I can't believe it's not the capital!

You always expect a country's capital to be its showstopper city - the ones everyone wants to go to first, the ones that get put on fridge magnets and souvenir teatowels before anywhere else. But that's not the way it goes sometimes. Sometimes the cities that seem like the capitals just, well, aren't. So here are 10 cities that might not have the official title, but they're still worthy of the honour.

New York, USA

When you're the cultural and financial centre of a country who cares if you're not actually the seat of government? New York certainly doesn't. The melting pot of the United States has over 160 languages spoken across its five boroughs by 8.2 million inhabitants. Visitors are attracted by skyscraping architecture that struts across the skyline like an international supermodel and nightlife that puts most actual capital cities to shame. The city is home to the UN – who needs to be the national capital when you can justifiably claim to be capital of the world?

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Sometimes losing your status as capital city can be a liberating experience. Take Rio de Janeiro which waved adeus to the national politicians in 1960 when they decamped to the jungle and newly built Brasília – and said olá to what the Cariocas (Rio's inhabitants) do best: partying. Whether it's two million people seeing in the New Year on Copacabana beach, or neighbourhood blocos and traditional samba schools thrilling the Carnaval crowds, locals know how to celebrate. With everyone invited, there's nothing stopping you packing your smallest piece of swimwear and heading to the party capital of the world.

Sydney, Australia

Like its American counterpart, Sydney doesn't lose any sleep about the fact that it's not the Australian capital. Manufactured Canberra is a dull, suit-wearing place filled with scheming politicians, while Sydney is the kind of town that heads for the beach to top up its tan and catch a few waves before inviting a few mates round for a barbie. The original (in terms of European settlement) and still the best, Sydneysiders will happily extol their city's virtues to the visitor. Just ask the visitor what they think, and they'll undoubtedly agree. Canberra who?

Marrakesh, Morocco

When your name is good enough not just for you but for the region you're located in, you'd think you deserved some recognition. But while it's been Morocco's capital on and off over the years and is still the country's most popular destination, Marrakesh has to be content with containing Africa's busiest square, Djemaa el-Fna, and with being the burial place of the Seven Saints, Muslim holy men who brought pilgrims to the city from the late 17th century on. And if it's good enough for saints…

Toronto, Canada

If you've heard of one Canadian city, it's likely to be Toronto. The nation's largest urban centre is like a major US city without the crime. With an amazing 49% of the population born outside Canada, this is the most diverse city on the planet. Ironically, in light of its contemporary multiculturalism, Toronto's lack of capital status today is due to the fact that back in 1857, when the capital was chosen, Toronto was just too English for its Francophone compatriots in Québec to accept. Still, it can content itself with being the Canadian city everyone's heard of.

Mumbai, India

If population size, cultural importance and financial clout were gauges to judge what makes a capital city then Mumbai (formerly Bombay) would be up there with the best of them. Remnants of British imperialism, such as the Gateway of India, contrast with slums that house many of the city's 13 million inhabitants. Bollywood, the world's biggest movie industry is here, and the city controls most of India's booming economy. Not bad for a city that's a relative latecomer in terms of India's history.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul has had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that it's no longer the Turkish capital, and who can blame it? The centre of two world-class empires (Byzantine and Ottoman) which lasted over 1500 years, it holds an embarrassingly large number of monuments worthy of any great capital – embarrassing, that is, for Ankara, the dusty Anatolian town that became the nation's capital in 1923. And today it's those same monuments – the Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque – that continue to convince tourists and locals alike that the real heart of Turkey is still Istanbul.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

OK, we're cheating a bit here as Amsterdam is kind of joint capital city of the Netherlands. But that doesn't mean it's full of dreary parliamentarians. Oh no. While they're discussing the political issues of the day over in Den Haag, Amsterdam enjoys all the splendour and culture of a capital but without the boring governmental stuff. One of the city's great draws is its laid-back attitude to most things, best demonstrated on 30 April every year when Queen's Day sees the whole place go wild.

Auckland, New Zealand

'He's a JAFA, mate' is something you hear a lot travelling round New Zealand and it's easy to see why the rest of the population refers to the inhabitants of the country's largest city as Just Another F***ing Aucklander – they're jealous! Auckland has the best weather, the fanciest restaurants, and the coolest bars. Admittedly Auckland might have a (losing) fight on its hands - the actual capital of Wellington just took out the gong for being one of the world's hottest cities for 2011 in Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011. Plus it's got that famous Beehive parliament building and an internationally acclaimed film industry - but Auckland's got the tallest building in the southern hemisphere. So there!

Cape Town, South Africa

Take a magnificent setting at the point where the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans meet, a suitably impressive backdrop of one of the world's most famous mountains, a vibrant mix of nationalities from around the globe, and a range of architecture, cuisine and nightlife second to none in Africa and you'd think you'd have the best darn capital in the world. Instead you get Cape Town which, though South Africa's legislative capital, has to share the title with Pretoria (administrative) and Bloemfontein (judicial). We know which one we’d prefer to visit.