Whether for their significance or the presence of an airport, many of our international adventures start in capital cities. Going to England? Chances are you’ll fly into London. Hoping to see Iceland? We can almost guarantee Reykjavik is stop number one. Vacationing in Thailand? You’ll at least be in Bangkok for a layover. Of course, we know these cities aren’t the only attraction-packed destinations countries have to offer. But it’s also true that almost every country had another capital at one time or another. Even America, at less than 250 years old, hasn’t always had their headquarters in the same city. Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York all had a turn before D.C. took over. So next time you’re booking a trip abroad, look to these former capitals as a starting point. They each have their own story to tell and plenty of modern-day excitement to offer.
Marrakech attracts the most tourists, Casablanca has the largest population, and Rabat is the current capital, but Fes is a must-see for Morocco travelers. It served as the capital on four separate occasions, most recently from 1727 to 1912. It has the same incredible food and labyrinthine medina as the others, but this northeastern city is known for its cultural and educational significance. While the others have adapted to modern tourist tastes with concept boutiques and tapas restaurants, Fes has stayed incredibly traditional. And the citizens are proud of it. Leave plenty of time to wander through the extremely well-preserved medieval architecture between mint tea breaks.
The 10th-century Al Quaraouiyine Mosque, built during Fes’ first stint as capital, is believed to be one of the world’s oldest universities. Note that non-Muslims can’t enter the religious portion of the building, but all tourists can see the incredible tilework inside the library. The Dar Batha palace museum, Jnan Sbil Gardens, and Chouara leather tannery are all worth a stop too. For incredible sunset views over the city, head up the hill to the dilapidated Merenid Tombs. To unwind from all your adventures, spend some luxurious hours in a traditional hammam bathhouse. Don’t leave without trying a “khobz”(flatbread) straight from the oven or buying some silk and cactus thread scarves from donkey carts in the weaver’s souk. Of course if blue ceramics, intricate rugs, or colorful leather bags are more your style, don’t hold back.
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For 82 influential years in the thirteenth century, Bjørgvin (modern-day Bergen) served as capital of the Norwegian Empire. In fact, it was once the largest city is all of the Nordics and is currently Norway’s second largest city. A seven-hour car or train ride from current capital, Oslo, Bergen is often called the Gateway to the Fjords of Norway and the City of Seven Mountains. It sits at the intersection of dramatic natural wonders, like rushing waterfalls and snowcapped mountaintops, and unforgettable urban offerings, like Michelin-star restaurants and world-class art exhibits.
The city’s most iconic stop is the fourteenth-century Hanseatic Wharf, known as Bryggen. It holds incredible economic significance, but its UNESCO-protected colorful façades will have you reaching for your camera before your wallet. To learn about the city’s history, head to the Old Bergen City Museum or the Medieval Bergenhus Fortress, built around 1240. Bergen’s current economy revolves around its port — the busiest in the country. You’ll want to eat plenty of seafood and visit the outdoor fish market, which has both fresh food and handmade crafts for sale. You can also meet an abundance of species, from algae to penguins and sea lions to crocodiles, at the city aquarium. While in town, ride the funicular to Fløyen, which offers breathtaking views of the city and its surrounding landscape. When you’re ready for your next adventure, you can board any of the many fjord cruises that leave from Bergen.
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Undoubtedly known best for the Taj Mahal, Agra was India’s capital way before New Delhi. For about 100 years between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Agra served as the seat of the Mughal Empire. This was the second largest empire in India, led by legends like Babur, Akbar, and Shah Jahan. While this city along the Yamuna River has a population over 1.5 million, it’s the 24th largest in the country. It most famous “resident,” the Taj Mahal, took over 22 years and more than 20,000 laborers to complete. It’s an incredible sight to see, but Agra’s other attractions are often overlooked. You’ll want to allow several days to explore all of the city’s wonders.
Start off in Agra’s other UNESCO sites: the Agra Fort and the abandoned red sandstone complex, Fatehpur Sikri, which houses ancient palaces, pavilions, and mausoleums. To see more architectural highlights from the Mughal Empire, head further into the city to the bustling “chowks” (markets), minarets, and Akbar’s Tomb. Visitors should also make time for Agra’s “baby Taj,” the marble Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, and the Jama Mosque. Both of which are intricately decorated and very emblematic of Agra’s former glory. If you get tired of walking between each highlight, consider a rickshaw tour through the winding streets. And head to the Sadar Bazaar when you get hungry. Known as the “chaat gali” (snack street), you’ll get a delicious sampling of spiced samosas, chickpea crepes, and fruity sweets.
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Bangkok may reign supreme, but Chiang Mai was capital of the Lannathai Kingdom, or Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields, for five centuries. It was annexed by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1775 and later invaded by factions from Burma, Siam, and other regions. Down the line, Lampang took over as Lannathai capital. In the early nineteenth century, Chiang Mai rebounded. Many now refer to Chiang Mai as Thailand’s northern capital or the “unofficial” second city. The mountain views and more relaxed vibe offer a wonderful contrast to the hustle and bustle of other Thai metropolises.
Thanks to its long and varied history, the city is full of ancient Buddhist temples. Be sure to make time for Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Suan Dok, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Jet Yot. The pilgrimage destination Wat Doi Suthep and its 304 steps on Suthep Mountain are another must-see. If climbing isn’t your forte, there’s a funicular. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, you can meet with monks to learn about the country’s religious and cultural history and help them practice their English. You’ll likely smell Chiang Mai’s delicious produce and food stall markets before you enter them. If you get inspired by all the “sai oua”(sausage), sticky rice, noodle soups, and curries, consider making your own in a Thai cooking class. As the city is also the handicraft center of the country, you’ll also want to get your haggling on in the night bazaar. You can always escape to nearby lush rainforests, peaceful country villages, and elephant sanctuaries if you need a break from the city.
