Yes, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi have been mired in controversy, but we can't help but get into the Olympic spirit as the opening ceremonies (February 7) draw nearer. After all, what beats watching a trained professional athlete go hurtling down the luge track at 90 miles an hour? We've taken a look back at previous winter Olympics host sites, and all the fun activities that visitors can still do there. Now, who's ready for some bobsledding?
Lake Placid, New York
After the rush of becoming the second U.S. city to host the Winter Olympics in 1932 (St. Louis was the first, 28 years earlier), Lake Placid was chosen to host a second time in 1980. Since then, it's become a mecca for winter sports. A full range of activities is available in and around the town (ice skating, skiing, snowboarding, and hiking), but one thing that's sure to get your heart racing is an afternoon of bobsledding. For $85, you can strap yourself into a bobsled along with a professional driver and brakeman, and zip down the track at the Olympics Sports Complex, the same venue used by the Olympians themselves.
With its near-panoramic views of the Alps and stunning architecture (the Mole Antonelliana, one of the city's most iconic structures, is Italy's highest monument), it's easy to see why Torino was chosen as the site of the 2006 winter Olympics. Museums, shops, and charming cafes abound. For winter sports fans, we recommend heading to town of Coazze Pian Neiretto. Lots of other nearby sites (Bardonecchia, Pragelato, Cesana San Sicario) have hosted subsequent ice skating and skiing tournaments, but this beautiful town (located about an hour west of Torino) feels like a peaceful winter wonderland during this time of year. It offers dedicated paths for snow-shoeing – or as they call it in Italian, ciaspole.
Over 300 miles of trails wind around the western Austrian city of Innsbruck, which hosted the games in 1964 and again in 1976. (Along with Lake Placid and St. Moritz, it is one of only three cities to have hosted multiple Olympic Games). Beginner skiers love Innsbruck, with its easily accessible cable cars and chair lifts, but it's the well-maintained Olympic venues that keep professionals coming back year after year. While you're in town, check out the Bergisel Ski Jump, which contains an updated version of the original ski jump used in 1976, and a sleekly designed observation deck and cafe. Situated over 130 feet above Bergisel Mountain's peak, you'll be looking down on tiny Innsbruck from the same height as the jumpers themselves.
Less than ten miles north of Lillehammer center sits Hunderfossen Family Park, and next to that is the Bobsleigh and Luge Track. Part of the original "Olympia Parken" built for the Winter Games in 1994, it is known as the only artificially frozen bobsled and luge track in northern Europe. Professionals still use it as a practice site, though visitors will enjoy wandering around the 10,000-seat stadium, or even trying out an actual bobsled run. Since you'll be flying at 74.5 miles per hour down the track, instructors hand out diplomas at the end so you can prove to your friends back home you were brave enough to try.
Salt Lake City, Utah
In downtown Salt Lake City, surrounded by a pedestrian shopping mall, Olympic Plaza commemorates the city's hosting of the Winter Games in 2002, but it's the Utah Olympic Park, about 28 miles east of downtown, where snow lovers go for the real deal. The $74 million park – built in two stages between 1991 and 1999 – houses a 120-meter ski jump, bobsled-luge track, a lodge, and a ski museum. Guided tours ($10) are available, showing the inner workings of the Olympic venue, but for something a little more extreme, why not try a zipline ride? The "steepest recreational zipline in the world" will have you soaring over the edge of the K120 ski jump, so you can get a feel for what the actual event might be like.