Local girl Ashly Myers introduces her hometown of Indianapolis, from the legendary Indy 500 racetrack and sporting stadiums, to the Boho bars, jazz clubs and Burlesque cabarets…
Indianapolis is a thriving, rapidly-evolving city, full of quirky character, relaxed self-confidence and a can-do spirit. The capital of the state of Indiana, “Indy” is in fact the 12th-largest city in the United States, with 830,000 residents, but it’s young enough to still be finding its identity, and small enough to still offer an engaging hometown feel, whether you’re a resident or passing through. Nicknamed the “Circle City” and “Crossroads of America”, Indianapolis maximises its central location – and famed “Hoosier Hospitality” – to rank as one of the US’s major meeting points, constantly welcoming visitors from around the world for sporting events, conventions, exhibitions and fairs.
Most notably, Indy is home to the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, the largest single-day sporting event in the world, although the city also regularly hosts events like the Pan-American Games, the World Gymnastics Championships, NCAA Final Four and the Super Bowl.
Extremely easy to navigate because of the compact city centre and basic grid design, Indianapolis is equally friendly for walkers, bikers and drivers, and you won’t need much more than a good map (and this guide!) to explore. In good weather, the Cultural and Monon Trails connect pedestrians between downtown and the Northside suburbs, such as Broad Ripple Village (see more below). From its growing grassroots, slow-food culture to its established, high-speed entertainment, Indy has got something for all, no matter at what pace you want to travel.
Best of the Beaten Track
A trip to Indianapolis is not complete without a pilgrimage to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a landmark important for its historical significance both to the entire automobile industry and to the development of Indianapolis as a thriving city. Spend some time admiring the world-class collection of vintage and contemporary race cars at the IMS Hall of Fame Museum before taking a bus tour of the grounds, including a lap around the famous two-and-a-half mile oval racecourse.
For a little history, admire the numerous war memorials throughout the city or tour the homes of poet James Whitcomb Riley and former President of the United States Benjamin Harrison. Take a stroll or a paddle-boat ride along the Canal Walk. On a rainy day, wander the sprawling Circle Centre Mall and adjacent Colts (American football), Pacers (basketball), Indians (baseball), and Ice (ice hockey). Soccer fans should make a detour to one of Mass Ave‘s football-friendly pubs.
In the summer, attend a concert under the stars on the Lawn at White River. Visit the City Market for a quick bite or to sample farm-fresh meat and produce from around the state. Make faces at the monkeys with a trip to the Indianapolis Zoo. Or just relax with a beverage and live jazz at the state’s oldest bar, the Slippery Noodle.
For the alternative crowd Indianapolis offers plenty of off-beat, low-profile entertainment. Art lovers will want to peruse the collections at IDADA First Friday, a local art showcase held the first Friday of every month in downtown Indianapolis. The self-guided art appreciation tour often coincides with First Friday Food Truck Festival, a convenient way to sample several mobile food offerings while indulging your artistic side.
If you enjoy live music performed by emerging, independent artists, be sure to see a show at Radio Radio in Fountain Square, known for its excellent acoustics and intimate atmosphere. And should the live performances inspire you to expand your personal music collection, check out LUNA Music, an eclectic record wonderland.
Six miles north of the downtown Indianapolis area, Broad Ripple Village is a separate community from Indy proper, with a young, vibrant demographic. To quench your thirst for booze or pool playing, the Alley Cat is a hidden, dive-bar winner. Feel like shopping? Broad Ripple touts a wide variety of quirky, boutique stores perfect for window browsing or a full-on spree. And if you’re in the mood for the fun and funky, the Jazz Kitchen serves up dinner and a show all in one, convenient stop.
Experience & Events
Thrill-seekers can satisfy their need for speed with personal driving instruction or an IndyCar two-seater ride around the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. History buffs might enjoy a day at Conner Prairie, the outdoor, interactive history museum that recreates American pioneer settlement life. If the weather inhibits outdoor activities, visitors can relax at an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performance, marvel at the latest IMAX theater offering, or get lost in the extensive collections at the Eiteljorg Museum and Indianapolis Museum of Art. Travellers with children in tow should make a point to visit the hands-on exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the world’s largest attraction of its kind.
Springtime visitors can experience the pageantry of the 500 Festival throughout the entire month of May. Activities include the Mini-Marathon, Community Day, Kids’ Day, and a giant parade celebrating the Indy 500. Summertime showcases the state’s culinary delights at the Indiana State Fair (don’t miss the pork tenderloin sandwich, a homegrown favorite), the Indiana Microbrewers’ Festival and Dig-IN. Summer also brings to Indianapolis the annual Gen Con gaming convention, the longest-running gaming gathering in the world. In the fall, a short drive south of Indianapolis will take you to Brown County State Park, a popular destination for hikers, bikers and campers seeking the exquisite scenery of the forest’s colourful foliage. Wintertime guests can explore the Garfield Park Conservatory & Sunken Garden, celebrate the lighting of the “world’s tallest Christmas tree” and enjoy the extensive holiday light display at Christmas at the Zoo.
