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1 to 10: Most Extreme Capital Cities in the World

By Edited Apr 22, 2015 12 20

Did You Know ... ?

Yes, of course capital cities have extremes – although it’s usually a matter of debate. Which is prettiest, friendliest, happiest or simply the best? How long is a piece of string? Measurable extremes are a different matter, and you may be in for a few surprises. Capital cities are everywhere – after all, every country has one. Or does it?

Most Nonexistent Capital City

Pacific Island Beach
Let’s get this one out of the way. There is a country that doesn’t have a capital city – Nauru, a South-Pacific island, is the world’s smallest republic, and doesn’t have any cities at all, capital or any other kind.

Nauru’s primary export is fossilised bird droppings ... these contain high levels of phosphates, and that probably sums up its entire economic situation. In 2005, Nauru had to sell the only aircraft owned by the state airline (a Boeing 737) to repay debts, and was only able to resume service the following year when it could afford to replace it.

Highest Capital City

La Paz - Capital City of Bolivia
The record books have this one as La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia, a mountainous country in the heart of South America. Situated almost 12,000 feet above sea level, La Paz will literally take your breath away.

Controversially, La Paz was omitted from the answers offered in July 2000 to a contestant on the TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The question was "What capital city is located at the highest altitude above sea level?” Having given a wrong answer, the contestant resorted to his lawyers; the case was eventually thrown out on appeal.

Most Expensive Capital City

Rio de Janeiro - A Lusophone City

This honour goes to Luanda, capital of Angola, a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of southern Africa. An annual survey of most expensive cities for expatriate workers revealed that, in 2011, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Luanda was £4,343, almost double the cost of a similar property in New York or London.

Luanda is also the world’s third most populous Lusophone, or Portuguese-speaking, city, and the largest outside Brazil.

Most Incomplete Capital City

Pagoda in Myanmar - Formerly Burma
Why would a capital city be incomplete? When it’s a new, purpose-built city that replaces a former capital that has fallen out of favour. Meet Nay Pyi Taw, capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma), which was named in March 2006, and is one of several planned capital cities around the world. Nay Pyi Taw translates literally as “Royal City of the Sun”.

Unofficially, the Burmese people believe that the country’s military rulers decided to build a new capital because a fortune teller predicted an attack on Rangoon, the former capital. Nay Pyi Taw was the result, and is today the world’s fastest-growing capital city.


Smallest Capital City

Remote Pacific Island
Adamstown, capital of the Pitcairn Islands, doesn’t claim to be a city, even though the entire population of the island live there – all 48 of them. The Pitcairns, located in the southern Pacific Ocean, are isolated in the extreme and have neither an airport nor a harbour capable of berthing passenger ships. Visitors can only reach the shore by motor launch.

The Pitcairn Islands’ claim to fame has been immortalised in film. The original settlers, who arrived on the islands in 1790, were mutinous members of the crew and families from H.M.S. Bounty, a British naval ship whose story was first popularised in the 1935 film “Mutiny on the Bounty”.

Most Divided Capital City

The Mediterranean Island Nation of Cyprus
There are two strong candidates for this award. Nicosia, capital of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, is split on political lines. The southern half of the city is the capital of the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, while the northern sector was annexed in 1974 by Turkey and named as the capital of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In spite of the no-man’s-land zone between the two areas, life in Nicosia goes on very much as normal.

In geographical terms, the Hungarian capital, Budapest, has few rivals. It was originally two separate cities, Buda and Pest, that sat on opposite sides of the River Danube. United in 1873, Budapest is one of Eastern Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities and a popular holiday destination.

Most Populated Capital City

The Forbidden City - Beijing, China

Get ready for some heated debate on this one. It depends ....

Using data from the U.N. Demographic Yearbook, the winner is Beijing, capital of China, with a population of 11,509,595. Next in line are Moscow (Russia) with 10,536,005, Seoul (South Korea) with 10,036,377 and Tokyo (Japan) with 8,489,635, respectively. However, Tokyo reports an “urban agglomeration” that is home to 12,576,601 people, and is considered most-populated by many.

Since China, with more than 1.3 billion inhabitants, is undisputedly the most populous nation on earth, it seems fair to leave the honour of most populated capital city with Beijing. Doubtless, some will disagree!

Most and Least Remote Capital Cities

Wellington - Capital City of New Zealand
There is no disputing the holder of the dubious honour of most remote capital city. Wellington, capital of New Zealand, is nearly 1,500 miles distant from its nearest neighbouring capital (Canberra in Australia). Wellington is doubly extreme as it is also the most southerly capital city on the globe.

Conversely, Brazzaville and Kinshasa, the respective capitals of western African nations the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are only five miles apart. They sit directly opposite one another across the Congo River, the border between the two countries.

