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A trading hub during the Hungarian Empire, Košice (ko-sheet-seh) has a heritage as motley as the architectural styles of its medieval old town.

This year Slovakia’s second largest city steps out of the shadows as Europe’s eastern Capital of Culture while also 
feting 20 years of Slovak independence.

Along the Old Craftsman Row (Hrnčiarska), visitors drop in on the ancient ateliers of modern-day artists, blacksmiths, and potters.

Locals fill the cobblestoned main square and beyond, spilling out of wine bars like Villa Cassa, which pours 800 varietals, with some from the nearby Tokaj region.

Košice’s location makes it convenient to explore several national parks, the ski resorts and 
glacial lakes of High Tatras, and UNESCO World Heritage sites, including a treasury of centuries-old wooden churches. An army barracks turned cultural center and the White Night festival in October shed light on a thriving arts scene.

“Košice has always been a city of culture,” says guide Milan Kolcun. “Only now we are no longer anonymous.”

Insider’s Tip: Use Eurail’s new trip planner to find train routes to Košice (5-6 hours from Bratislava, 3.5 hours from Budapest).

This article, written by Kimberley Lovato, appeared in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.