The best part of going to Gillette Stadium for a Patriots game is . . . well, the Patriots. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and assorted supporting castmates have not just been winning Super Bowls for the last 18 years — the team has the National Football League’s best home winning percentage and best record overall since 2000. True, Gillette, which replaced the nondescript aluminum-and-concrete Foxboro (previously Sullivan, originally Schaefer) Stadium in 2002, isn’t itself a New England icon on a par with Fenway Park or the late, great Boston Garden. But it is home base to icons, by dint of hosting the franchise that has achieved the greatest stretch of prolonged excellence in NFL history.
To witness Brady and the Patriots play in person, just once, while they are still at the pinnacle, is the top bucket-list item for many fans. It’s also one that’s not necessarily easy to cross off. The Patriots have sold out every home game since the 1994 season, and the waiting list for season tickets is years long — even though the National Football League is an extraordinary television product and it’s generally much warmer on a living room couch in November than in the stadium seats.
As excellent as the Patriots have been, we go to the game to commune with like-minded (and like-jerseyed) individuals. To immerse ourselves in the irresistible pleasantness of walking around on a crisp autumn Sunday afternoon as the smell of grilling food wafts through the air. To experience the jolt of a big play coursing through one of the NFL’s loudest stadiums. It’s about the satisfaction of the senses.
To help shape this guide to game day at Gillette, I assembled an informal panel of more than 25 present and former Patriots season ticket holders. Win or lose (but probably win), here’s how to get the most from your visit.
THE LUCK OF THE DRAW
This is not an easy quest. The Patriots do cap their number of season tickets, allowing for limited sales of individual game tickets. But that sale usually happens in July, via Ticketmaster, and this year they sold out within half an hour. The Patriots have now sold out before the season began for 25 straight years, a streak of 273 consecutive games dating to the year Robert Kraft bought the team. Prices range from $89 to $375 depending on the stadium section and the team’s opponent.
Not a season ticket holder? Missed out on individual sales? You have two legal options to get tickets: Hit up a generous and kindhearted buddy who has them, or take the pricey plunge into the secondary market (scalpers are almost nonexistent, in part because state law forbids them from charging more than $2 above face value). Ticket resale site TickPick’s midseason pricing report in November 2017 listed the average Patriots ticket at $409.87. And it only gets more expensive for the playoffs: SeatGeek reported that the average price for the Patriots-Jaguars AFC Championship Game in January was $738. Tickets for night games in prime time, especially during the cold weather months, can be somewhat easier to come by.
WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART
The Patriots don’t share how long it typically takes for those on the waiting list to get the opportunity to buy season tickets, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is almost as long as Belichick and Brady have been together. Fan Jeff Kenney got his season tickets in May — after being on the list since April 2003. If your real goal is seeing Brady in action, it may seem pointless to join the waiting list, especially since a $100 deposit is required for each seat. But those on the waiting list get access to general ticket presales and playoff tickets before the general public. Wait listers used to get access to the Patriots Ticket Exchange, a service that let season ticket holders sell seats, but the Patriots cut the popular program this year.
NO BAD SEAT, FEW BAD APPLES
There’s no reason to be picky about seats at Gillette. Every seat has a sightline of midfield, and unlike, say, the notorious section 4 at Fenway, there is not an obstructed view or odd angle in the place. While it is a steep climb to the highest seats at the 300 level, where planes may appear to fly at eye level, from up there you can see everything unfold, from a receiver breaking open 40 yards downfield to the path a tackler takes to the ball carrier. Also, the atmosphere at Gillette is far more family friendly than it was in the 1970s and ’80s; Patriots fans were so notoriously unruly at night games that Monday Night Football refused to let the team host a game from 1982 until 1995. Night games can still be amateur hour when fans don’t pace their beverage consumption, but it’s nothing close to the bad old days.
HOW TO PREGAME
Tailgating can begin as soon as the gates open. But open fires are banned; all fires must be contained in a movable device. The Patriots do not permit outside catering or branded vehicles (Gronk excepted).
FEEDING TIME, PART 1
Attending a Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, or Revolution game is a joy in its own right. But what takes a Patriots game to another level is the camaraderie of tailgating — “a tailgate in a parking lot is a community,” says panelist Brian Flynn. “You forget something? Ask your neighbor and they’ll help you. Run out of beer, here, have a couple.”
For hours before the game, lots at the stadium and up and down Route 1 turn into veritable block parties. Pat Lane and his friends typically have two grills going, starting with kielbasa and moving to steak tips, chicken, ribs, and pork tenderloin. “We have only one very strict rule,” Lane says. “Anyone who tailgates with us must catch and throw the football at least one time.”
