March Madness: Four Slam-Dunk College Towns

When spring fever strikes in the United States, only two things dominate: basketball brackets and easy getaways. Stoke your school spirit—and youthful energy—on a NCAA college visit. Because no matter what happens during March Madness, these towns always fire us up.

> Lawrence, Kansas (University of Kansas)

The hoopla: Basketball was invented when James Naismith introduced his new sport to the University of Kansas in 1898 and became the first coach of the Jayhawks.

Team spirit: If you think you spy fans in the stands of Allen Fieldhouse doing “the wave” wrong, that’s because they’re actually “waving the wheat”—a tradition that mimics the state’s top crop swaying in the prairie breeze.

Fan pick: Sip a pint of Wheat State Golden beer at Free State Brewery, a downtown institution since 1989.

Local flavor: If college nostalgia stirs up your taste buds, the Roost serves breakfast cocktails spiked with Frosted Flakes or sage tequila.

Beyond basketball: In the 1850s, Lawrence was a bloody frontier for abolitionists. A free-spirited vein still courses throughout downtown’s Massachusetts Street, from Final Friday art walks to historic Eldridge Hotel, built as an antislavery respite and subsequently burned down and rebuilt—twice.

> Chapel Hill, North Carolina (University of North Carolina)

The hoopla: The University of North Carolina Tar Heels count Michael Jordan as an alum.

Fan pick: Top of the Hill Restaurant, Brewery, and Distillery (“Top-o” in localese) tips off a night on the town, with a prime roof deck vantage for watching post-victory partying on Franklin Street.

Local flavor: Crook’s Corner elevates classics like shrimp and grits and buttermilk pie, and Lantern reinvents Asian fusion with a Carolina kick (local pork, spring rolls, Korean-style fried chicken).

Beyond basketball: Coker Arboretum provides sanctuary from the hubbub and ushers in spring with dogwood blossoms and daffodils, while the antebellum Carolina Inn has sat on the sidelines of campus activity since 1924.

> Spokane, Washington (Gonzaga University)

The hoopla: Most of the year, Gonzaga University quietly minds its own business at the confluence of the inland Northwest’s ski slopes and the Columbia River Basin. During March Madness, this small Jesuit school unleashes the Bulldogs, wreaking havoc as only an underdog could.

Team spirit: Also known as the Kennel, the McCarthey Athletic Center boasts men’s college basketball’s best home-court record.

Fan pick: Sports lovers congregate near campus at Jack & Dan’s Tavern, a bar famously tied to NBA and “Zag” alum John Stockton.

Local flavor: Shaped like a 1950s milk bottle, Mary Lou’s Homemade Ice Cream serves up patty melts and huckleberry milk shakes.

Beyond basketball: Natural thrills rule the city. The 37-mile paved Centennial Trail winds through town along the Spokane River, connecting campus to downtown and Riverfront Park.

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> Syracuse, New York (Syracuse University)

The hoopla: The chill of upstate New York is no match for Syracuse Orange fever. Head coach Jim Boeheim ranks among history’s winningest coaches, having led his team into the postseason 37 out of 38 times.

Fan pick: The legacy of 19th-century Irish immigrants who took refuge in Syracuse’s salt industry lives on in Tipperary Hill’s traditional pubs, such as Coleman’s, which dates to 1933.

Local flavor: Farm-to-barrel Empire Brewing Company’s menu ranges from po’boys to poutine.

Beyond basketball: Syracuse high points include the LEED Platinum Hotel Skyler, the rebounded historic downtown of Armory Square, and the Everson Museum of Art.

Katie Knorovsky (on Twitter @TravKatieK) is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler. This piece first appeared in the magazine’s February 2015 issue. 

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