There’s nothing like having a sister.
In Europe, a grassroots movement led by ordinary citizens and military veterans created what have become to be known as “Sister Cities.” The movement sought to heal a ravaged, divided continent after World War II. By connecting two similar cities or towns—in different countries, that spoke different languages or followed different customs—officials hoped that a long-lasting bond would form, one that transcended borders.
That bond has held strong and today, more than 15,000 sister cities exist throughout Europe. To celebrate this cross-cultural and cross-border friendship, we’ve found three pairs of European sister cities that you can explore in one long, exciting trip.
Antwerp, Belgium and Mulhouse, France
When people describe Antwerp, the first word is often “cool.” The second biggest city in Belgium was once one of the busiest ports in Europe. Today, it’s known for its contemporary fashion scene and bold architecture. Antwerp’s pride and joy is The Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA), a striking gallery housed in a repurposed grain silo. Located near the port, it’s an emblem of how old and new Antwerp live harmoniously, side by side.
Mulhouse in the Alsace region of France and Antwerp have been sister cities since the 1950s. Like Antwerp, Mulhouse has a rich industrial history, especially for textiles. Its well-kept historic center is a joy to explore and is filled with quaint, colorful buildings that give off a Wes Anderson feel. The Museum of Printed Textiles, which highlights the city’s textile roots dating back to the 16th Century when decorative panels were imported from India, is a must for any buddy fashionista or fabric aficionado.
How to travel from Antwerp to Mulhouse
Although not direct, the journey can be completed by train. The first leg is a high-speed train that traverses Belgium and arrives at Paris Gare Du Nord. The second train leaves from Paris Gare l’Est and follows a picturesque route alongside the Seine and through the Aube and Marne Valleys.
Bari, Italy and Patras, Greece
Bari sits on the Adriatic Sea and boasts frenetic energy you can only find in a port city. The old harbor is a must for any visitor. Its vibe harks back to a bygone era, when fishermen sold their daily catch straight from their boats.
Beyond seafood, Bari is known for its cucina povera, aka food of the poor, as Apulia was traditionally one of the poorest regions in the nation. This led to a culinary culture featuring hearty, simple dishes as orecchiette con le cime di rapa (ear-shaped pasta with turnip heads). Head to one of the many small, family-run restaurants where nonni will greet you and treat you like family.
Bari and Patras, Greece, are some of the newest sister cities and are very similar in terms of industry and atmosphere. Like all Greek metropolises, Patras is steeped in history—the Byzantine ruins of the old castle stand on the site of an ancient acropolis.
A popular university city, Patras has a youthful spirit, especially during its annual carnival held in March. The biggest in Greece, the spectacle features hundreds of partygoers taking to the streets in fancy dress to celebrate late into the night.
How to travel from Bari to Patras
The southern cities are connected by ferry, which, in our opinion, is always a fun way to travel. Leave Bari’s new port behind in the afternoon, then spend the evening watching the sunset over the horizon. Get up early to watch the Peloponnese Mountains rise on the horizon.
Zagreb, Croatia and Budapest, Hungary
As a destination, Croatia’s capital is often overlooked. With a history dating back to the 12th century, it came into its own when it gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The quiet streets are filled with Baroque buildings that might seem peaceful in the day but come alive at night. Seek out Tkalčićeva Street in Donji Grad, where people gather in cafes and bars and the atmosphere is always celebratory. The city is also the perfect base for nature lovers, with the Medvednica mountain and Lake Jarun both closeby.
Zagreb and Budapest became sister cities in the ’90s so they could help each other apply for the European Union. Since then, Budapest has become one of the most popular destinations in Eastern Europe. Made up of two halves—Buda to the west and Pest to the east—it’s a lavish mishmash of old and new, trendy and historic, with spas and wellness reigning supreme.
Explore the greener Buda side with a trip to the grand Baroque Buda Castle before crossing the Chain Bridge to explore Pest. Here, you can enjoy Eastern European hospitality with a raucous night at a ruin bar. The next day, take a relaxing trip to the canary-colored Széchenyi Thermal Bath—what a way to end your trip!
How to travel from Zagreb to Budapest
Geographically close, it’s quick and easy to drive or take a bus. The route takes you through the vast Pannonian Plains in the northeast of Croatia. Once over the Hungarian border, you’ll pass Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s biggest freshwater lake before arriving in Budapest.