Best vacations for American sports fans

Story highlights

Cities from Louisville to San Diego offer vacations perfect for sports fans

Visitors can take an IndyCar for a high-speed ride around the track

Iconic ballpark Wrigley Field celebrates its 100th season this year

Travel Leisure  — 

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.

From shooting hoops in Springfield, Massachusetts, 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).

Coolest Olympic stadiums

Upstate New York: Champions getaway

Start in Cooperstown, New York, 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, Illinois, where the pre-presidency home of Ulysses S. Grant is open for tours.

America’s best baseball stadiums

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.

Time out: Traveling with kids? You can’t miss LEGOLAND. For beautiful views, the Ocean Terrace of George’s California Modern offers sustainable seafood and panoramic scenes of La Jolla Cove.

Louisville: Bats, boxing and on-track betting

There may not be a professional sports team in Louisville, Kentucky, 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.

America’s best stadium food

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.

Time out: At the Palazzo, celeb chef Emeril has kicked up a former club into one of the city’s best sportsbooks, Lagasse’s Stadium.

North Carolina: Laps and layups

It’s March Madness all the time in Chapel Hill and neighboring Durham, North Carolina, where college basketball fans are wild about rival teams the UNC Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils (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.

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