Oldest Continuously Inhabited Capital City

Mosque in Damascus - Capital City of Syria
Most authorities accept that Damascus, the capital of the Middle-East state of Syria, is the oldest continuously inhabited capital city, having been an active human settlement since the 2nd millennium BC. Throughout history, Damascus has been ruled by Ramesses II, Alexander the Great, Caligula and Saladin; it was also part of the Ottoman Empire for several hundred years.

Don’t travel to Damascus in summer unless you like hot weather. The record high temperature recorded in the city during August is 45C (113F).

Coldest Capital City

The Gobi Desert in Mongolia
You will find the other extreme of temperature in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. The average annual temperature is minus 2.4C (27.7F), with a monthly low that averages minus 25C (minus 13F). In some areas of the city, the soil never thaws, and the climate is virtually subarctic.

Ulan Bator was founded in the 17th century as a nomadic Buddhist monastic centre. Between 1639 and 1778, the Buddhist monks changed the location of the city 28 times – each new site for the city was chosen by way of a religious ritual.

A Simply Capital Idea

There you have it – you probably have your own ideas for the individual winner of “Most Extreme Capital City”, so let’s have your thoughts on the subject.



Mar 13, 2012 4:36am
This is an excellent overview of strange capital cities. The Pitcairn Islanders are an interesting topic unto themselves -- good work. A thumb.
Mar 13, 2012 5:24am
Thanks Vic. You're spot on about the Pitcairns - sometimes I get carried away with the research and that one kept me reading for more than an hour ... maybe another article beckons?
Mar 13, 2012 5:52am
That's exactly how to do it, sir. If you find something worth exploring further, by all means git-r-done (at least, if it interests you).
Mar 13, 2012 5:36am
Excellent feature with good pics. Congratulations!
Mar 13, 2012 5:50am
Thanks - I see you've been on the front page more than a few times yourself. This is my first so something of a buzz!
Mar 13, 2012 1:30pm
Well done Phil.
Mar 13, 2012 2:36pm
Thanks Andrew - it's a good way to start the day with an encouraging email from Admin and a few extra achievement points.
Mar 13, 2012 6:51pm
You correctly point out that some of this is subjective :)

Nay Pyi Taw is just a weird place worth reading up on. The locals are not allowed to visit, strictly a government town for official business. Some tourists made it there and took amazing videos of the strangeness, even though it is so restrictive.

The Vatican is a capital within a capital. That should count for something.

Adamstown, while famous and interesting, is just a colony under the UK, so it is debatable. Male in the Maldives is so crowded they put the airport and garbage dump on adjacent (nearly artificial) islands.

Jerusalem is perhaps the most unrecognized capital of a recognized country. Most countries refuse to put embassies in Jerusalem for political reasons.

Congrats on the feature.
Mar 14, 2012 5:49am
Good points JD. I spent a while reading up on Nay Pyi Taw and, as you say, it's like a ghost city with empty 4-lane highways and "show" buildings.

I feel an "11 to 20" article taking shape - there are clearly plenty of other capitals to write about. I tried to pick ones with measurable characteristics, but the decision to include or not include in the first place was indeed subjective.

The Pitcairn Islands are one of the British Overseas Territories which are not part of the United Kingdom - they each have their own constitution - so I decided to include them. The Pitcairns government website (government.pn) certainly thinks Adamstown is a capital ... But, yes, debatable, should anyone be interested!

I read your "strange islands" piece and I see what you mean about Malé - congrats on the feature - which would certainly win "Most densely populated island capital."

Let's see if anyone else has a few good suggestions. Thanks for the considered comment.
Mar 14, 2012 8:09am
Ya there is no right or wrong - just weird facts and situations. Everything in my post was off the top of my head, but you brought out some fantastic new points to me - like I did not know about the 2 Congos having adjoining capitals.

Nuuk has got to be one of the coldest capitals.
Ngerulmud looks like the smallest capital of an independent country at under 400 people.
Mar 13, 2012 8:25pm
All great info on a timely subject, Thumbs up from me!
Mar 14, 2012 5:50am
Hi Dreamaker - thanks for the thumbs up. It ties in well with JadeDragon's islands piece, so timely as you say.
Mar 13, 2012 9:29pm
Amazing how you came up with this list. Great feature!
Mar 14, 2012 5:53am
Thanks WebAddict. It started when I stumbled on an article about the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" debacle - it got me thinking about other extremes. I did a bit of research and came up with a list, but there's clearly room for more!
Mar 15, 2012 6:35am
So interesting to read about these cities!
Mar 15, 2012 8:37am
Glad you enjoyed it - thanks for commenting.
Mar 16, 2012 5:47pm
This is a great article and an interesting comparison. I believe Bolivia is also known for its highest soccer field, also very up above sea level.

Mar 16, 2012 5:56pm
Thanks Ascentive - I wouldn't like to be playing soccer at that altitude!
Jun 6, 2013 3:58am
A great list of the strangest capitals of the world and very a interesting article that I enjoyed reading!
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