While the outward appearance of many capital cities is one of dull concrete, grand stone or skilled brickwork, others are characterised by a more colourful and quirky look that compliments their streetlife and brightens up even the most isolated of settlements. Here are six very different examples.
Sana’a – Yemen
The stunning pink-brown tower-houses of Sana’a are one of the most important architectural features of the Middle East. Not only is Sana’a the capital of Yemen; the old city is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the highest capital cities on earth (2,300 metres) and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
Situated in a mountain valley, Sana’a has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years. The city became an import centre of Islam from the 7th and 8th centuries – a religious and political heritage that is reflected in Sana’a's 103 mosques, 14 hammams and over 6,000 houses, all built before the 11th century. The colourful bazaars and multi-storeyed tower-houses built of rammed earth (pisé) attract tourists from all over the world.
Edinburgh of the Seven Seas – Tristan da Cunha
What it lacks in a proximity to civilisation, it more than makes up for in name! If Edinburgh in Scotland is one of the finest capital cities in the world, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas in Tristan da Cunha arguably has the most romantic and wistful name. Named after Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and second son of Queen Victoria, who visited the island in 1867, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas is known locally as The Settlement.
Edinburgh of the Seven Seas is located in the Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha territory of the United Kingdom in the South Atlantic Ocean. The nearest human habitation is 1,500 miles away on Saint Helena (where Napoleon was imprisioned), making this tiny capital the most remote human settlement in the world. A volcanic eruption in 1961 destroyed the local crayfish factory and forced residents to move to the UK. But by 1963, the settlement was rebuilt and most of the islanders had returned – a testament to the tough but tranquil way of life on this rugged and romantic island.
Lisbon – Portugal
Standing on the north bank of the River Tagus, Lisbon’s charm is rooted in its past and written all over its vibrant cityscape. Its magnificent palaces, churches and castle reflect Lisbon’s rich heritage, while its eclectic streetscene, culture and architecture set it apart from other European capitals. Seen from above, Lisbon’s colourful rooftops give way to narrow cobble streets and Art Nouveau cafés.
Despite being one of the oldest cities in the world, Lisbon is recognised today as a key centre of finance, commerce, media, entertainment, arts, international trade, education and tourism. It enjoys one of the mildest climates in Eurasia and has witnessed the rule of Julius Caesar, various 5th century Germanic tribes, capture by Moors and recapture by Christians. Lisbon is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Belém Tower (above) and Jerónimos Monastery.
Nuuk – Greenland
With a population of 15,469, Nuuk in Greenland (known in Danish as Godthab, meaning “Good Hope”) is one of the smallest capital cities in the world (barring some in this article!). Nuuk has been home to various groups over the millenia, from ancient pre-Inuit, Paleo-Eskimo people known as the Saqqaq culture around 2000 BC, to Viking explorers in the 10th century, and then Inuit peoples. Inuit and Norsemen lived side-by-side with little interaction until 1500 AD when the latter finally left Greenland.
Nuuk was founded in 1728 by the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede. At that time, Greenland was a Norwegian colony under the Dano-Norwegian Crown, but the colony hadn’t been in contact with Norway for almost 300 years. Like the rest of Greenland, Nuuk is populated today by Inuit and Danes, with over a third of Greenland’s population living in Nuuk’s Greater Metropolitan area – not the most bustling metropolis, but certainly one of the most colourful.
Port Stanley – Falkland Islands
Port Stanley (or just Stanley) is the capital and only true city of the Falkland Islands, with a population of just 2,115. Stanley is the commercial hub of the islands, with the Falkland Islands Museum, Government House (built 1845), a golf course, and a famous totem pole. Life on the island is certainly not suited to crime, or so one can glean from the local prison, built to accomodate just 13 inmates.
Ownership of the islands has long been disputed. Argentina claimed sovereignty and invaded in 1982. Britain came to the defence of its tiny territory and, after the two month long “Falklands War“, Argentina begrudgingly surrendered. Today locals have four pubs to keep them happy, and a detachment of British Eurofighter Typhoon jets to keep them safe. Some say the Falklands is all about “promoting the British way of life abroad”. With barren moorland, windswept hills, plenty of beer and uncooperative weather, that label seems remarkably accurate.
George Town – Penang
George Town, named after King George III, is capital of the state of Penang in Malaysia and home to about 200,000 people. George Town was founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light of the potent British East India Company, as base for the company’s operations in the Malay States. After securing Penang from the Sultan of Kedah, Light – who has a street named after him in the town – built Fort Cornwallis on the north-eastern corner. The fort became the centre of the growing trading post controlled by the East India Company, and Penang’s population swelled to 12,000 by 1804.
The historic commercial centre was divided into banking and trading quarters serving shipping companies, the import/export trade, and wholesalers who dominate the south end of Beach Street to this day. Penang is a World Heritage site that offers visitors the feeling of stepping through a portal into colonial times. With Expedia, you can find the perfect hotel for your stay in Penang, and enjoy the brightly coloured temples and charismatic street vendors that exist alongside grand remnants of the British Empire, giving Penang a colourful character which more than compliments its fine colonial architecture.