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.
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).
There’s a clue to the origin of Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, in the city’s name.
Port Louis was used as a harbour during the Dutch colonial period, but it was the French that developed it into an administrative centre. Mauritius was known as Île-de-France at the time, and the new city was named Port Louis in honour of King Louis XV.
Asian capital cities
The story of the Philippines, and of Manila, is a story of the coming together of cultures.
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.
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.
Oceania capital cities
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, from which they will not emerge for the duration of their holiday.
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.
Amman, the capital city of Jordan, is really, really old. The origins of the city go back some 12,000 years.
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.
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). 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.
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.
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.
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.
Take a map. That would be my advice for those hoping to navigate their way through the historic centre of Vilnius.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).