America’s Best Vacations for Sports Fans
When he’s not doing 200 mph around the racetrack, NASCAR champion driver Kurt Busch is feeding a need besides speed: his love of sports. “After the NASCAR schedule comes out, I strategically make plans to get to a unique sporting event at least once a month,” says the passionate fan, making a point of visiting baseball parks and other sports attractions like museums and stadiums along the racing circuit.
And he’s hardly alone. Sports-related tourism is big bucks in America. Super Bowl XLVIII was widely touted (if disputed) as having a $600 million economic impact in the New York City region. Chump change next to the billions surrounding the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
But avowed sports nuts don’t need big-ticket events to bring out their passion. Under-the-radar activities and the chance to show their love of the game—any game—while on vacation can transform a trip into an unforgettable experience.
How about running the bases on the actual Field of Dreams in Iowa? Standing in the Baltimore bedroom where Babe Ruth was born? Skating the “Miracle on Ice” rink from America’s own Olympics in Lake Placid, NY? Or, as Busch suggests in his home state of North Carolina, visiting Charlotte’s NASCAR team race shops?
“As a car guy, it’s such a treat,” he says, “but you don’t even have to be a sports fan to appreciate the quality of work that goes into all of these cars.” And if you head to Indianapolis or Orlando, FL, you can even drive one.
From shooting hoops in Springfield, MA, to surfing San Diego’s waves, we’ve sweated the details to identify itineraries for sports fans whatever their home team may be. Game on.
Indianapolis: The Brickyard and Basketball
Getting behind the wheel of an IndyCar for a high-speed ride around one of the world’s most famous tracks will make anyone—from everyday gear heads to racing aficionados—want to “Kiss the Bricks” like Brickyard race winners have done since 1996. Basketball (and sports movie) fans can relive the “Milan Miracle of 1954” at both the Milan ’54 Hoosiers Museum and the Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the historic high school game was played (and where much of the movie Hoosiers, on which it’s based, was filmed).
Time Out: Dinner is a scene—with all the black-and-white photos to prove it—at St. Elmo Steak House, where hundreds of athletes and celebrities have dined since its 1902 opening.
Cleveland and Canton: Rock the Pigskin
In northeast Ohio, rock star quarterbacks and actual rock stars get equal air time. Canton’s Pro Football Hall of Fame pays homage to the gridiron’s greats and is fresh off a 2013 renovation/expansion that now includes interactive exhibits, like an Instant Replay challenge where visitors can play referee and decide whether to overturn or confirm rulings on the field. There’s no more iconic football anthem than Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” so pay homage afterward in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Time Out: Holidays and sports go hand-in-hand, so make time for a cult classic with a stop in Cleveland’s A Christmas Story House and Museum (leg lamp included).
Upstate New York: Champions Getaway
Start in Cooperstown, NY, at America’s oldest professional sports Hall of Fame, The National Baseball Hall of Fame, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year with special programming, including concerts on Doubleday Field, the birthplace of the sport. While in town, pose with legends of the past at the Heroes of Baseball Wax Museum. Just three hours north, channel our modern Olympic legends during a Lake Placid Adventure: bobsledding, skeleton runs, skiing, and ice skating at the Olympic Sports Complex, the very rink where the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in what became known as the “Miracle on Ice.”
Time Out: Craft beer is fast becoming another great American pastime, with Cooperstown’s Ommegang at the forefront (brewery tours and tastings available).
Iowa to Illinois: Baseball Road Trip
What could improve a day spent running the bases and playing catch on the Iowa baseball diamond where Field of Dreams was filmed? Free admission! Afterward, drive three hours east to Chicago to tour the dugout, clubhouse, and press box at one of America’s most iconic ballparks: Wrigley Field, celebrating its 100th season this year. Navy Pier boasts two of Chi-town’s most obscure sports attractions: a stained-glass window depiction of Michael Jordan and a sports memorabilia collection in famed sportscaster Harry Caray’s Tavern, which features Sammy Sosa’s corked bat.
Time Out: On the drive to Chicago, stop at the charming town of Galena, IL, where the pre-presidency home of Ulysses S. Grant is open for tours.
San Diego: Skate and Surf
Sunny San Diego is a mecca for action sports nuts: surfing, BMX biking, hang gliding, mountain biking, and of course, skateboarding (it’s home to grinding legend Tony Hawk). Practice your tricks at one of the area’s few dozen skateparks and surfing beaches, and celebrate the Golden State’s iconic surfing culture at the California Surf Museum a bit north in Oceanside. Team sports fans have a pilgrimage point, too, at the Padres’ Petco Park, one of America’s best baseball stadiums thanks to its beach and palm trees beyond center field.
Louisville: Bats, Boxing, and On-Track Betting
There may not be a professional sports team in Louisville, KY, but its sporty offerings are still top-notch—especially if you’ve got a gambling bent. The Kentucky Derby (one of the most-watched sporting events of the year) takes place in May, but you can see a horse race at Churchill Downs any time of the year (no big hat required); an on-site museum offers exhibits on winning horses and Derby fashion through the years. Other area activities include a bat-making demonstration at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory and the cultural center dedicated to legendary boxer and native son Muhammad Ali.
Time Out: Whiskey fans will appreciate the area’s proximity to the eight distilleries (and tasting rooms) on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Philadelphia: Yo, Adrian!
Maybe it’s ironic that the City of Brotherly Love is famous for a series of films where boxers go after each other with a fury normally reserved for Eagles fans after a loss, but that’s part of what makes Philly a great sports town. (In fact, it ranks as the No. 1 most sports-crazed city in America.) Pretend to be Rocky and run the Philadelphia Art Museum steps—and snap a selfie with the man himself, immortalized in bronze at their base—before visiting boxing legend Joe Frazier’s gym, which was just added to the National Register of Historic Places. All three of Philadelphia’s professional sports stadiums are in the same complex.
