Metropolis Maximus: The Largest Cities in the World

In the complex story of human civilisation, the rise of cities has been a defining feature, shaping societies, economies, and cultures. The largest cities in the world are massive metropolises that dominate their respective regions and command global influence. Here are the world’s biggest cities by population as well as the largest city by area.

Building Big Engineering
2 February 2024

Two hundred thousand years ago, there may have been as few as 10,000 people on planet Earth. Two thousand years ago, the world’s population was probably somewhere between 150 million and 300 million. Two years ago it hit eight billion, and about half live in cities. Many of them in the largest cities in the world.

These cities, characterised by their huge populations and vast economic activities, represent the zenith of urban development, and the contenders for the biggest city in the world and the largest city by area are more than just population centres. They are hubs of innovation, culture, and power that continuously reshape our understanding of urban living.

Urbanisation, driven by the promise of economic opportunity and a better quality of life, has been a key driver in their growth. Post-World War II, many cities witnessed an exponential increase in population due to rural-urban migration, improvements in transportation, and economic globalisation. This surge has led to the emergence of megacities – urban areas exceeding ten million inhabitants.

Their growth, often unplanned and rapid, poses unique challenges and opportunities, influencing everything from infrastructure development to cultural dynamics.

Here are some of the largest cities in the world.

Measuring the Largest City in the World

Aeriel view of San Francisco, USA at night. (Credit: Michael H via Getty Images)

Ranking the world’s biggest cities is a complex endeavour, as various criteria such as population, area, economic output, and cultural influence come into play. While population remains the most common metric, there are three main ways in which the populations of the largest cities in the world can be measured –

City Proper

Ranking by city proper involves measuring the population and area within the administrative boundaries of the city, focusing on the core region excluding suburban and outlying areas.

Urban Area

Measuring the largest city in the world by urban area considers the continuous urban region or built-up area, often including the suburbs, not limited by administrative boundaries.

Metropolitan Area

The metropolitan area takes into account the broader economic and social influence of a city, including adjacent towns and suburbs that have strong commuting ties to the central urban core.

For this article, the metric used to measure the largest cities in the world is the population of the urban area, but it’s also worth noting that the dynamic nature of city growth means that these figures are broad estimates and can change relatively quickly.

The list below is a snapshot of some of the world’s biggest cities by population. For a full list of the top twenty, scroll to the bottom of the page.

The headings are – City, Country | Urban Area Population | Urban Area Size

London, England | 11,200,000 | 1,738 km2

Oxford Street during rush hour is full of buses, taxis and pedestrians. (Credit: David Crespo via Getty Images)

Founded by the Romans as Londinium around 47 AD, London is one of the biggest cities in the world, as well as one of the most vibrant and metropolitan. It’s one of the most visited cities in Europe, is home to the second-busiest airport in the world by passenger traffic, and the iconic London Underground is the world’s oldest rapid transit system.

Johannesburg, South Africa | 14,600,000 | 4,040 km2

Skyline of Johannesburg City Centre (Credit: BFG Images via Getty Images)

South Africa’s most populous city, and a contender for the largest city in the world, Johannesburg was established as recently as 1886 when gold was discovered on a rural farm. Today, Joburg, or Jozi, as it’s often known locally, is a huge metropolis known as a hub for global commerce, particularly within the gold and diamond trade.

Interestingly, no-one is certain why the city is called Johannesburg. It may have been named after the country’s mining chief, Christiaan Johannes Joubert, former president of the South African Republic, Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger, or a local politician called Johannes Meyer.

Beijing, China | 18,500,000 | 4,284 km2

Beijing central business district. (Credit: DuKai photographer via Getty Images)

The capital of the People’s Republic of China is a modern-day megacity. With an early human fossil history dating back around 250,000 years, Beijing, which translates as Northern Capital (used to distinguish it from Nanjing, or Southern Capital, in the early fifteenth century) is one of the largest cities in the world.

In little more than a century, Beijing has transformed from an ancient capital, home to the Temple of Heaven, parts of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the famous narrow alleys called hutongs, into a state-of-the-art megacity, and a leading global centre for education, transport, finance, and scientific research.

New York City, USA | 21,500,000 | 12,093 km2

Times Square, New York City, USA (Credit: Alexander Spatari via Getty Images)

The Big Apple is the most populous city in the United States and home to the headquarters of the United Nations. It was settled by the Dutch in the 1620s and was originally called New Amsterdam, but changed to New York in 1664 when King Charles II granted territory to his brother, the Duke of York.

In 1898, the modern city of New York was formed by the consolidation of the boroughs of Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island and The Bronx. The largest city by area in the USA (using urban area as the metric, Houston is the largest by city proper), New York is also one of the world’s most linguistically diverse, with as many as 800 different languages spoken.

Mexico City, Mexico | 21,800,000 | 2,530 km2

Avenida Madero, Mexico City, Mexico (Credit: Geography Photos / Contributor via Getty Images)

Often stated to be North America’s most populous city, as well as the oldest capital city in the Americas, Mexico City was founded in the 1320s by the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica people. The legend states that the site of the city was chosen by their god Huitzilopochtli by presenting them with a golden eagle sitting on top of a prickly pear eating a rattlesnake.

Called the City of the Palaces (La Ciudad de los Palacios) by German geographer Alexander von Humboldt in the nineteenth century, today, it is one of the world’s biggest cities and also one of the highest by elevation, at 2,240 metres (7,350 feet) above sea level.

