Though the NCAA Basketball Tournament officially kicked off this past Tuesday with the First Four in Dayton, most folks don’t get really serious about the hoops action until Thursday afternoon’s tip-offs. And if you think comparing brackets at your co-worker’s desk is fun, you and your basketball-loving brethren should experience what it’s like to actually be in one of the host cities during the Big Dance. To that end, we’ve scouted all the sites on the jam-packed tourney schedule and have broken down what to do before the games and where to stay after them.
Salt Lake City, March 21 and 23
What To Do: If you’re looking for something a bit more interactive than cheering on your team at Salt Lake City’s EnergySolutions Arena, visit The Leonardo. Utah’s newest museum is an experience that weaves art, science, technology and history together. Check out the limited engagement Mummies of the World exhibit, which showcases mummies from Asia, Oceania, South America, Europe and ancient Egypt. $22.50
Where To Stay: While the winsome feel of Hotel Monaco Salt Lake City should be enough to excite you, in the event it’s not, your three-minute drive from the hotel to the hoops venue certainly is. Don’t miss the complimentary wine reception in the lobby daily from 5 to 6 p.m.
Auburn Hills, Mich., March 21-23
What To Do: Detroit Harmonie, a group aiming to regenerate youthful interest in the Motor City, hosts the third-annual International Experience. The event’s highlight is a “Top Chef Detroit Challenge” with $10,000 going to the winner. March 23, Virgil H. Carr Arts League of Michigan, 8 p.m., $20.
Where To Stay: The Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star MGM Grand Detroit may be a 30-minute drive from The Palace at Auburn Hills, but its posh amenities (Four-Star Immerse Spa, Vegas-style gaming) make it well worth the trek. And when you aren’t cheering on your team, you can hit the casino that’s stocked with more than 90 table games and 4,000 slots and video poker machines.
Lexington, Ky., March 21 and 23
What To Do: In little Lawrenceburg, Ky. (about 30 minutes west of Lexington) sits the Wild Turkey Distillery, a place producing some of the best bourbon the state has to offer. Thirsty fans can enjoy free tours throughout the day and get a taste for what goes into producing Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
Where To Stay: Gratz Park Inn is a charmer right in the heart of Lexington’s historic district. Each of the 41 rooms is outfitted with rich woods, elegant fabrics and regionally produced art for a bit of local flavor. The boutique hotel is just a few blocks from University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena where the games are played.
San Jose, Calif., March 21 and 23
What To Do: When the sound of your school’s alma mater grows tiresome, make a fast break to San Jose’s California Theatre for Verdi’s Requiem, an orchestral and choral celebration of the famed Italian composer’s 200th anniversary. March 23, 8 p.m.; March 24, 2:30 p.m., tickets start at $38.
Where To Stay: Usually a haven for business groups and lovebirds, picturesque Four-Star CordeValle, A Rosewood Resort has enough bungalows, great golf and fine dining to share with basketball fans, too.
Austin, March 22 and 24
What To Do: If you think the action at Austin’s Frank Erwin Center is wild, just wait until you catch all the horsing around over Rodeo Austin’s final weekend. Friday and Saturday night are filled with traditional rodeo events—think mutton bustin’, bareback riding, steer roping and barrel racing—alongside concerts by country artists Kyle Park, Cody Johnson and Gary Allan. Through March 23, Travis County Expo Center, tickets start at $25.
Where To Stay: For the basketball fan with luxury and location at the top of his list, the Four-Star Four Seasons Hotel Austin answers the call with cowhide-covered sofas, a Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star spa and an address that’s less than 10 minutes from the court.
Dayton, Ohio, March 22 and 24
What To Do: Eight schools fighting for their NCAA lives in the First Four was treat enough over the first two days of March Madness (March 19-20). But if you’re looking for a distraction after the second-round games, look no further than Hotrod Fest, where a collection of 150-plus vintage cars at the Dayton Expo Center should get your mind off the winners and losers, for a minute or two at least. March 22-24, $10.
Where To Stay: Though you may not find a super luxury hotel like a Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton in Dayton, there are plenty of nice spots for you to lay your head. Dayton Marriott is a 399-room hotel—this includes nine spacious suites—that’s just a four-minute drive from the University of Dayton Arena, where the games are held.
Kansas City, Mo., March 22 and 24
What To Do: Kansas City backs up its claim as the home of NCAA hoops with the College Basketball Experience, a sports fan’s paradise connected to the Sprint Center that’s one part interactive-gaming center and another part National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. So when you aren’t pulling for your team to make it through the second and third rounds, you’ll have plenty of basketball-centric activities.
