Ultimate Trip for College and Pro Sports Fans

Sports fans know North Carolina is a place where legends are made. Whether it’s the storied rivalry between the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils, the #KeepPounding mantra of the Carolina Panthers, or the thrill and speed of NASCAR, fans will find plenty of opportunities to celebrate their victories and sports heroes.

No matter which sports are in season, there are several museums, halls of fame and other notable attractions, particularly in the central region of North Carolina, that honor our state’s rich sports heritage and create excitement year-round.

Due to COVID-19, please check local tourism offices or individual attractions' websites for the most up-to-date visitor information.

Day 1: Tobacco Road Rivalry

Start your trip in Raleigh at the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Housed in the North Carolina Museum of History, the Sports Hall of Fame celebrates some of the most storied athletes in our state’s history with jerseys, gloves and bats, helmets, and other game-worn or race-worn gear on display. Photos and write-ups of each inductee give you an overview of their career and insight into what they’ve contributed to our state’s sports history.

After your visit here, it’s time to take sides in one of college basketball’s biggest rivalries by deciding whether you’ll visit the Carolina Basketball Museum at UNC Chapel Hill or the Duke Basketball Museum at Duke University in Durham.

If you’re headed to Chapel Hill, stop by Time-Out Restaurant – a place where Tar Heel greats from Michael Jordan to today’s players stop in for a chicken 'n cheddar biscuit sandwich – before you set foot on campus. Once on the beautiful grounds of UNC, make your way to the Ernie Williamson Athletics Center to spend a little time reliving the greatest moments in UNC men’s basketball history.

Tar Heel fans seeking refreshment after their visit should stop by The Crunkleton for high-end cocktails or Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery for in-house brews and more. Cap off your UNC experience by staying at The Carolina Inn, an elegant spot right in Chapel Hill.

Blue Devil fans will want to skip Chapel Hill and make a beeline for nearby Durham and have lunch at a spot like Dame’s Chicken & Waffles or Bull City Burger and Brewery. Once you’re fed, you’ll find the Duke Basketball Museum and Duke Athletics Hall of Fame in the Schwartz-Butters Athletic Center. Between the trophy case, jerseys, and tributes to players and teams from the past, there’re plenty for Dukies to see here.

After your stop, check into the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, which is adjacent to campus, or Unscripted. Go for sushi at M Sushi, or tavern fare and craft beer at Fullsteam.

Depending when you visit, you can catch a Durham Bulls game in spring and summer. Or if you’re lucky enough to grab a ticket to either a UNC or Duke game (from November to March) – or better yet, a UNC versus Duke game – throw on your team colors and show your pride in the stands.

If you’re coming in winter or spring and you can’t score college basketball tickets, the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes – who won the Stanley Cup in 2006 and made it to the Eastern Conference finals in 2019 – play in Raleigh’s PNC Arena. Grab a late drink at Raleigh Beer Garden after the Canes game – it has an impressive selection of beer with more than 350 taps. 

Day 2: In the Presence of Champions

Typically only the most hardcore of basketball fans know this, but the ACC – the Atlantic Coast Conference – was founded in Greensboro in 1953, so naturally Greensboro is your next stop. Plan an outing to the ACC Hall of Champions. This beautiful facility tells the story of the founding of the ACC and highlights both the academic and athletic accomplishments of member schools. Many of the schools have dedicated exhibits, there are a number of full-sized mascots, and there’s an interactive broadcasting booth where you can find out firsthand just how hard it is to call a play. (Please note: The hall is currently closed due to COVID-19.)

Hops Burger Bar is a great choice for lunch. Here you can get an array of fantastic burgers, but the Wall of Fries – which has sweet potato, parmesan jalapeño, sweet thai chili and Buffalo fries, to name a few – is the real treat.

SKYWILD's challenges encourage participants to imitate animal behaviors

Spend the afternoon testing your own athletic prowess at SKYWILD, a treetop adventure park adjacent to the Greensboro Science Center. At SKYWILD, you’ll be challenged to climb, jump, swing and zip line your way through a course of obstacles strung high in the trees. If that’s too wild for you, or if you’d rather relax closer to the ground, you could always catch a Greensboro Grasshoppers Minor League Baseball game, provided they’re in town.

Check into your room at Proximity Hotel, one of the greenest hotels in the nation, and enjoy dinner at its restaurant, Print Works Bistro. If you’re more in the mood for beer and burgers, try downtown’s Natty Greene’s Brewpub.

