Indiana has been in the news a lot over the past few weeks, mostly for all the wrong reasons.
The spotlight should have been on the 2015 NCAA Final Four festivities in Indianapolis, but instead, it shone on the state legislature, which passed a so-called religious-freedom bill that could open the door to legalized discrimination against gays and lesbians. The reaction was swift. Celebrities such as George Takei called for boycotting businesses in the state. Wilco and other bands canceled performances. Cities across the country banned their employees from traveling to Indiana for official business. Luckily, the Hoosier statehouse came to its senses and passed a hastily assembled amendment that eased the minds of most of the law’s opponents.
Rest assured, Hoosiers typically are friendly and welcoming to everyone. If you have any misgivings about a particular business, just look for a light-blue, This business accepts everyone sticker on the door.
Despite the backwards actions of the state political leaders, Indianapolis is one of the most progressive cities in the entire Midwest. From the 162-acre solar farm bordering the Indianapolis International Airport to the electric car-sharing program slated to start this summer, the Circle City has an eye toward the future. The only problem you’ll have is trying to fit in all the fun things you want to do in Indianapolis in just one visit.
For a city that became famous from its eponymous auto race, Indianapolis is surprisingly easy to navigate by bicycle, thanks to more than 200 miles of bike lanes, trails and greenways. Didn’t pack your two-wheeler? Rent a bike from one of 25 Indiana Pacers Bikeshare stations.
Spend day one traveling the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, starting with the Mass Ave district. Grab a freshly pressed Hangover Cure (apple, celery, cabbage, ginger) or an Allergy Slayer (mango, banana, bee pollen, honey, and either almond or oat milk) ($7.25 for a 20 ounce drink) from Natural Born Juicers. Pick up a piece of handmade jewelry, a locally designed T-shirt or an inflatable unicorn horn for your cat at Silver in the City. You won’t find a more eclectic mix of items anywhere in the city. Need a souvenir for someone a little younger? Across the street, the showroom of Mass Ave Toys looks like the dream toy chest of a child circa 1959.
Architecture fans can take a tour of the Athenaeum, a historic building built in the 1890s by the grandfather of noted local author Kurt Vonnegut. Once the hub of German-American activity in Indianapolis until World War II, it now hosts a restaurant, cabaret-style theater and YMCA. If it’s late enough, grab a dunkel poured into a glass mug larger than your head and split a wurst plate sampler ($17, for 2-4 people) at the Kellerbar inside the Rathskellar.
Need more Vonnegut? Take a few moments to admire the massive mural painted on the side of the building at 345 Massachusetts Avenue. Then pedal over to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, where you can gaze upon the author’s typewriter, as well as prints of the book illustrations he drew. Members can borrow free-of-charge books written by Vonnegut or his contemporaries. Nearby, you’ll find the White River State Park, where many of the city’s cultural treasures can be found, including the Indiana State Museum, the NCAA Hall of Champions, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, as well as the Indianapolis Zoo (prices vary by attraction).
If there’s a game scheduled, swing by Victory Field, named the best minor league ballpark in the country by Baseball America. Grab a hot dog and a beer and cheer the hometown Indians from your $10 spot on the lawn.
Fountain Square retains the look and feel of its 1950s heyday, although in this version of Mayberry, Floyd the Barber does tattoos and Aunt Bea serves modern, inspired takes on Southern comfort food at Thunderbird. Order a craft beer ($6) or sazerac cocktail ($9), then dive into an order of drunken chicken gumbo ($11) or the greens and salmon-infused hush puppies ($8).
The neighborhood boasts two of the best concert venues in the city, the HiFi and Radio Radio, which recently hosted Grammy-winner Sturgill Simpson. Neither club holds more than 200 patrons, and there’s not a bad seat in either joint. Looking for something a little different? Check out a burlesque show or take part in a drunk spelling bee at the White Rabbit Cabaret.
Start with some hot breakfast diner fare at Charlie Brown’s, where you’ll rub shoulders alongside workers at the Allison Transmission plant, as well as engineers from the Dallara IndyCar Factory, located across the street. Drop by afterward to drive an IndyCar simulator and learn more about racecar design through interactive touchscreens ($10 for adults). If you didn’t get your fill of IndyCars at Dallara, you’ll find the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum ($8 for adults) just a few short blocks away. Wrap up the morning by taking a hot lap on the track in a special two-seater IndyCar. ($60 per ride)
Beware: Speedway is absolutely packed during the month of May, as well as the days surrounding major events like the Brickyard 400 and Red Bull Moto GP motorcycle race. If massive crowds aren’t your thing, steer clear.
Fort Benjamin Harrison was a major military base until the 1990s, when federal budget cuts forced its closure. The government eventually sold a heavily forested section of the property to the state of Indiana, which developed it into Fort Harrison State Park ($5 fee per carload for in-state visitors, $7 for cars with out-of-state plates). The park is an oasis inside Indianapolis, giving urbanites a place to commune with nature just 20 minutes away from downtown. If you didn’t bring a mountain bike, strap on your jogging shoes for a trail run. There’s no need for an iPod, as you’re serenaded by Eastern Bluebirds and Yellow-billed Cuckoos nesting in the walnut trees.
After getting your fill of nature, get your fill of beer. Triton Brewing Company is located a stone’s throw from the entrance of the state park and is a popular meeting place for mountain bikers and other outdoor lovers and athletes. The Deadeye Stout is the signature beer you must try. The microbrewery doesn’t have a kitchen, instead playing host to a rotating line-up of food trucks, such as Der Pretzel Wagon sandwich makers and Pi, which serves savory, wood-fired pizzas.
Broad Ripple has a reputation for being one of Indianapolis’ premier cultural districts, but you wouldn’t know it from the frat-like atmosphere of the bars lining Broad Ripple Avenue. You’re better off making your way several blocks down College Avenue to the affectionately nicknamed SoBro neighborhood.
SoBro has several tasty restaurants to choose from. For eaters on the cheap, Yat’s is a local landmark that spawned a host of spin-off restaurants. Cajun favorites like spinach and mushroom etouffe and jambalaya (both $6) are almost embarrassingly cheap, delicious and plentiful. If you prefer a more upscale take on traditional Latin American fare, Delicia offers flavorful duck enchiladas ($17), tamal corn cakes ($17) and Brazilian moqueca ($18).
Complete the Vonnegut trifecta with a drink at one of his favorite bars, the Red Key Tavern, but be on your best behavior. Late owner Russ Settle ran a tight ship, and the bar’s current management keep his rules alive in his honor—don’t curse or hang your jacket from a chair, lest you want your search for a new watering hole to begin immediately. The beer selection is a bit limited, however. That’s not the case at Twenty Tap, which has a rotating list of 38 craft beers from around the country.
Red Key Tavern
Photo: Flickr/Daimon Eklund
The Indianapolis International Airport (IND) is located 12 miles from downtown and serviced by most major airlines. IndyGo has bus service to the airport, and cabs are abundant outside the terminal.
Airbnb rentals start as little as $125 per night for a downtown studio apartment.
For $209 a night, stay at the Alexander Hotel, a luxurious 200-room boutique inn that serves as a supplemental gallery for the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.
After spending nearly a decade as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star, Robert Annis finally broke free of the shackles of gainful employment and now freelances full time, specializing in cycling and outdoor travel journalism.