives, it’s also home to the former largest printed book in the world and one of the world’s largest Buddha statues.
Many visitors flock to Cusco in search of its UNESCO charm (the city itself is a UNESCO site after all) and to see the modern version of the once mighty capital of the Incan Empire. But what they don't realize is that the city sits at a heart-pounding 10,800’ high. Like Quito, Cusco is also close to the equator which earned it the nickname of the “Belly Button of the World.” Nestled high in the Andes Mountain Range, Cusco has stunning views for days but even more interestingly, it's surrounded by Incan ruins and archaeological sites like the sprawling temple complex, Saqsaywaman. Give yourself a few days to acclimate before you take off exploring these ancient sites.