2017's European Capitals of Culture are complete hidden gems

Tell someone you are going to spend a week in Aarhus and you'll likely be met with raised eyebrows and questioning silence.

The name might be unfamiliar to many Americans, but the second-largest city in Denmark has all of the features of other European destinations more commonly trekked by Americans. There is a charming, cafe-lined canal meandering through the city center, a soaring cathedral dating back to 12th century and timbered cottages on cobbled-stoned streets harmoniously juxtaposing with a museum made of rainbow glass.

If that is too much to explain to friends, just say it is one of 2017's European Capitals of Culture.

Each year since 1985, the European Union has named cities that celebrate 'the richness and diversity of cultures in Europe' and 'the cultural features Europeans share.' Since the initiative was developed, more than 50 cities have been awarded the title.

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Aarhus will share the honor in 2017 with another city in EU; Pafos, Cyprus.

In many ways, the two cities are contradictions. Pafos (Paphos) is home to just 33,000 citizens, while 315,000 people live in Aarhus, including a large university student population. Aarhus may be at a lower latitude than, say, Stockholm and Oslo, but it still has chilly Nordic winters. Pafos has exceptionally mild winter months for Europe thanks to its balmy Mediterranean climate.

However, both are known for their harbors and glimpses back at the past. Aarhus was established by vikings around the year 770 AD and at the Jelling Monuments, a UNESCO World Heritage, visitors can turn back the clock and see how vikings once lived.

Pafos is also on the UNESCO World Heritage list thanks to its vast archaeological sites. Once you see the 2nd century mosaics that richly adorn the floors of ruined villas, the remains of palaces and theaters and the Tombs of the Kings necropolis, you'll understand why this city has been invaded by different empires since the Neolithic period. On top of that, Old Pafos is said to be the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite.

So, if anyone asks you why your trip to Europe is off-the-beaten path, tell them you retracing the footsteps of viking kings and Greek goddesses.

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