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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - While the cameras might be primarily focused on the athletes, the host city has a unique opportunity to emerge as a surprise star during the Olympics. With the games of the 30th Olympiad coming to a close, the editors and members of VirtualTourist.com (www.virtualtourist.com) have put together a list of "Top 10 Former Olympic Cities Worth a Visit." Reuters has not approved this list:
1. Athens, Greece
Of all former host cities, no city is as synonymous with the Olympics as Athens. Visitors to Athens can see the Panathenaic Stadium, built entirely of white marble, which housed the original 1896 Olympic Games. OAKA, the Athens Olympic Sports Complex, can be found in Maroussi, a northern suburb, 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 symbolize the society which gave us the Olympic tradition.
2. Stockholm, Sweden
In addition to being geographically spread among fourteen islands, Stockholm is also unique in that this year marks the hundredth anniversary of the 1912 Summer Olympics, the first to be held in 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 Stadium, 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 stadium it is 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. The Skansen Open-Air Museum is also located on the island of Djurgården.
3. Antwerp, Belgium
Though Antwerp was awarded the 1920 Olympics under melancholy circumstances, the resulting city and its reputation as a culture capital illustrates 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 honor the suffering inflicted on the Belgian people during the war.
Though the former Olympic Stadium is not a particular landmark for visitors today, this former Olympic city has become a major design and fashion hub, so visitors travelers with interests in those fields should make 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 an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
4. Melbourne, Australia
Despite the fact that most people thinking of "Olympics" and "Australia" conjure up images of Sydney, the first Olympic Games in Australia were actually held in Melbourne in 1956. Today, visitors to Australia's second city 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, travelers can walk the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Shrine of Remembrance. St. Kilda, a neighborhood along the waterfront where the yachting competitions of the 1956 Olympics were held, is a great location for cycling or strolling the oceanfront. The compact nature of the central Melbourne and its hidden laneways make it ideal for exploring on foot. 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 home to the Great Ocean Road, one of the world's most scenic drives.
5. Beijing, China
The 2008 Games were the first to be held in China. The city of Beijing, while steeped in history, was also a bastion of "Old China," especially when compared to more modern cities 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 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 Center, commonly called The Water Cube, has been converted into Asia's largest water park. A number of the temples, including the Temple of Heaven, were renovated in preparation for the Olympics, so they are now in prime condition for visiting travelers.
6. Innsbruck, Austria
Over More than 295 miles west of Vienna, the town of Innsbruck has recently gained notoriety as perhaps the second town to hold three Olympics: in addition to the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics, it held the first Winter Youth Olympic Games in 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 Olympic venues Patscherkofel and Axamer Lizum. 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 3000-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 center up the mountainside into the top of the mountain in only 20 minutes. Along the way, passengers can marvel at the various railway stations, designed by Zaha Hadid to resemble natural ice formations along the mountainside.
7. 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 held actually 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, since as it is located between France's two other Winter Olympic host cities, Chamonix and Grenoble.
For travelers 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. Albertville was a starting point for one of the mountain stages of the Tour de France this year. In addition to the sporting activities in the region, this area of France is particularly noted for its chefs and cuisine: the Rhone-Alps is home to sixty eight Michelin-starred chefs. Anything to add about the Olympics here?
8. Nagano, Japan
In 1998, the Winter Olympic Games took place in Nagano, Japan, 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 center 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 5-five layer, six 6-story castle tower is the oldest in Japan.
9. Salt Lake City, Utah
United States hosted its eighth Olympic Games when Salt Lake City, Utah, 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. In the last ten years since the Olympics, Park City has also become a major destination since it began hosting the 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. Travelers 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, Canada
Few Olympic cities can provide the variety of experiences that are available to visitors in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 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. In addition to seeing the Olympic Cauldron at English Bay in the West End, travelers can also bike or walk around West End's Stanley Park, North America's third largest urban park, with spectacular bay views and greenscape. In Vancouver, travelers can even try their hand at some of the Winter Olympic Sports.
At Whistler Sliding Centre, the public can test bobsleighs and skeleton rides on the same track used by Olympic athletes.
Editing by Paul Casciato