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Football match being played on a grass pitch with crowds of fans sitting around the pitch

World Cup Locations

Alternative destinations: 9 min read
The World Cup is well underway. Millions of people have travelled to Russia to support their nation. But with all the focus on the action on the pitch, it’s easy to forget that the World Cup is also an opportunity for fans to explore the amazing countries that host the tournament too.

From the five time champions Brazil, to the one time entrant South Africa, in this blog we highlight some of the remarkable World Cup locations of the past.

Football and World Cup trophy on display in a stadium

Photo credit: Mariya Butd

Alternative Airlines' favourite World Cup locations

Uruguay, 1930

Where it all began. The first ever FIFA World Cup was hosted and won by Uruguay. Only 13 teams across three continents were represented at the first World Cup, making it much less of a ‘World’ Cup than tournaments in recent times. Uruguay have always been a good footballing nation. They've qualified for 12 of the 18 World Cup’s that they’ve been eligible for and won the tournament for a second time in 1950. However, tourism hasn’t always been as much of a staple as football has for Uruguay.

Bordering South America’s two most popular tourist countries — Brazil and Argentina — it’s fair to say that Uruguay has been eclipsed by its neighbouring countries. However, as South America tourism continues to grow, many people are starting to realise how much of a hidden gem Uruguay is.

There are a number of beautiful beaches in Uruguay, the beaches of Punta del Este — in particular Playa Mansa and Playa Brava — offer a lively party atmosphere, with a casino and other great nightlife. But, if you’re looking for something more serene and relaxed, the beaches of Rocha are perfectly pristine. Rocha is Uruguay’s furthest north coast, sitting right next to Brazil.

Our favourite place in Uruguay is the capital, Montevideo. Montevideo is by far Uruguay’s busiest city and also ten times the size of Uruguay’s second largest city, Salto. Despite Montevideo going through a modern transformation, its old town has been well-preserved and will give you a good taste of Uruguayan culture. We recommend visiting Montevideo between mid-January and February when the Uruguayan carnival is on. This is the longest carnival in the world — in previous years it has lasted for up to 40 days!

Take me to Uruguay: The main airport in Uruguay is Carrasco International Airport (MVD), Montevideo. This airport is served by airlines such as American Airlines, LATAM and Iberia.

South Africa, 2010

When the World Cup came to Africa. We think it’s fair to say that one of the best things about the 2010 World Cup was the spirit of the African fans. The South African team sent fans into hysteria after an unexpected 1-1 draw with Mexico which included an excellent tournament opening goal from Tshabalala. The Bafana Bafana later went on to beat France 2-1 in the closing game of the group stages, but sadly, it was not enough and South Africa went out gracefully in the group stages due to goal difference.

Ghana also shocked the world with their World Cup performance. If it wasn’t for a blatant handball from Luis Suarez blocking a certain Ghanaian goal, they would’ve made the semi-finals — something no African team has done in the past. Despite the controversy of each African team’s crushing exit from the tournament, the African fans ensured that the atmosphere for each game was electric, cheering and dancing in every stadium until Spain won the trophy by beating the Netherlands 1-0 in the final.

A group of South African football fans celebrating with flags and horns

Photo credit: Marcello Casal Jr/ABr

The coming together of different people and cultures in Cape Town perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the World Cup. Cape Town welcomes all to a city filled with street art, fantastic cuisines and gorgeous landscapes. The standout feature of Cape Town is the natural wonder, Table Mountain National Park — this 600-million year old flat top mountain is an adventurers dream.

A visit to South Africa wouldn’t be complete without a safari. South Africa has some of the best national parks and safari experiences in the world. Kruger National Park in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga has a display of over 137 mammals and 500 different bird species!

Take me to South Africa: The main airport in Cape Town is Cape Town International Airport (CPT). You can fly to Cape Town International on Airlink, KLM and CEMAir.

Mexico, 1986

The year of Diego Maradona. Maradona lead Argentina to win the World Cup in 1986 with one of the greatest standout performances in the tournaments history. Most people will remember Mexico 86 for two separate Maradona moments that both came in a quarter final game against England — the first is the infamous ‘hand of god’ and the second saw Maradona dribble through half of the England team and calmly finish one of the greatest goals ever.

Originally, the 1986 World Cup was meant to be hosted by Colombia, but due to financial difficulties, Mexico had to put themselves forward on short-notice and became the first ever nation to host the World Cup twice, after first hosting in 1970.

Mexico is a very popular holiday destination and it’s no surprise with all the breathtaking resorts to stay at in cities such as Cancùn, Chichén Itzá and Puerto Vallarta. But, if you’re looking for a bit of an alternative adventure that’s far removed from the busy tourist destinations, we recommend taking the Copper Canyon Railway — a 14-hour train journey that runs through the mountains in north Mexico. The Copper Canyon Railway is a fantastic way to visit the untouched parts of Mexico that most don’t see. You can buy hop on, hop off-tickets and spend as much time exploring each stop as you like.

Take me to Mexico: Mexico City International Airport (MEX) and Cancún International Airport (CUN) are the two main airports serving Mexico. Mexico City airport can be flown to on airlines such as Aeromexico, United Airlines, Volaris, Alitalia and Interjet. Cancun airport is served by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Interjet, and Thomas Cook.

A Cancun hotel at sunset looking out to the Caribbean sea

Photo credit: Pedro Szekely

Brazil, 1950

It’s been said that if the heart of football is in England, where the sport was created, then the soul of football is in Brazil, where the game was perfected. Being one of the most iconic World Cup locations, Brazil hosted their first World Cup in 1950 after the tournament took a 12-year hiatus during World War II. Today, Brazil can boast that they’re the team that have won the more World Cups than any other nation, with a total of five wins. However, Canarinha couldn’t get the job done when they brought the tournament to their own country, narrowly losing 2-1 to two-time champions Uruguay in the final.

