In this post, we’ll run through the most populated capital cities in the world. It may come as a surprise to some to note that only three of the world’s ten most populous cities are actually national capitals. Several Chinese mega-cities would feature in that rundown while giant metropolises such as Istanbul and Karachi are not the capitals of their respective countries.
The figures featured in this article come from the most recently available census data or 2020 estimates where they were available. Some of these cities are growing rapidly so the overall picture is changing all the time. It’s also worth pointing out that many of the world’s biggest cities have even larger metropolitan areas. Quite where the boundaries are drawn in terms of where the city ends will vary between countries. In this article we are basing the population figures as that of the city proper rather than the wider metropolitan area. This is why somewhere like Mexico City (which has an urban area home to more than 20 million) does not feature.
The Most Populated Capital Cities
1. Beijing, China – 21.5 million
The world’s most populated capital city is Beijing. That’s despite the fact that it’s not even the largest city in China with Shanghai and according to some estimates Chongqing having greater populations.
The vast Chinese capital was established over 3000 years ago and its journey to its current status as the hub of one of the most powerful nations on earth has seen many great dynasties come and go before the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.
The city today is a great mix of the old and the new. Traditional street markets and small family businesses share the streets with modern skyscrapers and apartment complexes. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square offer what is at times a dark glimpse into China’s past but this is also a city that is ever modernising and moving forward, and in the space of a couple of decades, Beijing has rapidly become one of the most important cities in the world.
2. Kinshasa, DR Congo – 14.6 million
The largest city in Africa is actually Lagos with an estimated population of over 20 million. However it is not the capital of Nigeria which means the largest African capital city is Kinshasa.
Already home to an estimated 14.6 million people, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo is increasing in size at a rapid rate. Predictions suggest there could be as many as 35 million people in Kinshasa by 2050 with close to half a million people migrating to the city every year, many of whom arrive with all their belongings via barges along the Congo River which separates the smaller Republic of Congo from the Democratic Republic of Congo which is one of the most populated countries in Africa.
The capitals of the two nations lie adjacent to one another on either side of the river with Brazzaville, capital of the other Congo and itself home to an estimated 2.3 million, and Kinshasa effectively forming one giant metropolis across national borders.
3. New Delhi, India – 14.2 million
Back to Asia and we head to New Delhi for the world’s third largest capital city (by population). While it lacks the glitz and glamour of Mumbai, New Delhi is also a city of extremes, being home to a growing Indian middle class as well giant slums where many people continue to live in extreme poverty.
More than 26 million people live in its greater metropolitan area but it is still visibly a rapidly developing and growing city with the local government struggling to expand its transport links and infrastructure quickly enough to meet the needs of its huge population, nor the growing number of visitors with Delhi an essential stop on most Indian travel itineraries.
Another remarkable stat is that despite its size, New Delhi is home to only about 1% of the Indian population and most Indians have never even visited their national capital. The corresponding figure is closer to 20% in somewhere like Seoul while South American megacities such as Lima and Santiago de Chile, are home to over a quarter of their nation’s population.
4. Tokyo, Japan – 13.9 million
With an estimated 36.4 million people, the greater Tokyo region is the largest metropolitan area in the world. However the official city population is less than 50% of that figure with nearby towns such as Kawasaki, Saitama and Yokohama, all of which are home to over a million people, being classed as separate cities rather than suburbs.
Tokyo’s population is still growing but not as quickly as many large cities in developing countries in Africa for example. Anyone who has ever been may suspect that is no bad thing with space at a premium in Tokyo’s hectic streets. This is one of the few world cities that truly never sleeps and while it’s not one of the cheapest cities to live in Japan, it’s certainly one of the best.
5. Moscow, Russia – 12.5 million
The two most populated cities in Europe are Moscow and Istanbul. While slightly larger, the latter is not the capital of Turkey and strictly speaking much of the city lies on the Asian side of the Bosphorus River in any case.
Moscow meanwhile remains the grand capital of Russia, dotted with iconic buildings and locations such as Red Square, St Basil Cathedral and the Kremlin. By national standards, Moscow is a very expensive city which perhaps explains why it hasn’t grown more quickly over the past few decades but its metropolitan region is still home to an estimated 20 million residents.
Top 10 Capital Cities with the Highest Population
|Kinshasa||DR Congo||14.6 million|
|New Delhi||India||14.2 million|
|Seoul||South Korea||9.7 million|
Jakarta, Bangkok, Cairo, Seoul and London complete the countdown of the top ten capitals by population. The likes of Mexico City, Dhaka, Lima and Tehran narrowly miss out despite being the beating hearts of their respective nations with huge populations in their metropolitan areas.
This article was published in October 2020.