In some ways it's just a name, an honorific bestowed on a population base for no good reason at all. Being a capital city shouldn't mean that much. It's just a place where leaders meet; a symbolic figurehead for a country to call its own.
And yet the world's capital cities often boast far more than mere symbolism. These seats of power define entire nations: they're a microcosm of the country they represent, a statement of ambition, a show of achievement. At their best capital cities are a nation's heart and its soul. They're often ancient settlements, deeply important places that capture a civilisation's proud history as well as boast of its exciting future.
The capital cities of today come in all shapes and sizes, in all climates and hues. Some are modern and intimidating; others are small and ooze charm. The best of them, the most memorable, are bold, beautiful, and sometimes even bizarre. In these cities you can immediately appreciate what a country is all about, you can soak up a place that's a mix of cultures, a diversity of ethnicities and backgrounds, and come to know what a nation is all about. You can tap into its passions. You can understand its history. You can observe its quirks.
And you can have a great time doing it.
DYNAMIC CAPITAL CITIES THAT WILL ENERGISE AND INSPIRE
Berlin is not Germany. Ask anyone who lives in the city; ask any German who doesn't. This capital is unique in that it's not particularly representative of the country it leads. While Germany is known for its buttoned-down efficiency and its no-nonsense style, Berlin is anything but. This is a city that's dynamic and creative, that's gritty and in some places quite poor. Berlin has been forever shaped by the wall that once so famously divided it: freedom here, particularly freedom of expression, is prized above all else. That artistic flair can take the form of performance art, graffiti, public sculptures, open-air concerts, or simple community support for the creative, the edgy and the bizarre. Berlin is not Germany – and you wouldn't want it any other way.
There's no capital city quite like Tokyo: nowhere can match its sheer size, its sheer breadth of sights and experiences. This is a megalopolis of almost 40 million people, a sprawling, buzzing city in which it can often seem that the possibilities are endless. Whatever you're into, whatever you want to do, you can do it in Tokyo. Somewhat surprisingly, this city has only been Japan's capital since 1868, and as such the city doesn't have the history of the nation's former capital, Kyoto. What it does have, however, is a uniquely dynamic modernity, captured in a sometimes overwhelming blur of light and sound, people and machines. There's life in Tokyo, so much life – and it's always worth living.
The Lisbon of a decade ago was hardly bold. This was a city lurching from crisis to crisis, in recovery mode from a tough early 2000s, and about to be plunged once again into the economic doldrums. But then, a bailout. And after that, the tourists arrived. Portugal's capital has now well and truly bounced back to become one of the most exciting destinations in Europe, if not the world. This is a historic city, a place that has existed for more than 2500 years, and you can feel that antiquity as you wander the higgledy-piggledy streets of traditional neighbourhoods such as Alfama and Bairro Alto, or walk riverfront promenades that have been the setting-off point for some of the world's greatest expeditions. The Lisbon of today has an undeniable buzz – it's a friendly, upbeat capital that represents Portugal in the best way.
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO
It's an experience just flying into Mexico's capital, just marvelling at the sheer sprawl of this city of more than 20 million people. The Distrito Federal – or "the DF", as this city is affectionately known – seems to stretch on forever, and once you're on the ground that feeling doesn't abate. There's more to this place, however, than its size and intimidation factor. Mexico City might seem scary, but it has heart and soul. It has character. It also has amazing food, influenced by migrants who've moved to the capital from all over the country, as well as an amazing artistic pedigree, with works by former residents such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera on permanent display. There's Aztec history here, as well as architectural hangovers from the colonial era. There's also football, lucha libre wrestling, and a love of a drink and a dance. You'll never be bored in the DF.
NEW DELHI, INDIA
India's capital only has a population of a few hundred thousand people. That's an interesting thing to ponder for a country of more than a billion. Of course, New Delhi is a strange one, a city within a city, a capital completely surrounded by Old Delhi, which is a metropolis of more than 25 million. It's pointless for visitors to attempt to differentiate between the two – you might as well just enjoy these twin cities for everything they have to offer, from the chaotic bazaars and beautiful mosques of the old city, to the colonial-era charm of the newer settlement. Although it's tempting to romanticise Delhi, to describe it as a step back in time, the reality is that this is a modern, dynamic hub, a city with a colossal middle class that enjoys all of the delights of 21st-century life. This really is two cities with endless facets.
STUNNING HUBS WITH BOTH NATURAL AND MAN-MADE CHARM
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
Argentina's capital is the best of both worlds, a blend of European-style good looks with Latino charm, a ruggedly handsome place that is at times hair-tearingly shambolic, at other times intensely worthy of swoon. It's a capital city that is defined by passion, a place whose schedule and rhythm is driven by its citizens' great loves: football, fashion, the tango, food and wine. Great leaders have walked the streets and stalked the halls of power here: Che Guevara did his schooling in BA; Eve Peron made the city her own. There are attractions, too, that relate directly to its status as a capital, from the Casa Rosada, the government house, to the art galleries and museums that premier cities typically sport. The real star of the show, however, is the city itself, in all its Euro-flavoured glory.
