Right behind the annual Football Event That (literally, under threat of legal action) Shall Not Be Named on the list of Really Big Events That (Literally) Shall Not Be Named is March Mmmmmness, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The tournament is arguably bigger than the Football Event That Shall Not Be Named, since that’s only one day and one game, whereas March Mmmmmness is more than 60 games held at multiple locations over several weeks. Don’t take our word for it; ask your local Buffalo Wild Wings.
If you’re thinking about checking out the action in person, regardless if you have a favorite team playing, good for you. The venues are electric – and they’re at their most electrical in the early rounds, when the bands are louder, the fans are wilder, and top seeds crumble and fall like redwoods.
Dayton, host of tomorrow’s playin games, has its merits but it’s too soon to do anything about them, so let them pass. The places to be are the first-round sites, where games will be played starting on Thursday through this weekend. They’re nice cities all the way around, not necessarily places you’d think of visiting in March but definitely worth a spin.
Jacksonville: Seriously? It’s March in Florida; get outside! Jacksonville’s beaches are not the glorious powdery sand of some of Florida’s more southern seashores, but who gave you the right to complain? You can have a great time on Neptune Beach, and if you’re looking for some wilderness Cumberland Island National Seashore is just a little more than an hour north, with sand and shells and solitude to spare. If you crave a little more activity, try the Jacksonville Beach Tennis Center or the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of playing golf at TPC Sawgrass. Or, if you’d just rather eat and have some fun doing it, take a cooking course at Enza’s, the city’s best Italian restaurant.
Louisville: You know where you are when the name of the arena is the KFC Yum! Center. (And yes, Yum! Center sounds like what’s in the middle of a Tootsie Pop.) The weather’s not always a sure thing in northwestern Kentucky in March, but if the sun shines on you head east on I-64 to Lexington and the Kentucky Horse Park. This combination of museum and working horse farm gets you nose-to-nose with some of the world’s most magnificent animals. The Smithsonian-affiliated International Museum of the Horse is breathtaking, and there’s even horseback riding if you’re so inclined. Top it off with dinner back in Louisville at Harvest and you’ve done just about everything right.
Pittsburgh: It sounds almost counterintuitive to go to Pittsburgh for the arts, but that’s what you want to do. The dynamic Carnegie Museum of Art has free admission Thursday nights in March, but don’t forget about the Andy Warhol Museum down the road a piece. For a glimpse into the Rust Belt past and dynamic future of the Monongahela River area, take a road trip to Braddock and witness the arts-and-sustainability-fueled renaissance of a steel town. Finish off your trip with dinner at the aptly named Braddock’s Pittsburgh Brasserie and you’ll come away with a different idea of the Steel City.
Charlotte: Basketball is fine and dandy, but the real sport in Charlotte is racing – balls-to-the-wall racing, as my friends in Daytona used to call it. If you like the idea of left turns and stock cars that are anything but, start your day with a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. There should be enough there to keep you sated for a morning, but if you still find yourself in need of a horsepower fix the Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Hendrick Motorsports facility are just up the road, and open for tours. With a day of NASCAR paired up with an evening of basketball, there’s only one place to eat: Green’s Lunch, home of one of the South’s best hot dogs. Nothing fancy or pretentious – just good.
Omaha: It should come as no surprise to anyone old enough to remember Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom that Omaha has a superb zoo. The Henry Doorly Zoo requires some walking to hit all its exhibits, but the exertion is well worth it. Set aside some time for the Lozier IMAX Theater and take the tram over the zoo when your feet get tired. Otherwise, a trip to Omaha is a trip to Beefland, and the place to find the steak of your dreams is Spencer’s, the legendary steakhouse that delivers the best meats, fine wines, and classic elegance at Midwestern prices.
Columbus, Ohio: A hip town that largely flies under the radar, Columbus offers a little bit of all the previous sites: Arts and culture (be sure to visit the art galleries on Short North, the city’s arts-and-funk district), museums (COSI, the Columbus Science Museum, is a must-see), a great zoo (the Columbus Zoo, naturally), and sports (at the Ohio State University), with shopping at the North Market and dining in the German Village area thrown in. Paella in a neighborhood called German Village? That’s the contradictions of Columbus for you.
Editor’s Note: Calling March Mmmmmness by its real name might not be a #RiskWorthTaking, but traveling to one of the tournament sites definitely is. For all the #RisksWorthTaking in travel, there’s Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Get it here.