After the inaugural NFL season in Southern Nevada was marred by a pandemic, Allegiant Stadium quickly asserted itself as the top destination in the league for visiting fans and events.
It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.
Las Vegas always has been the tourism capital of the U.S. and a place that makes every event feel like the Super Bowl.
The Pro Bowl and the NFL draft have been in Las Vegas. The Super Bowl will be in 2024. Networks booking prime-time games seem to default to Raiders home games almost as if they are simply looking to give their crew and executives a nice reward.
All of this makes sense. There was never a doubt Las Vegas would quickly become the top location for those who enjoy making a trip to an NFL game.
But how does the rest of the league stack up?
Here is a completely unscientific ranking of NFL markets and how they stack up in terms of best destinations for a road game.
Feel free to disagree and weigh in on where the list gets it wrong. That’s the beauty of these rankings: There is no set criteria, and it’s all in the eye of the traveler.
Maybe there was one fun bar or cool museum that made the entire trip. Maybe it was a great meal. Unexpectedly nice hotel? Sure, that can help in the rankings.
Some cities might be docked just because the airport is too far away or there isn’t a great way to commute to the tourist areas. Or the city is too spread out, and there’s not enough time to see much of it during a typical NFL weekend, generally from Friday night to Monday morning.
Perhaps the city’s true charm is in the outlying neighborhoods only locals know about. Sorry. This is all about being a tourist for the weekend.
But with each of the league’s 30 markets visited, we have deemed ourselves as good an authority as anyone else.
So here goes:
1. Las Vegas — Never in doubt.
2. New Orleans — The longtime champions were dethroned only by the relocation of the Raiders. This is an amazing city for food and nightlife with no shortage of things to do outside the stadium if you even make it to the game. A bonus for Raiders fans this season is that the road game against the Saints will be on Halloween weekend, a truly special experience in the French Quarter.
3. Tennessee — The 2.5-mile stretch from Music Row to Nissan Stadium in Nashville includes the original Hattie B’s and Lower Broadway, giving visitors access to some of the best live music in the world. And don’t worry — it’s not just country.
4. Indianapolis — This might be controversial, but there is a reason so many major events are in Indy beyond just being near the geographic midpoint of the country. It’s one of the most walkable cities anywhere, so stay downtown and enjoy the bars and great restaurants without getting into a car. If only there was decent public transportation from the airport.
5. Chicago — Sure, the weather can be brutal, and some parts of the area get a bad rap, but it’s by far the best of the “big cities” to visit for a weekend. Downtown has plenty to do and is incredibly navigable. Bonus points if there is some overlap with a Cubs series, but Wrigleyville is worth the trip even on nongame days. The Bears need a new stadium, but the city will take a huge drop in these rankings if they head for the suburbs. Oh, and deep dish isn’t pizza.
6. Atlanta — There are some pretty cool tourist areas and historic sites to visit downtown. It’s also fairly convenient if you can differentiate between Peachtree Street, Peachtree Avenue and Peachtree Boulevard. But the game-day experience is what’s responsible for the lofty ranking. Concessions are affordable, and the options are amazing.
7. Denver — There’s a great tourist district for people-watching around the 16th Street Mall, tremendous restaurants and cool breweries around LoDo. The chance of a sudden snow game always adds some fun. OK, the airport is a nightmare. But the train to downtown is recommended.
8. Green Bay — This easily could be in contention for last place. It’s cold. It’s impossible to get there. Lodging and entertainment in the immediate vicinity are almost nonexistent. In short, it’s miserable. Then you get to Lambeau Field, and it’s all worth it. There’s a cool little entertainment district, and the Packers museum is worth visiting. On game day, the history of the place oozes throughout every seat.
9. Los Angeles — Traffic is crippling, and not much is convenient. There’s not an ideal place to stay to experience convenient access to entertainment and the stadium. It should be much lower on the list until you realize it’s still Los Angeles, and SoFi is an experience worth the trip.
10. Seattle — Despite the dreary reputation, it’s quite a picturesque city. Pretty much everything to see, including the stadium, is downtown. Catch a fish tossed, go to the original Starbucks and hit the top of the space needle all in one afternoon. Then head to the game for one of the loudest environments in the league.
11. Miami — This would be much higher on the list if the stadium was in Miami. There have been some solid renovations that make the game experience enjoyable, but that doesn’t fix the problem of not being close to anything. It’s still tough to hate too much on a fall or winter weekend in South Florida, though.
12. New York — Any chance to get to New York is good, but a football weekend just doesn’t allow enough time to see anything. Fly in to Newark, stay in New Jersey and hit the game on Sunday? No thanks. The stadium can be accessed by train from the city, so that’s probably the way to go.
13. Baltimore — An underrated gem of a city. The Inner Harbor is a great home base with the National Aquarium a nice option before a crab dinner. Make sure to venture to Fell’s Point and visit The Horse You Came In On Saloon to hear the tale of the demise of Edgar Allen Poe. M&T Bank Stadium is convenient to everything.
14. San Francisco — It’s one of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in the world with a great transportation system and amazing food. All the ingredients are there to make this a top five destination. The 49ers, however, play in Santa Clara, California.
15. Philadelphia — Sure, cheesesteaks are delicious. There are plenty of spots better than Pat’s and Geno’s, but the chaotic corner in the wee hours of the morning is a scene that should be experienced by new visitors. For a real culinary experience, however, take a stroll around Reading Terminal Market before heading over to check out some of the historical marvels. The train goes right to the stadium complex, and the local fans make game day a true spectacle.
16. Washington — The museums and historical sites are unmatched. The food and stadium access? Not so much. FedEx Field isn’t convenient or luxurious, but it can be accessed on the Metro by those willing to walk about a mile.
17. Dallas — There are plenty of lodging options around the behemoth that is AT&T Stadium if you want to have your choice of any chain restaurant on the planet in Arlington, Texas. Fort Worth is a charming town, and Dallas is a big city where you can mingle with the conspiracy theorists at Dealey Plaza and come to your own conclusions about the Kennedy assassination.
18. Arizona — Scottsdale is great. Even Tempe can be fun most nights. But staying closer to the city leaves a bit of a journey on game day. Do you stay at one of the hotels around the stadium and essentially hang out at the mall? At least winter clothes are never necessary.
19. Minnesota — U.S. Bank Stadium is an absolute marvel, among the best in the league. It’s also downtown, which ordinarily would be a plus. In this case, however, you know you’re going to end up staying by Mall of America, which is also by the airport. This is where a joke is made about how there are six Lids locations and an amusement park in the mall. Except that’s not a joke. It’s a bit excessive.
20. New England — Sure, Boston is a great town full of history and chowder. But it’s closer to stay in Providence, Rhode Island. There is a train from Boston on game days that makes the commute tolerable. If you rent a car or for some reason try ride-share, bring your taxes and a novel to work on while you sit in traffic.
21. Kansas City — Take your pick of any of the outstanding barbecue places in the area. If you can’t decide, it’s tough to go wrong at Q39. After the meal, good luck. The stadium is in the middle of nowhere, and the airport might as well be in Nebraska.
22. Tampa Bay — There are a couple of popular establishments close to the stadium. The stadium is close to the airport, which is about the best thing that can be said about it. Downtown Tampa isn’t much of a thrill, so staying at the beach is probably the preferable option. Ybor City has a cool enough vibe, though.
23. Detroit — Ford Field is a fantastic venue, and all of the sports venues being back downtown is at least a sign of progress in an area that struggled for many years. There are casinos in the area, too. And if all else fails, bring your passport and go across the river to Windsor, Ontario.
24. Cleveland — This almost sets up perfectly for a weekend trip. The downtown area has been revitalized and is blocks from the mediocre stadium on the lake. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is also right there, and if you have a car or want to take a short ride, the house from “A Christmas Story” is now a tourist attraction. Sure, it’s cold and bleak. But it’s not that bad.
25. Houston — The stadium isn’t close to anything, but that might be OK because downtown pretty much shuts down after 8 p.m. City officials have done a good job in recent years trying to attract people to the area, but there’s still work to be done. There’s really no must-see or must-do activities. The space center? It’s a hike. In fact, everything is spread out. The thing about Houston is that it has everything you could want, but nothing you will remember.
26. Pittsburgh — It’s a great game-day atmosphere in a historic stadium that sits at the confluence of three rivers. Yuengling can be found at just about any bar or restaurant in town. The best part? It’s not Cincinnati.
27. Carolina — The good? You won’t have to leave downtown. The bad? You’ll probably be looking for an excuse to do so. To be fair, there’s a nice craft brewery scene developing.
28. Buffalo — The concept of having an NFL stadium in what is essentially a suburban neighborhood is cool, and it’s great for families in the area that have made game days a tradition. The tailgates are wild and worth experiencing. But Orchard Park, New York, is well outside the city and difficult to get to from downtown. Niagara Falls is worth seeing once, but it’s on the exact opposite side of downtown from the stadium. Pro tip: If you eat your wings with ranch, just stay home.
29. Jacksonville — The stadium is downtown, but there isn’t much to do there before and after games. Even during a game, for that matter, as it’s a vanilla facility. It’s also a much more spread out metropolitan area than one might expect, so the beach isn’t that close and it’s not even that good. It was somehow an even more disappointing Super Bowl host than Detroit. Bring golf clubs, maybe?
30. Cincinnati — The stadium is downtown and on the water, but it’s well past its prime. The weather isn’t great. Whatever that slop is they refer to as chili is a disgrace. All the fun spots are in Kentucky, which is also home to the inconvenient airport. The headquarters of Pro Football Focus and the new soccer stadium are far and away the highlights. Both deserve a better fate than to have been built here. Last word: As these final words are typed, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is sitting less than 10 feet away along media row at UFC 276 at T-Mobile Arena. He’s on vacation in Las Vegas. Far away from Cincinnati.