So you’ve bought (or arranged to buy) your NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament tickets. You’re all set to travel to at least one of the cities that play host in 2015. Over the next three weeks, these cities transform into some of the best sports vacation spots in the USA.
So even though you’re traveling because of basketball, you’ll have down time in these vacation spots before and after games. And while the First Four games in Dayton, Ohio, take place on consecutive nights, the formats for later rounds all provide for a whole day off between sessions.
If you haven’t thought about how you’ll spend your vacation time away from the arena, here are suggestions for each city that hosts this tournament:
Dayton, Ohio – March 17th, 18th
- See This: The National Aviation Hall of Fame.
The birthplace of the Wright Brothers is fitting home to one of the finest aviation museums in America, not to mention one of the top educational resources for the study of aviation. Naturally, Orville and Wilbur Wright were the original enshrines, but the list has grown to include a true who’s who of American aviation and spaceflight pioneers.
- Eat Here: Olive, an Urban Dive.
Enjoy a farm-to-table, made-from-scratch lunch before the game from a menu that varies seasonally to ensure sustainability.
Second, Third Rounds
Jacksonville, Florida – March 19th, 21st
- See This: Historic St. Augustine.
You’re only an hour from the celebrated cobblestone streets of America’s oldest continuously inhabited city, the perfect road trip for the day between games. Visit 343-year-olf Castillo de San Marcos, America’s oldest masonry fort; visually dazzling Flagler College; and Fountain of Youth Archeological Park.
- Eat Here: The Metro Diner.
Back in Jacksonville, get your game day started with a breakfast or early lunch worthy of a feature on Food Channel’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Louisville, Kentucky – March 19th, 21st
- See This: Kentucky Derby Museum.
This museum, in the shadow of Churchill Downs’ fabled spires, immerses you in the history and traditions of “the first jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown” in every interactive means possible. Mount a replica horse inside a starting gate. Try calling a horse race in a soundproof booth. Learn how to create your own silks—not to mention how to breed horses and recognize championship traits in your foal.
- Eat Here: The Mayan Café.
Long a symbol of quality food and service among Louisville restaurants, this friendly bistro specializes in farm-to-table cuisine of Mayan tradition created in partnership with local producers.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – March 19th, 21st
- See This: Flight 93 National Memorial.
Less than 2 hours southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, this memorial is a day-between-games trip that puts college basketball in perspective. But it also reminds us that such leisure pursuits so important to Americans are possible because of the American freedoms that over our history, so many—including the passengers and crew aboard this Sept. 11, 2001 flight—have perished to preserve.
- Eat Here: Istanbul Sofra.
From satisfying appetizers to rich, potent Turkish coffee after dessert, this Turkish restaurant offers a wholly satisfying menu of fresh and authentic Turkish cuisine.
Portland, Oregon – March 19th, 21st
- See This: Washington Park.
Exploring this entire, 410-acre urban park can easily exhaust the off day between games. It includes the famous International Rose Test Garden and the beguiling Portland Japanese Garden (reminiscent of Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in South Florida) as well as the Portland Children’s Museum, World Forestry Center Discovery Museum, Hoyt Arboretum and even Oregon Zoo.
- Eat Here: The Veritable Quandary.
Trends come and go, but for five decades this downtown mainstay has been as reliable as the blooms that sprout in its coveted patio seating area about this time every year. The bar kitchen is open till midnight—and remember the basketball game windows are all based on Eastern time, which means you’ll have a couple of extra hours even after your night session.
Charlotte, North Carolina – March 20th, 22nd
- See This: NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The museum, which opened in 2010, is perfect for all visitors. An introductory video in High Octane Theater brings newcomers to the sport up to speed (for lack of a better term) and prepares them for what’s to come: rotating exhibits in the Great Hall; iconic cars from throughout NASCAR history (including the ’52 Hudson Hornet) parked for display on Glory Road; the centerpiece Hall of Honor; and much more.
- Eat Here: Carpe Diem
Restaurant and Caterers. Enjoy elegant but by no means overpriced fine dining in the historic Elizabeth neighborhood.
Columbus, Ohio – March 20th, 22nd
- See This: The Short North.
This eclectic neighborhood just off campus from The Ohio State University offers fun shopping and diverse galley experiences in the afternoon plus excellent dining and, if you’re so inclined, an adventure in the storied High Street nightlife.
- Eat Here: Schmidt’s.
The German Village section of Columbus is renowned not only for its architecture, but also for dining experiences. Schmidt’s has been a staple there since 1967 but leverages and enhances a reputation traced back to the meat packing house opened by immigrant J. Fred Schmidt in 1886 and the food concession his descendants have run continuously at the Ohio State Fair since 1914.
Omaha, Nebraska – March 20th, 22nd
- See This: Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.
Anointed “World’s Best Zoo” by TripAdvisor in 2014, this 130-acre park houses 17,000 animals of almost 1,000 different species. Its highlights include the world’s largest geodesic dome (which makes it larger than Epcot’s Spaceship Earth) as well as the world’s largest indoor swamp and nocturnal animal exhibit.
- Eat Here: Sinful Burger Sports Grill.
This restaurant annually dominates local selections for best burgers. How sinful can seven burgers made from scratch be? Consider the names: the Envy Burger, Gluttony Burger, Greed Burger, Lust Burger, Pride Burger, Sloth Burger and the Wrath Burger (perhaps aptly named for the pepper jack cheese, chipotle mayo and jalapenos).
Seattle, Washington – March 20th, 22nd
- See This: Space Needle.