Day 3: Where Racing Lives

Get on the road early to head to the Charlotte area, and stop by the 1950s-themed Punchy’s Diner in Concord for breakfast. This spot is popular among race fans for its big portions and special menu item, Earnhardt’s Favorite Sandwich (lettuce, tomato and Miracle Whip). After you’ve eaten your fill, make your way to to Uptown Charlotte to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame is a sight every motorsports fan should see. The showpiece is the Glory Road exhibit. This collection of 18 race-used cars surrounds the Great Hall on a “roadbed” that shows the style and grade of tracks from NASCAR’s not-too-distant past to its present. You can trace the evolution of the sport through the road and the car styles, and it truly is an impressive display.

Glory Road exhibit at the NASCAR Hall of Fame

Equally impressive are the activities available here. You can practice your skills as a driver in a racing simulator, tour a mock garage and even compete against other visitors in a pit stop game. The hall also hosts special events throughout the year – many featuring driver appearances. When you're done touring the hall, grab a bite to eat – try one of the lauded barbecue sandwiches – at the on-site Pit Stop Café before venturing out for the afternoon.

This afternoon, focus on paying a visit to one of your favorite race teams. With 90 percent of all NASCAR racing teams having headquarters in the Charlotte area, it’s an easy task. Cabarrus County, Charlotte’s northern neighbor, maintains a list of racing team shops you can visit, and a list of racing attractions and activities from the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority has a breakdown of race team shops and other motorsports attractions to see.

If you find more time on your trip, there are also a few tours that will take you to a variety of racing team shops and give you a half day or even full day of NASCAR sightseeing. Through the NASCAR Hall of Fame, you can arrange for a Racing Insiders Tour and visit a trio of race shops in combination with a full morning at the hall. The folks at Charlotte Motor Speedway offer one of the top NASCAR experiences, offering shop tours, tours of the pit area and even tours that take you out onto the racetrack. Garage Pass Shop Tours provides individual and group tours of race shops and motorsports sites ranging from half-day to daylong tours.

When your tank is full of NASCAR memories, grab a bite to eat at Red Rocks Café, Bar & Bakery in Huntersville, where you’ll find a fun surprise: Many of its menu items are named after NASCAR drivers and team owners.

Day 4: Riding the Pine

Race fans, you’ll find so much to do in Charlotte and the surrounding areas that today you might have a few more stops to make. But if you’re all raced out, Charlotte has you covered, as there’s plenty more to do.

If you have one more lap in you, make your way to nearby Mooresville for a visit to the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame. Here you’ll be surrounded by some legendary automobiles and bits of racing memorabilia. More than just an extension of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it expands on the contributions of stock car drivers and other automotive daredevils.

By this time, you’ll be hungry, so grab lunch at Lancaster’s BBQ in Mooresville. Because it’s popular among drivers and their race teams, you might just catch a glimpse of a familiar face while you dine here.

On the last day of your trip, consider taking in another sport. Since the return of the Charlotte Hornets NBA team in 2014 (after a decade as the Charlotte Bobcats), the fan base has been vocal in the support of its team, owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan, who often sits courtside. Go catch a game (October through April) at Spectrum Center, also Uptown.

The Carolina Panthers play just a few blocks away at Bank of America Stadium (August to December), and any of their home games are a guaranteed good time. If you want to go beyond the game, the behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium is offered on Wednesdays and Fridays and includes the press box, visitor’s locker room and field tunnel. Plus, the Uptown stadium plays host to two major college football games each December. At the beginning of the month, there’s the Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship. And at the end of the month, the Duke's Mayo Bowl pits teams from the ACC against the SEC or Big Ten.

For your final meal in Charlotte, go where many of the pro players do: Cowbell Burger and Whiskey Bar. The monstrous burgers and icy cold drafts at Cowbell have appeared on more than one player’s Twitter or Instagram feed, and if you’re around near a home game, you stand a good chance of dining in the presence of some prime athletes. Or, on the same street, you’ll find 5Church Restaurant, where the decor is stunning and you might also encounter a celebrity or two.

Now, if you want to celebrate one more night out in the Queen City – say after your team’s victory – there’s plenty of great nightlife. Try AvidXchange Music Factory – a renovated former mill on the edge of Uptown that’s home to The Comedy Zone, The Fillmore Charlotte, VBGB Beer Hall & Garden, and several other late-night venues. Plus, the South End and NoDa neighborhoods are filled with popular bars and craft breweries.

Updated August 26, 2021
About the Author
Jason Frye

Jason Frye

Jason Frye is the author of Moon North Carolina, Moon Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip and Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He lives and writes in Wilmington.

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