Helsinki, Finland, 1952
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The 1952 Olympiska sommarspelen were a make-up Games for Finland. The capital was supposed to host the 1940 Games, but they were cancelled due to World War II. And Helsinki had something to prove, having only become independent from Russia in 1917. During the ‘52 Games, it managed to establish a reputation for efficiency that endures to this day. Image: olympic.org
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On Helsinki’s ordered streets there are no raging traffic jams. Public transport runs like clockwork (one ticket for trains, buses and ferries) and polite cyclists give way to pedestrians. For travellers, grid-like cobbled streets and a compact size make Helsinki a metropolis easily navigated on foot. The city’s charm comes from its beautiful architecture, which runs the gamut from art nouveau to modernist masterpieces such as the Church in the Rock, which was blasted into the side of an enormous mass of granite.
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Helsinki was named World Design Capital in 2012, a title bestowed on cities that use design as a “tool to improve social, cultural and economic life”, and visitors regularly come away with an item be-decked in Marimekko print or a piece of glassware from Iittala. The city’s other main feature is its proximity to natural beauty: the Finnish capital has more than 100 kilometres of shoreline and 300 islands with mellifluous names – Suomenlinna and Seurasaari among them – as well as canals and lush forests. And no visit is complete without sitting in one of the three million incredibly hot wooden boxes known as saunas in Finland (a country with a population of five million).
Mexico City, Mexico, 1968
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The 1968 Juegos Olimpicos de verano in Mexico City were the first to be held in Latin America and the first in a developing country. The city outbid Detroit and Lyon for the ’68 Games and was keen for some positive PR after the Mexican Revolution and the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. The altitude of Mexico City, 2300 metres above sea level, also made it a controversial choice for the Olympics and proved debilitating to some athletes participating in endurance events. Nevertheless, the Olympics put the city back on the world map. These days Mexico City, while still a little rough around the edges, has an intoxicating spirit that could be described as a glorious organised chaos. Image: olympic.org
Mexico City, Mexico, 1968
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Where Helsinki is ordered, Mexico City is a dizzying conglomeration of more than 300 boroughs that are home to hundreds more neighbourhoods – from formerly wealthy barrios with decaying 19th century mansions that are now being revived to chic nightspot-and-restaurant destinations such as Polanco and San Angel.
Mexico City, Mexico
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Its beginnings as the Aztec capital means Mexico City has captivating historical buildings including the 13th century Templo Mayor, while its colonial past can also be seen in grand edifices such as the baroque Catedral Metropolitana and the Palacio Nacional, all of which are clustered around one of the largest public squares in the world, the Plaza de la Constitución, or the Zócalo. Mexico City has just about everything: Michelin-starred restaurants, an island solely dedicated to rescued dolls (La Isla de las Muñecas), the enormous Chapultepec Park, and of course, Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul. It is, like the Olympics themselves, exhilarating.
Seoul, South Korea, 1988
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South Korea won the Yeoleum Ollimpig Geim over Japan’s Nagoya and the burgeoning nation used the event as a kind of debut for its newly industrialised economy, and as an entre to relationships with other countries. Today, Seoul is the fourth-largest metropolitan economy in the world and a leading light in technology with super-fast rail and a subway system with high-speed wifi for all. Image: olympic.org
Seoul, South Korea, 1988
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Seoul may be a city of the future but it still has one foot in the past, with a landscape that mixes glittering skyscrapers with traditional temples. Hanok (traditional wood houses) cluster in narrow alleys, World Heritage-listed temples such as Bongeunsa, founded in 794, and the Changdeokgung Palace, built in 1405, lie within the ancient city walls. The walls, constructed in 1396, follow the ridges of the four main mountains surrounding Seoul city centre.
Seoul, South Korea
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The city has twice the population density of New York, and eight times that of Rome; despite these numbers it was rated Asia’s most liveable city with the second-highest quality of life globally in 2015. It is rich in culture from the high (traditional arts and crafts in the Insadong arts district) to the low (remember Gangnam Style?). Don’t miss the delicious street food, shopping for cult Korean beauty products and the Sungnyemun Gate, one of the last surviving sections of the original city wall.
