How Do Countries Decide what City Is Their Capital?

Almost all the countries in the world, with one exception, have a capital, though some have them two, and there is one with three capitals. So how they choose their capital cities?

There are many possible reasons of why/how a city becomes a capital. Some of them are listed below, but there may be more.

Location & symbol of unity

In many cases the capital is also close to a geographical center of a country. This is apparently to be seen as a heart of the country and a unity symbol.

Capitals are also easily defendable if they are deep in the country and far from its borders. Typical examples are Madrid in Spain (the top picture above), Paris in France, and also Ankara in Turkey.

But have you seen Bratislava? It is close to the borders of two neighboring countries. It was not meant to be a capital, but Slovakia suddenly appeared as an independent state and this was the most important city.

Climate & geography

A typical example is Islamabad that was planned and built as a new capital. They placed it under pleasant Margalla hills, in an area with a very good climate and close to a big water resources (lake Raval).

The picture below shows the city from Margalla hills, this is a photo from one out of several of my visits to the city. As you see this is a green area, not so typical for the rest of the country.

Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.

Note that in the same country, Karachi is a far larger city, simply beyond comparison, but it is also far in the south and with a very hot climate.

Political compromises

Sometimes federal units cannot easily agree and a capital is named as a result of some compromises.

A very typical example is Washington. Initially they had a few candidates for the capital. But they could not agree, and finally decided this would be an undeveloped area that later became Washington, D.C.


There are countries where most of the population is in their capitals. So these cities are simply too important and they become capitals.

Historical reasons

Take Vienna as an example. This capital used to be the capital of a huge empire. When the empire disintegrated, it was natural that Vienna remained the capital of the new country, it was too big and too important for anything else.

Politics & influence struggle

The capital of Brazil is Brasilia, and they built it far inland in 1960 specifically to serve as the capital. The reason was to remove the influence of the two major cities (Rio and Sao Paulo) from the government. Both of these cities are far bigger and far more important than the capital.

For the same reason there is a country with three capitals. It seems this was on purpose, to avoid having too much power in a single place. This sounds like a good policy to me.

Here is a video about building Brasilia, please have a look:

Capital relocation

This is sometimes to have the capital in the safest position from external threat. In some other situations this can be to boost development of a particular area in the country, so this can be described as economical reasons, or to avoid inner political problems.

The best known example from history was moving the capital location from Rome to Constantinople. In time, this lead to the empire split into two parts. The western part eventually disappeared from the map and the eastern part continued for another 9 centuries or so.

Many more examples you can see in my separate text on why do countries change their capital cities?

So as you see, in many cases a city becomes a capital naturally, because of its importance, size, position, history, etc., but sometimes capitals are specifically built for such a purpose. For one or another reason, some countries also move their capitals to another place, or split a capital into two different capitals, or even three.

Let me know if you think I have missed mentioning some important factors, I shall be happy to add them in the text.

Bookmark this site and visit it occasionally, it is all about capitals so you can have it as a reference. New texts are added here regularly. Thank you for reading and have a nice day.

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