WHY GO: When Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote, “Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won,” he just may have been spinning lyrics about his own hometown, Springfield MA. You can score points at the National Basketball Hall of Fame, see the “Organ of Muskets” at America’s first National Armory built just after the Revolutionary War, and discover other Springfield innovations at the Springfield Museums. Slightly dodgy, but with a downtown unexpectedly tidy and tended to, Springfield might not leap to mind as a great overnight getaway, but we’re asking you to give it a chance. Visit the Basketball Hall of Fame then stay for remarkable history, great homemade Bratwurst, authentic Louisiana fare and the best barbeque this side of the Mason Dixon line.
Things to Do in Springfield MA
VISIT: Basketball Hall of Fame. Basketball has come a long way since Dr. James Naismith invented the game at Springfield College in 1891. You’ll find everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the sport and the people who play it at the Basketball Hall of Fame. With an eye-catching design that attracts motorists from speedy Interstate 91, the slick planetarium-looking structure draws Michael Jordan wannabes and driveway slam-dunkers alike. In the expansive lobby, visitors stand in athlete’s footprints while watching videos of season highlights. And the regulation-size Center Court hosts clinics, shooting competitions and skill challenges. Try to palm a basketball, compare your “wingspan” with that of Kevin Durant’s impressive 7’5”, watch AM Sports Radio 1450 announcers and interviewees through the lobby window, and pay tribute to your favorite players in the “World’s Premier Basketball Museum.” $20 adults, $14 kids. Daily 10-4.
VISIT: The four Springfield Museums. I was originally going to shove all four Springfield Museums into one paragraph, but then I visited them and realized that lumping them all together takes away from the individual quirkiness of each. Begin in the happy, Dr. Seuss-ified Visitor’s Center and purchase tickets to all four museums and the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden. $15 adults, $8 kids, Tues – Sat. 10-5, Sun. 11-5.
Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden. Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel grew up in Springfield MA and much of what he did and saw here ended up in his illustrations and writings. His father was a brewer who was forced to find a new career after Prohibition, bought a zoo, and allowed little Ted a run of the place. It’s no surprise, then, that Dr. Seuss’s fantastical creatures stem from this time in his life. Plan a photo op with Geisel or The Cat in the Hat or Horton or any of the several dozen Seuss characters planted in this wonderful sculpture garden.
Science Museum. It’s got your stuffed animals (and not the plush, bedtime kind if you know what I’m saying), including an orphaned polar bear named Snowball, who lived at the Springfield Zoo for 29 years before standing, in perpetuity, at the entrance to the museum. Stop into the gift shop and look over the door to find what might be – at 26 feet – the biggest taxidermied Python on record. In the world. There are plenty of live critters here as well, and if you’ve got a few minutes, it’s worth a peak.
George Walter Vincent Smith Museum. Opened in 1895, in an era when wealthy eccentrics built public institutions to showcase their eccentric collections (in this case, Asian art, arms and armor including the largest assembly of cloisonné outside of China), the building itself is architecturally significant. Built in the style of an Italianate Villa, the stained glass windows are all original Tiffany, casting a dim golden glow in the magnificent foyer.
D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts. Situated in a 1930’s Art Deco building, the Museum has assembled the usual suspects – Remington, O’Keefe, Winslow Homer, European artists, etc. – and the country’s only permanent gallery dedicated to art created to grace the homes of the middle class, the lithographs of Currier and Ives.
Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History. Opened in 2009, this is the newest of the Springfield Museums and the one you’ll want to devote the most time to, especially if you are connoisseur of vintage motorcycles, Smith and Wesson pistols or candy-colored Rolls Royces. In the former New England Telephone and Telegraph building, you’ll find artifacts from all the companies once (and still) headquartered here, including the largest collection of Indian Motorcycles in the world. Based in Springfield, Indian manufactured the most commercially successful bike in the world, reaching its pinnacle with the iconic 1928 Scout.
You’ll also find a gorgeous green 1928 Rolls Royce, built during the 10 years (1919-1929) that the English automaker moved production to Springfield, MA. The Museum also houses the largest collection of revolvers and pistols (1,500), from Springfield’s still operating Smith and Wesson Company, including four engraved by Tiffany, and the Model #1 dated 1858. The game of Basketball, Milton Bradley’s Checkered Game of Life, Friendly’s Ice Cream, and Breck Shampoo also got their start in this western MA river city, which once again is attempting to reinvent itself while honoring its past.
TOUR: The Springfield Armory. In 1843, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow compared the double-musket racks at the Springfield Armory to an “Organ of Muskets” in his poetic lamentation of gun use:“when the death-angel touches those swift keys.” Commissioned by President George Washington in 1777, America’s first Federal Arsenal “carried out manufacturing, storage, repair, testing and development of arms for the US Army” until 1968. During its heyday – World War II – 15,500 workers (42% women!) churned out hundreds of thousand of M1 Rifles per year.
Now a National Historic Site housing the world’s largest collection of American military guns, the Armory does not glorify gun culture, but deftly informs visitors about the technological innovations gleaned from weapons production over the years and the fact that “Springfield citizens worked diligently to provide our military with the best infantry weapons necessary to safeguard the nation.” Featuring machinery and exhibits about gun-making (look for enlarged photos of women missing fingers – a common industrial pitfall pre-OSHA), ballistic tests, evolution of firearms, rare models,”mishaps,” an array of gatling guns, and one remaining “Organ of Muskets,” that is arguably the most photographed exhibit here, the Armory presents a sobering overview of what our soldiers use in battle.
Best Places to Eat in Springfield MA
EAT: Student Prince and Fort. A local landmark, this doubly named restaurant has been dishing out schnitzel and other excellent German chow since 1935. Crammed with 2,000 beer steins and an impressive collection of corkscrews in several bar and dining areas, SP&F was listed among “Twenty Legendary Restaurants in the USA” by Gourmet Magazine. Still family-owned, still making their own delectable Bratwurst ($11.95), and still mixing “Salad with Roquefort” ($6) tableside, this warm and welcoming restaurant keeps traditions alive while inventing new ones. Of course, German beer is the signature beverage, but if you’re looking for a sweet alternative, ask for the “Ice Cream Drink,” ($8.95), a mixture of Grand Marnier, Galliano, and other liqueurs.
EAT: Theodore’s Blues, Brews and BBQ. After a recent change of chef, the preposterously good southern BBQ should take first billing, rather than third. Yes, Theodore’s was once named the Best Blues Club in the country by the esteemed Blues Foundation, and wonderful murals of blues musicians cover the walls, but you cannot leave Springfield without trying Theo’s Short Ribs (“the bacon of beef”), St. Lewis Ribs ($13.95 for half rack), or Pulled Pork with delectable homemade Carolina Mustard in this purportedly haunted old printing factory. Apparently, Ghosthunters taped a convincing episode in this very place.
EAT: Chef Wayne’s Big Mamou. Located in a space you’d likely pass by (or actively avoid), it would be a shame if you did. Anyone who appreciates Big Easy seasonings will find some of the best Cajun food in the country in this unassuming open-kitchen café wedged between a parking lot and a furniture discount store on a wide, busy road. My personal favorite is the “Chicken Mississippi” ($8.95) – a stew of cubed chicken, al dente onions and spinach in lip-smacking broth. So good, you’ll ask for more cornbread to sop it up.
Where to Stay in Springfield MA
STAY: Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place. Rooms in this centrally located corporate favorite have been newly updated with sinkable-bedding, granite counter sink and flat screen TVs. The Marriott Springfield downtown is a decent alternative.