The World’s Most Beautiful Sports Arenas

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We don’t often have sports on the brain here at Flavorpill, but with March Madness raging and The New Yorker recently running Elif Batuman’s fascinating exploration of Turkish soccer fans, we’ve been thinking about them more than usual. Specifically, we’ve been wondering why most of the places we go to watch sporting events have to be so freaking ugly — especially here in the U.S., where the past few decades have seen many arenas trade architectural ambitions for branding opportunities. But, after doing some digging, we’ve realized that the world is full of beautiful sports structures, many of which were created to house either the Olympics or the world’s most popular sport, soccer. Check out ten of our favorites after the jump, and tell us what we missed in the comments.

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Yoyogi National Gymnasium Tokyo, Japan

Designed by award-winning Japanese structuralist architect Kenzo Tange, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium was completed in 1964 and hosted the Olympic Games that summer. The facility seats over 13,000 and has been used for everything from swimming to hockey to last year’s World Judo Championships. We love the clean lines, the dramatic upward slope, the checkerboard concrete out front, and the way the building seems to emerge organically from its well-landscaped environment.

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Athens Olympic Stadium Athens, Greece

It’s difficult to capture the beauty of Athens Olympic Stadium, designed by Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava for the 2004 summer games, in one photo. Sure, the fluid, minimalist white exterior is a selling point — but, as Christopher Hawthorne pointed out in Slate, “has created a stadium whose most flattering profile is seen through a camera looking down.”

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Gospin dolac Imotski, Croatia

Although it’s not ginormous and wasn’t designed by a big-name architect, like many of these stadiums, Croatia’s Gospin dolac is still one of our favorites. Built in 1989, this outdoor arena, home to the NK Imotski soccer team, is built into the surrounding hills and situated among lush greenery. And that’s not all: check out the aerial view.

Ljudski vrt Maribor, Slovenia

Built in 1962 and renovated several times since then, Ljudski vrt is the home turf of Maribor’s soccer team and can accommodate nearly 13,000 screaming fans. Locals call the place the “football temple,” and its iconic concrete arch is protected by Slovenia’s cultural preservation institute.

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Beijing National Stadium Beijing, China

Part of the massive building project undertaken by the Chinese government in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing National Stadium was designed by trendy Swiss architectural team Herzog & de Meuron, with input by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest,” for obvious reasons, the stadium cost over $423 million, can hold a whopping 80,000 spectators, and is a favorite of such architects as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind.

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Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium Port Elizabeth, South Africa

One of three stadiums constructed for the South Africa-hosted 2010 FIFA World Cup, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium now houses soccer and rugby matches. Because its roof is comprised of a series of petal-like panels, it’s been nicknamed “The Sunflower.” The stadium is situated at the edge of North End Lake, and it’s that beautiful view of The Sunflower lit up from across the water at night that makes this 48,000-seat arena one of our favorites.

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Spaladium Arena Split, Croatia

Another gorgeous Croatian sports complex! Opened in late 2008, Spaladium Arena is devoted to both sports and entertainment, with a capacity ranging from just over 1200 to over 12,000 spectators, depending on the event. Good architecture is always about versatility, but we also love Spaladium’s polished wood-colored exterior. Considering how many stadiums stick to metal and concrete, it’s a welcome standout.

Stadio Giuseppe Meazza Milan, Italy

Better known by locals as “San Siro,” Stadio Giuseppe Meazza is the stomping grounds of two soccer teams: A.C. Milan and F.C. Internazionale Milano. The exterior of the building, which dates back to 1925 but has undergone several renovations since then, reminds us a bit of the Guggenheim. And although its current capacity is 80,000, San Siro was welcoming up to 100,000 fans back in the ’50s.

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FNB (Soccer City) Stadium Johannesburg, South Africa

Nicknamed “The Calabash” for its resemblance to an African pot, FNB Stadium opened in 1989 and housed Nelson Mandela’s first post-prison speech. The mosaic that comprises its exterior is meant to simulate what such a vessel would look like as it cooked over a fire. In advance of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it was renovated and expanded to hold nearly 95,000 spectators.

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Olympic Velodrome London, England

The final item on our list is an arena that has just been completed and won’t be used until the 2012 Summer Olympics. The 6,000-seat stadium was designed by Hopkins Architects and will be the headquarters of the games’ cycling events. And it doesn’t just look cool; it’s also sustainability-minded. That attractive, wood exterior aids ventilation, and the roof allows for daylight to stand in for artificial lighting.