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Thanks to 1,000 years of experience as Japan’s capital, Kyoto is filled with impressive adventure and imperial glory. Located on the island of Honshu, Kyoto actually got its name in the eleventh century after it rose to its esteemed position — its moniker actually means “capital city.” It remained Japan’s capital until the imperial court moved to Tokyo (which means “eastern capital”), then Edo, in the mid-19th century. Kyoto was known briefly as Saikyō (“western capital”), but its former name and power had stuck. Spend some time among the city’s collection of UNESCO sites, classical Buddhist temples, palaces, and gardens. Its less bustling population and Zen traditions make Kyoto a great place to get some peace.
Among the nearly 400 Shinto shrines in Kyoto, be sure to visit the 1,300-year old Fushimi Inari. Many visitors make the trek just to see the nearly 10,000 red and orange gates that line its path. If you have to pick just one temple, head to the most impressive: the Otowa Mountain-side Kiyomizu-dera, which is surrounded by incredible scenery. Between fall foliage and spring cherry blossoms, you’re guaranteed a great view no matter the season. You’ll also want to explore the geisha district of Gion, eat at some of the 100-plus stalls of the five-block-long Nishiki Market, and see the masterpieces waiting at the National Museum of Modern Art. Fancy something unique? The International Manga Museum showcases over 300 items in one of Japan’s largest and most unique spaces. Perhaps most adored is the Wall of Manga, which holds thousands of comic books that visitors can enjoy. Last but certainly not least, you’ll want to save some time for the Imperial Palace and Park.
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From the Latinized version of the Old Norse name Jórvík, York has housed Romans, Vikings, Celts, Normans, Angles, and Brits throughout its history. During the first few hundred years A.D., it served as capital of the Britannia Inferior province. Now, roughly 200,000 citizens call the city home. Though London and even nearby Leeds or Manchester may outshine the city’s significance in modern times, it was a stronghold for many years. Surrounded by the Rivers Foss and Ouse, the city’s first economy was wool, but later transport and chocolate took center stage. When tourism became a big industry in the twentieth century, York played to its storied past.
Visitors should not miss the chance to walk the medieval walls that defend the city. They’re the most complete walls remaining in all of England and offer a healthy dose of exercise while introducing travelers to York’s highlights. The real scene stealer, though, is the 13th-century Gothic cathedral, York Minster. The intricate stained glass and stonework are an incredible sight to behold. It is, by far, the tallest structure in the small city. The few rooms of Clifford’s Tower are all that remain of William the Conquerer’s castle, but the nearby museum has all the information you’d want to know. The Yorkshire Museum Gardens and Jorvik Viking Center also offer clues to York’s past. Last but certainly not least, you’ll want to shop the Shambles. The timber-frame buildings that line this picturesque street give a clear view into old city life. If you need a break from your exploring, carve out some time for high tea.
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Founded in 1515 by Spaniards, Santiago is Cuba’s second largest city behind Havana. Defined by its deep bay, the city has been guarded by the El Morro fortress since its early days. At the turn of the 17th century, the area’s copper mining helped put the city on the map and it served as capital for 70 years. With a population just over 500,000, the Santiago de Cuba has a unique beat all its own — quite literally. It’s the birthplace of son and bolero, which predates salsa, and produced some of the nation’s greatest musicians.
The city isn’t quite as frozen in time as Havana or Trinidad, but the modern architecture and industrial development blends with the colorful colonial homes. The Vista Alegre neighborhood gives a peek into neoclassical mansions of the ’20s and ’30s. Santiago’s universities also attract a young crowd, which keeps the city vibrant. And with average temperatures between 75 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit, we can’t imagine who wouldn’t want to pay Santiago a visit — visa permitting of course. Beyond the 130 miles of beach, the city’s marina serves as a base for oceanic excursions like diving and deep sea fishing. Head to the Castillo de San Pedro del Morro UNESCO site when you’re ready for urban exploration. It boasts an incredible view, impressive naval museum, and hosts a daily cannon firing ceremony at sunset. Parque Cespedes and the Casa de Diego Velazquez, a former conquistador’s home, are worth some time as well. And don’t depart before learning about Santiago’s role in the revolution at the Cuartel Moncada Museo Historico 26 de Julio or Plaza de la Revolucion.
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Rome has the old Forum, Colosseum, Pantheon and Trevi Fountain, but the Eternal City wasn’t always the head of power in the country. There were actually several republics and territories throughout modern-day Italy, and Siena was a major ruling power for 430 years. Legend has it that the city was founded by Remus’s own sons, Senius and Aschius. After its impressive run, Siena was conquered by Florence, which has also served as Italy’s capital several times throughout history. But the cultural excellence in Siena, now part of Tuscany, is still remarkable enough to warrant some attention.
While wandering the city’s seventeen colorful “contrade” (districts), you’ll feel like you’re in a giant open-air museum for Gothic and medieval architecture. The artisanal boutiques, tempting pastry shops, and tea rooms will delight your senses of smell and taste as much as your sight. World-class frescoes await in the city’s namesake cathedral as well as surrounding galleries and museums. You’re bound to find the central Piazza del Campo square on your journey. It’s home to a several impressive monuments, including the 14th-century, 285-foot tall Torre del Mangia. The 400-step climb is tiring, but worthwhile for the panoramic city views. The plaza is also home to the city’s twice-annual Palio horserace. The summertime tradition dates back to the seventeenth century and each part of the city has its own decorations and traditions on display during the festival. Head to the All’orto de Pecci park when you need an escape. The urban oasis features its own cooperative farm and vineyard in addition to some shady respite.
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