There’s a certain mystique to attending a game at Lambeau Field. Whenever we use that word with a sports venue, it’s usually because there’s a lot of history behind it — and certainly Lambeau, which gave us the Ice Bowl and helped introduce the term “frozen tundra” into the American sports vernacular, would qualify as being historic.
But there’s something else that separates Lambeau from the Fenways and Wrigleys of the world, and that’s its location. You see, Green Bay, Wis., isn’t a town most people would have any other reason to visit if it weren’t for the Packers. It isn’t even a town you would just happen to pass through — if you were driving, say, from Chicago to Minneapolis, you’d still have to drive pretty far out of your way to go to Green Bay. So most visitors to Lambeau have gone through a fair amount of effort to plan their journeys, and that in itself makes the place rather special. You wouldn’t do that for most run-of-the-mill venues, right?
Besides, it’s fascinating in itself to see what makes Green Bay tick. You’ve heard of cities coming to a stop when their team is playing? Well, Green Bay really does stop everything when the Packers are playing. And when they’re at home, the day is really a celebration of football. To get a true sense of what we’re talking about, you’ll just have to see it for yourself, as Mrs. Fan and I did on a fall Sunday that wasn’t quite frozen tundra, but chilly enough to give us a nice, authentic feel for the atmosphere.
- The Approach
Despite the small-town impression given above, don’t mistake Green Bay for a little hamlet of a few hundred people — it is a city in every sense of the world. It is home to more than 100,000 people, and has a city center and lots of neighborhoods and a network of highways and a bus system just like a lot of cities. It is just a small town in terms of what you think would be capable of hosting a major sports franchise. In truth, the Packers are Wisconsin’s team, and so on game days folks are streaming into Green Bay from all over the state, and depending on where you are coming from you can run into walls of traffic on the approach into town.
Green Bay does have an airport — Austin Straubel Airport on the west side of town, about five miles from Lambeau — that services regional destinations such as Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit. But visitors will likely find it much more plausible logistically to drive in from a larger city (Milwaukee is your best bet, with Minneapolis and Chicago not far behind). That is what Mrs. Fan and I did, driving up from Chicago in the morning for a 3:25 p.m. game — leaving at about 9 a.m., we made it in just over three hours via Interstate 43 north.
Once you’ve made it into town, though, you’ve gotta figure out where to park, and there are quite a few options. The Lambeau lots themselves are reserved for season-ticket holders, so first, there are public lots — mostly the lots of shopping centers, hotels, gas stations and the like — that typically start around $20 and go up the closer you get to the stadium. Then there are private driveways and lawns, of which there are many to choose from even within a few blocks of the stadium and offer different privileges (tailgating, bathrooms, water). If you get there early enough, you can also park on neighborhood streets for free, but you have to pick the right neighborhoods and streets — a tall task if you’ve never spent any time in Green Bay.
For what it’s worth, I had stumbled upon a website a few years ago dedicated completely to the idea of parking for free when attending Packers games, and its big tip was to park on the side streets northeast of the stadium, ie. north of Lombardi Avenue and east of Oneida Street. But in the days before our visit, I tried searching for that site and couldn’t find it. So I decided not to follow their advice. (Update: Thanks to reader Dan, we found the site in question.)
Before starting our trip, we made a calculated decision to avoid all of that and instead took advantage of Green Bay Metro, which runs four free bus routes, all with delightfully corny names, to the stadium (and from it after the game) to different points around town. The challenge was finding a landmark that was served by one of those routes, had ample (and free) parking and would be fairly easy to get in and out of. We settled on the Oneida Casino and Bingo Hall in order to catch the Cheesehead bus, and turned out right on all counts. Easy in, easy out.
(Don’t be deterred by what might appear to be a long wait for the buses after the game, though. We stood in a pretty daunting line for a Cheesehead bus back to the casino, and some snarky fan said unnaturally loudly, “I’d hate to be waiting for a bus right now” as he walked past us. But 15 minutes later we were on a bus, and another 10 minutes later we were back in our car for a traffic-free exit from the casino parking lot. I’d LOVE to know where that fan was at the same moment we were climbing into our car — based on the traffic I saw, the only way he would have beaten us to his destination is if he had walked there.)