Time Out: Order a cheesesteak or (even better) roast pork sandwich at Tony Luke’s, just a few minutes from the stadiums.
Orlando: Sports by Disney
Turning a Disney vacation into a sports lover’s trip is an easy win in Orlando. Pretend to be a famous NASCAR driver—or international spy/supervillain, with the exotic car option—at the Richard Petty Driving Experience, during which race cars reach 120 mph. Events are held regularly at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports in nine venues that accommodate more than 60 different sports, from football to lacrosse to track and field and volleyball, including the Atlanta Braves’ spring training. For dinner head to Universal Studios’ NASCAR Sports Grille, which is full of racing memorabilia, or dine on a basketball court at NBA City.
Time Out: In nearby Winter Park, extreme water sports fans can try a new activity that seems straight out of a science fiction movie, the Jet Ski–meets–jet pack Flyboard.
Las Vegas: Scoring with Bikini Football
What could be more fitting in the City of Sin than an evening watching lingerie-clad ladies playing football? The Las Vegas Sin is one of a dozen teams in the Lingerie Football League that holds games from April to August. On the strip, SCORE! at the Luxor is a suitably over-the-top interactive sports experience that boasts more than 100 pro athlete visits annually, authentic sports memorabilia, and physical tests like throwing a fastball and changing the tire on a NASCAR vehicle. Thrill-seekers may even want to try indoor skydiving and one of the many machine-gun shooting ranges.
North Carolina: Laps and Layups
It’s March Madness all the time in Chapel Hill and neighboring Durham, NC, where college basketball fans can grab tickets to watch Tar Heels (five-time NCAA National Champions) and Duke Blue Devils games (at the infamously intense Cameron Stadium). A road trip to nearby Charlotte is a treat for racing fans, too. The NASCAR Hall of Fame combines exhibits on racing’s greats with fun, interactive activities, while the Richard Petty Museum presents the racing legend’s accomplishments alongside his unexpected collections of guns, dolls, and pocket watches. Most NASCAR team headquarters are open to the public as well and feature exhibits on popular drivers.
Time Out: Grab a souvenir at the Sam Bass Art Gallery, featuring intensely colored paintings and prints by NASCAR’s first officially licensed artist.
New England Hall of Fame Road Trip
A road trip through New England makes a worthy vacation for hoops, hardball, and racquet sports fans. Nearly 300 iconic players come alive at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA, where James Naismith created the game in 1891. Just 90 minutes away in Boston sits MLB’s oldest (and one of America’s best) baseball stadiums: Fenway Park. Tours include sitting on the notorious Green Monster, the frustrating, drama-making 37-foot, 2-inch-high left field wall. In nearby Newport, RI, the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s elegant grounds hold 13 grass courts that were host to the 1881 tournament that evolved into today’s U.S. Open.
Time Out: The Cat in the Hat and the Lorax (not to mention your childhood) are immortalized in bronze at Springfield’s Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden.
Atlanta: Olympic Glory
A trip to Atlanta combines international history with our national pastime. Relive the summer of 1996 with the Atlanta History Center’s Centennial Olympic Games Collection and a stroll (or water fountain splash) in peaceful Centennial Olympic Park downtown. The former stadium—one of the world’s coolest Olympic stadiums—is now Turner Field and home to the Braves, where an on-site museum traces the team’s history through artifacts and photographs from its start in Boston in 1871 through the present. Just 90 minutes away in Royston, avowed baseball fans can delight in the Ty Cobb Museum, one of the first inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Wisconsin: Brews and “Base Ball”
Step back in time with Milwaukee’s two vintage “base ball” teams (the Cream Citys and the Grays), which play by 19th-century rules and customs with players dressed in period uniforms—an activity best compared to a modern-day Brewers game as well. No sports trip to Wisconsin is complete without a pilgrimage to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, home of the four-time Super Bowl champion Packers. Nearby, stroll along the mile-long Walk of Legends, which pays tribute to the, well, legendary players and moments in the team’s history.
Time Out: Brew-related activities top the non-sports agenda in Milwaukee, a city built on beer. Lakefront Brewery’s hilarious tours and tastings are the best place to start.
Baltimore: Babe’s Home Base
Baseball aficionados are sure to be impressed by Baltimore (America’s eighth most sports-crazed city), whether standing on the hallowed ground that is the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum or by booking a tour of Camden Yards and reliving the moment Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record by playing his 2,131st consecutive game. The stadium’s Sports Legends Museum is a fun stop, too, with exhibits on the Babe, the Orioles, Ravens, and long-gone Colts. Its stadium food (Maryland crab cake sandwich) ranks among the country’s best as well.
Time Out: Horse racing fans can bet on a pony at Pimlico Race Course, where the Preakness is held every May.
Dallas: Cowboy Up
Everything may actually be bigger in Texas—at least when it comes to sports—including the massive 72-foot-tall, 160-foot-wide video board in AT&T Stadium, home to the Dallas Cowboys. There’s even an impressive art collection in the over-the-top arena (tours available). Football mania for “America’s Team” extends to the NFL-themed Cowboys Golf Club and to local schoolchildren (no surprise to anyone who’s seen Friday Night Lights). The Dallas Morning News posts the schedules of high school games during the season, and in Waco, 90 minutes drive south, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame includes a High School Hall of Fame as well.
Time Out: To learn more about the other kind of buckaroo, take a day trip north to Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy Museum.