No trip to Seattle is complete without a zippy elevator ride to the top of the Space Needle. It’s the most recognizable feature on the Emerald City skyline and, to many, the symbol of the city itself. Though no longer the highest such venue west of the Mississippi (since the opening of Stratosphere in Las Vegas), the Space Needle’s observation deck still provides spectacular views of the Cascades including Mount Rainer and the volcanic Mount Baker.
- Eat Here: SkyCity at the Needle.
While at the Space Needle, enjoy brunch, lunch or dinner—plus the panoramic views from this 500-foot-high revolving restaurant one level below the observation deck.
Cleveland, Ohio – March 26th, 28th
- See This: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Lovers (or scholars) of rock music and pop culture will encounter enough material here to occupy hours upon hours on the day between basketball games. The 55,000-square-foot complex honors rock legends and tells the story of the genre through interactive exhibits as well as rare and historic artifacts from every decade.
- Eat Here: The Greenhouse Tavern.
Whether you visit for brunch, dinner or happy hour, you won’t forget the ambience or cuisine at this crazy-popular urban gastropub.
Los Angeles, March 26th, 28th
- See This: Echo Park Time Travel Mart.
There are obvious attractions here in one of the premier vacation spots in the USA, and then there’s this. Whether you’re in the market for a helmet worn by a Corinthian, centurion or conquistador, have a hankering for canned Mammoth Chunks or have to replace your Portable Wormhole, you’ll find what you’ll find it here. If you’re a time traveler, this Sunset Boulevard shop specializes in oddball food, clothing and accessories for all your past and future needs. It’s slogan: “Wherever You Are, We’re Already Then.”
- Eat Here: Hinocki & The Bird.
If you thought you’d never find a restaurant in L.A. that serves lobster rolls, then happily for you, you’re wrong.They may not be prepared the same way you’ll find on Cape Cod, but their presence here should surprise no one given the admittedly boundary-twisting modern Cali menu.
Houston, Texaxs – March 26th, 28th
- See This: Downtown tunnels.
Houston’s tunnel system, 20 feet below downtown sidewalks, interconnects 95 blocks in the city’s business, retail and entertainment district with 6 miles of climate-controlled pedestrian passageways. Along the walkways, you’ll find restaurants, accessory stores, barbers, banks and the like. For Houston’s business set, the underground walkways are convenient alternate to steamy summer sidewalks for grabbing lunch or running a midday errand. For tourists expecting an aha! moment, the tunnels might disappoint, but they do provide hearty exercise and an opportunity for exploring and people watching.
- Eat Here: Peli Peli.
Named for a native spice that gives its marinades and sauces an unusual twist, Peli Peli specializes in South African cuisine with Dutch and Asian influences. Its mouth-watering menu is as distinctive as the centerpiece of its dining room—a signature 30-foot, illuminated acacia tree sculpture.
Syracuse, New York – March 27th, 29th
- See This: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
The granddaddy of all pro sports shrines, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is a true bucket list item for every sports lover, and one that can easily be checked off during your off-day in Syracuse. It’s less than 2 hours from the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University.
- Eat Here: Scotch–N–Sirloin.
Synonymous with classic dining in Syracuse since the 1960s, this steakhouse and bar also offers an appetizing separate bistro menu.
Indianapolis, Indiana – April 4th, 6th
- See This: Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame.
Even if you’ve never been to Indiana before, if you’ve seen the film Hoosiers, you have a sense of the role high school basketball—“Hoosier Hysteria”—has played here since Crawfordsville beat Lebanon 16-2 for the first state championship in 1911. Most of the names in the hall gallery itself—which honors boys and girls players and coaches alike—will mean nothing to you if you’re from out of state. (You will recognize a few, like Oscar Robertston and Larry Bird). But the richly detailed and highly interactive museum is a basic primer that will instill a greater appreciation for Hoosier history and lore than you might ever have imagined. You’ll learn about John Wooden’s high school playing career at Martinsville; the “Milan Miracle” that inspired Hoosiers; Oscar’s unbeaten Indianapolis Crispus Attucks Tigers, the first all-black high school champion of any state; and so much more. And as a bonus: The 14,000-square-foot museum and research center in New Castle, an easy, 50-minute interstate drive from downtown Indy, is next door to 9,325-seat New Castle Fieldhouse, the largest high school gym in the world—and yet only one of 12 in Indiana that seat at least 7,000.
- Eat Here: Plump’s Last Shot.
Sure, if you can snag a reservation at St. Elmo’s Steakhouse downtown, go there—and if you do, don’t forget to sample the hottest shrimp cocktail sauce you’ll ever dare try. But if St. Elmo’s is booked, why not go for a second helping of Hoosier Hysteria? Travel uptown to Broad Ripple Village for good pub grub in a family-friendly hole-in-the-wall called Plump’s Last Shot. Order a breaded pork tenderloin, wash it back with a cold beverage, and sit back and soak up the atmosphere and memorabilia—which will be more meaningful if you’ve been to the hall of fame. The pub owner is Bobby Plump, the inspiration for Hollywood’s Jimmy Chitwood—the real-life David whose state championship-winning, last-second shot slew a Goliath in 1954 and remains, 61 years later, the most referenced, and revered, moment in Indiana basketball history.
A chilly, starlit wooden deck in Central Indiana the night before the NCAA championship game might not be the ultimate destination you imagined when looking over sports vacation spots in the USA. But if you love basketball, no matter where you’re from, it will do just fine.