One of life's great pleasures is a simple stroll through Rome. You don't need a plan. You don't need a map. All you have to do is wander the cobbled streets of the Centro Storico and just wait to stumble upon some of the world's most famous sights: there's the Pantheon around one corner; Piazza Navona through another archway; Campo de' Fiori with its open-air market; the Jewish ghetto; the Palazzo Spada; the Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi. Rome's almost 3000-year history is everywhere you look in this spectacular city, which is not just a tourist attraction, but a living, breathing place, a modern and at times chaotic capital that exists within the physical bounds of its storied past. You can't help but fall in love with Italy's seat of power, instantly and eternally.
You might picture Russia's capital as being part of the post-communist badlands, with endless grey apartment blocks and featureless streets. And there are parts of Moscow that are like that. However, those parts are in the minority, because the bulk of this city is actually surprisingly and stunningly beautiful. Think the multi-coloured domes of St Basil's Cathedral; the imposing grandiosity of the riverside Kremlin; the classic beauty of the Bolshoi Theatre; the Gothic good looks of the Stalinist "Seven Sisters" skyscrapers. There's an intangible attraction to Moscow too, a feeling that this is where it all happens, that this is a seat of power both frightening and impressive. It certainly makes for an interesting visit.
The twin cities of Buda and Pest command enviable positions on the banks of the Danube, and boast no shortage of manmade adornments, architectural styles that reflect Budapest's long history: Baroque to Art Nouveau, Gothic to Renaissance, Roman to Ottoman. There's the spectacular riverfront parliament building, the neo-Renaissance Opera House, the iconic Chain Bridge, and the Romanesque Fisherman's Bastion. Budapest's beauty, however, also lies in its culture, one that's been shaped by a long history but also adapted by modern citizens. There's a sophisticated food and wine scene here, as well as a buzzing nightlife, and a love of a hot-spring bath, a cultural staple descended from Roman occupation.
No city defines the concept of shabby chic like Havana, the crumbling and yet charming capital of Cuba. Although it might appear on face value as an unfortunate example of faded glory, of a once spectacular Spanish colonial port town left to decay, Havana still has style, and is almost more attractive for its decline. Vintage American cars still trundle its streets. Paint peels artfully from once-bright colonial facades. Cafes and bars that were frequented by Hemingway and his ilk recall Havana in its heyday. This is still a city with a song in its heart, and you'll find its residents singing and dancing and strumming and drumming on street corners, in squares, in bars and in restaurants almost any time of the night or day.
FAR-FLUNG AND FOREIGN CENTRES THAT ARE SURE TO CAPTURE THE ATTENTION
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA
The fact you can even visit Pyongyang will come as a surprise to many travellers. North Korea doesn't seem like the most welcoming of countries, given its isolationism and its track record of imprisoning possibly innocent visitors. Still, tourists are officially welcome in Pyongyang, and the process of obtaining a visa isn't that difficult. Once you've secured entry you'll find a Truman Show-like city where streets are spotless, hotels are unoccupied, and high achievers are paraded before you in an obvious show of supposed success. There are chances here, however, to peer behind the curtain, to brush with normal North Koreans at work and play, and it's these interactions that will be the highlight of your stay.
When does a capital city not feel like a capital city? Maybe when it has a population of a little over 100,000 and can barely call itself a city at all. That's Thimphu, the high-altitude capital of Bhutan. Thimphu only got television and internet in 1999. The city used to have just a single set of traffic lights, although they were removed in favour of a white-gloved traffic cop who's much better at controlling the flow. For all of its rustic charm, however, Thimphu does have a few traces of modernity, including a couple of pizzerias, a decent café or two, and even a nightclub. Anyone who travels here for the nightlife though has been sadly misled – Thimphu is life in the slow lane.
OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO
First, a confession: Ouagadougou has made this list due to the greatness of its name, rather than its desirability as a destination. Still, if you're after a little-known capital, "Ouago" fits the bill. Burkina Faso's main hub is a surprisingly interesting stopover for those prepared to make the journey, with bustling, scooter-filled streets and a few unique pieces of architecture, as well as a thriving arts and crafts scene. Most visitors spend their time wandering through the markets, checking out the handicraft stalls, going to see live West African music, or trying to spot crocodiles at the central Bangr Weogo Park (seriously).
Astana has only been the capital of Kazakhstan for 20 years, and yet in that time President Nursultan Nazarbayev has used the wealth derived from his country's natural resources boom to sculpt a thoroughly unique, if slightly bizarre, city filled with architectural wonders. Sure, Astana sits in the middle of nowhere, and is the second-coldest capital city in the world. But it's also home to a giant tepee that houses a shopping mall and a fake, indoor beach; two golden, glass towers; a library shaped like a huge glass eye; an enormous pyramid; an art gallery known as the "dog bowl"; and a fairly ugly tower said to have been designed by the president himself. All fascinating, and thoroughly strange.
