March Madness Travel Guide: The Best Food, Drinks & Things To Do in NCAA Host Cities

Heading to the NCAA tournament? Check out our mini city guides for the scoop on where to eat, drink and even have some non-basketball related fun.

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March Madness has officially begun! With 68 teams competing in seven rounds over a span of 20 days, it really is madness. Eight teams have already duked it out in the “First Four” to earn a spot in the main bracket of 64 teams.

From there each team will play in a single-elimination style within its region (ranked #1 to #16!) until only two remain and meet up on April 8 in Minneapolis to determine the 2019 NCAA Champion.

What we’re most excited about? The cool cities hosting these upcoming match-ups. From Jacksonville to Des Moines to Tulsa to Louisville, the NCAA regional sites also happen to be some of our favorite cities (not to mention some of our Top 100 Best Places to Live!). Fans who are traveling to see their teams play are going to be able to explore these seriously awesome places in their downtime — and we want to help them make the most of it.

Whether you’re heading to the tournament or just looking for a cool new place to spend a weekend this summer, check out our mini city guides for each of the NCAA host cities for the scoop on where to eat, drink and even have some non-basketball-related fun.

Des Moines, IA

Where to Eat: There are a few foods that everyone who visits Des Moines absolutely, positively, no-excuses MUST experience: the Zombie Unicorn Milkshake at Zombie Burger, which is made with vanilla ice cream, marshmallow cream and fruity pebbles (and pairs perfectly with one of their messy, juicy, awesome burgers); a slice of crab rangoon pizza at Fong’s Pizza, which is just as strange and delicious as it sounds; and a couple of no-frills tacos and $2 draft beer at Kung Fu Tap & Taco.

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): El Bait Shop boasts the world’s largest selection of American craft beers, and the retro High Life Lounge next door will transport you back to another era (maybe one when your team was better at winning?).

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: Jam out with a local craft beer at Iowa Tap Room.

3 Fun Things To Do in Des Moines Besides Basketball:

  • Wander through the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which features works by 22 world-famous artists, all of which are begging to be Instagrammed.

  • Go buy a hilariously irreverent t-shirt at Raygun, the Des Moines-based gift shop that bills itself as “The Greatest Store in the Universe,” and you guys — they’re not exaggerating.

  • Take a (free!) tour of the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, a stunning historic building and museum dedicated to great achievements in agriculture and fighting hunger. It’s … way cooler than it sounds. Trust us.  

Salt Lake City, UT

Where to Eat: What’s a game day without a burger? Proper Burger Co. serves up inventive burger and beer pairings. The ‘Fiery Furnace’ is a must-have for those looking to turn up the heat.

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): Red Rock Brewery is often lauded as one of the most creative breweries in the country (it even landed a spot on our 99 Best Beers list!).

 Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: Legends Sports Pub has 20 beers on tap and more than 30 craft and local beers.

3 Fun Things To Do in Salt Lake City Besides Basketball:

  • Bring back something fun from Euro Treasures. With more than 40,000 square feet of odds and ends from around the world, this place is an antique lover’s paradise.  

  • If you’re planning to stay in town for a couple of days, make a day trip to Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort and hit the slopes.

  • If your team lost and you need some cheering up, a visit to Wiseguys Comedy Club is a must. Enjoy a laugh, a beer and some of their famous nachos.

Jacksonville, FL

Where to Eat: Take a wine tour around the world at Town Hall. The menu is seasonal and local and the community atmosphere will have you coming back for more.

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): Birdies is the perfect place to distract even the biggest basketball fan. This neighborhood haunt has a patio and full bar, live music and classic video games to boot.

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: Picture the quintessential sports bar and you’ll be pretty close to imagining Players Grille. Packed with sports memorabilia, televisions and an impressive beer chest, this is the perfect spot to take in the madness.

