There are few better ways into a place’s soul than through its sports teams. Step into the feverish atmosphere of a stadium or arena mid-match and you’ll find locals who are usually relaxed in a state of agitation or elation, depending on the scoreline.
Head to one of these sporting destinations and you’ll see a side of town impossible to find on the streets.
Football at La Bombonera, Buenos Aires
There are bigger stadiums in South America than Buenos Aires’ La Bombonera. But few can match the electric atmosphere on match day, when 49,000 rabid fans cram in to cheer Boca Juniors to glory. The ground’s unique design, with three steep-sided stands and one flat, wall-like grandstand, makes things so cacophonous the crowd is known as ‘La Doce,’ or the twelfth man. First-time visitors should snap up a vintage shirt from La Boca’s market stalls. Tickets for games are like gold dust – the stadium has a members’ only policy in place, but you can get a look in if you book through an agency that provides a ticket, a temporary membership card, and a bilingual guide.
• Do: say local hero Diego Maradona is your favourite player of all time
• Don’t: turn up wearing the shirt of arch rivals River Plate
Sumo wrestling at Ryōgoku Kokugikan, Tokyo
Three of Japan’s six annual sumo tournaments are held at Ryōgoku Kokugikan, taking place over 15 days each January, May and September. You can get cheaper tickets in the nosebleed seats on the day, although you’ll need to be quick. For a true Japanese experience, buy in advance and get one of the traditional first floor box seats. You’ll need to take off your shoes to sit in these cushioned areas, but snacking from a bento box while watching two hulking wrestlers take each other on is about as local as it gets.
• Do: make sure you get down early to watch the preliminary rounds
• Don’t: miss retiring wrestlers having their symbolic topknot cut off between matches
Cricket at Eden Gardens, Kolkata
The rarefied surroundings of Lord’s might be billed as cricket’s HQ. But no ground can beat Kolkata’s Eden Gardens when it comes to the sheer pandemonium of match day. Whether it’s Kolkata Knight Riders blasting their way to Twenty20 glory or India battling their way through a Test, the noise and support is unmatched in world cricket. The stadium seats 68,000 these days, although twice that number used to squeeze in back in the 1980s. Like any self-respecting local, be sure to stand for the entire match. The seats aren’t exactly comfortable anyway.
• Do: talk up India’s famous win here against Australia in 2001
• Don’t: claim Twenty20 is Test cricket’s poor relation
AFL at the MCG, Melbourne
The ‘G’ might be best known around the world as a cricket ground. But for Aussie Rules-mad locals it’s as much about 36 blokes going full-tilt for 80 minutes as it is watching a Test match. Collingwood, Hawthorn, Melbourne and Richmond play home games at the MCG, with 45 regular-season matches played at the ground between April and September, plus the Grand Final in October. With just more than 100,000 seats, tickets are easy to come by. Make yourself an honorary Melbournite by decking yourself out in team colours and scarfing a meat pie.
• Do: say you prefer AFL to rugby
• Don’t: complain about the players churning up the G’s hallowed cricket wicket
Ice hockey at Rogers Arena, Vancouver
Watching ice hockey in frosty Vancouver just feels more appropriate than catching a game in the sunnier climes of the southern US. Rogers Arena is home to the Canucks, who induce something approaching religious fervour on game day. The Fastest Game On Earth is one of the best spectator sports going, with brutal dust-ups between players causing just as much excitement as goals. Join rabid local fans for the pre-skate warm-up half an hour before puck drop. Just be sure not to get taken out by a flying puck if you go rinkside.
• Do: get rowdy and tell the opposition just what you think of their foul play
• Don’t: claim playing field hockey at school was just like this
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Baseball at Fenway Park, Boston
Dating back to 1912, Fenway Park is the oldest and most historic ballpark still being used for Major League Baseball games in the USA. After an 86-year wait for a World Series win, dating back to 1918, the Boston Red Sox have started to restock the trophy cabinet over the last decade. Games almost always sell out, so buying tickets well in advance is a must. Once you get settled in the bleachers (raised tiered rows of benches), call over a hotdog seller, chow down and let the atmosphere of one of the USA’s greatest sporting arenas wash over you.
• Do: stand for the national anthem
• Don’t: rock up wearing a New York Yankees cap
Basketball at Madison Square Garden, New York City
Sure, there are better basketball teams than the New York Knicks. But there’s nowhere better to watch basketball than Midtown Manhattan’s famous sporting venue. As with everything in NYC, getting the best seats in the house requires planning and plenty of cash. But if the Brooklyn Nets have crossed the East River for a match, it’s worth the expense. Get into the spirit by posing for the kiss cam with your better half or desperately trying to grab one of the free T-shirts fired high into the stands during time outs.
• Do: buy a pricey burger and a local craft beer for tipoff
• Don’t: ask why LeBron James isn’t playing
Hurling at Croke Park, Dublin
Steeped in Irish tradition, Croke Park is the headquarters of both Gaelic football and hurling. The latter – a fast-moving, physically demanding game – is best watched in the national stadium, with the semi-finals and final of the All Ireland hurling championships played here in August and September. Make sure you fit in by learning the local terminology: hurley for the wooden stick the players use to hit the sliotar, the baseball-like ball which is thwacked towards the opponents’ goal.
• Do: have a few pints of Guinness to get into the mood before kick off
• Don’t: turn up wearing an Ireland football or rugby top
NFL at Hard Rock Stadium, Miami
The Miami Dolphins are one of the NFL’s most historic teams, albeit one that hasn’t enjoyed much success on the field in recent years. But the American football experience is about more than just watching the Gridiron, especially in the Sunshine State. Hire a car, load up on beers and burgers and get down to the Sun Life Stadium early for a tailgate party. The weather’s certain to be perfect and you can have a barbecue in the car park with thousands of other sports fans before the serious business of the match gets going.
• Do: bring a ball down for an impromptu, pre-match throw-about
• Don’t: say rugby players are harder
Rugby Union at Newlands, Cape Town
South Africa’s oldest rugby stadium and scene of New Zealand’s demolition of England in 1995, Newlands is one of the best places in the world to watch rugby union. Both the Stormers and Western Province play their home games in the somewhat creaking ground, with tickets readily available. Hungry locals tend to have a traditional braai (barbecue) before the game gets underway, sinking more than a few local lagers once the match is finished. It’d be rude not to get involved.
• Do: wear a classic 1995 World Cup-winning South Africa shirt
• Don’t: get Newlands rugby stadium confused with nearby Newlands cricket ground
This article was first published in August 2015 and updated in November 2019.