Quick: which sport do the most Americans play? If you guessed football or baseball, guess again. It’s bowling. More than 70 million Americans bowled last year, according to the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America.
“People of all ages can do it, from three to 103,” says Bart Burger of the BPAA. “It’s the only activity in which nobody rides the bench—everybody gets to play.”
Bowling has become trendy, thanks in part to pioneering chains like Bowlmor Lanes, Lucky Strike, and Splitsville that have kept the nostalgia alive by combining retro-chic details with hip music, flashy lights, and gourmet food and cocktails. As a result, not all customers come to bowl—some gather with friends for drinks or dinner and end up trying it out. (Splitsville calls its mission: “Permission to have fun.”)
Plenty of indie bowling alleys offer a similar winning combination, from The Alley in Charleston, SC—with bluegrass music and a 40-foot bar of recycled bowling lane wood—to Brooklyn Bowl, with local brews, 16 lanes, and live performances by the likes of Kanye West and Guns N’ Roses.
Even hotels are getting into the act. North Carolina’s Great Wolf Lodge makes bowling kid-friendly at the six-lane Ten Paw Alley. No rental shoes are required (socks or flip-flops will do fine), and balls are small enough even for two-year-olds.
There are 5,000 bowling centers across America, from old-school alleys where the pins are reset by an actual pinsetter to flashy multi-use entertainment centers with expanded game rooms. Even the White House has a basement bowling alley (though your handicap doesn’t matter: you get in only if you know a staffer). Here are some of the coolest.