3 Fun Things To Do in Jacksonville Besides Basketball:

columbus oh
Photo by Randall L Schieber

Columbus, OH

Where to Eat: You had us at $1 Grilled Cheese Monday! Bodega is a lively gastropub in the Short North neighborhood that has great pub food, 47 taps and 150 beers. And did we mention the $1 grilled cheese on Mondays? Yeah, it’s a thing.

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): At 16-Bit Bar + Arcade, if you drink, you play for free! And with more than 40 classic arcade games, like Donkey Kong and Frogger, you definitely want to play.

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: Old Skool is the place to be. The bar and restaurant serves up delicious meats smoked in-house and has killer March Madness specials.  

3 Fun Things To Do in Columbus Besides Basketball:

  • No trip to Columbus is complete without a stop at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, which first opened its doors at the North Market.

  • And speaking of the North Market, you’ll definitely want to visit this public market that houses a variety of small businesses and restaurants.

  • Round out your trip with a visit to The Book Loft, a historic Bavarian neighborhood near downtown that has 32 rooms(!) of titles and nearly half a million books.

Tulsa, OK

Where to Eat: Head to The Bros. Houligan for a chicken-fried steak. Right now.

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): Treat yourself to a round of The Dude Abides (frozen White Russians) at Roosevelt’s.

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: Lefty’s On Greenwood is a sports bar in Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District with an awesome drink menu, elevated pub food and plenty of TVs to see all the action.

3 Fun Things To Do in Tulsa Besides Basketball:

Columbia, SC

Where to Eat: Before the big game, pay a visit to The Pot Smoker BBQ for some classic Carolina barbecue.

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): Eat your feelings at Henry’s Restaurant & Bar with their signature burger (which has been voted a Top 10 Best Burger by Southern Living!) and wash it down with any of the beers on tap or a $4.50 glass of house wine.

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: A trip to Carolina Ale House is a must. Be sure to get the “Frickles,” their signature fried dill pickle chips.

3 Fun Things To Do in Columbia Besides Basketball:

  • Did you drag a significant other along who is bored out of their mind? A quick trip to Lake Murray Dam to hang a love lock and explore the pedestrian walkway during sunset is the perfect date night to squeeze in between games.

  • Do it for the ‘gram and visit one of Columbia’s many public art areas. With murals all over the city, you’re sure to get the perfect shot.

  • Did you know that when abbreviated Columbia reads COLA? Hence the city’s nickname of Soda City. Every Saturday, downtown transforms for the Soda City Market that features an array of local and regional food, crafts and goods.

Hartford, CT

Where to Eat: Republic at The Linden is a local favorite. The gastropub serves up a menu of New American plates and signature cocktails as well as 18 different beers on tap.

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): Grab some late-night grub after the game at Wood-n-Tap, known for their killer “Tappy Hour” every day from 9 p.m. to close.

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: The Tavern Downtown

3 Fun Things To Do in Hartford Besides Basketball:

  • Stop into Tastease, a family-run donut and coffee shop that has a fanbase almost as fanatical as any of the teams in this year’s playoffs.

  • Hartford is a literary haven. No, seriously — in less than one block, visitors can tour Mark Twain’s home and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.

  • Attend a tasting at Hartford Flavor Company, the distillery behind Wild Moon Liqueurs, which are all-natural, botanically infused liquors in flavors like lime, rose and chai spice.

San Jose, CA

Where to Eat: Henry’s World Famous Hi-Life describes itself as “A great American steakhouse and barbecue joint if there ever was one,” and we couldn’t agree more.  

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): The craft cocktails at Paper Plane highlight unique ingredients like tobacco bitters and mango brandy. You should probably try them all.

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: The Brit

3 Fun Things To Do in San Jose Besides Basketball:

  • Take a tour of the exceptionally cool and creepy Winchester Mystery House.

  • Head to nearby Mission Peak for a tough hike with unforgettable views.

  • Eat at Falafel’s Drive-In, a roadside stop serving Middle Eastern food and milkshakes (you might recognize it from its star turn on “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives”).

