11 Capital Cities That Aren't On Your Radar (& One Reason to Visit Each)
When I decided to study abroad in college, part of what factored into my decision about where I would go was how likely or unlikely I would be to travel to a certain destination in the future. That is why, when faced with a choice of three different cities to finish out my Spanish language requirement at the close of sophomore year, I opted to head to Buenos Aires, Argentina — a city I had a hard time imagining myself visiting on my own — over San José, Costa Rica, and Granada, Spain.
Beijing, Xi'an, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth — I ended up in all of these places following much the same thinking process, which really boiled down to one question: if not through these educational opportunities, then when? When, and why, would I visit these destinations otherwise?
These days, my thinking has sort of evolved when it comes to those questions, however. Instead of asking "when?" and "why?", I'm more prone to ask "how soon?" and "why not?" I like to think I have a more liberal approach to travel in general — which is to say no destination need be off-limits; everything is on the table. It's with this type of attitude that I scour the globe, looking for the most far-flung and unique places I could possibly, maybe, someday visit. And in that vein, I offer you a list of world capitals — some you may have heard of; others probably not — for the simple sake of putting them on your radar. Who knows, maybe you'll latch onto one of them and find yourself asking "why not?" too.
1. Tbilisi (Georgia)
Georgia is not only a state in the southern U.S. but also an independent nation in the heart of Eurasia, and that nation just happens to have a unique capital by the name of Tbilisi. Sporting colorful architecture and sitting on the banks of the Kura River, the city of about 1.5 million people has seen many changes in just the last 15 years, according to Lonely Planet, with its traditional arts and culture scene mixing more and more with modern cafes, restaurants, lodging, bars, and other 21st-century fixings. The Unusual Traveler says getting lost in the alleyways and backstreets of Tbilisi's Old Town is one of the best ways to spend time in the Georgian capital.
2. Dhaka (Bangladesh)
Bangladesh, a country surrounded by India on three sides that can be found hiding under China (along with Bhutan), is a place people probably don't spend too much time thinking about. But at least one blogger — Joao Leitao, the man behind Nomad Revelations — calls the country's capital, Dhaka, the most underrated capital city in all of Asia. In a snippet written for the travel magazine Wanderlust, Leitao says the so-called City of Mosques "feels like the least touristy destination on the planet." To take in Dhaka's bustling river port, Sadarghat, is to witness life at its most chaotic. Nijhoom Tours calls the city "a paradise for street photography."
3. Zagreb (Croatia)
Depending on your familiarity with Croatia (you can admit it's low or nonexistent; we don't judge around here), you may or may not be aware that tourists are more often attracted to its coastal cities and towns, such as Dubrovnik and Rovinj. That's all fine and dandy if you're in the mood for lazy beach days on the Adriatic, but the country's capital, Zagreb, situated some 80 miles inland, has plenty to offer, as well.
"Elegant stone-tiled mansions and newer apartments stand shoulder-to-shoulder in harmony along broad tree-lined avenues and inviting green spaces," Punita Mulhotra writes of Zagreb on her blog 100 Cobbled Roads. "Its understated elegance, relaxed pace and easy cafe culture grows on you unobtrusively." One recommendation? The Museum of Broken Relationships.
4. Phnom Penh (Cambodia)
The Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, located in the south central part of the country, has many traditional tourist attractions — the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and the Buddhist temple known as Wat Phnom, among them. The city has seen major infrastructure improvements over the last couple decades according to Condé Nast Traveler, which produced a useful guide with the help of a local back in 2013. On their list of sites to see and places to be in Phnom Penh are the Central Market, where you can have custom clothing made; the Tuol Sleng Genoice Museum, a secret prison of the Maoist regime; and The Elephant Bar at Raffles Hotel Le Royal when in need of inspiration on a rainy day.
5. Bratislava (Slovakia)
Besides being the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava is also a fun word to say in an eastern European accent. I don't think I know how to pronounce it any other way, in fact. Often overshadowed by nearby Prague in the Czech Republic, Bratislava has taken on a more lively demeanor since Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004.
