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.
East African Capital Cities:
Just landed in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia (population: 2.8 million), and keen to stretch your legs?
Kigali is built upon four prominent ridges, and also occupies, though to a lesser extent, the valleys in between.
Kampala, capital city of Uganda, used to be called Kam-pothole due to the sorry state of its roads.
Port Louis was used as a harbour during the Dutch colonial period, but it was the French that developed it into an administrative centre.
Southern African Capital Cities:
Lilongwe is a small, sleepy capital full of leafy boulevards, many lined with delightful, red-flowering poinciana trees.
Northern African Capital Cities:
Rabat came into the world as sweet and innocent as a newborn babe.
West African Capital Cities:
There’s a clue to the origin of Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, in the city’s name.
South-east Asian Capital Cities:
The story of the Philippines, and of Manila, is a story of the coming together of cultures.
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.
Eastern South 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.
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.
Tashkent was once a thriving Silk Road city. And it would still be thought of as such if it weren’t for a devastating earthquake in 1966 that destroyed much of the city’s historic quarter.
Before visiting Nukus the only information I had on the city was from my guidebook, which declared Nukus a desolate cultural wasteland.
Middle Eastern Capital Cities:
I was looking forward to some top quality muscat grapes – the big red ones – when I arrived in Muscat, Oman.
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.
Amman, the capital city of Jordan, is really, really old. The origins of the city go back some 12,000 years.
You don’t hear much about Port Moresby as a travel destination. You don’t hear much about the city at all, for that matter, apart from it being rife with violent crime.
The majority of people that fly into Port Vila, Vanuatu, will be immediately whisked away to a resort of some description.
Apia, Samoa’s capital, with a population of less than 40,000, is small and sleepy as far as capital cities go.
Water boils at 87.6 degrees Celsius in La Paz, Bolivia.
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.
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).
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.
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.
San José, capital city of Costa Rica, has a rather unusual founding story.
Caribbean Capital Cities:
Barbados was uninhabited when the British arrived in 1625. They soon realised, however, that this wasn’t always the case.
Cuba is trapped in a time bubble. Walk down the main street of Havana today and you’ll swear you’ve been sent back to the 1950s.
Baltic Region Capital Cities:
Riga, Latvia, has had a pretty interesting life. It’s changed hands no less than 11 times.
Take a map. That would be my advice for those hoping to navigate their way through the historic centre of Vilnius.
The Caucasus Capital Cities:
Baku is the deepest capital city in the world. It’s sits at 28 metres below sea level.
Tbilisi, capital city of Georgia, had the fortune, or perhaps misfortune, of being situated at the crossroads of two ancient, perpetually-vying empires…
The Balkan Peninsula Capital Cities:
Albania was thought of as the bad egg of Europe for a good many years.
The only thing I knew about Sarajevo, prior to my visit, was that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated there in 1914.
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.
Roll time forward to 1963. The city is now called Skopje, and it is situated within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. On July 26 1963 another earthquake strikes, and the 80% of the city is levelled.
Central European Capital Cities:
My travel guide said many tourists prefer to skip Warsaw altogether and head straight to Kraków or Wrocław, which hardly sounded like a recommendation.
Europe has plenty of micro-states, but for some reason it’s double-landlocked Liechtenstein that most often comes to mind.
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.