Where is Funafuti? You may well ask. This island capital is marooned in the Pacific, sort of near Tonga, and close (ish) to Wallis and Futuna. It's home to a mere 6000 people. It has one road, and one runway. It has no hills or mountains, no rivers or gorges. There are no tourist attractions to speak of. What Funafuti does have, however, is amazing diving and snorkelling, plus plenty of opportunities to catch a few fish. It's also one of the world's best locations to check out from the modern world and just enjoy island paradise.
TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF THE WORLD
1. WHAT IS THE WORLD'S HIGHEST CAPITAL CITY?
(La Paz, Bolivia – 3640 metres)
2. WHICH CAPITAL CITY'S OFFICIAL NAME HAS 168 LETTERS?
(Bangkok [Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit])
3. IF YOU WERE EXPLORING THE NEIGHBOURHOODS OF LASTARRIA, BELLAVISTA AND PROVIDENCIA, WHICH CAPITAL CITY WOULD YOU BE IN?
4. WHICH IS THE LARGEST US STATE CAPITAL BY AREA?
(Juneau, Alaska – 8430 square kilometres)
5. MYANMAR'S CURRENT CAPITAL CITY IS NAYPYIDAW, BUT WHAT WAS IT UP UNTIL 2005?
6. WHICH CAPITAL CITY IS FURTHER NORTH: REYKJAVIK, OR OSLO?
7. WHAT IS THE ONLY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD THAT DOESN'T HAVE A CAPITAL CITY?
8. IS KENYA'S CAPITAL, NAIROBI, IN THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE, OR THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE?
9. WHICH COUNTRY'S CAPITAL HAS THE SMALLEST POPULATION?
(Palau – Ngerulmud, 250 people)
10. IN WHICH CAPITAL CITY WOULD YOU FIND THE LITTLE MERMAID STATUE?
STATE OF PLAY
FIVE OF THE BEST US STATE CAPITALS
The Alaskan capital would have to rate as one of the US's most isolated cities, given it can only be accessed by boat or plane, surrounded as it is by steep mountains on one side and cold ocean on the other. That isolation helps explain a few of Juneau's quirks, although this is still an enjoyable city to spend some time before heading out to go whale-watching, or bear-spotting, or hiking through those mountains.
If you're a music fan, then you already know about Nashville, Tennessee. This has long been the capital of the country music world, and in recent years it has embraced a wider range of genres, with indie and alt-country bands now calling the city home. No trip to Nashville would be complete without a visit to the Grand Ole Opry to see a band, and a night of bar-hopping through some of the best drinking dens in the country.
There's Austin, and then there's Texas. This city is a world apart from the boot-scootin' state that surrounds it, a bastion of liberal ideas and creative flair in the middle of cowboy country. Austin is famously and tenaciously weird, with a great live music scene, a healthy respect for the arts, and a food culture – focused on some of the best barbecue you'll ever eat – that's worth the journey there alone.
One of the US's oldest cities has character to burn, thanks to a long history of migration from Ireland and Italy, Russia and China. This melting pop of cultures has helped create a city with a strong arts scene, with great food both native and imported, and a sports fanaticism that you won't find anywhere else in the States. Catch a Red Sox game, or see the Celtics or the Bruins to experience the passion.
"Mile-high city" has come a long way from the glorified cowboy town it once was – the Denver of today is filled with craft breweries and world-class restaurants, as well as a whole host of hiking and biking trails, and access to all of the Rocky Mountain glory that greater Colorado is known for. Make sure to spend a night in the trendy RiNo neighbourhood to appreciate the city's new, modern delights.
FIVE CITIES PEOPLE ALWAYS GET WRONG
According to the Dutch constitution, Amsterdam is actually the capital of the Netherlands. However, the seat of the country's government – as well as the Supreme Court and the Council of State – have been situated in The Hague since 1588. Amsterdam briefly served as the seat of government from 1808 to 1810, but these days it is the capital in name only.
Although Dubrovnik is undoubtedly Croatia's most famous city, and probably its most beautiful, it's not the capital. That would be Zagreb, a comparatively unloved town with no coastline, and no Game of Thrones filming locations. Zagreb is actually quite pretty though, and worthy of a visit.
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
Quick: what's the capital of Brazil? You immediately think of Rio, right? And Rio de Janeiro was once the seat of government – from 1763 to 1960, in fact. The capital was then shifted, however, to the purpose-built city of Brasilia, in the hope it would help spark interest in the country's interior. Brasilia remains architecturally interesting, if a little lacking in character.
Obviously, we Australians know that Sydney is not our capital city, but ask around overseas and you might be surprised to find that other people don't. Most have never heard of Canberra, in the same way so many Australians know little about Ottawa, or Ankara, or even Rabat. Curiously, no one ever seems to think our capital is Melbourne…
Another common mistake for geography newbies: Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey. It's definitely the country's most famous city, and it's one of the world's great melting pots, but still – not the capital. That would be Ankara, which lacks the palaces and bazaars and mosques of its sister city, but does have a youthful dynamism that's a pleasure to discover.