All due respect to baseball's boys of summer, but football might just be America’s pastime. Whether it's a town turning out to support a high school or college team, or the nation gathering to watch the Super Bowl, no sport is more popular in the US. While the games themselves are the main event, the exhilarating fan culture and rich traditions of the game offer can’t-miss experiences in and of themselves.
Game days have their own music, their own food, their own language. From the pre-game tailgate parties to the spectacle of the halftime show and then on to a celebratory (or mournful) post-game drink, American football is a full-day event, and one worth traveling for.
We’ve asked Lonely Planet writers and staff to share their favorite football experiences and suggestions to help you gameplan your next sports roadtrip.
Refined tailgating at the Grove
For most of the year, the Grove is simply a 10-acre stand of stately oaks and maples winding through the middle of the University of Mississippi, in Oxford. But on a few magical – some would say holy – weekends, it transforms into a one-of-a-kind Southern tailgating heaven.
A sea of red, blue and white tents appears in minutes on Friday night after a countdown leads to a mad dash for the most coveted spots. The smell of southern fried chicken fingers and bourbon soon begins to waft through the trees.
Eschewing the traditional tailgate experience of partying from the back of your truck or SUV, the university’s strict rules prohibit vehicles and reserving spots, leading to a scrum when the horn finally sounds. Open fires and grills can only be used on the perimeter but there are no restrictions on how lavish a spread can be. It’s not uncommon in parts of the Grove to see china, silverware and even chandeliers in the fanciest pavilions, and many of them are catered.
But the most impressive display is the game day attire. Fans, students and alumni promenade through the grassy thicket - the women in sun dresses with cowboy boots or stiletto heels (really!), the men in seersucker suits with red or blue bow ties.
Three hours after the game, it has all disappeared, another quirk of the strict rules. But for those magical few hours on home game days, the Grove is a uniquely genteel spectacle.
Ben Buckner is a destination editor covering Western USA and Canada. Follow his tweets @BuckPacking
Post-game bar crawl in Eugene, Oregon
After taking in a University of Oregon Ducks game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene you won’t want to miss soaking up some of the Duck fervor the city is known for. Eugene is a small city, not even 200,000 people, but its downtown area is energetic, diverse in its offerings, and very walkable.
When the game ends head by campus (take the bus, it’s very easy to navigate and parking is a nightmare) to have a few cheap beers at U of O mainstays Taylor’s, Rennie’s Landing, or Max’s. You’ll find throngs of Duck fans either basking in victory or drinking in defeat in a sea of green and yellow. When it’s time to shift things into a higher gear walk over to West Broadway where there are several newer hipster establishments (it is sometimes dubbed '’lil Portland') as well as a small dance club, Cowfish, a beer hall, First National Taphouse, and an LGBT+ oriented cocktail bar, the Wayward Lamb, among others.
Robert Balkovich is a Lonely Planet contributor based in New York. Follow his tweets @robertbalkovich.
Band on the run at Howard
For most spectators who jam into William H. Greene stadium in Washington, DC, on Saturdays, the countdown doesn’t end at kickoff, but right as both football teams head to the locker rooms. That’s when the Howard University 'Showtime' Marching Band takes to the field. The Bison might lose the football game, but the band better not disappoint.
There’s a certain level of pride among HBCUs (Historically Black College or University) in having a great marching band, so halftime performances are taken very seriously. But serious doesn’t mean stodgy – how many times have you seen a tuba player drop it low? With the glamorous Ooh La La dancers and a high stepping drum major, it’s easy to see how the football games can get overshadowed.
The small stadium fosters a community vibe, which fully captures the true HBCU experience. And when it comes to outfit choices, anything goes. Howard is known for its well-dressed students, so you’ll see everything from men in ultra-cool patterned sports coats to women strutting in a pair of killer high heels.
Alicia Johnson is destination editor for Central America and the Caribbean. Follow her tweets @AjGoinPlaces.
Jet Nation finds Redd respite
In my football lifetime the New York Jets have moved from a sports backwater called Flushing to an actual swamp that’s not even in New York. My earliest fan memories are being buffeted by the winter winds as they swirled around Shea Stadium, whose open end faced – naturally – Flushing Bay. Halftime shows featuring Frisbee-fetching canines and modernistic model airplanes ended in farce, as the same gales that seemingly blew every crucial field goal attempt awry wreaked similar havoc on the entertainment: sheepdogs staring wistfully into the grandstand for wayward Frisbees, Snoopy-themed model airplanes crashing and splintering on the frozen turf.
Last season, however, we found some solace among the semi-aquatic environs of MetLife Stadium. Just a mile from the stadium, offering cheap parking, public transit (#161 bus from New York’s Port Authority), a stadium shuttle, cheaper drinks and NYJ swag is Redd’s Restaurant and Bar, an old-school joint in Carlstadt where you can sip $10 rum-and-cokes from plastic cups in the sunshine, and nip inside where 25 big screens await if the weather gets inclement (scarred by memories of Shea Stadium, I was happy to have this option).
Gang Green hasn’t won a playoff game since 2010, but I can at least don my #13 Don Maynard replica jersey (one of two Jet Hall of Famers) and commiserate with Jet Nation in relative comfort, while awaiting our date with gridiron glory – or gloom.
Brian Kluepfel is a travel writer and Lonely Planet contributor who's covered the USA and South America.
Football fan from across the pond
Growing up on a multitude of American TV shows as a kid in the UK, American sport culture has always held a sense of romanticism in this Brit’s eye. None more so than American football, with its pomp and ceremony, enormous crowds, cheerleaders, and halftime shows.
College football is the big ticket item for Brits looking to experience sport in the US. I could hardly contain my excitement when my brother and I realized our trip to Miami coincided with the 2014 Orange Bowl. We were newcomers, tickets in hand, eager to crash the party of two teams we’d never heard of. With a desire to join a tailgate – and a crate of beer in tow – we found ourselves eating fried chicken out of the back of a pickup truck with a group of guys from Clemson, South Carolina.
We were overwhelmed with the sheer size of Sun Life Stadium (since renamed Hard Rock Stadium), wowed by wide receiver Braxton Miller, and baffled by what a Buckeye was. Grateful for the warm Clemson welcome, we were also overjoyed when our adopted team in orange (how fitting) grabbed a surprise victory. My love of American football, and the culture that goes with it, had begun.
Laura Lindsay is director of global communications for Lonely Planet.
Turning road games into a BBQ pilgrimage
When you hit the road to support your team in enemy territory, you can never be sure of the outcome. Away games are tough, especially in raucous college stadiums, and unless you root for a powerhouse like Alabama, the odds are often not in your favor. It helps to have a sure thing to root for on these trips, and there are few things as reliable as finding great barbecue in the football hotbed of Southern USA.
Every year, I journey with a group of longtime friends from my time at the University of Missouri to a road game to cheer on our Tigers. Mizzou may not beat the opponent, but we make a point to sample the offerings at the local top-shelf BBQ joint, and in that sense, every trip has been a winner.
From the ribs at Burns Original BBQ in Houston, to the wings at Edley’s Bar-B-Que in Nashville, I have as many fond memories of slow-cooked meats as I do touchdown celebrations (a statement that says more about the quality of the food than Mizzou’s play…I think).
Our next trip is to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to face the dreaded Crimson Tide, and I’m already thinking about what I’m going to order at the legendary Dreamland Bar-B-Que.
Evan Godt is a managing destination editor covering the Americas.