The center of the city lies on a plateau overlooking the bay to the southeast. The airport lies a few kilometers to the northeast.
Praia is the economic, political, and cultural center of Cabo Verde. The island of Santiago was discovered by António da Noli in 1460. The first settlement on the island was Ribeira Grande (Cidade Velha). The village Praia de Santa Maria was first mentioned around 1615 and grew near the natural harbour. The ports of Santiago were important ports of call for ships sailing between Portugal and the Portuguese colonies in Africa and South America. Between the end of the 16th century and the end of the 18th century, both Ribeira Grande and Praia suffered many pirate attacks, including those by Francis Drake (1585) and Jacques Cassard (1712). Due to its strategic position on a plateau it had better protection against pirate attacks, which gave it a large advantage over the older city of Ribeira Grande (Cidade Velha). It gradually superseded Cidade Velha to become the most important settlement of Cape Verde, and became the capital of Cape Verde in 1770.