With white-sand beaches and the world’s largest tropical rainforest, Brazil is one of the most popular countries to visit in South America. The Amazon rainforest has the most diverse flora and fauna on the planet. You can explore parts of the Amazon by boat or by foot and you can even stay in lodges within the jungle. Brazil’s city life is great too, with Samba living deep within its roots, Rio de Janeiro is one of the great party cities of the world.

And of course, there’s football. For football fans, no trip to Brazil is complete without a trip to one of the big football stadiums. We recommend watching a game at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro — the atmosphere from the fans of Flamengo, Fluminense or the Brazilian national team will blow you away.

Take me to Brazil: The busiest airport in Brazil is São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport (GRU), which can be flown to on airlines such as Lufthansa, Delta Air Lines, Emirates, British Airways and Air China. From there, you can fly to Rio de Janeiro-Galeāo International Airport (GIG) with LATAM Brasil, Avianca Brazil or GOL Airlines (previously VRG). Or you can fly directly to Galeāo International on Lufthansa, British Airways and Delta Air Lines.

South Korea/Japan, 2002

The 2002 World Cup was memorable because it was the first time the tournament took place outside of Europe or the Americas and will forever redifine what it takes to be a World Cup location. Brazil won their fifth World Cup that year, but the real breakout story was co-hosts South Korea having a real underdog run in the competition and making it all the way to the semi-final. South Korea knocked out international juggernauts Italy and Spain in somewhat controversial fashion before bowing out to Germany 1-0 in the semi-final.

Japan and South Korea have a lot more similarities than you might think. Both have a mix of history and culture with serene countryside and gorgeous natural landscapes, as well as bustling cities with bright neon lights and sleek towering skyscrapers.

Tokyo is one of the most surreal places on Earth. It strives to be cutting-edge and is constantly building upon itself to make it look and feel like a city from the future. We love Tokyo for its quirks and oddities, you can be walking around at night on a fairly quiet street and see a set of stairs going underground, you’ll head down them out of curiosity and find a massive arcade packed full of people. It’s those type of moments that make Tokyo special. You don’t know what’s around the corner and it’s so much fun to explore.

Central Tokyo lit up at night with neon and LED screens

Photo credit: OiMax

While Seoul might not be as crazy as Tokyo, it’s certainly shares the same forward thinking mindset. What’s great about Seoul is that while it has everything you would expect from a modern metropolis, it stays authentic to its history. There’s over 900 Buddhist temples sitting among the cities soaring skyscrapers and there’s three different UNESCO World Heritage Sites within the city. Not to mention, Japan has some of the best street food in Asia.

Take me to the Far East: Haneda Airport (HND) is the main airport in Tokyo. Airlines that fly to Haneda include All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines. Incheon International Airport (ICN) is the largest airport in South Korea, airlines that fly to Incheon International include Asiana Airlines, Korean Air and T’Way Air.

Italy, 1990

Whether you remember it for Roger Milla and Cameroon’s surprise performance, René Higuita’s unorthodox goalkeeping or West Germany and the Netherlands intense round of 16 game, this will go down as one of the more memorable tournaments in World Cup history. Another thing that made Italia 90 stand out were the phenomenal football stadiums that Italy hosted the games in. But, if you think the San Siro and Stadio Olimpico are impressive, just wait until you see Italy outside of the football field.

Italy has it all — iconic cities, stunning countryside and a picturesque coastline. It’d be hard to see all that Italy has to offer in just one trip, but as a starting point, we recommend exploring the artistic riches of a big city like Rome and then flying to the south coast to spend some time gazing at the cinematic views from colourful Sorrento. Sorrento is a great place to base yourself in southern Italy as it’s close to the renowned Amalfi Coast and a short ferry-ride from the idyllic Italian island of Capri.

Take me to Italy: Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport (FCO) is the main airport in Rome. To get there, you can fly on Vueling, easyJet and Alitalia. The closest airport to Sorrento is Naples International Airport (NAP), you can fly from Rome to Naples on Alitalia.

Qatar, 2022

The decision to give Qatar the World Cup hasn’t been without controversy. There were accusations of bribery in bringing the tournament to the Gulf, as well as concerns that players wouldn’t be able to play in Middle Eastern heat. However, the Qatar 2022 World Cup is scheduled to go ahead and it’ll be the first time the tournament isn’t hosted in the months of May—July, instead being moved to later in the year between November—December. Say what you will about the hurdles that football has to jump in order to bring the World Cup to Qatar, but there’s no doubt that Qatar will host an extraordinary spectacle with nine new brand-new stadiums being built and three existing ones being renovated specifically for this tournament.

If you were to visit Qatar today, it might be a vastly different place to when the 2022 World Cup comes around — that’s how fast it's growing. The skyline in Doha is forever changing, with new buildings soaring up hundreds of metres from the ground every year. But, don’t think for a second that this a city void of tradition and character, the untouched sand dunes will leave you amazed and the Souq Waqif is an example of traditional Qatari architecture at its finest. It might be fair to say that there isn't a great deal of things to do outside of Doha, but the city is so exciting that it's worth visiting Qatar just so see it.

The futuristic city skyline of Doha at golden hour

Take me to Qatar: Hamad International Airport (DOH) is the main airport in Doha. You can fly there on airlines such as Qatar Airways, Jet Airways and Oman Air.

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