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Are you excited about the Olympics? The opening ceremony is tomorrow and it got me thinking about all the outstanding cities that have hosted the Winter Games. Any host city has something special to offer, but these stood out for me because they are all places anyone would be happy to visit.
Here are my gold medal picks for Winter Olympics destinations, plus a few must-see attractions in each area:
Chamonix, France (1924)
Chamonix is where it all began. Host of the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, Chamonix is the Alpine skiing capital of the world and one of Europe’s major ski resort villages. Bordered by Italy and Switzerland, the area offers rugged and scenic adventures for tourists, climbers, backpackers and winter sports junkies. Book an experience of a lifetime and ride up the Aiguille du Midi cablecar which lifts you an impressive 9,000 vertical feet in less than 20 minutes. You may get a little dizzy from the quick altitude change but you’ll never forget the views up top. Make sure you visit Mont Blanc which is located on the Italian border. Its highest peak rises nearly 16,000 feet making it one of the biggest mountains in all of Europe. Take your camera and buy a ticket on one of the several cable cars that will take you up the mountain.
Vancouver, Canada (2010)
The last Winter Olympics was held in Vancouver/Whistler and reminded us all how much the area has to offer travelers. While the city itself is fun to explore, make sure you get out and see some top attractions. The Seawall is great place to hike, bike or jog. Opt to ride your bike around the 1 hour loop and explore Stanley Park through some of the many trails available in the area. Another great experience is the Vancouver Aquarium which offers a nautical journey around the Pacific Northwest, featuring sea otters, beluga whales, sea lions and dolphins. If you enjoy skiing and snowboarding, make sure you save a few days to visit Whistler. Less than 2 hours away, the terrain and conditions are usually outstanding and you really can’t argue with over 8,000 acres of terrain.
Turin, Italy (2006)
One thing is for sure, Turin (Torino) is a magical place. It’s the fourth largest city in Italy and has an impressive past which provides visitors today with elegant squares (piazza), world-class museums, amazing food/wine and a pioneering spirit. Turin is the home of Fiat cars, funky bars and some amazing architecture. Do you love football? Juventus Stadium is a must-see providing a clean and modern stadium, unique atmosphere and a fantastic setting for any Juventus match. Make sure you visit the numerous piazzas throughout the city, including Piazza San Carlo. Go there to soak in the history and view, churches, cafes and a really big horse. It’s a lovely place to settle in for a long lunch or a romantic dinner at dusk.
St. Moritz, Switzerland (1928)
I have to admit, Switzerland is one of my favorite places on Earth. And one of the most gorgeous places you’ll find anywhere, St. Moritz, has been enticing royals, celebrities and rich jet-setters since the mid-1800’s. When you go, make sure to visit the Diavolezza Glacier by cable car. It’s located near the Bernina Diavolezza train station and provides spectacular scenery and access to skiing. The 360 degree view from the top is really spectacular and there is a top-notch restaurant up there too. Visit the leaning tower, a landmark from the 12th century that was once part of the old Church of St. Mauritius, it’s of the area’s top sightseeing attractions.
Innsbruck, Austria (1964 & 1976)
It would have felt really strange to not have an Austrian city on the list. When it comes to winter sports, Innsbruck is one of the main venues, hosting the Winter Olympics twice. Aside from being a world-class alpine area, Innsbruck has a lot to offer travelers. One of the primary draws is Olympia SkiWorld Innsbruck which is a combination of eight ski resorts. The Austrian Alps gets pummeled with snow from November to mid-
April and with 80+ mountain railways and lifts, 175 miles of runs, a 7800 foot vertical drop and several different parks, you better believe the winter sports junkies show up here so they never have to ski the same run twice. Also, be sure to check out Altstadt the really charming and historic old town of Innsbruck. It has narrow and curved street, quaint buildings and sculptures/carving galore, all framed by the stunning mountain scenery in the background.
Oslo, Norway (1952)
I bet you probably never considered visiting Oslo before this moment. Aside from being a mecca for winter sports, Oslo is a wonderful architectural city with world-class museums, lively nightlife, amazing restaurants and a budding cafe and bar district. Oh and it’s the home of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” at the National Gallery. There are almost too many museums to choose from. Don’t miss your opportunity to stand in the boots of an Olympic ski jumper at the Holmenkollen Ski Museum. Another top choice is the Olso Opera House which seems a bit stuffy but resembles an iceberg. Go for the architecture and panoramic view of Oslo, your camera will love the sweeping views of the city from the roof. If you have time, visit Vigeland Park which is a must-see attraction featuring around 200 sculptures by Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland. You’ll love every minute!
Nagano, Japan (1998)
Nagano is one of two Japanese cities to host the Winter Games (the other is Sapporo which hosted twice). Taking a trip to Nagano is probably the road less traveled, but offers some unique shrines and temples. You won’t be disappointed with several mystical and intriguing shrines nearby. Head over to the Togakushi Okusha Shrine and Forest Reserve to experience this spiritual mountain and 5 shrines dedicated to Japan’s creation myth. Hike the path bordering the Togakushi Forest to see over 120 species of wild birds, amazing wildflowers and other fabulous botanical beauty. Make sure you visit Zenkoji Temple one of the oldest places of worship in all of Japan. The temple has been Japan’s primary center of Buddhist faith for over 1400 years and is home to the first Buddhist statue to come to Japan. In 1998, the bells of Zenkoji rang out as a wish for world peace at the start of the Winter Games.
Which Winter Olympic cities have you visited? Have you ever gone to the Olympics?
Featured Image: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters