Each fall, hundreds of thousands of Americans plan weekend trips back to their old college campuses to relive their glory days, building weekend reunions around football Saturdays. Last year, the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into those traditions, with game schedules altered and crowds reduced. But that just gives us even more reason to show our school spirit this season. Whether you’re an alum reconnecting with old classmates or simply a sports fan looking to make a pigskin pilgrimage, here are five of the best college football experiences from across the country.
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Indiana
No school’s football team is more storied or has a more widespread following than the University of Notre Dame’s. If you want to do a Fighting Irish game right, show up on Friday and start with a tunnel tour at Notre Dame Stadium’s Knute Rockne Gate, named for the coach who gave the “win one for the Gipper” speech in 1928. (It’s actually not much of a tour, but you can walk down the tunnel, beneath the program’s 11 national championship banners, and out onto the field.) Afterward, head across the quad to Hesburgh Library to take in the 134-foot-tall The World of Life mural, better known as “Touchdown Jesus,” because Christ’s raised arms, seen from the stadium stands, appear to be celebrating an Irish score. Then it’s over to the Main Building, where, just after 4 p.m., the trumpet section of the Band of the Fighting Irish gathers to play the “Victory March” beneath the Golden Dome. No matter your allegiance, if you grew up watching football on Saturdays, that fight song is embedded in your consciousness.
Oh yeah, game day. Make sure to arrive a couple of hours before kickoff to watch the Notre Dame Bagpipe Band lead the suit-and-tie-wearing players through Rockne Gate. Tailgaters throng the parking lot no matter the weather (if you want to avoid frigid lake-effect conditions, go early in the season), and those whose faith extends beyond the gridiron can pay their respects at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, a one-seventh-size replica of a famous shrine in France. How many of the prayers said here are for victory on the field? Only the devout can answer that.
Where to Stay
The best mix of convenience and comfort can be found at the Ivy Court Inn & Suites, a small hotel that faces campus, just a 15-minute walk from the stadium. The breakfast buffet is a great way to start your game day, and if you really want to feel as if you’re back in college (for better and worse), cross the street for postgame drinks at the Linebacker Lounge.
From $500 on game weekends, ivycourt.com
East Rutherford, New Jersey
While many college football matchups are heavy on pageantry, few can compete with the institutional might expressed at the Army-Navy game. Regardless of where the rivalry is renewed—the site rotates, mostly among East Coast cities, with this year’s slated for MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey—ceremonies begin three hours before kickoff, with the traditional “march on,” in which the gray-coated Army cadets and white-hatted Navy midshipmen alternate taking the field in formation. (The sight of 4,000 cadets saluting all at once is strangely impressive, like a patriotic version of the wave.)
More traditions follow, such as the “prisoner exchange,” in which seven cadets and seven midshipmen who have spent the semester at the rival academy are returned to their rightful rooting sections. The performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by the academy glee clubs is inspiring, albeit not quite as jaw-dropping as the sight of the Navy Leap Frogs and the Army Golden Knights parachute teams landing on the field.
If this all feels like a throwback to another time, so does the football: Last year, Army threw just one pass en route to a 15–0 victory. Whether or not you’re enthused by fullback dives, be sure to stay for the game’s conclusion, when the teams gather on the field and serenade each student section with its school song in a ceremony known as “honoring the fallen.” Why? Because the players sing the losing team’s tune first.
Where to Stay
Get yourself into a basic-training level of fitness at the Equinox Hotel. The first hotel from the high-end fitness club chain offers all the bodily benefits you’d expect, from personal training sessions and group classes to state-of-the-art workout equipment and indoor and outdoor pools. More important for fans, it’s located in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, with superb access to the Lincoln Tunnel (if you’re driving to the game) or Penn Station (if you’re taking the train).
From $695, equinox-hotels.com
University of Texas
People in Texas love their football; after all, the Lone Star State is home to “America’s team,” the Dallas Cowboys, as well as the high school football culture that inspired Friday Night Lights.
Here in the state’s capital, the passion for pigskin mostly gets channeled into the University of Texas Longhorns. On a game day, it can feel as if all of Texas Hill Country has packed into the blocks between the enormous state capitol building (which is taller than the U.S. Capitol) and the campus’s 100,000-seat Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium. Seemingly every parking lot is filled with tailgate tents, and even if you don’t have alumni connections, many of the parties (especially the ones sponsored by local radio stations and/or alcohol purveyors) have free admission and free drinks.
