When comparing the world’s cities to one another, we often use defining characteristics - largest, greenest, most visited, highest-earning, the list goes on.
Yet elevation is often overlooked, despite the fact that thousands of cities across the globe are nestled in highlands, plateaus, and mountain ranges.
Today’s graphic looks at the top 50 highest cities worldwide, and compares their altitudes to well-known references (the differences are dizzying).
Cities in the Sky
When ranking the world’s highest cities, we specifically looked at major urban centers with a population of one million or more inhabitants, with an elevation “floor” of 1,000m.
Though you might expect less important cities to make the rankings, 22 out of the 50 highest cities are actually national capitals.
The elevation data comes from the European Commission’s database of urban centers, using Thomas Brinkhoff’s City Population dataset for updated demographics.
Average Elevation (m)
At the top of the pantheon is Bolivia’s El Alto-La Paz metropolitan area, which houses more than two million people at an average elevation of 3,869m above sea level. That’s a city of two million people situated more than 100 meters higher than Mount Fuji in Japan.
The next four are more than 1,000m lower than El Alto-La Paz, with Ecuador’s capital Quito coming in at second place at 2,784m and Colombia’s capital Bogotá rounding out the top five at 2,601m. For reference, that’s more than 100 meters higher than the world-famous Inca citadel Machu Picchu in Peru, which sits at a height of 2,430m.
It’s notable just how mountainous Latin America is. Of the 10 highest cities, three are in Mexico’s many mountainous regions and four of the top five are adjacent to the Andes Mountains.
Asia and the Americas Tower Above
Though it might be expected that countries would have their population centers close to sea level, many instead have followed in the footsteps of past civilizations by building in higher regions.
In addition to many capitals in South America, that list of major cities includes Mexico City, easily the largest on the list as the world’s 8th largest metropolis, Addis Ababa, the capital and largest city in Ethiopia, Tehran, the capital of Iran and most populous city in Western Asia, and Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa.
The countries with the most high cities were China and Mexico, with eight each. China specifically had the most high metropolises in Asia, and many of the world’s highest settlements, though most of its major cities lie outside the Tibetan and Mongolian Plateaus.
Regional Breakdown of Top 50 Highest Cities
As the table above highlights, while wide mountainous regions are concentrated in much of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, the Western world is largely located close to the water.
The West Sits Below
The U.S. and Canada each only had one city each crack the top 50 list: the Rocky Mountain-adjacent cities of Denver and Calgary.
Meanwhile, despite the European Alps stretching across eight countries and both Australia and New Zealand having many mountains tall enough to crack the list, both Europe and Oceania had no major city situated more than 1,000m above sea level.
But though most of humanity remains concentrated near sea level, it is impressive to remember that hundreds of millions of people live in cities higher than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s highest tower.
In fact, studies have shown that living at higher altitudes has associated health benefits, including better cardiovascular health and lower incidence of stroke and cancer.
Regardless if future trends push more people thousands of meters into the sky, humanity has proven that it can prosper.