Capitals in Europe
page 1 of 3
Capital of Albania
Tirana is a lot nicer than its reputation. Lots of open spaces, green parks, a few low-key sights to tick off, and, most surprisingly, a normal functional city. Sure, some buildings are still decorated with socialist mosaics, nouveau-riche are whizzing by in black Hummers, and most roads are potholed - just like in the rest of Albania, but Tirana is a fascinating place to explore - and it doesn't hurt that the nightlife is as vivacious as in the rest of Eastern Europe.
Andorra la Vella
Capital of Andorra
Andorra is tiny and so is its capital Andorra la Vella. The name literally means "Andorra the old", which unfortunately only refers to a small fraction of the otherwise modern mountain town. Its setting is pretty along a raging river at the bottom of a valley with gorgeous views of mountain peaks. Andorra la Vella isn't known for much other than being the highest capital in Europe (altitude 1023 m) and for its tax-free shopping. The main streets are lined with shops selling any combination of electronic goods, booze, cigarettes and sports gear, and get easily clogged up with power shoppers from Spain. However, the town is more than cheap sneakers and traffic jams. Even though there aren't many sights within the town itself, it makes a perfect base for exploring the rest of Andorra, where any place can be reached within a hour - on traffic-jam free days.
Capital of Armenia
Yerevan is a strange mix of drab Soviet-era apartment blocks, imposing Stalinist masterpieces and new-but-not-finished real estate projects. Even though it is one of the longest inhabited cities in the world, not many buildings pre-20th-century remain, due to the extensive city reconstruction that happened during the Soviet years and which was not fully implemented until recently with the finishing of the Northern Avenue. But this being Armenia, and not Eastern Europe, the street scene is extremely lively with a never-ending range of cafes, some very flamboyant with outdoor couches. Central Yerevan is small and walkable, so you can see the major sights within a day or two. The main sights are Cascade (Soviet monument turned not-completed contemporary art museum), Republic Square (former Lenin Square), Opera House and the surrounding cafe area and Vernissage Market during the weekends... oh, and the majestic views of Mt. Ararat on clear days from the top of Cascade.
Capital of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic
© John Smith
The capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, has a strong post-war feeling. The streets are potholed and ramshackle apartment blocks look like brick patchwork, but the handful of shiny new or soon-to-be-finished buildings witness the coming change to Stepanakert. As in Armenia, street life is vibrant and the fine renovated central park gets packed with young and old in the evenings when the heat is loosing its suffocating grip (in summertime). There are several fairgrounds for kids and the locals never seem to be tired of walking up and down the main street. Stepanakert is one of those towns that don't seem appealing at first, but it will grow on you.
Capital of Belarus
Minsk is everything you expect of a capital in country that seems to be stuck in a Soviet time capsule and controlled by an iron fist. Since the city was totally demolished during WWII, it was rebuilt as a model Soviet city. That means lots of Soviet-era monumental architecture, expansive squares, broad boulevards and never-ending rows of grey apartment blocks. There are uniformed officials everywhere and to this day, visitors still have to be watchful when snapping photos. But all this blandness doesn't mean Minsk is boring, quite the contrary. Maybe to forget the tense political situation, the people like to drink and party. And for people watching, nowhere in the Eastern Bloc is the parade of long-legged ladies on stilettos greater than here in Minsk, even in winter when sidewalks are covered in ice.
Capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Sarajevo has a very distinct vibe compared to other capitals in the Balkan region, in Europe for that matter. Minarets loom over the city, trolley buses are old and almost falling apart, and some of the houses are still riddled with bullet holes from the civil war in 1990s. Bosnia and Herzegovina's ethnic diversity was the reason to all the trouble, but also the reason why the country, and Sarajevo in particular, are such fascinating places. A walk through the old city center will take you past cathedrals, churches, and mosques, and the Turkish Quarter reminds more of an oriental bazaar than a shopping street in Europe.
Capital of Bulgaria
The beautiful, but rather compact, capital of Bulgaria is a rewarding acquaintance. It is old, as in 2500 years, and has therefor its fair share of cultural and historic sights with flavour of both the East and West. In addition Sofia also boasts of green parks, vibrant street life, and the expected collection of grey Eastern Bloc buildings and monuments. With towering Mt. Vitosha (2290m) right at the doorstep, you can even go hiking/skiing during the day and be back in the evening, relaxing in a bistro with a bottle of Bulgarian wine - or equal good, downing a cold local beer.
Capital of Croatia
Zagreb is low on major sights, but this just mean you can enjoy the charm of the city without the hordes of tourists. The city is split into two parts, the handsome upper part and the ordinary lower part. The upper part is for sightseeing and pleasure, while the lower end is where life is lived. The few must-see places include Zagreb Cathedral, St. Mark's church (picture) and the vegetable market, but else Zagreb is best enjoyed by strolling aimlessly around. As with any capital in Eastern Europe the nightlife is good. Bar-lined Tkalciceva street turns into a public catwalk at nighttime with outdoor couches and affordable drinks - what more do you wish for.
Capital of Estonia
When people are talking about enchanting Tallinn, they are talking about Old Town. A neat, UNESCO listed maze of old houses, hidden courtyards and spire topped churches which dates back to the 14th century. Large parts of the huge medieval town wall still stands with imposing gates and tall towers (one even has cannonballs embedded in the wall). The maze is made up of narrow, cobbled lanes - it can hardly become more photogenic than this. Even the occasional Russian tour group seems to fit in well. That said, there are more amber/knitting/souvenir shops than you can poke a stick at (along with a fair share of strip bars), but Old Tallinn has admirable managed to keep its charm without being tarted up or tacky.
Capital of Finland
Like the Finnish people, their capital Helsinki can't be accused of being flamboyant. It has an airy atmosphere, which might also have to do with the gorgeous location right at the sea and its small size. Its promixity to both Estonia and Russia means you can swing by enroute to/from Scandinavia/Baltics or even do Helsinki as a daytrip from Tallinn (Estonia). The few main sights (like the Rock Church, maritime fortress and cathedral) can easily be done in a day, and everything is within walking/ferry distance. In summer the long evenings can be spend at some of the many parks and in winter the freezing temperatures make sure you use the few hours of daylight wisely.