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What Are “Sister Cities”? Discover 6 Surprising Pairings Around the World

By Daily Passport Team
Read time: 5 minutes

When visiting some destinations around the world, you might have noticed a declaration of their “sister cities” or “twin towns” — that is, an agreement with another municipality, usually far across the world, to promote cultural and economic ties. The concept of sister cities arose in the 1950s, and since then more than 500 municipalities in the U.S. alone have formed sister city partnerships with municipalities near and far. While some of these pairings seem like a natural fit, others may leave you scratching your head. Discover the surprising ties behind six unexpected pairs of sister cities around the world.

Niles, Illinois, and Pisa, Italy

The Leaning Tower of Niles, Illinois
Photo credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./ Alamy Stock Photo

Constructed beginning in 1173, the Leaning Tower of Pisa remains one of the most recognizable pieces of architecture in the world. Known as the laboratory for Galileo’s experiments with gravity, the site today brings approximately 1 million tourists every year to the Tuscan city. Pisa has no shortage of other historical wonders, though, including the marble Cattedrale di Pisa on the opposite side of the lawn.

Pisa’s sister city of Niles, Illinois — a suburb north of Chicago — may not have all that medieval history, but it does have its own Leaning Tower. Although the replica, built in 1934, doesn’t bring in quite the number of visitors as the original, it has — like many oddities in rural America — become a roadside attraction. It also made a relationship between the two cities an all-too-obvious choice. They made it official in 1991 with the signing of their sister city partnership.

Cambridge, Massachusetts and Yerevan, Armenia

Ruins of the Zvartnos temple in Yerevan, Armenia, with Mount Ararat in the background
Photo credit: MindStorm/ Shutterstock

The intellectual hub of New England and the capital of the former Soviet state of Armenia may, at first glance, appear to have little in common. However, the official sisterhood between the two, formed in 1987, is what ties these two cities together. And they each boast rich historical and cultural significance.

Yerevan is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with archaeological evidence dating back to the eighth century BCE. Today, the Matenadaran holds one of the most impressive collections of manuscripts anywhere on the planet. It holds texts that date back to A.D. 405 and that range from original Armenian works to classic Greek and Arabic manuscripts. Similarly, Cambridge is home to Harvard University, the oldest university in the United States. It’s similarly known as a repository of knowledge and research from around the globe.

Boulder, Colorado, and Dushanbe, Tajikistan

View of the central square of Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Photo credit: Truba7113/ Shutterstock

Another surprising sister city relationship is the one between the capital of a former Soviet state and a city in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. However, the link between Boulder, Colorado, and Dushanbe, Tajikistan, has given rise to a couple of very tangible symbols of the towns’ friendship over the years.

For example, the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse is one of Boulder’s most distinctive sights and a must-see location for afternoon tea. Find it near the popular Pearl Street Mall in downtown Boulder. Many of the teahouse’s components, including the colorful hand-painted tiles and ornately carved, wooden columns, were created in Tajikistan, packaged, and sent to Boulder. Once they reached their new home, they were reassembled by master Tajik craftsmen before the teahouse eventually opened in 1998.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Dundee, Scotland

Stone steps leading to the Macmanus galleries in Dundee, Scotland
Photo credit: strelka/ Shutterstock

The capital of the United Arab Emirates is known as an oasis of luxury and innovation. It is home to the iconic Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world — and is a major global player in business and finance, thanks in large part to its oil revenue.

Dundee, in comparison, is a quaint city on the east coast of Scotland, with plenty of historical and cultural delights for tourists but none of the modern monetary sway for which its sister city is known. Nevertheless, the two have been linked since 2004, and report nothing but benefits from the ongoing exchange of ideas and culture across the continents.

Fort Worth, Texas, and Mbabane, Eswatini

Texas Water Gardens in downtown Fort Worth
Photo credit: Megan McHatten/ Shutterstock

Mbabane is the capital and largest city of Eswatini, a southern African country formerly known as Swaziland. This city has been a sister city to Fort Worth, Texas, since 2004. While Eswatini may be thousands of miles away from Texas, these two cities actually share some surprising similarities.

Both cities developed in the latter half of the 19th century, making them relatively young among world metro areas. Fort Worth began as a literal fort along the Chisholm Trail, a route used to drive cattle westward. Meanwhile, Mbabane was built up near the cattle kraal — a traditional enclosure often surrounded by huts — of the then-Swazi king, before becoming an official administrative outpost of the British Empire in 1902. In keeping with their founding, cattle have continued to play an important role in the industries of both sister cities.

Alexandria, Egypt, and Cleveland, Ohio

Fortress of Alexandria, Egypt, along waterfront
Photo credit: krechet/ Shutterstock

Known as the “Pearl of the Mediterranean,” Alexandria has been a sister city of Cleveland since 1977. Since its founding in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great, the city has been a place of immense cultural significance. It was also the home of the famous Library at Alexandria as well as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: Pharos, more commonly known as the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

While the Egyptian city is an icon of the Hellenistic Age, Cleveland — located on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio — is known primarily for its role in the industrial history of the American Rust Belt. The two sisters have one thing in common, though: Cleveland, too, has a lighthouse! However, thanks to the harsh Midwest winters, the Ohio lighthouse has had to endure quite different conditions than anything seen in Alexandria.

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