Barcelona, Spain, 1992
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In the local language, Catalan, the ’92 Summer Olympics were called Jocs Olimpics d’estiu. Barcelona, the second-largest city in Spain, beat our own Brisbane for the honour (as well as Belgrade and Birmingham) and set about realising an elaborate urban planning agenda. The Olympic Village and Olympic Port were built at the formerly industrial El Poblenou, opening city beaches to the public that hitherto had been overrun by industry. The city created a leisure area of five new beaches which are now a huge drawcard for the city. Image: olympic.org
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Barcelona is a gothic-modernist masterpiece. The gothic quarter, Barrí Gotíc, is the centre of the old city. Its labyrinthine streets are closed to traffic so on-foot exploration is the perfect way to see them. You’ll get lost among the medieval structures before suddenly turning a corner and finding yourself in a sunny public square. It’s impossible to miss the whimsical designs by Barcelona’s most famous son Antoni Gaudí, one of which remains under construction – Gaudí died in 1926 but his Sagrada Família is still only 70 per cent complete. Gaudí creations Parc Güell, Casa Batló and Casa Milà are all UNESCO World Heritage listed.
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Barcelona is famous for its nightlife. It also offers incredible dining options: from tapas bars along La Rambla and tiny taverns specialising in jamon Serrano to high-end restaurants, Barcelona’s culinary landscape is every bit as diverse and surprising as its architecture.
Atlanta, Georgia, 1996
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The Atlanta Games were the first and only to be held in a city in America’s south, beating out Melbourne and Belgrade (again). The city’s bid was motivated by a desire to showcase an American South that had moved past a segregated past and become a forward-thinking economic force. Image: olympic.org
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The capital of Georgia, Atlanta sprawls at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It was initially planned as a railway junction but quickly became a major economic and cultural hub. The city is currently reinventing 22 miles of disused railway tracks around city-centre neighbourhoods know as the Beltline to create parks, public art installations and hiking and cycling trails. The cuisine in Atlanta is a sophisticated affair – yes, fried chicken and grits still abound but a United Nations of multicultural eateries and high-end restaurants can also be found in Buford Highway.
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Atlanta was an important part of the Civil War and many years later, the Civil Rights movement. To tell the story of the city’s past, there’s the huge Atlanta History Center, a 33-acre complex that features a number of museums and exhibitions focusing on African-American history, the Civil War and, yes, the 1996 Olympics. The Center also operates Margaret Mitchell House in Midtown, where the famed author wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gone with the Wind. Image: facebook.com/AtlantaHistoryCenter
Antwerp, Belgium, 1920
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Antwerp’s Olympics (Les Jeux olympiques d’ été) occurred after the 1916 Berlin Olympics were cancelled due to World War I. Germany, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) were all banned from the Antwerp Games, during which the most notable occurrence was that Swede Oscar Swahn, 72, won gold in the 100-metre running deer double-shot shooting event (a class that no longer exists). Image: olympic.org
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Antwerp is Belgium’s second-largest city and its medieval centre is a charming collection of cobbled streets and grand edifices. The port city became rich in the 1500s when wealthy merchants from all over Europe descended, making it an international hub. Baroque artists , including Peter Paul Rubens, made the city their home in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the house in which Rubens lived with his family for more than 20 years is now a fascinating museum.
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These days, Antwerp is a cosmopolitan, fashionable city with vibrant art, market and food scenes. Trams take locals all over the compact city centre with ease. The Het Zuid area is home to Antwerp’s impressive art museums as well as imposing mansions, grand squares and tree-lined boulevards. Explore Vlaeykensgang (“pie alley”) to experience an almost unchanged medieval city laneway and a visit to the diamond district (Antwerp controls four-fifths of the rough diamond market) is a must, especially if you’re in the market for a sparkler. Gastronomically, Belgium is the actual originator of the French fry, so partake of mussels and fries (moules-frites) matched with a top-notch Belgian beer.
