The largest cities in the world have all grown to be densely populated mega metropoles during the most recent times in human history. Fueled by the industrial revolution, millions upon millions of people all around the world increasingly left the rural areas of their respective countries in favor of settling in big cities. There they found jobs, better educational opportunities, better infrastructure, and many more things that characterize big city life.
Today there are now close to 500 cities on Earth with a population of over 1 million. 23%, roughly 1 in 4 people, of the world’s population live in one such city. But the current Top 10 largest cities in the world all easily surpass even the 10 million mark.
The following ranking lists the Top 10 largest cities in the world by population based on the number of inhabitants in the city proper.
The 10 Largest Cities in the World
1. Shanghai, China
Founded in 746 and originally named ‘Qinglong Town’, Shanghai (which literally translates to “Upon the Sea”) has ever since grown to become the largest city in the world by city proper population. Over 22 million people call the city on China’s Eastcoast home, that’s more people than China’s capital city of Beijing. And there are no signs Shanghai will stop growing anytime soon either. It is one of the major economic and technological hubs of the planet.
2. Beijing, China
China’s capital city is also one of the oldest cities in the country and in the world. Almost exactly 19 million people live in the capital nowadays. Beijing was founded in 1045 BC (before Christ) as ‘Jicheng’. From its earliest years, the city served as the capital for various entities throughout Chinese history. First, it was the capital of the ancient Chinese State of Ji (hence the original name), later it become the capital of the successive State of Yan. Eventually, Beijing became the capital of a united China. Beijing can literally be translated to “Northern Capital”, alluding to the geographical location of the city in Northeastern China.
3. Lagos, Nigeria
The largest city of Nigeria is at the same time also the largest city on the entire African continent with a population of over 15 million. The city was founded sometime in the 15th Century as “Eko” after the Benin Empire conquered the entire area of what is now the city. Only shortly afterward, the city was renamed by the Portuguese colonizers, who took over the region by the late 15th Century, into Lagos (Portuguese for “Lakes”). The British, who took over the city later, kept the name in place.
As the largest city of the now independent Nigeria, Lagos now also belongs to the fastest-growing cities anywhere in the world. This isn’t really surprising considering Nigeria as a whole belongs to the most populous and fastest-growing countries in the world.
4. Karachi, Pakistan
Karachi is a very spread-out city, without a distinctive downtown area and characteristic skyscrapers in the middle of it. Many people may therefore be surprised about the fact that Pakistan’s major port town is indeed the world’s fourth-largest city with a population of just below 15 million. The city was founded only in 1729 but vastly grew after the British Empire took control of Karachi in 1839. Karachi was originally named Kolachi in honor of the fisherwoman Mai Kolachi who is said to have founded the town after heroically saving her husband in the middle of a heavy storm.
While not the capital anymore, Karachi is generally considered the economically and culturally most important city in the now-independent country of Pakistan.
5. Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul had many names over the years and has consistently belonged to the world’s most populous cities for the last 2,500 years. With its current population of almost 15 million, the city has reached a new record recently. The city was originally founded by the ancient Greeks in 660 BC and named ‘Byzantium’. Due to its attractive geographical position right between Europe and Asia, the city very quickly evolved into an extremely powerful and important city both in terms of trade and geopolitics.
The city was later conquered by the Romans. Roman emperor Constantine I then renamed the city ‘Constantinople’ (City of Constantine) in 330 and made it the Eastern capital of his Roman Empire. In 1453 the Ottoman Empire conquered the city and made it their capital. Nowadays, the city is named Istanbul (translated from old Greek literally meaning “to the City”) and is part of the modern-day Republic of Turkey.
6. Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo is the fifth largest city in the world by urban city proper population. At the same time, Japan’s capital represents the major part of the world’s largest metropolitan population. Almost exactly 14 million people live in proper Tokyo, but more than 37 million people live in the Greater Toyko Area which includes cities like Yokohama (3.6 million inhabitants), Kawasaki (1.4 million inhabitants), or Saitama (1.2 million inhabitants). Tokyo was originally founded in 1457 as ‘Edo’ (Japanese for estuary) in an area previously only inhabited by some fishermen.
Japanese emperor Meiji made Edo the new capital of his Empire in 1868 and changed the name to Tokyo which translated literally means “East Capital”. A fitting name for the metropolis on Japan’s Eastcoast.
7. Shenzhen, China
Shenzhen represents the by far youngest city in this Top 10 ranking of biggest cities in the world by city proper population. Despite having been founded only in 1953, the city in Southeastern China, right at the border with Hong Kong, has now almost 13 million inhabitants within its city limits. No other city in the world has experienced such rapid growth in such a short time.
8. Mumbai, India
Mumbai is India’s largest city. The city consists of seven islands separated by rivers. Mumbai was founded in the 3rd Century BC when it became a major settlement within the Maurya Empire. The city is named after the goddess Mumbadevi, who represents Mother Earth in Hinduism. It quickly evolved into one of the most important cities on the Indian subcontinent, both in terms of economy and culture.
In 1534 the city came under Portuguese rule and was renamed “Bombaim” (Portuguese for “Good Little Bay”). A century later the British Empire then took over India including Mumbai and anglicized the Portuguese name to “Bombay”, a name under which the city is still known in much of the English-speaking world. As the largest city of the now independent second-most populous country on Earth, the official name of the city has been changed back to Mumbai, which is now home to almost 13 million people.
9. Moscow, Russia
Originally a small timber fort named after the Moskva River, Moscow has now evolved into the capital and by far the biggest and most important city of the Russian Federation. Moscow’s rise began in the 13th Century when the predecessor state of Russia, the Kievan Rus centered in what is now Kyiv, Ukraine, was destroyed by the constant Mongol invasions. Daniel Nevsky, the youngest son of the ruler of the Kievan Rus, Alexander Nevsky, inherited the timber fort and subsequently transformed Moscow into the capital of what first became the Duchy of Moscow and then the Tsarist Russian Empire (although only for two years, Saint Petersburg served as the main capital of Tsarist Russia).
Moscow later also became the capital of the communist Soviet Union and is now the capital of the modern-day Russian Federation, being home to 12 and a half million people.
10. Sao Paulo, Brazil
Sao Paulo (“Saint Paul”) is the largest city in Brazil and also the largest Portuguese-speaking city anywhere in the world. The city was originally founded as a Jesuit college for priests named Sao Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga. It was founded by the Portuguese colonizers who took over the region in the 16th Century. The city remained a small village of little importance up until the early 18th Century when gold was found in the region around the city. The gold rush generated rapid and extremely fast growth in population for the city, quite quickly transforming it into the economic center of Brazil.
The city’s name has since been shortened to just Sao Paulo and it has now become the biggest city in the most populous country of South America. It is home to over 12 million people.
The 10 Largest Cities in the World
(as of January 2022, by population within the urban city proper)
|Top 10 Largest Cities in the World by Population:|
|1. SHANGHAI, China|
22.3 million people
|2. BEIJING, China|
19.0 million people
|3. LAGOS, Nigeria|
15.4 million people
|4. KARACHI, Pakistan|
14.9 million people
|5. ISTANBUL, Turkey|
14.8 million people
|6. TOKYO, Japan|
14.0 million people
|7. SHENZHEN, China|
12.9 million people
|8. MUMBAI, India|
12.8 million people
|9. MOSCOW, Russia|
12.5 million people
|10. SAO PAULO, Brazil|
12.2 million people
The 10 largest cities in the world by population within the city proper.