Where To Stay: About 15 minutes from downtown Kansas City and the Sprint Center, The Raphael Hotel sits in the city’s Country Club Plaza district. The Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel offers a slice of Europe in the Midwest with its grand 1920s ambiance and Old World charm.
Philadelphia, March 22 and 24
What To Do: Before enjoying some beer at the game, learn the real story behind this country’s drinking past at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center’s American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition exhibit. It’s the first comprehensive exhibition about the Prohibition, and when you can examine rare artifacts—think original ratification copies of the 18th and 21st Amendments, and temperance propaganda—it’s well worth a visit. Through April 28, $17.50.
Where To Stay: You’ll come to Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia for its close proximity to the tourney. The Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel sits on historic Logan Square with easy access to the games and the best of what the City of Brotherly Love has to offer. You’ll return because of the splendid service and Five-Star Fountain Restaurant.
Washington D.C., March 28 and 30
What To Do: You’ll be spending so much time rooting for your favorite team inside the Verizon Center that getting outside for a National Cherry Blossom Festival activity would do you some good. Aside from strolling through D.C., the National Mall and ogling the powdery pink blooms, you can embark on the Capitol Hill Cherry Blossom Food Tour and indulge in some cherry-inspired dishes. Through April 14, $49.
Where To Stay: Though Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Ritz-Carlton, Georgetown has retained most of the industrial feel from the turn-of-the-century inhabitants, you won’t have to work to notice the hotel’s many upscale touches that complement the views of the Potomac.
Los Angeles, March 28 and 30
What To Do: Though you’re in town for hardwood hysterics, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy some baseball—especially when it’s a Spring Training doozy at Dodger Stadium between the rival L.A. Dodgers and L.A. Angels of Anaheim. The ballpark is about 3.5 miles from Staples Center, but with L.A. traffic that could mean 20 minutes, so plan accordingly. March 29, tickets start at $5.
Where To Stay: The City of Angels has a bevy of glitzy hotels, but there’s something truly heavenly about the old school feel and in-the-moment appeal of The Peninsula Beverly Hills. The Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel is the place to see and be seen in ritzy Beverly Hills, and its rooftop pool and garden is a must to soak up the SoCal sun.
Arlington, Texas, March 29 and 31
What To Do: If the college kids don’t quite quench your thirst for rim-shaking dunks, the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks have two games this weekend—one versus the Indiana Pacers (March 28) and another against the Chicago Bulls (March 30). Though the American Airlines Center won’t measure up to the NCAA court at luxurious Cowboys Stadium, it’s worth it to cheer on the Mavs. Tickets start at $10.
Where To Stay: Nestled in Dallas’ yuppie Uptown neighborhood, Hôtel St. Germain is a European-style inn that has become one of the Lone Star State’s best-kept secrets. Book one of the seven luxurious suites that don antiques from France and New Orleans, and don’t miss dinner at the hotel’s eponymous restaurant.
Indianapolis, March 29 and 31
What To Do: From black leather jackets (Eternal James Dean) to the White House (The Lincolns: Five Generations of an American Family), the Indiana State Museum has several fascinating exhibitions on its March docket. While there are special exhibits, the heart of the museum tells the story of the Hoosier State, beginning with the Birth of the Earth and all the way into statehood. Tickets start at $9.50.
Where To Stay: The Historic Canterbury Hotel boasts the traditional air you’d expect from a building on the National Register of Historic Places, yet it still feels modern with flat-screen TVs and complimentary Wi-Fi access. And considering it’s less than a mile from Lucas Oil Stadium where the tournament action takes place, it’s a win-win situation when you check in here.
Atlanta, April 6 and 8
What To Do: In a move that will certainly delight basketball followers, for the first time in NCAA history, the Division II and III title games (April 7) will take place in the same city—Atlanta—as the Division I Championship. Admission is free for the Division II and III games at Philips Arena (Division I games are at the Georgia Dome). And don’t miss The Big Dance Concert Series at Centennial Olympic Park Friday through Sunday.
Where To Stay: Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Mandarin Oriental, Atlanta dazzles with its Art Deco grandeur, amazes with its sublime English Garden and impresses being just a 15-minute drive from the Georgia Dome. It’s located in the posh Buckhead area of Atlanta and is within easy access of top-notch shopping and great restaurants—not to mention the hotel’s tranquil spa.
Photos Courtesy of iStock/gmcoop