Altitude sickness tablets at the ready, these are the world’s ten highest capital cities by their distance above sea level. The top three all come from South America but cities on four different continents make the list.
The World’s Highest Capital Cities
1. La Paz, Bolivia – 3,640 metres above sea level
Bolivia technically has two capital cities. Sucre is the constitutional capital and at 2,810 metres above level, it would still rank 2nd in this list. However La Paz is the country’s largest city, the seat of government and the de facto national capital. At a staggering 3,640 metres above the sea, it is one of the highest settlements in the world and anyone arriving in town by air or via bus through the Andes will immediately be struck by its spectacular location.
It’s only 70km or so west of the magnificent Lake Titicaca – the birthplace of the Incas and also the highest navigable lake in the world. However it can still take several hours to reach the city by roads that weave in and out of the Andes and the journey features on our South America backpacking route.
2. Quito, Ecuador – 2,850m
From La Paz, it’s over 3,000 km along the Panamericana highway which hugs Peru’s Pacific Coast before climbing back up through the Andes to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. At 2,850 metres it is the second highest capital city in the world. It is situated on the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano and there are many much higher peaks to be found around the town.
3. Bogota, Colombia – 2,625m
Hop across the border into Colombia and you will eventually find Bogota, a sprawling city with over 10 million residents in its urban area. Many of the poorer districts lie on the hills that surround the city which is located on a high plateau in the Andes. Much like Quito, Bogota’s location close to the equator contributes to a climate which sees little seasonal variation with daily highs of around 20°C throughout the year but chilly nights.
4. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – 2,355m
Africa’s highest capital city and the 4th highest in the world is Addis Ababa. The city lies just a few miles from a major tectonic plate boundary known as the East African Rift which created a large number of mountains and volcanoes such as Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Karisimbi. Addis Ababa lies at the foot of Mount Entoto which overlooks the city from a peak of 3,200 metres.
5. Thimphu, Bhutan – 2,334m
You can scour the world without finding a more stunningly set city than Thimphu, the capital of the small Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan on the eastern fringes of the Himalayas. At 2,334 metres, Thimphu is actually relatively low-lying by the standards of the rest of the country where it’s possible to trek to peaks as high as Jomolhari at over 7 km above sea level.
The bad news is that it is notoriously difficult to visit with the Bhutanese government eager to limit tourism and keep the influence of outsiders to a minimum. Trips must be booked through an official Bhutanese tour operator with independent travel almost impossible.
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6. Asmara, Eritrea – 2,325m
Back to Africa for number six. Asmara lies on the western edge of the Eritrean highlands which covers a large area of this small East African nation. Despite its location at altitude, it’s only around 100 km by road to the shores of the Red Sea. Asmara is considered one of Africa’s most aesthetically pleasing capitals and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as recently as 2017.
7. Sana’a, Yemen – 2,250m
On the opposite side of the Red Sea from Eritrea lies Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. The city is one of the oldest in the world and is believed to have been founded by Shem, the son of Noah (of Noah’s ark fame!). The walled Old City is a fascinating place but sadly the current conflict in Yemen makes visiting highly inadvisable.
Read more – 5 European Cities that are Older than Rome
8. Mexico City, Mexico – 2,240m
The metropolitan area of Mexico City is home to over 20 million people, all of whom live at over 2 km above sea level. While locals are well accustomed to the altitude, visitors from afar may still struggle with oxygen levels still way down on what you find at sea level. The Mexican capital is surrounded on three sides by huge mountains and volcanoes which can make the descent into the city’s busy airport a challenging task for pilots and a nervy ride for passengers.
Read more – The world’s most dangerous airport landings
9. Tehran, Iran – 1,830m
Another huge metropolis at altitude is the Iranian capital Tehran. It lies at the foot of the Alborz mountain range, which spans some 900 km across the northern part of the country. Depending on where you are from, getting a visa to travel around Iran independently can be challenging but it’s a country with some wonderful trekking destinations, many within easy reach of the capital.
10. Nairobi, Kenya – 1,795m
Rounding off the 10 highest capitals in the world is Nairobi. The Kenyan city is situated on the River Athi, also close to the Rift Valley which does bring earthquakes and small tremors from time to time. Many visitors to the city come to head off on safaris with an abundance of wildlife to be found in the surrounding areas.
What about the world’s lowest capitals?
At the other end of the scale, there are two capitals that are actually situated below sea level. Amsterdam is -2 metres while the Azerbaijani capital Baku is at -28 metres making it easily the lowest lying capital as well as the largest city in the world located below sea level.
This article on the world’s highest capitals was published in November 2019.