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“With Brazil set to host the 2014 World Cup, scores of travelers are gearing up for what could be the trip — and the games — of a lifetime. Twelve cities across Brazil will host matches during the Cup, a diverse array of towns from the ever-popular Rio de Janeiro to Manaus, a city in the heart of the Amazon. Happily, a number of host cities are coastal, so travelers can take advantage of Brazil’s famous beaches. Many host cities have even constructed new, cutting-edge stadiums sure to dazzle soccer fans. Check out our guide to the 12 World Cup host cities and their soccer stadiums.
Spend time admiring the mountainous landscape and strolling the metropolitan streets of Brazil’s third largest city, Belo Horizonte, or “Bay-Agah,” as it’s known to locals (that’s “BH” in Portuguese). Though the city is often overlooked by tourists, there’s plenty to do, like testing your bargaining skills at the Mercado Central, exploring the trendy Lourdes and Savassi neighborhoods, and seeing a concert at the Palácio das Artes.
See the Match: Already one of Brazil’s most raucous stadiums, BH’s Estadio Mineirão will undergo a massive renovation prior to the World Cup games. Updates include lowering the pitch surface and improving stadium accessibility.
Many first-time visitors to Brazil are surprised to learn that Brasília is the country’s capital, not Rio de Janeiro, the city that admittedly gets the most hype. Built in the 1950s in a massive experiment in urban development, Brasília’s perfect grid of wide avenues, well-planned residential and commercial blocks, and contemporary architecture helped it achieve UNESCO World Heritage status.
See the Match: Brasília’s Estadio Nacional is the nation’s second largest World Cup venue, seating more than 70,000 fans. Recent enhancements include a new facade, metal roof and stands, and a lowered pitch that will allow unobstructed views from every seat — perfect for soccer’s fervent fans.
Located smack-dab in South America’s center — 2,000 miles from either coast — Cuiabá is a former gold rush mining town dating back to the 1700s. The city is ideally situated as a jumping-off point for exploring the Cerrado region’s savannahs, the Pantanal area’s wetlands and the Amazon. While in Cuiabá, pay a visit to the nearby Chapada dos Guimaraes mountain range, one of Brazil’s most stunning landscapes and home to a national park and nearly 50 archaeological sites with prehistoric cave paintings and fossils.
See the Match: Cuiabá also boasts yet another new stadium built for the Cup. The 43,000-seat Arena Pantanal has been constructed with sustainability in mind, earning it the nickname “The Big Green.”
Arena da Baixada
The largest city in Brazil’s southernmost region, Curitiba also has one of the nation’s best qualities of life, with a commitment to lowering auto traffic and pollution through a low-cost bus system, and a proactive approach to handling common urban woes such as homelessness and poverty through work programs in the city’s garbage separation plant. While in town, take a tour on the popular Tourism Line, a network of hop-on, hop-off tour buses that run every 30 minutes, and visit the city’s major sites, including the Botanical Garden of Curitiba, Japan Square and Tingui Park, as well as the Wire Opera House.
See the Match: Fans visiting for the World Cup will see matches at the Arena da Baixada, renovated in 1999, and considered one of Brazil’s most modern stadiums. The soccer stadium will undergo a series of renovations, increasing its nearly 33,000 seating capacity to 40,000.
Why not toss a few stunning beaches into the World Cup mix? Fortaleza sits fortuitously along Brazil’s stunning northernmost coast, and with more than 2 million residents Fortaleza is one of the country’s biggest cities. In recent years, the city has been promoting its sandy beaches, such as Praia do Futuro, home to a number of delicious kiosk-style seafood restaurants, and Mucuripe Beach, where you can still see local fishermen head out to sea on their wooden, handmade boats. Take a stroll along Beira Mar, the city’s main drag that houses a daily craft fair and a number of dance clubs.
See the Match: World Cup matches will be held in the newly revamped Estadio Castelao, which can now seat more than 64,000 spectators.
In Manaus, a city located at the point where the Negro and Amazon rivers meet, you’ll experience one of South America’s most striking sights: where the rivers join, the brown, muddy waters of the Amazon flow adjacent to the dark black waters of the Negro without mixing — an awesome sight. Manaus is the Amazon’s largest city, an unexpected piece of urbanity in the midst of what is otherwise jungle. The city is also a good launching point for Amazon jungle tours.
See the Match: If you’ve come for the World Cup, take note that the 42,000-seat, eco-friendly Arena Amazonia has been designed to resemble a straw basket, a product that the region is famous for producing.
Estadio das Dunas
Brazil’s picturesque beaches, with their sprawling stretches of sand and deep blue waters, have rightfully gained fame among visitors. Commonly known as “Sun City” because of its typically near-perfect weather conditions, the sandy oasis of Natal has been drawing scores of travelers to the city’s shores in recent years, where they can enjoy both the beaches and breathtaking sand dunes. Beaches worth a visit include Ponta Negra, Genipabu, Redinha, Pipa and Pirangi. Thanks to the presence of the towering sand dunes, buggy rides are a popular activity as well. After soaking up the sun, meander down the bustling Via Costeira avenue, enjoying the surrounding shops and restaurants.
See the Match: World Cup matches will be held at the Estadio das Dunas, a newly constructed stadium both named and designed in honor of Natal’s sand dunes.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into another country upon arriving in Porto Alegre. The capital of Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul region is home to scores of Italian and Portuguese immigrants who arrived after World War II. Porto Alegre has also adopted some of the cultural habits of neighboring Argentina and Uruguay, such as drinking mate, a type of tea. This port city is located on the bank of Lagoa dos Patos, an enormous lagoon, and boasts a colorful arts and nightlife scene, particularly in the “SoHo” neighborhood. Additional sights include the Piratini Palace, the Public Market and Farroupilha Park.
See the Match: Soccer fans will watch the World Cup matches at the 50,000-seat Estadio Beira-Rio, the largest stadium in Brazil’s south.
One of northern Brazil’s most enticing cities, Recife is also home to one of the nation’s biggest and most popular beaches, Boa Viagem. Most often distinguished for its raucous Carnaval celebration, Recife attracts more than 2 million visitors who fill the streets dancing, partying, playing lively percussion bands and marching in colorful parades. The city itself is a metropolis of glass buildings and packed commercial districts. For a slightly more sedate experience, visit nearby Olinda, a charming beach town designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which lies less than 4 miles from the city center.
See the Match: World Cup matches will be held at Arena Pernambuco, a new 46,000-seat arena that’s part of a complex that includes restaurants, movie theaters and shopping.
Rio de Janeiro
Estadio do Maracana
Scores of visitors will descend on Brazil during the World Cup, particularly its biggest city, Rio de Janeiro. Upon arriving in Rio de Janeiro, go directly to Ipanema Beach, the hottest stretch of sand near the city. Ipanema is filled with what appear to be the city’s sexiest men and women. Of course, this isn’t some quiet paradise; crowds of tourists fill the shores, but it’s hard not to be smitten with the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) mountains towering over the beach’s western end.
See the Match: If you’re in Rio for soccer, head to the legendary Estadio do Maracana, one of Rio’s most popular tourist attractions, which can seat up to 200,000 people. During the World Cup, the stadium will host 7 matches, more than any other venue.