Travis Lazarczyk still remembers 2005’s season opener, a Thursday night game against Oakland. “Our lot was full of Raiders fans, the kind who put on makeup and shoulder pads. They couldn’t have been more fun to tailgate with,” he says. “I wish I had a smartphone back then, so I could have recorded them reciting ‘The Autumn Wind’ before they went into the stadium and watched their team get its [butt] kicked.”
FEEDING TIME, PART 2
If tailgating isn’t your scene, try Splitsville Luxury Lanes. That’s the new place for pregame and postgame programming by 98.5 The Sports Hub, the radio home of the Patriots. But be prepared for the same two-hour wait to see your favorite media personalities as you had at the CBS Scene Restaurant (renamed the CBS Sporting Club as of July). No reservations are accepted on game days.
Fortunately, Patriot Place has other options — 20, to be precise — that should satisfy any craving. Among them: Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, Skipjack’s, Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill (which still calls its french fries “freedom fries”), Bar Louie, and Five Guys Burgers. Reservations are recommended for game day at many of these establishments.
GO HERE FOR GEAR
Presuming there is still a stray Patriots fan who wants a Tom Brady jersey but hasn’t yet acquired one as Brady enters his 19th season, sure, it’s for sale inside the stadium. But better to shop the massive selection at the Patriots ProShop at Patriot Place. Jersey prices vary based on how close they are to what Brady wears on Sundays, with the Nike Elite version going for $324.99. There’s always the cheaper ex-Patriots jerseys on the store’s discount rack. Though once again, Malcolm Butler’s No. 21 is not available.
PLACE OF HONOR
There are some spectacular exhibits at The Hall at Patriot Place celebrating the championship seasons — we recommend the “Anatomy of a Comeback” area that breaks down how the Patriots erased a 28-3 deficit against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI — but do not miss the various tributes to Patriots past. Hall of Famers Mike Haynes, Andre Tippett, and John Hannah and should-be Hall of Famer Gino Cappelletti are all paid proper homage. Sometimes closed on game days for private events. ($10 adults, $7 seniors, $5 children 5-12, free under age 5 and for active military and veterans with ID.)
MAKING THE TRIP
IF YOU’RE DRIVING
Leave early. While traffic has improved over the years, “[it] still stinks,” says panelist Mike Murphy.
WHERE TO PARK AT GILLETTE
Of the dozen-plus lots at Gillette not reserved for luxury box and sponsor parking, aim to get into Lot 3, off the P2 entrance, the closest general lot to the stadium. It’s a (relatively) quick shot to Interstate 95 after the game. Across Route 1 from the stadium, use the P10 North entrance for Lot 51, closest to the pedestrian crossing and most convenient for those coming from I-95. The P10 North and South entrances also lead to Lot 52, reserved for the oversized vehicle crowd, where you’re liable to see Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s infamous party bus. They’re typically the last lots to clear out, a big draw for postgame tailgaters. Avoid the lots off entrances P4 and P6 — those are Patriot Place retail lots. If you park there and head into the game, don’t expect your car to be waiting for you when it’s over.
You pay on arrival, $40 for a car and $150 for buses, limos, and RVs (cash or credit accepted). At least one person in the vehicle needs a valid game ticket. Lots open four hours prior to kickoff and close two hours after the game ends. Handicapped-accessible parking is near entrances P1 and P2 from the north, and P7 from the south.
Several independent lots line Route 1, with prices increasing as you get closer to the stadium. Expect to pay $40 to $60, in cash. No game tickets are required, so you could go for the tailgating and make your dreams of a game-long party come true. The lot at Route One Wine and Spirits, about half a mile from the stadium on Route 1 South, is closest. Foxboro Terminals on the north side is a quick walk through the woods and along the railroad tracks for easy entrance and exit.
BEST EXIT STRATEGY
Postgame traffic is notoriously horrible. Several fans say the speediest way to get home is to avoid Route 1 North altogether — even if you live to the north, taking Route 1 South (to I-495 South and then Route 24 North) is a faster option.
SLEEP ON IT
One way to beat the miserable traffic is to stay overnight. There are two hotels inside Patriot Place: Renaissance Boston Patriot Place Hotel (typical price range $189 to $641) and the newer Hilton Garden Inn Foxborough Patriot Place ($175 to $459), which opened in 2016. Both can be extremely pricey on game days; I’ve heard of rates more than double the upper end of those ranges. Several hotels on Route 1 are within walking distance of the stadium. One recommended multiple times by our panel of fans is the Americas Best Value Inn, about a 20-minute walk from the stadium.
