Pretty as a picture: The river Aare and the Gurten hill in the Matten district in Bern, Switzerland. Photo: AP
In a move seemingly designed to prompt guffaws of laughter from the rest of Australia, The New York Times has run an article delving into Canberra’s hitherto undiscovered hipster scene. The national capital, long the butt of jokes about being a quarantine pen for politicians, has apparently got cool while no-one else was looking.
Presumably, Canberra can expect to be besieged by bushy-bearded Brooklynites Instagramming roundabouts and drinking craft beer out of jam jars by the Captain Cook Memorial Jet. It shall no longer be the forgotten city. But never fear, there are plenty of other overshadowed, unremembered capitals around the world ready to take up Canberra’s mantle…
Modernist flare: Brazil's National Congress, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Photo: AP
The New York Times compared Canberra to Brasilia, which most Brazilians would take to be the mother of all catty back-handed compliments. The purpose-built capital was largely whipped up between 1956 and 1960, and its main appeal lies in its showcase of modernist architecture.
The city is laid out in the shape of a bird (or plane, depending on how hard you squint), and the best place to see this is from the top of the TV Tower, which is in the middle of Brasilia’s main thoroughfare.
The city’s hero, however, is Oscar Niemeyer, the architect who designed most of Brasilia’s civic buildings. These include the National Museum, National Congress and the Cathedral – but with all combined, there’s a striking uniformity.
Rabat might not be Morocco's tourist destination but it still has plenty to offer: The wall surrounding Assan tower. Photo: AFP
Culturally, you’ll get more from the surprisingly vibrant contemporary arts than the music. A once happening punk scene kinda died off in the 1980s. Samba central, this is not – but it does have a distinctive look not found anywhere else on such a scale.
Pretoria, South Africa
South Africa’s administrative capital (the judiciary sits in Bloemfontein and the executive branch hangs out in Cape Town) tends to be the country’s Afrikaner stronghold. The Voortrekker Monument and surrounding nature reserve is looked at through misty eyes by those who always fancied an Afrikaans-speaking homeland. Like most capitals, Pretoria hogs a number of the country’s best museums – the National Cultural History Museum goes from ancient San rock carvings to contemporary art.
Otherwise, it’s hardly the most pumping of cities – unless coming for rugby or cricket matches, most will only bother with the detour from Johannesburg if they really like colonial-era sandstone buildings and leafy jacaranda-lined streets.
Casablanca gets the business while Marrakech and Fes get the tourists, but Rabat is Morocco’s seat of power. European budget airlines have just started flying there, but it tends to stay under the radar by offering much of what the other cities offer, just not as well. The atmospheric old medina is there, the souks are there and there’s a fine Kasbah to mooch around. One thing the others do lack, however, is a massively OTT tomb of a former king. On this score, Rabat can wheel out the Mohammed V Mausoleum and win the peculiarly specific game of Top Trumps.
Also doing a fine line in self-aggrandising mausoleums is the Turkish capital, which sits in the centre of the country, far from the usual tourist honeypots of Istanbul, Cappadocia and the coast. The Antikabir is where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – modern Turkey’s founder – was laid to rest.
Ankara was pretty much a backwater until Ataturk made it the hub of the resistance movement in the 1920s. Since then, it has boomed. While the resulting growth is more than a little chaotic, Ankara has perhaps more worth seeing than most overlooked capitals. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations is world class, the Hamamönü neighbourhood is full of atmospheric old houses converted into restaurants and the hilltop castle has been standing for more than 1000 years.
Of all the obscure capitals, Bern is surely the prettiest. Swiss business may concentrate on Zurich and Geneva, but Bern’s hill-specked location on a river loop means it has the photo ops. The Old Town bursts with medieval, higgledy-piggledy character, the streets are lined with arcades and the city’s iconic bears have a semi-open enclosure on the riverbank.
On a more geeky level, Bern is where Einstein came up with his major theories and there’s a trail of sites related to him throughout the city – the Bern Historical Museum contains the Einstein Museum for those wanting to properly dig in.
Canada’s Canberra, Ottawa, isn’t the planned city that many eye-rolling visitors are expecting. It’s both older and perkier than reputation would suggest. Predictably, cultural heavyweights are the main draw cards – the National Gallery in the city centre and Musée Canadien des Civilizations on the other side of the river are particularly strong – but don’t think that implies turgid sterility. Turn up in winter, and the Rideau Canal that runs through the centre of the city becomes the world’s biggest ice rink.
California’s capital isn’t LA, San Diego or San Francisco – it’s the relatively unflashy inland city of Sacramento. For visitors, there’s a bit of Wild West appeal – Sacramento grew on the back of the Gold Rush and the railroads, and the Old Sacramento district effectively acts as a living museum.
Expect boardwalks, horse-drawn stagecoaches and dreadful acting in olde worlde costumes. There are a few decent museums – the California Museum delving into the state’s complex history is the best – and an old fort to keep you occupied as well.
But given even the faintest glimmer of sunshine, hiring a raft and floating down the river for a couple of hours is by far the most enjoyable way to enjoy Sacramento.