Bright lights, big city: Ultimate urban sports destinations

Many of the country’s most exciting destinations fly under the radar, though they offer spectacular natural beauty, world-class sports venues, innovative culinary scenes, and family-friendly attractions. Consider a change of scenery when planning your next competition or sports event. We’re running down six spots that pull out all the stops—from the West Coast to the Midwest to the Gulf Coast.

Denver, Colo.
A skyline shot of Denver, Colo., particularly the Rocky Mountains.
The mountains make a stunning backdrop to the Denver skyline.

Adventure awaits around the corner in the Mile High City, which offers natural beauty and a thriving cultural scene. While its history dates to the Old West, Colorado’s capital city puts a modern spin on its historic roots, with creative cuisine, craft breweries, world-class museums, and entertainment. More than 300 annual days of sunshine make outdoor recreation available just outside the door.

Must Eat: The simple, yet delicious green chili is a staple at Denver restaurants. Enjoy it in a bowl, tamale, atop a cheeseburger, and on fries.

Must Do: Hop the free shuttle to sightsee and people-watch along the 16th Street Mall, a mile-long pedestrian promenade with cafes, shops, fountains, and plazas.

Pittsburgh, Pa.
An aerial shot shows where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio River in downtown Pittsburgh.
An aerial shot shows where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio River in downtown Pittsburgh.

There’s more to the City of Champions than breathtaking views and spectacular sports teams, but be sure to wear your black and gold. This charming city also offers a bustling downtown with a 14-block Cultural District, outdoor parks and plazas, amazing restaurants, and family-oriented attractions. In addition, its 90 distinct and charming neighborhoods each offer something special for visitors to discover.

Must Eat: No trip to Pittsburgh is complete without a stop at Primanti Brothers for a signature sandwich filled with grilled meat, melted cheese, topped with fries, and a secret recipe coleslaw.

Must Do: Take a step back in time to ride the circa-1877 Duquesne Incline cable car for a spectacular view of the city from the observation deck high atop Mount Washington.

Salt Lake City, Utah
A drone shot captures downtown Salt Lake City.
A drone shot captures downtown Salt Lake City.

Situated between two mountain ranges, Salt Lake City sure knows how to roll out the welcome mat. The Salt Lake City International Airport opens its new 22-gate concourse this year as part of a $5.1-billion renovation. Visitors can step off the plane and onto a light rail train for a 12-minute ride directly to downtown. The Salt Palace Convention Center hosts major competitions, and the city boasts 25 unique venues that can accommodate almost any sport. Sports Salt Lake’s “Athlete Experience” provides deals and information to help make each event a success.

Must Eat: The city boasts a vibrant culinary scene that foodies love. The roster of restaurants blends award-winning fine dining and James Beard Award-nominated chefs with family-friendly fare, microbreweries, and coffee shops.

Must Do: Get a Connect Pass to save money at 18 of the city’s top attractions, including the Hogle Zoo, Clark Planetarium & IMAX Theatre, Red Butte Garden, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

San Diego, Calif.
A photo of a man sitting on a bench beside the San Diego Harbor at twilight.
San Diego Harbor Island shines at twilight.

Located in the most southern part of California, San Diego offers 70 miles of sunny coastline, the Pacific Ocean, and gorgeous green spaces. From its beaches to mountain trails, you’ve hit the “mother lode” for outdoor recreation. However, that’s not all. San Diego’s neighborhoods celebrate diversity with their vibrant and lively cultures. World-class attractions include SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park’s museums, and the historic Old Town.

Must Eat: The simple taco is San Diego’s most popular food, as evidenced by the number of taco stands and trucks around the city. The Taco Stand on Convoy Street is a good place to start.

Must Do: Snorkel or kayak (or both) at La Jolla Ecological Reserve, a protected marine habitat. Visitors are sure to see sea lions, dolphins, and sea turtles. If conditions are right, explore the sea caves.

Tampa, Fla.
The 2.6-mile Tampa Riverwalk lights up at night, connecting downtown’s attractions.
The 2.6-mile Tampa Riverwalk lights up at night, connecting downtown’s attractions.

Slow your pace in Tampa, with its ideal setting on the bay. Its downtown is highlighted by the Riverwalk, a 2.6-mile path linking attractions along the Hillsborough River. The city is full of adventure, from scuba diving at The Florida Aquarium to a heart-dropping roller coaster ride at Busch Gardens. Discover culture at the Chihuly Collection or the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.

Must Eat: The Cuban sandwich is Tampa’s signature food, made with ham, roasted pork, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, then pressed into fresh Cuban bread.

Must Do: Climb aboard the free TECO Historic Streetcar from downtown to explore the brick streets and cigar boutiques of historic Ybor City, Tampa’s Latin Quarter.

South Bend/Mishawaka, Ind.

A photo of a group of people whitewater rafting near South Bend, Ind.

This Midwestern region is perhaps best known as home to the University of Notre Dame, but there is more to “The Bend.” A love of sports runs as deep as the St. Joseph River, starting with the Fighting Irish football team, and including world-class sports facilities. The region offers a family-friendly destination where visitors can explore Potawatomi Zoo and downtown’s Howard Park.

Must Eat: Many of its restaurants work with visiting sports teams, including PEGGS, a popular downtown breakfast spot. The food is filling and delicious, and the cheerful staff adds to the experience.

Must Do: Ride Class II whitewater rapids through downtown South Bend along the East Race Waterway. The waterway is open from mid-June through Labor Day on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.