São Paulo, Brazil | 23,100,000 | 3,649 km2

Sun setting over São Paulo, Brazil. (Credit: Matt Mawson via Getty Images)

The biggest city in the world outside Asia, the world’s largest Portuguese-speaking city, and believed to be home to the largest Arab, Japanese and Italian diasporas, São Paulo is a true megacity. Founded in 1554 by Jesuit priests and named after Paul the Apostle, São Paulo has the Latin motto Non ducor, duco, which translates as ‘I am not led, I lead.’

Manila, Philippines | 24,900,000 | 1,911 km2

Sunset over the Manila skyline. (Credit: Neil Howard via Getty Images)

One of the largest cities in the world as well as one of its most densely populated, the history of Manila can be traced back over 5,000 years. It was one of the world’s great trading posts, sitting at the confluence of the Silk Road, the Spice Route and the Silver Flow, and is situated on Luzon, the largest and most populous of the Philippine islands.

The Filipino name for the city, Maynilà, is derived from the phrase may-nilà, which translates to ‘where indigo is found’. This harks back to a time when indigo was traded there, one of the city’s most important economic activities in the early eighteenth century.

Delhi, India | 32,200,000 | 2,344 km2

Panorama of Old Delhi, India. (Credit: Thana Prasongsin via Getty Images)

Known officially as the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi, India’s most populous city is also believed to be one of the world’s fastest-growing. One of the world’s biggest cities, Delhi has a long and fascinating history, and its vibrant festivals, diverse linguistic landscape, and a blend of ancient and modern architecture underscore its unique position as a symbol of India’s rich history and dynamic present.

Jakarta, Indonesia | 33,800,000 | 3,546 km2

City skyline at sunset, Jakarta, Indonesia. (Credit: nala_rinaldo via Getty Images)

The largest urban area in Indonesia and the second largest city in the world, Jakarta was officially founded in 1527 and took its name from the Sanskrit words jaya, meaning victorious, and krta, meaning accomplished, in honour of a military victory.

Just 1,200 miles from the coast of Western Australia, Jakarta was the de facto capital of the Dutch East Indies. In the seventeenth century, it was known as Koningin van het Oosten, or Queen of the Orient, such was the beauty of the city’s canals, grand houses and organised, considered layout.

Tokyo, Japan | 37,800,000 | 8,231 km2

Akihabara electric town, Tokyo, Japan. (Credit: Matteo Colombo via Getty Images)

The capital of Japan is the biggest city in the world. On Honshu island at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, Tokyo, originally known as Edo, was little more than a fishing village up to the start of the seventeenth century.

Home to the Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest radio tower, as well as the Toyosu Market, the world’s largest wholesale fish market, the famous Shibuya Crossing, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world, and Shinjuku, one of the world’s largest train stations, Japan’s population has been on a slow and steady decline since 2008 but it remains the largest city in the world.

The World’s Largest City by Area

Crowded Residential district at night in Chongqing, China. (Credit: DuKai photographer via Getty Images)

Determining the physical size of a city by its urban area is challenging due to several factors.

There is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes an urban area. Different countries and organisations use different technological and methodological criteria including population density, built-up area, and the continuity of urban development, which leads to varying measurements.

In addition, urban areas are dynamic and constantly evolving, often expanding beyond administrative boundaries. This expansion, which can also be influenced by natural barriers such as rivers or mountains, can be irregular and rapid, especially in developing countries, making it difficult to accurately measure and update size.

The largest city by area, using the criteria of city proper, i.e. the area just within a city’s administrative boundaries, is believed to be Chongqing in China, with an area of just over 84,400 km2. Chongqing is followed by the Chinese city of Harbin with an area of approximately 53,000 km2 and then Khartoum in Sudan (22,100 km2).

The rest of the top ten largest cities in the world by area are all in China, including Hangzhou, Beijing, Shenyang and Xi’an, ranging from 16,600 km2 to just over 10,000 km2.

Europe’s largest city by area is believed to be Istanbul in Turkey at 5,200 km2, and the largest in the USA is the southeastern Texas city of Houston, with an area of around 1,600 km2.

List of The Top 20 Largest Cities in the World

Buenos Aires, Argentina (Credit: Anton Petrus via Getty Images)

City | Country | Estimated Urban Area Population

  1. Tokyo | Japan | 37,800,000
  2. Jakarta | Indonesia | 33,800,000
  3. Delhi | India | 32,200,000
  4. Guangzhou | China | 26,900,000
  5. Mumbai | India | 25,000,000
  6. Manila | Philippines | 24,900,000
  7. Shanghai | China | 24,100,000
  8. São Paulo | Brazil | 23,100,000
  9. Seoul | South Korea | 23,000,000
  10. Mexico City | Mexico | 21,800,000
  11. Kolkata | India | 21,700,000
  12. New York City | USA | 21,500,000
  13. Chengdu | China | 21,000,000
  14. Cairo | Egypt | 20,300,000
  15. Dhaka | Bangladesh | 18,600,000
  16. Beijing | China | 18,500,000
  17. Bangkok | Thailand | 18,000,000
  18. Shenzhen | China | 17,600,000
  19. Moscow | Russia | 17,300,000
  20. Buenos Aires | Argentina | 16,700,000

Bright Lights, Big Cities

London city, with a light motion blur. (Credit: YiuCheung via Getty Images)

From Tokyo’s sprawling expanse to the bustling streets of Delhi, the world’s biggest cities are much more than simply aggregations of people and buildings. They are vibrant hubs of culture, commerce, and innovation, reflecting the complexities of urban growth and the rich and vibrant tapestry of human experience.

As the relentless expansion of these massive metropolises continues, they not only encapsulate the triumphs of human ingenuity but also pose critical questions about sustainability, livability, and equitable development.

The story of the largest cities in the world is a continuing and fascinating narrative, one that encapsulates the essence of the past, the dynamism of the present, and the uncertainties and possibilities of the future.


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