BEST ALTERNATE MODE OF TRANSIT
“The train is crowded and painfully slow but it still beats the lines in and out of the parking lots,” says panel member Steve Puzas. The MBTA offers commuter rail service from South Station in Boston ($20 round trip) and TF Green Airport in Warwick, Rhode Island ($15 round trip). Tickets can be purchased in advance via the MBTA mTicket app. Both trains get there at least an hour before kick-off. The return train in either direction departs 30 minutes after the whistle. There is an Uber pickup location in Lot 15, near Bass Pro Shops at Patriot Place. Taxi pickup is at Lot 23.
TO THE GATES
NO BACKPACKS, PLEASE
Start heading in about an hour before kickoff. Security lines can be long, as first-timers and the forgetful encounter NFL bans on items such as selfie sticks, umbrellas, strollers, video cameras, and alcoholic beverages. Backpacks are banned, and your handbag, wristlet, or wallet must be compact (8 by 5 by 2 inches or smaller). If you don’t want to return to your car, bring (or buy in Patriot Place at the ProShop or the Christmas Tree Shop) these specific clear containers:
■ One-gallon (11-by-11-inch) freezer bags
■ Vinyl or PVC bags that do not exceed 12 by 12 by 6 inches
For fans with disabilities, there are six accessible elevator locations in the stadium on Patriots game days. Gillette Stadium provides wheelchair and companion seating with enhanced sightlines on every level.
STILL HUNGRY? SERIOUSLY?
According to Gillette Stadium, fans consume more than 1 ton of Italian sausages and 186 gallons of clam chowder on game day. Yep, sounds about right. Other than Papa Gino’s pizza, a favorite, the food and beer options inside Gillette draw lukewarm reviews from our panel, and no one likes a lukewarm beer or snack, right? For the most part it is standard, and pricey, stadium concessions fare, and there’s pretty much always a line. Gillette has updated its craft beer options in recent seasons, adding choices such as IPAs from Harpoon and Shipyard.
AT FIRST SIGHT
It may not inspire the cliched poetry that the green, green grass of Fenway Park does, but Gillette Stadium offers a lovely view of the field’s coastal-themed surroundings from virtually any vantage point, including the open-air concourses. Behind the north end zone, the stadium’s signature lighthouse — meant to be a beacon akin to the Citgo sign — rises 10 stories above the playing field. High above the south end zone hang the Patriots’ five Super Bowl championship banners, which had to be moved from lower pillars when the team won its fifth. Call it a problem only another dynasty could understand.
THE PLACES TO BE
Near midfield on the 200 level has sight lines similar to what you’d get on television and offers spectacular views of a long touchdown pass — think Brady to Randy Moss, circa 2007. The best spot to view a Patriots TD is from an end-zone front row, not least because the player who scores might come celebrate with you, or even hand over the football as a souvenir. There’s no zone for costumed superfans, and no natural spot for autographs. But the Patriots take the field from the south end zone in Sections 115 to 117. At the other end of the field, the End Zone Militia fire their muskets after scores. The DraftKings Fantasy Sports Zone and Bud Light Party Deck on the main concourse and the Union Point patio on the upper concourse have enhanced the social experience.
YOU DON’T GET THIS AT HOME
Sure, it’s expensive, and getting in and out can be a chore. There’s no doubt that it’s more convenient (and warmer) to watch from the couch. But living room viewing means you don’t hear the crowd roar in unison to Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” as Tom Brady takes the field to his long-standing entrance music. You don’t watch the kickers calibrating their range in pregame warm-ups, sometimes booting field goals from beyond midfield. You don’t see cult hero and radio color analyst Scott Zolak lean out of the booth to join the crowd in Gillette’s version of “Sweet Caroline,” a second-half sing-along of The Outfield’s “Your Love.” (It seems random, but Zo loves the song.) You don’t get the full aesthetics of the militia firing their muskets after a Patriots touchdown, or to throw snow in the air in delight with the other 66,828 fans in attendance when the Patriots score on a wintry day, or to smile in acknowledgment of another fan’s outdated jersey (retired linebacker Tedy Bruschi’s No. 54 remains popular attire). And of course, you aren’t on the scene of the plays that will form new Patriot lore. It’s a visceral experience, and usually a victorious one. Do it right, and you’ll never forget it.
Chad Finn is a Boston Globe sports media columnist. Send comments to email@example.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.