In any trivia quiz, there's always a trick question about capital cities – the one that fools quizzers into mistakenly naming a major metropolis as the seat of power. And no wonder: there's a host of top-class, attraction-heavy, bucket-list places around the world that you would be forgiven for thinking are their country's capital... but aren't. To help you avoid this booby trap, here's our list of urban heavyweights whose cultural, historical and financial pre-eminence speaks for itself, even if officialdom lies elsewhere.

New York's Times Square
New York's Times Square: the other place where nations meet © Neale Clark / Getty Images

New York

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. Between them, the 8.6 million inhabitants who call the ‘melting pot’ of the USA their home speak an astounding 800 languages, while visitors are attracted by skyscraping architecture that struts across the skyline like an international supermodel and a nightlife that puts most actual capital cities to shame. And when your city is home to the United Nations, who needs to be national capital when you can justifiably claim to be capital of the world?

Bondi Beach, Sydney
Sydney is laid-back about its status © Xavierarnau / Getty Images


Like its American counterpart, Sydney doesn’t lose any sleep about the fact that it’s not the Australian capital. Canberra is a functional, suit-wearing place filled with 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 (European settlement) and still the best, Sydneysiders will happily extol their city’s virtues to the visitor. And just ask the visitor what they think and they’ll undoubtedly agree. Canberra who?

Carnival performers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Who cares if you're the capital when you've got Carnival? © Stuart Dee / Getty Images

Rio de Janeiro

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 Brasilia – 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 Carnival crowds, locals know how to celebrate, and with everyone invited there’s nothing stopping you packing your smallest swimwear and heading to the party capital of the world.

Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Ankara might have the power, but Istanbul has the sights © Traveler1116 / Getty Images


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 (the Byzantine and the 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 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.

Traditional buildings in Amsterdam
Amsterdam... not known for its dreary parliamentarians © Rachel Lewis / Getty Images


Okay, 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 (The Hague), Amsterdam enjoys all the splendour and culture of a capital but without the boring governmental stuff, making one of the city’s great draws its laid-back attitude to most things, best demonstrated in late April each year when King's Day sees the whole place go wild. Its charms haven't gone unnoticed, though: Amsterdam is a true tourism magnet, so why not help ease the pressure by visiting one of its lesser-known neighbourhoods or going out of season? After all, it’s great all over, year-round.

Auckland skyline at dusk
Auckland inspires a healthy degree of jealousy © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images


They might deny it but the rest of New Zealand is slightly jealous of the country's largest city, Auckland (they've even coined the name JAFA for its inhabitants, but we're too polite to explain what it stands for so you'll have to, carefully, look it up yourself). No wonder: Auckland has great weather, fancy restaurants and cool bars. So what if Wellington has the famous Beehive parliament building and an internationally acclaimed film industry? Auckland’s got the tallest building in the southern hemisphere. So there!

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town might not be the capital, but it is certainly the most colourful city in South Africa © ICHAUVEL / Getty Images

Cape Town

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.

Minaret in Marrakesh
Marrakesh has been the capital before, but it doesn't suffer from the loss of status © Westend61 / Getty Images


When your name is good enough not just for you but for the whole country you’re located in, you’d think you deserved some recognition. While it’s been Morocco’s capital on and off over the years, and is still the country’s most popular destination, Marrakesh simply 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…

Cafes and bars in Toronto
Toronto is rightly proud of its multiculturalism © Klaus Lang / Getty Images


If you’ve heard of one Canadian city it’s likely to be Toronto. With nearly half of the population born outside Canada (47% according to the 2016 census), the nation’s largest urban centre is the most diverse city on the planet. Yet 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 Quebec to accept. Still, it can content itself with being the Canadian city everyone’s heard of.

Gateway of India, Mumbai
Mumbai has the cultural and economic clout of a capital © Swami Venkataramani / Getty Images


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 past British imperialism such as the Gateway of India contrast with slums that house many of the city’s 21 million or so 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.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter. Make the most of your travel with sightseeing tours and activities from our trusted partners.

Explore related stories

San Francisco, USA. 7th Jan, 2018. A woman visits the Asian Art Museum on Free Sunday in San Francisco, the United States, Jan. 7, 2018


12 essential sites to learn about Asian American history

Apr 10, 2024 • 8 min read