Montreal, Canada, 1976
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The first Olympic Games ever held in Canada, the ’76 Olympics were opened by Queen Elizabeth II despite Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa being concerned that the move would prove unpopular with sovereigntists. The Queen refused to miss out: her daughter Princess Anne was competing for Great Britain in equestrian events. Image: olympic.org
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The capital of French-speaking province Quebec, Montreal is named for Mount Royal, the three-peaked hill at its centre. It’s a fantastic melange of old and new, English and French, traditional and avante garde. Old Montreal steps back to the 18th century with cobbled streets and French-colonial facades, while Plateau is an artist-and-student-friendly area right in town. Hire a Bixi Bike from one of the stands dotted around Montreal and see the city as locals do.
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Montreal is Canada’s undisputed arts capital, with more than 90 cultural festivals and literally hundreds of theatre and dance companies. Explore lively jazz clubs, open-air markets and the unmissable Sunday party in Mount Royal Park called Piknic Electronik where seemingly all of Montreal gathers to eat, drink and dance. Speaking of eating, the food scene here is one of the most exciting in the country, from French patisseries to hole-in-the-wall burger joints to European-style food markets.
Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1928
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The 1928 Olympische Zomerspelen was the first in which the Olympic Flame was lit, though the torch relay didn’t begin until 1936 Games in Berlin. These were also the first Olympics in which women competed in athletics and team gymnastics, though after it was falsely reported women were fainting with exhaustion after the 800 metres they were prohibited from running long distances until 1960. Image: olympic.org
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The capital of the Netherlands became a world power during the 17th century: that’s when the port city established the first-ever multinational enterprise, the Dutch East India company. The corporation imported exotic goods such as silks and spices from all over the world. During this time, the city’s heritage-listed canal system was established, and its characteristic tall, gabled homes were built. These days, Amsterdam attracts a crowd for its red-light district and cafes selling non-traditional comestibles, but this city is so much more than that. As well as its teetering buildings and narrow canals, the city is replete with parks, open spaces and squares. It’s one of the most cycle-friendly large cities in the world making traversing its streets a cinch.
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The city is veined with more than 100 kilometres of picturesque canals, some of which become skating rinks in winter. The charming centre has withstood various attempts at modernisation and is now a protected area. Amsterdam possesses more than 70 museums, including the famous Rijksmuseum which has the largest collection of classical Dutch art, the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House. Of course, this being free-spirited Amsterdam, there’s also the Sex Museum and the Erotic Museum.
Stockholm, Sweden, 1912
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Stockholm was the prime choice for the 1912 Games – mostly because no one else put their hands up. The Swedish Olympiska sommarspelen was meticulously planned, with a special Olympics newspaper published daily and free transport for invited nations’ equipment. As part of its program, Stockholm was the first to introduce Art competitions in five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. Image: olympic.org
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The Swedish capital is made up of 14 islands in the southeast of the country. For visitors, it’s easy to get around: there are sightseeing boats that traverse between the islands and beneath the city’s more than 50 bridges. Its subway system is known as “the longest art gallery in the world” for its incredible stations, which are decorated with mosaics, paintings, sculptures and other works. One station, Kungsträdgården (“The King’s Garden”) is like an elaborately painted cave, and it’s also part-archaeological dig, with exposed columns, sculpture and marble slabs on display. Imagine encountering that on your morning commute?
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In the Gamla Stan (Old Town), the buildings date back to the 13th century. Here, there’s the Royal Palace, gothic cathedrals, the city’s narrowest alley (less than one metre wide) and picturesque market squares. The city is home to an array of fascinating museums focusing on everything from architecture to fine art to Sweden’s pride: the Abba Museum. Over in SOFO or “South of Folkungagatan”, modern industry is alive with Swedish fashion designers, vintage stores, creative companies and cafes crowding the area.