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Top 10 Olympic cities that you should visit

The host city of the Olympics has a unique opportunity to showcase itself and its parent country. London was the first city to host the Olympics three times (1908, 1948, and now 2012) and is of course home to some of the world’s greatest cultural institutions and historical buildings. With the games of the 30th Olympiad having just concluded, VirtualTourist.com has put together a list of some of the other Olympic cities worth a visit.

1. Athens, Greece (Summer 1896, 1906, Summer 2004)

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Athens, Greece

Of all former host cities, no city is as synonymous with the Olympics as Athens, Greece. Not only did the city hold the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, but it’s also the nation that birthed the concept in Ancient Olympia. Visitors to Athens can see the Panathenaic Stadium, built entirely of white marble, which housed the original Olympic Games in 1896. OAKA, the Athens Olympic Sports Complex, can be found in Maroussi, a northern suburb of Athens, and was the sight of the 2004 Olympic Games. Architect Santiago Calatrava added his signature flair to OAKA by adding a new roof structure and agora, the steel arch designed to shade spectators from the bright summer sun. No trip to Athens is complete without checking out some of its more traditional architectural gems – visit the Acropolis and see the ruins of the Parthenon and Erechtheion that symbolise the society that gave us the Olympic tradition.

2. Stockholm, Sweden (1912 and 1956)

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Stockholm, Sweden

In addition to being geographically spread between fourteen islands, Stockholm is also unique in that this year marks the hundred-year anniversary of the 1912 Summer Olympics, the first to be held in Stockholm and Sweden. The visit should start in Gamla Stan, the city’s old town, where a short stroll will take you past the Royal Palace and Stockholm Cathedral. The Stockholm Stadion, located in Lidingövägen, is the oldest Olympic arena in the world that is still in regular use, making it a great stop for anyone visiting the city today. From the Stadion, it’s a short trip to the island of Djurgården, where Scandinavia’s most visited museum, the Vasamuseet, is located. The museum holds the Vasa, a 384-year-old warship, preserved and showcased with over 95 percent of its original details. The Skansen Open-Air Museum is also located on the island of Djurgården.

3. Antwerp, Belgium (1920)

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Antwerp, Belgium

Though Antwerp was awarded the 1920 Olympics under melancholy circumstances, the resulting city and its reputation as a culture capital illustrate how much things can change in fifty years. Originally, the 1916 Olympic Games were scheduled in Berlin, but were later cancelled due to World War I. After the war ended, the 1920 Olympic Games were awarded to Antwerp to honour the suffering they endured during the first World War. Though the former Olympisch Stadion is not a particular landmark for visitors today, this former Olympic city provides ample motivation for travellers. The city has become a major design and fashion hub, so be sure to visit the Fashion Museum (momu) and the MAS (museum aan de stroom). Another noteworthy museum is the Museum Plantin-Moretus/Prints Room, which houses an overview of printing and is the only museum worldwide to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

4. Melbourne, Australia (1956)

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Melbourne, Australia

Despite the fact that most people thinking of “Olympics” and “Australia” conjure up images of Sydney, the first Olympic Games in the Southern Hemisphere and in Australia were actually held in Melbourne in 1956. Today, visitors to Australia’s second largest city today will find it still has an exciting sports culture, as well as a burgeoning arts scene. The venue of the 1956 Opening Ceremony, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, is both a cultural icon and one of the most important cricket grounds in the world. Across the Yarra River, travellers can walk the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Shrine of Remembrance. St Kilda, a neighbourhood along the waterfront where the yachting competitions of the 1956 Olympics were held, is a great location for bike riding or strolling the oceanfront. The compact nature of central Melbourne and its hidden laneways make it ideal for exploring on foot and the street art scene means there’s no shortage of visual stimulation as well. For those who want to see Australia’s wild natural surroundings, Melbourne is also close to the Great Ocean Road, one of the world’s most scenic drives, with views that include the Twelve Apostles.

5. Beijing, China (2008)

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Beijing, China

Though the Olympics had been held in Asia previously (Japan and South Korea), the 2008 Games were the first to be held in China. The city of Beijing, while steeped with history, was also a bastion of “Old China”, especially when compared to more modern cities to its south like Shanghai and Hong Kong. After securing the host bid, the city vastly improved its infrastructure, as well as its air quality and public transportation. Now, in addition to the traditional landmarks such as The Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, Beijing is also home to modern architectural landmarks, such as the National Stadium, also known as Bird’s Nest, designed by a group of architects that includes Pritzker Prize-winning Herzog & de Meuron. Another new addition, the Beijing National Aquatics Centre, commonly called The Water Cube, has been converted into Asia’s largest water park.

6. Innsbruck, Austria (1964, 1976)

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Innsbruck, Austria

More than 295 miles (475 km) west of Vienna, the town of Innsbruck has recently gained notoriety as the second town to hold three Olympics: in addition to the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics, it held the first ever Winter Youth Olympic Games this past January. One rare characteristic of Innsbruck is all nine ski resorts that encompass the Olympia SkiWorld Innsbruck are accessible on just one ski pass, including two Olympic venues. In the non-winter months, the area has the Top of the Tyrol lookout at the summit of the Stubai Glacier, where visitors can see over one hundred 3,000-meter peaks around them. While the old town is filled with magnificent medieval buildings, there are also modern wonders such as the Nordkette cable railway, a funicular that takes you from the city centre to the top of the mountain in only 20 minutes. Along the way, passengers can marvel at the various railway stations, designed by Zaha Hadid, built to resemble natural ice formations along the mountainside.

7. Albertville, France (1992)

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Albertville, France

Conveniently located along the Great Alpine Road, Albertville is uniquely positioned on the border of France, Switzerland, and Italy, in the middle of France’s Rhone-Alps region. Though the 1992 Winter Games were awarded to Albertville, the competitions were spread out between several small alpine towns. This Olympics was most notable for being the first time a unified Germany competed together for medals, as well as the former Soviet Union competing as the “Unified Team”. Today, Albertville serves as a great starting off point for any winter sports enthusiast, as its location between France’s two other Winter Olympic host cities, Chamonix and Grenoble, means multiple resorts and mountains are accessible in one trip. For travellers who want to visit in the summer months, Albertville is also an excellent town for cycling, providing a great base camp for mountain routes throughout the region. In fact, this past July, Albertville was a starting point for one of the mountain stages of the Tour de France. In addition, for the sporting activities in the region, this area of France is noted for its chefs and cuisine: the Rhone-Alps is home to sixty eight Michelin-starred chefs.

8. Nagano, Japan (Winter 1998)

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Nagano, Japan

In 1998, the Winter Olympic Games took place in Nagano, much further south than prior Japanese Winter host, Sapporo. While the majority of events took place near Hakuba Village in the Matsumoto Northern Alps area, other Olympic sites are scattered around the prefecture. In addition to winter sports, there are some great architectural sights in the area: the Zenkoji Temple, a 1,400 year old temple that has long served as the Japan’s primary centre of Buddhist faith, is located in Northern Nagono. The temple is such an important part of Japanese Buddhist culture that it sees approximately 7 million visitors annually. Another national treasure in the area is the Matsumoto Castle, whose five-layer, six-story castle tower is the oldest castle tower in Japan.

Though the Olympics may have brought the world’s attention to the area, the overwhelming response from VirtualTourist.com members was to check out the monkeys! In the Northern Nagano area, a hot spring village where nine unique hot springs are located, the Jigokudani hot spring is particularly special. ‘Jigokudani-yaenkoen,’ also known as “Snow Monkey Park,” is world-famous for the wild Japanese macaques that keep themselves warm here during the winter months.

9. Salt Lake City, Utah (Winter 2002)

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Salt Lake City, Utah

The United States hosted its eighth Olympic Games when Salt Lake City and its surrounding ski resorts hosted the Winter 2002 Olympic Games. Visitors today can check out the Utah Olympic Oval on the western side of the city, or head east and hit Park City Mountain Resort, Deer Valley, and Snowbasin Ski Area, where former Olympians have competed for gold. Park City has also become a major destination since it began hosting the annual Sundance Film Festival every January, so the city’s historical Main Street now has modern eateries, nightclubs, and world-class spas. While Salt Lake City is a well-known winter destination, it’s also becoming a much more popular summer spot for hikers and mountain bikers. Travellers with an interest in these sports couldn’t find a destination better than Utah – Southern Utah contains some of the most picturesque terrain in North America, including the state’s five national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands.

10. Vancouver, British Columbia, (Winter 2010)

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Vancouver, British Columbia

Few Olympic cities can provide the variety of experiences that are available to visitors of Vancouver. While some natural occurrences were already ready for the games, like the amazing trails and conditions of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, the city also made numerous green improvements in preparation for the Games. The city extended its SkyTrain rapid transit system to downtown Vancouver and created an Olympic village that is LEED Platinum Certified, meaning its eco-friendly and sustainably designed. In addition to seeing the Olympic Cauldron at English Bay in the West End, travellers can also bike or walk around West End’s Stanley Park, North America’s third largest urban park, with spectacular bay views and greenery. In Vancouver, travellers can even try their hand at some of the Winter Olympic Sports. For example, at Whistler Sliding Centre, the public can test bobsleighs and skeleton rides on the same track used by Olympic athletes!

Whether checking out the Olympic venues or visiting additional historical sites, each of these cities offer travellers enough to warrant considering a visit today, even if their cauldrons are no longer lit with the Olympic flame. Find out more over at VirtualTourist.com.