Louisville, KY

Where to Eat: Hit up Holy Grale for a great beer selection, awesome outdoor area — and possibly the best burger in the world. If you’re a Tennessee fan looking for a taste of home, check out Royals Hot Chicken.

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): Troll Pub Under the Bridge is a bar that’s, well, exactly what it sounds like. The perfect place to hide out in shame after a tough loss, or celebrate a win with loaded beer cheese and Guinness on tap.

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: Griff’s

3 Fun Things To Do in Louisville Besides Basketball:

Washington, DC

Where to Eat: Founding Farmers is a DC institution. More than 47,000 family farmers are majority stakeholders in this American restaurant that serves up an amazing assortment of farm fresh breads, burgers and seasonal favorites. Be sure to try the skillet cornbread with freshly churned butter!

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): Dance the night away at Penn Social, a pub with a great patio, live bands and trivia. If things go really bad, head to Dupont Circle’s Madhatter and order their signature Madhatter cocktail, served up in a tophat fishbowl — don’t ask what is in it, just drink.

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: Penn Quarter Sports Tavern is the place to be for gametime viewing. Fair warning: the bar offers up room to several alumni and fan groups, so double check that your rival team isn’t setting up shop for the big game.

3 Fun Things To Do in DC Besides Basketball:

KMO
Photo Courtesy of David Arbogast/Visit KC

Kansas City, MO

Where to Eat: What’s a trip to Kansas City without trying some of the city’s famous barbecue? The two-meat BBQ dinner at Joe’s Kansas City Barb-B-Que is the perfect pre-game meal to fuel up any fan.

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): After the big game, head to The Peanut, Kansas City’s oldest bar that existed as a speakeasy before Prohibition was repealed. Today, The Peanut serves up several bar favorites and drinks to wet your whistle.  

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: Johnny’s Tavern is about as close to the action as you can get as the bar is located less than 100 feet away from the Sprint Center.

3 Fun Things To Do in Kansas City Besides Basketball:

  • Home to more than 50 classic arcade games and pinball machines, Up-Down is a 21-and-up arcade bar that is a can’t-miss.

  • If the NCAA Tournament is a family affair, stop by the J C Nichols Fountain and the Children’s Fountain, where heroic horsemen sculptures will delight the entire family.

  • Pick up a commemorative t-shirt to remember your visit by at Charlie Hustle, a company that designs t-shirts inspired by historic pop-culture moments.   

Anaheim, CA

Where to Eat: The Pizza Press is a California mainstay that even allows a “publish your own pizza” option for indecisive diners.

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): Grab a brew at Anaheim Brewery. The pre-Prohibition brewery has a large beer garden to soak up that California sunshine and cheer up even the most frustrated fan.

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: Lopez & Lefty’s drink specials can’t be beat.

3 Fun Things To Do in Anaheim Besides Basketball:

  • Stop by and see the big mouse house, also known as Disneyland.

  • Flightdeck will let you live out your dreams of being a pilot with their simulation rides for both fighter jets and commercial planes (just FYI: reservations are required).  

  • Take the family for a skateboarding lesson at Vans Skatepark, an epic indoor skatepark in nearby Orange, CA. 

Minneapolis, MN

Where to Eat: Two Minneapolis dive bars, the 5-8 Club and Matt’s Bar, both claim to have invented the city’s iconic cheese-stuffed burger, the Juicy Lucy. You obviously need to try both and decide for yourself.

Where to Celebrate a Big Win (Or Drink the Pain Away After a Loss): Surly Brewing Company’s Beer Hall

Where to Watch the Game If You Don’t Have Tickets: Peppers And Fries, a sports bar serving up two of the best foods of all time: burgers and burritos.

3 Fun Things To Do Here Besides Basketball:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cara Sanders is a digital content coordinator for Livability.com. A graduate of the University of Tennessee with a degree in public relations and minor in journalism, she has exper... more

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Wed, 03/20/2019 - 11:06