Capital cities can embody the worst characteristics of a nation. They are loud, busy, overcrowded; home to the rich elite, and the poorest of the poor; they are the place you are most likely to be mugged, or hassled, or scammed; where the cost of living is the highest and quality of life is lowest.
Some capital cities have terrible reputations – both inside the country and out. But most have redeeming features that mean they are still worth a visit.
African capital cities
Lilongwe is a small, sleepy capital full of leafy boulevards, many lined with delightful, red-flowering poinciana trees.
Rabat came into the world as sweet and innocent as a newborn babe. Over the centuries it slowly grew in size, it developed its own unique character, it had its share of ups and downs; it even hit the big time for a few years. But the high was followed by a calamitous low. And it was at that point that Rabat turned to a life of crime.
Kigali is built upon four prominent ridges, and also occupies, though to a lesser extent, the valleys in between. The Rwandan capital is green, thanks to reforestation initiatives, and remarkably clean. And I don’t mean just reasonably clean, or pretty clean; it is really, really, really clean; not a trace of litter to be seen. Every roadside verge and public park is in immaculate condition.
Kampala, capital city of Uganda, used to be called Kam-pothole due to the sorry state of its roads. But Kampala has come a long way in recent years – in 2016 it was declared the most liveable city in East Africa (it came 169th in global rankings).
Asian capital cities
Thimpu is one of the few national capitals that lacks its own airport. The closest airport is at Paro, a one-hour drive away, from where you can board flights to Thailand, India, and Nepal.
When most people think of Jakarta they think of traffic, noise, pollution, congestion. And for the most part they’re right. Jakarta is noisy, and polluted, and crowded. And the traffic is horrendous.
Central Asian capital cities:
Bishkek began life as a caravanserai, a rest stop for those plying the Silk Road through the perilous Tian Shan mountain range.
A settlement has existed at the junction of the Varzob and Kofarnihon Rivers for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. By the 1600s the village had come to be known as Dushanbe, Tajik for two days after Saturday, after its large Monday bazaar.
Middle Eastern capital cities
I was looking forward to some top quality muscat grapes – the big red ones – when I arrived in Muscat, Oman. I wasn’t expecting wine, or moscato, I was perfectly aware that Oman upholds the traditional Islamic value of abstinence from alcohol, but I was still looking forward to eating the grapes.
Doha was founded in the 1820s as a trading port in the Persian Gulf. It’s now a city of 1.5 million and contains half the population of Qatar.
Street-side vendors in Istanbul sell shirts emblazoned with the words: London, New York, Istanbul. Clearly these vendors rate their city as one of the most important and influential in the world. Is that the case? Probably not today. But in the past? Yes.
South American capital cities
Water boils at 87.6 degrees Celsius in La Paz, Bolivia. The boiling point is so low because the city’s elevation is so high – La Paz is situated at an average height 3,650 metres above mean sea level, making it the highest capital city in the world. But why is La Paz located at such a high altitude? It doesn’t seem the most logical place to position a city, especially a capital city.
Rio de Janeiro is the only big city in the world that I’ll admit has a nicer natural setting than that of my hometown, Sydney. It’s a fun, glamorous, vibrant city, with plenty of opportunities to party – especially during Carnaval. Unfortunately it’s also quite dangerous, and large tracts of the city, including many of its beaches, are too unsafe for tourists to visit.
City of eight million. Perched on the Colombian high savannah. Notorious for crime, murder, drugs, danger; more recently for art, literature, world-class graffiti.
Quito, Ecuador has the honour of being one of the first two sites selected for UNESCO World Heritage status (the other was Krakow, Poland). The city is also the 2nd highest capital in the world, with an average elevation of 2,850 metres (the highest is La Paz, Bolivia; in 3rd place is Thimpu, Bhutan). But when it comes to proximity to the equator, Quito reigns supreme. The equator lies just 25 kilometres from the city centre, and it sits within a kilometre of the city outskirts.
Central American capital cities
Gang violence is a serious problem for residents of San Salvador, with a murder rate that averages around 90 murders per 100, 000 people, it is up there with the most violent cities in the world (in 2016 it had the 7th highest murder rate in the world).
Like most, or perhaps all, Central American capital cities, Guatemala City has a reputation for guns, drugs, violence and danger.
Founded in 1673 on a small, easily defended peninsula on Panama Bay, the new city, now known as Casco Viejo, flourished for a good many decades. But the sacking of Portobelo by the British in 1739, marked the end of the glory days for wealthy port cities in the New World. Much of Panama City fell to ruin.
European capital cities
Riga, Latvia, has had a pretty interesting life. It’s changed hands – or passed between empires is probably a better way to put it – no less than 11 times. You’d think such a place would be war torn, ripped to shreds, bombed to smithereens. But it’s not. Riga is pretty. Very pretty. Sometimes verging on twee.
Baku is the deepest capital city in the world. It’s sits at 28 metres below sea level (that’s the elevation of the Caspian Sea, upon whose shores Baku resides). Not only is it the deepest capital city in the world, it’s also the largest city in the world to be located below sea level.
European capital cities (Balkan states)
Albania was thought of as the bad egg of Europe for a good many years. At the time, Tirana was regarded as one of the worst – if not the worst – capital cities in the continent. But Albania’s time as an isolationist communist nation is over. The country is in a process of re-discovering itself, and Tirana is the nation’s sounding board.
The only thing I knew about Sarajevo, prior to my visit, was that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated there in 1914, and that his death led the Austro-Hungarian Empire to declare war on Serbia, which triggered World War I.
But there is much more to Sarajevo, the so-called Jerusalem of Europe, than this one tragic moment.
Sofia is Greek word; it means wisdom. Sofia a pretty name for a child. What does it mean, though, when the name is given to a city?
Kosovo is a tiny country. It’s roughly 100 kilometres north to south, and 100 kilometres east to west, making it more or less the same size as my hometown of Sydney, Australia. At 10,000km2 in size, Kosovo is the 10th smallest nation in Europe. It’s capital, Pristina (pronounced Prishtina), has a population of just 200,000.
Central European capital cities
Europe has plenty of micro-states, but for some reason it’s double-landlocked Liechtenstein that most often comes to mind when discussions are had as to which is the tiniest and obscurest of European nation states. What does Liechtenstein have going for it? And is Vaduz, the capital, worth a visit?
Which is the only capital city in the world to straddle the borders of two foreign nations? Yes, It’s Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.
Ljubljana Castle, which looms over the city from atop Castle Hill, dates back to at least the 12th Century CE – the first written record of the castle comes from the 1151 chronicle Nomina defunctorum (meaning: The names of the dead).