- The Build-Up
You really owe it to yourself to walk around and experience the scene outside the stadium before the game, because it really is unlike any other in the NFL. It’s made up mostly of tailgaters just like any football game anywhere else, yes, but it’s where they do it that sets Green Bay apart.
Remember, this is not some huge urban area that we’re talking about. There are houses as close to Lambeau as across the street, and these houses take advantage by hosting private tailgates, or opening their houses to guests for tailgating. If you’ve ever had a block party that involved grilling, drinking beer and playing football in the street, take that and multiply it by about 1,000 — nay, more like 10,000 — and you’ll have a sense of the scene around Lambeau. It may sound like a sappy exaggeration, but it is very much as ideal a celebration of American football as there is to experience. Nearly every house within a half-mile radius is its own tailgate destination, with some parties more elaborate than others, while the Lambeau parking lot is full of tricked-out vehicles, grills going at full blast and well-stocked beer coolers.
If you don’t have tailgating friends or don’t want to pony up money to attend a party, you can just walk around and soak up the atmosphere, as we did. Just along Lombardi Avenue, you can look at the stadium — the front of the Atrium, with statues of Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi nearby, seem like a natural gathering/meeting place for a lot of fans — and you can view the epic parties across the street, one of which had a huge replica Lombardi Trophy in the lawn. To each side of the stadium were parking lots full of vehicles that quite obviously started out life with different purposes but were transformed into impressive tailgate machines. I personally saw an ambulance, a delivery truck and a food truck. Just more proof that Green Bay knows how to tailgate.
- The Ambiance
If you enter the stadium through the Lambeau Field Atrium, you sort of expect to be greeted by the historic aura right away. But the Atrium was built as part of the early 2000s renovation and feels just as modern as you would expect, with loads of concession stands, a restaurant called Curly’s Pub, a team store that is a lot bigger than it looks from the outside, the team Hall of Fame and much, much more. Plus it’s sheltered and heated, a nice bonus on days like this particular one.
Really, the Atrium is the natural starting point for your exploration of Lambeau, particularly if you’ve arrived early and don’t mind standing in line, because lines form very quickly for entrance to both the team store and the Hall of Fame. We waited about 20 minutes to get into the team store, and once inside Mrs. Fan purchased a nice souvenir — a foam cheesehead. From there we went to the cluster of concession stands and sampled a few Wisconsin goodies — cheese curds, a bratwurst and waffle cheese fries — before donning our ponchos and heading out into the cold, rainy afternoon.
It was finally out in the seating bowl that we were hit with the historic vibe, but not as much as you might expect. The big reminder that it’s an old stadium is when you park your butt down on the cold metal bleacher seats. Otherwise, Lambeau’s many renovations have really spruced up the joint into something nice, particularly the most recent one before the 2013 season that added several decks of seating behind the south end zone.
There are large videoboards behind both end zones and a ring of suites surrounding three-fourths of the stadium. Sightlines are terrific, and we had no problem seeing the action from our seats 25 rows up, along one of the goal lines in section 111. The videoboards, plus two small scoreboards at the top of the stadium along the 50-yard line, make it easy to keep track of the score. Really, it felt like the ideal football viewing experience save for the metal bleachers — kind of like watching a high school game but with 80,000 people around.
Not that the play on the field was amateurish — far from it, especially from the Packers’ end. And that kept the fans around us in good spirits for pretty much the whole game, one the Packers controlled throughout. There were a few Browns fans in our section, one of which seemed resigned to his fate from the beginning and thus could take the ribbing from his Packers-fan friends in good humor. The rain picked up in the second half, as did the wind, and while I began to really regret forgetting to bring gloves at that point, the ponchos kept us well-protected. As if anything could dampen our experience anyway.