There are cities across North America that are gems. Fun times ensue as soon as the plane reaches the terminal. There is an air, a vibe that draws people from all over and the Pittsburgh Penguins play in a division with a few enjoyable cities. New York and Columbus are very different but still offer plenty for Penguins fans every season.
And some cities offer more hassle and inconvenience than enjoyment. A few spots around the league are immediately not fun, dreary, or just empty.
Fun is subjective, but my rankings for the best and worst are based on the arena district, restaurants, walkability, affordability, and the entirely subjective vibe.
Some places like Ottawa aren’t as good, but not so bad once you learn how to make the trip work or where to stay. There’s not much near the arena in Ottawa except an outlet mall, but it’s not a bad arena, and at least there are nearby hotels and plenty of Tim Hortons. You can always stay in one of the small towns on the way to Ottawa, such as Watertown or Brockville, which are picturesque little spots within an hour’s drive.
But those trips rank in the middle, on the positive or negative side of the median. You can read the top five Penguins road trips here. Chicago and Boston failed to make my top five largely because of cost.
None of the bottom five trips are on the list solely because of cost, but a $300 hotel bill ruins the fun, doesn’t it?
COVID also did a number on several downtown areas. A few cities around the NHL were walloped by the nasty little bug and more restrictive shutdowns. As of last season, they had not yet returned to their optimal activity level.
And some places … just disagreed with me from the minute I arrived.
In fairness, I feel bad beating up cities as I have. In no city did I have a bad experience with people … except the rental car scam in Florida.
5 Worst Penguins Road Trips
Ugh. Poor Buffalo. A trolley car runs through the middle of town but doesn’t take you anywhere. The lengthy street that the downtown trolley traverses is mostly empty. Over the years, a few restaurants on the street have come and gone. Little sandwich shops, bistros, and coffee shops temporarily remove the plywood storefronts only to return them.
There are some lovely Bed and Breakfasts along Rt. 5 (parallel to I-90), which traces Lake Erie through wine country on the way to Buffalo, but that’s more of an Erie trip than a Buffalo trip. A few worthwhile spots are scattered about the city, but you must drive. It’s cold, windy, and the downtown remains more a survivor than a thriver.
Fortunately, it’s a short drive for Penguins fans. And there are a few spots with excellent wings.
4. New Jersey
It’s close enough to Pittsburgh, tickets are cheap (or were), and you’re a 20-minute train ride to Manhattan. But downtown Newark isn’t a place that offers visitors much in the way of amenities or nightlife.
Newark is working hard to rebuild, but the city spent 50 consecutive years on the most violent cities list. That’s tough to overcome in just a few years.
“Minnesota nice” is a thing. The people are lovely, and the St. Paul area surrounding the Minnesota Wild arena has fantastic architecture. My hotel (Celeste of St. Paul) was less than $100 per night and was a stunning 19th-century convent that was later turned into a religious fine arts academy. It had marble floors, a quaint little bar, and breakfast was served in the domed ceiling cafeteria with stone molding and arches. Easily my favorite hotel of the season.
However, St. Paul underwent a mass exodus during COVID. I asked the hotel owner where a few restaurants could be found, and all he could give was a resigned shrug. Perhaps in a few years, St. Paul will again be an awesome visit, but I walked around in the frigid Minnesota winter looking for dinner or a place to kill a few hours to forget about work and found almost nothing but emptiness.
I eventually found an acceptable sports bar, though it was nothing to brag about. I purchased my meals from a nearby gas station. But wow, that hotel was unique. And I melted into the bed. Given the lack of rivalry or importance of a Penguins vs. Wild game, visiting my little hotel isn’t enough to give Minnesota anything more than a bad grade.
From my favorite hotel to my least favorite. Seattle has such a great reputation, and I have numerous friends from Seattle who only recently moved to Pittsburgh. They warned me. They were certainly correct.
When I checked into the hotel near the airport, it had a sign above the front desk, “Absolutely no refunds after 15 minutes.”
I knew I was in trouble. The hotel was so bad that I didn’t worry about bed bugs. Not even they would stay there.
I took the monorail into the city and the nearly 45-minute walk from the station to the arena, right through the heart of downtown. I wanted to get a real sense of the city, but the vacancy was astonishing. Politics clouds the word choice, but the 2020 protests and riots in downtown Seattle, resulting in a five-block occupation, have greatly affected the city. It’s beautiful, but it’s also worse for wear.
After the game, I could not take the monorail back to the hotel because it stopped running before 11 p.m. I could not get an Uber. After some time and a lengthy wait, I got a nice Lyft driver who drove with both feet, indiscriminately slamming the brakes on an empty highway back to the hotel. My vomit comet was about $75, and it was the only time I’ve ever given one star and not tipped.
I didn’t dare unpack in the hotel. I went to the nearby Denny’s to work for a few hours and walked over to the airport, not brave enough to sleep in that bed. Inexplicably, the hotel was rated over a 6.0 on Hotels.com.
The Seattle Kraken intro was pretty cool, and the arena is well set up for fans (for the media … they’re still learning).
1. NY Islanders
There isn’t a more annoying or inconvenient trip in the league. There are no hotels near the arena, which is in the middle of nowhere. You have a few choices: expensive hotels in rough neighborhoods that are a $50-75 Uber ride to the barn or a long train ride from Laguardia or Queens. The train doesn’t run except on game days after 4 p.m., and the train stops running shortly after the game ends, so you’d better hustle out of the arena lest you want a hefty Uber bill (and to freeze while waiting for it).
Actually, I loved Flushing Meadows/Queens. It’s a city unto itself with multitudes of unique restaurants, but that doesn’t erase the absolute pain in the arse of getting to work for a morning skate and the game. Or getting to Newark for a 6 a.m. flight.
There are no restaurants or gathering spots near UBS Arena, and the walk to or from the parking lot can be a mile, which is oh-so-lovely on frigid winter nights. If you’re going to a Penguins-Islanders game, expect to drive, expect outrageous tolls, thick traffic at all hours, and confusing signs that have fooled several of my Uber drivers.
No trip here has ever gone smoothly or been without needless hassle, taking hours of my life.