Football (soccer) is Europe's unofficial religion. And when summer turns to autumn, all over the continent cathedrals to the beautiful game are packed with worshippers.
You too can heed the call to prayer. Though some clubs sell out every game, many still have tickets a few days in advance, and often you can book online. Here are ten top stadiums to watch the game in, or just visit for a nose around.
Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid
You need to come to the Bernabéu twice. Come once to approach it at leisure, circumnavigate the towering stadium and tour Real Madrid’s superb museum. Like many clubs, Real Madrid boast that they are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen. Unlike anyone else, they’ve got nine European Cups on display in the museum to prove their credentials. Come back for a match, preferably an evening game against deadly rivals Barcelona, when it feels like the crowd are about to topple onto the pitch and the noise is deafening. A blasting from the heaters, which keep fans rugged up against the chilly Madrid winter nights, is quite an experience, too.
Hampden Park, Glasgow
Celtic and Rangers may play elsewhere, but the national stadium and spiritual heart of the Scottish game is at Hampden Park. This is where you’ll find the Scottish Football Museum, a temple to the history of the game and its place in Scotland’s story.
Today a relatively modest 52,000 cram in for Scotland matches and cup finals, but Hampden holds the all-time European attendance record of a whopping 149,415 for a Scotland vs England match in 1937.
Look out for the training pitch next to the stadium. This is Lesser Hampden, where the junior and reserve teams of Hampden tenants Queens Park FC play. The white pavilion stand is thought to be the oldest football stand in the world. It’s an old farmhouse dating from the early 1800s – back when it was all fields around Hampden.
Old Trafford, Manchester
Manchester United’s ground is an unmissable part of a visit to one of England’s most exciting cities. It looms over the southwest of Manchester like an enormous spaceship, showing off its gigantic girders and cantilevers from afar.
Up close, you’re in little doubt who plays here. Statues of club legends Sir Matt Busby and the United Trinity of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton can found outside. The memorial and clock dedicated to the victims of the 1958 Munich Air Disaster stand as a timeless reminder of the club’s history, while the museum, tour and megastore offer a reason to come even if you don’t have a ticket to see inside England’s largest club ground. Lunch at any of the promenade of top-notch chippies lining the approach to the stadium will warm up visitors even on the chilliest Mancunian afternoon.
FC Barcelona, the proud visualisation of everything that is Catalan, like to say that they are ‘mès que un club’ (more than a club). Their home trounces any other in Europe for size. On a summer’s night, with the lights of the city twinkling behind spectators and the players mere specks on the far-off playing pitch, you certainly feel the expansiveness.
The club has taken an unorthodox approach to its museum. As well as the usual tour and trophies, here you’ll also find a private football art collection which includes match posters designed by Catalan artist Joan Miró.
Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund
The otherwise nondescript industrial city of Dortmund is an essential pilgrimage for any football fan. You simply cannot have accurately surveyed European fan culture until you’ve stood on the Südtribune, Europe’s largest football terrace, here at Signal Iduna Park (better known as the Westfalenstadion). For maximum impact do this with a beer in one hand, a sausage in the other and an enormous supporter with a mullet hollering in both ears.
As Europe’s stadiums have modernised, giant standing areas like Liverpool’s Kop have been replaced by more sanitised seats. But terracing lives on in Germany, where fan power has safeguarded standing, cheap entrance prices and drinking beer while watching the game. Oh, and hold on to your hat when a goal goes in.
Craven Cottage, London
Big is not always best. Take a walk from Putney Bridge tube through Bishop’s Park on a crisp autumn Saturday afternoon, with the rowers and pleasure boats of the River Thames to your left. After ten glorious minutes you reach Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham FC.
This is London’s loveliest ground, from the away end’s riverside views to the Grade II-listed Johnny Haynes Stand. Just over 26,000 squeeze in here to watch the Cottagers and their opponents emerge from the 1905 Pavilion, which still houses the dressing rooms.
A match at the Cottage is a great pick if your travelling partner finds the beautiful game a bore. While you watch the game, send them strolling across Putney Bridge to enjoy the tranquil walk along the opposite bank of the Thames. They can meander among riverside meadows to Barnes Wetland Centre, Chiswick or even Kew Gardens.
Estadio Municipal, Braga
Braga, in northern Portugal, had made few ripples in Europe’s footballing history. Then came the 2004 European Championships. Braga was a host city, with a new stadium built for the occasion.
But rather than go for the conventional approach, Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura blew up a huge chunk of a quarry overlooking the city and plonked two stands down on either side of the pitch. At one end is the valley with the city of Braga on view. At the other is a solid rock face. One stand is accessed from below, the other from above. Yes, it is quite a place. According to www.worldstadiums.com, when it was suggested to that architect that a less radical design with, say, room for fans on all four sides may be better, he symbolically brushed them aside, moving his hand from left to right and saying 'According to me football is watched like this!'
Croke Park is not a football ground. At least, it wasn’t built for soccer, and for many years the sport was not welcome here. Dublin’s mighty stadium is the home of Gaelic games: All-Ireland Gaelic football and hurling finals, as well as other big matches, are held here in front of 82,300 boisterous fans.
It gets a mention here as both football (soccer) and rugby are being played here while Landsdowne Road, the traditional home of 'foreign' sports in Dublin, is rebuilt. Take the opportunity to visit, and stick around to see the excellent GAA Museum, which tells the story of Croker’s astonishing history as well as lifts the lid on what may seem like mysterious sports to first-time visitors to Ireland.
Rubble from the Easter Rising was used to build the famous Hill 16 (as in the year of the Rising, 1916) terrace, and in 1920 British troops killed fourteen spectators. Partly due to the stadium’s role as an icon of Republicanism, the decision to play non-Gaelic games here was an agonising one for Croke Park bigwigs. The decision to do so alerted fans around the world to its existence.
Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan
Better known as the 'San Siro' after the district where it sits like a hulking UFO, the Giuseppe Meazza is the pick of Italian calcio stadiums. AC Milan and city rivals Internazionale share the stadium.
The San Siro makes for a unique cauldron for the weekly dramas that dictate the lives of tifosi (fans) of both teams. Match day here is like an oversized Verdi opera production, with a colourful cast of thousands, carefully choreographed displays of support, and heroes and villains on both sides. The museum has some interesting recreations of legendary players from both the red and blue sides of town.