That's according to Donna Heiderstadt and Jennifer Chen, two contributors for Travel + Leisure, who wrote in a 2011 article entitled "World's Most Underrated Cities" that the Slovakian capital had truly transformed into a buzzing hot spot. "Nowhere is this more evident than the revitalized Old Town, where locals pack the many atmospheric cafés, bars, and restaurants," Heiderstadt and Chen wrote. Their can't-miss recommendation: the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum.
6. Taipei (Taiwan)
Most of my research tells me that just 20-30 years ago, Taipei was a city drowning in smog. But a quarter of a century or so can make a big difference and these days outfits like Travel + Leisure and tripstodiscover.com describe the city as one of Asia's most pleasant capitals. Though a busy place with lots going on, the Taiwanese capital still sports plenty of green space and a user-friendly transportation system.
In an article titled "18 of the Most Underrated International Vacation Destinations," K.C. Dermody writes that Taipei has many outdoor adventures to offer visitors, some of which include "hiking in the surrounding mountains, soaking in Beitou Hot Springs and exploring Yangmingshan National Park, famous for its cherry blossoms, sulfur deposits, fumaroles, hot springs and hiking trails, including the tallest dormant volcano in the country, Seven Star Mountain."
7. Montevideo (Uruguay)
It's semi-shameful to admit that Uruguay is the only country on this list I've actually visited, but that is the sad truth. Perhaps sadder is the fact that my brief trip to this South American nation tucked into the armpit of Argentina did not include a stop in the capital, Montevideo. Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, no doubt draws more tourists, but that just means you'll have more of Montevideo, its Spanish colonial architecture, and its never-ending coastline to yourself. Rambling along La Rambla, strolling through the Old City, and getting the "meat sweats" — whatever that means — at Mercado del Puerto are among "Six Awesome Things to Do in Montevideo," according to Along Dusty Roads.
8. Dakar (Senegal)
Located along the Cape Verde Peninsula, the westernmost point of the African continent, Dakar, the capital of Senegal, is one of the "10 Most Stunning African Cities You've Never Seen," according to Answers Africa. Besides its unique geographic positioning, the city is also known for its colonial architecture, colorful streets, maze-like markets, and hopping nightclubs. Kayak lists Dakar's museums, including Institut Français and Musée Théodore Monod; its nightlife, including the popular bar and dance club at the Phare des Mamelles lighthouse; and its offshore islands, including Île de Gorée, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as three of the top five reasons to visit.
9. Astana (Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan might just be the largest country you know next to nothing about. Sharing a large border with Russia, as well as smaller ones with Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China, this central Asian nation is actually the largest landlocked country in the world, and it also happens to have a modern, cosmopolitan capital city called Astana.
Taking after the likes of Dubai perhaps, the city is home to some magnificent skyscrapers that "seem to defy the laws of physics," in the words of Lonely Planet's Anna Kaminski. Most notable among them is Baiterek Tower, a monument and observation tower that has become emblematic of Astana, which only became Kazakhstan's capital in 1997. (See also: "Eight Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan's Gleaming Capital")
10. Ljubljana (Slovenia)
When you think of European capitals, it's pretty unlikely that Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, comes to mind. Pronounced "loob-lee-ahna" (because I know you were wondering), the compact Slovenian capital is home to the country's oldest university, as well as to Ljubljana Castle, a Medieval landmark that keeps watch over downtown from atop Castle Hill. Since Slovenia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ljubljana has seen many changes, including the infusion of new restaurants, bars, and markets along the Ljubljanica River, where locals and tourists alike spend a fair amount of time. One sight to see for sure is the large stone dragon that guards one of the city's many bridges.
11. Antananarivo (Madagascar)
Some of you may most identify Madagascar with a 2005 animated film about animals escaping the Central Park Zoo, but it's also a a very real, very large island country off the southeastern coast of Africa. Its capital, Antananarivo, is centrally located and has been the island's central population center for at least a couple hundred years. Filled with inland beaches, historical palaces, and steep roads and alleys, Answers Africa calls Antananarivo a city to behold. One thing to behold, especially, according to travel2madagascar.com, is Parc de Tsarasaotra, a bird sanctuary in the city's industrial area that serves as a refuge for 14 threatened endemic bird species.