A city that regularly welcomes extraordinary numbers of out-of-towners for special events, unsurprisingly Indianapolis has a wide range of lodging options. For convenience-conscious travellers, Marriott Place offers three hotels in one complex, encompassing a variety of amenities and price ranges. If you are looking to splurge on luxurious digs, the sparkling-new JW Marriott neighbours Marriott Place and offers the hippest, swankiest stay in town, at a steeper price. For those who prefer classic glamour and superior services, the Canterbury Hotel and Omni Severin are top picks. And if you are seeking a subtler, more charming stay, Nestle Inn and Fountainview Inn cater to guests who enjoy a more homely, personal experience.
Until recently, Indianapolis held a reputation for being an undesirable place to eat. However, the last ten years have seen an explosion of quality dining and drinking options. Restaurateurs are drawing on Indiana’s rich farming history and focusing on high-quality food made from fresh, local ingredients. R Bistro embraces the “eat local” concept, offering dishes rotated weekly to accommodate seasonal ingredients. Perhaps you’re craving a steak, some local history, and a possible celebrity sighting? Make a reservation at St. Elmo Steak House, and be sure to start with the infamous shrimp cocktail, both feared and revered for its sinus-clearing qualities. If you’re up for a gastronomic adventure, try Recess, where the chef chooses the menu for you. Or venture to MacNiven’s, where you can indulge in authentic Scottish haggis. Maxine’s Chicken & Waffles is an Indianapolis institution, serving up classic American comfort food with friendly service. A consistent winner, Black Market is the go-to gastropub for an exciting meal paired with a rare or unique beverage. If you dine there, don’t miss the daily pickle plate, and if you can’t decide what to order, go with the burger. Indianapolis also has a burgeoning microbrewery culture, with Sun King Brewing, Brugge Brasserie, and Upland Brewing leading the way. And finally, folks on a budget should visit one of the numerous local food trucks, serving daily throughout the city.
Being a Midwestern melting pot of sorts, Indianapolis offers a diverse, engaging nightlife scene. In the immediate downtown area, The Libertine Liquor Bar and The Ball & Biscuit transport you back to the Prohibition Era with upscale, throwback cocktail selections, friendly, bowtie-sporting bartenders and delicious, local snacks. If you want to dance and mingle BLU Nightclub is arguably the hottest spot. For a martini nightcap and a cigar, finish your night at Nicky Blaine’s or Olives. A few blocks south of downtown Indy, Fountain Square takes a slightly off-centre approach to nightlife with duckpin bowling in the Fountain Square Theater Building. Or spend an evening at White Rabbit Cabaret, which showcases the Burlesque Bingo Bango Show approximately every other Wednesday (tip: don’t bring the kids to this one). Friday nights at Talbott Street offer rowdy fun of the drag queen variety. If you are more the beer-drinking, barstool-sitting type, you will find the best in local brews (and some tasty food) at Twenty Tap and Broad Ripple Brew Pub.
With $4 million in original, local artwork adorning the terminals, Indianapolis International Airport is virtually an attraction unto itself (and is the only airport campus ever to receive full Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification). The airport services all major U.S. airlines and Air Canada and is accessible from overseas by way of connections in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a few other international hubs. If you are visiting Indy from within driving distance, the city is easily accessed via Amtrak, Greyhound, Megabus, and/or interstate auto travel from all major surrounding cities, including Chicago, Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis.
There are several “official” websites that contain a ton of additional information about how to optimize your visit to Indianapolis, including Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, Indianapolis Monthly magazine, and Indianapolis Downtown, Inc.. For off-beat offerings Nuvo and the sites for the Broad Ripple Village and Fountain Square neighborhoods contain ample news and notes. And if you’re still not sure what to eat or drink while in town, the Hoosier Beer Geek and Indianapolis Restaurant Scene blogs serve as excellent guides. Lonely Planet also has a nice article about alternative attractions.
For a deeper understanding of Indianapolis’ history, resilience, and Midwestern charm, The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington is a good choice. If you enjoy poetry, pick up “Little Orphant Annie” by Hoosier children’s poet James Whitcomb Riley, after whom the nationally-ranked children’s hospital located in Indianapolis is named. An Indianapolis native like Tarkington and Riley, Kurt Vonnegut provides a more contemporary voice in Slaughterhouse-Five. Finally, if non-fiction is your preferred style, take the time to read Donald Davidson’s Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500, co-authored by Rick Schaffer, which details the origin and impact of said race.
In order to fully comprehend Indiana’s scrappy, charming spirit and its unwavering love affair with basketball, Hoosiers is a must-see flick. Meanwhile score points with the locals by mentioning your love of Steve McQueen. The star of cult classics The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt originally hails from Indianapolis.