As you approach the stadium, San Jacinto Boulevard transforms into “Bevo Blvd.,” which is also open to the public (no game ticket required) and hosts a pregame block party featuring cheerleaders, the Longhorns’ bovine mascot (the aforementioned Bevo), food trucks, and two giant TV screens to help you keep up with the other gridiron action going on across the country. All you have to do to take part in the party is flash the “Hook ’em Horns” hand signal at any and everyone you meet.
Where to Stay
The Hotel ZaZa Austin is a great place to keep the festivities going after the game. The 159-room hot spot, which opened downtown in 2019, is less than two miles from campus and just a couple of blocks from the clubs and music venues on Sixth Street. The hotel also boasts a pretty poppin’ bar of its own, Group Therapy, where you can sip a mean old-fashioned next to the seventh-floor pool.
From $229, hotelzaza.com
University of Mississippi
The beating heart of college football is in the Southeastern Conference, which includes such juggernaut programs as Florida, Georgia, LSU, and defending national champion Alabama. All of the above are renowned for their tailgates, but the greatest game day experience in the South—and, thus, in America—belongs to a school that hasn’t won the SEC title since 1963: the University of Mississippi.
On autumn Saturdays, The Grove, a 10-acre stand of oak, elm, and magnolia trees on the Ole Miss campus, is flooded with as many as 100,000 people, spanning generations of Rebels fans. The seemingly endless rows of red, white, and blue tents host barbecues, bluegrass bands, and cocktail parties that are more formal than some weddings I’ve attended. (Sportswriter and Oxford resident Wright Thompson once advised GQ magazine, “Wear a shirt and tie—and a sport coat, if you’ve got one. Show up in a T-shirt and you’re going to feel tacky.”) Before the game, the team marches through The Grove on its (not entirely accurately named) Walk of Champions to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Then there’s, you know, the game itself, which can at times feel like an afterthought—with the possible exception of the annual Egg Bowl, against the archrival Mississippi State Bulldogs. Egg-shaped trophies aside, what happens on the field is not really the point in Oxford.
Where to Stay
The Graduate Oxford, located a block off the city’s historic square and a 15-minute walk from The Grove, has serious football bona fides. The Mannings (yes, those Mannings) are investors, and the 136-room hotel features towel racks bearing Archie and Eli’s numbers and silhouette portraits of Archie and his wife, Olivia (an Ole Miss homecoming queen).
From $700 on game weekends, graduatehotels.com
University of Washington
The University of Washington and its alumni claim that Husky Stadium is “the greatest setting in college football,” and it’s hard to argue with them. The stands are planted on the shore of gorgeous Lake Washington, which affords fans both picturesque views and the opportunity for America’s coolest gameday commute: a boat ride. U-Dub (as the locals call it) has a long tradition of “sailgating,” and you don’t even need to make any navigationally gifted friends to participate, as the Argosy Cruises’ Dawg Boat sailgate departs from Fishermen’s Terminal, right at the foot of the Ballard Bridge.
Once onboard, you could be forgiven for momentarily forgetting you’re on the way to a football game, as you sip a local microbrew while taking in the abundant sights in one of the country’s most scenic cities: a half dozen bridges, Gas Works Park, the Space Needle, the tony houses of the Montlake and Queen Anne neighborhoods, and all manner of watercraft, ranging from sailboats to floating hot tubs. (The 300-plus rabid Husky supporters sharing the ride ought to remind you of your purpose in short order, however.) The boat docks right at the stadium, and inside, 70,000 other purple-clad fans roar along to native son Jimi Hendrix’s oh-so-appropriate anthem, “Purple Haze.” Whatever it is, that game put a spell on me.
Where to Stay
Following the 2019 renovation of its landmark 1901 building, the Alexis Royal Sonesta Hotel is on the short list of the best places to stay in the Emerald City. The 121-room hotel is mere steps from Puget Sound, the Pike Place Market, the Seattle Art Museum, Pioneer Square, and Lumen Field— meaning that, if you happen to be in town on the right weekend, you can catch a double dose of football by attending a Seattle Seahawks NFL game on Sunday.
From $250, sonesta.com