By Kate Donnelly
July 22, 2019
Courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

What people already know about Indianapolis is its down-to-earth sensibility and Midwest charm, a fabled sports town high on heartland hospitality and cultural ambitions. Conjuring a few days in this friendly city is a joy, thanks to a creative culinary class and elevated cocktail scene, alongside robust contemporary art and a plethora of outdoor activities from verdant parks and gardens to winding biking trails. Below, seven ways to experience Indiana’s capital city.

For the Foodie

Courtesy of Bluebeard

Don’t let being landlocked make you cynical about seafood. The most surprising meal resides at the hip sushi and ramen shrine, Ukiyi. The best seat is at the timber-clad bar where chef Neal Brown carefully curates an elegant and minimalist omakase, known to include a progressive tuna loin tasting laid bare on earthy VanHoy ceramics (and quickly silencing the most skeptic Midwest sushi critic).

Come morning, the quirky Love Handle doles out hearty breakfast staples a la biscuits and gravy while the popular Milktooth showcases chef Jonathan Brooks' elevated brunch — Dutch baby pancakes, fried Korean chicken and roasted mushroom salad with arugula and chickpeas. Last year, Brooks’ opened a more gussied-up eatery called Beholder, whose eclectic spread might include local radish crudité with yeasted butter and marigold honey, a Moroccan-spiced burger and simple, decadent cassarecce cacio e pepe made with housemade ricotta.

Elsewhere, the crowd-pleasing, farm-to-table Bluebeard (nodding to native author Kurt Vonnegut’s 1987 novel) creates seasonal salads and sandwiches on in-house baked Amelia’s bread. For something quick, City Market (est. 1886) lets you nosh on sweet and savory French-style crepes from 3 Days in Paris while Three Carrots includes vegan options like shredded seitan wraps. For more farm bounty and health-minded fare, the rustic-airy Garden Table offers veggie boards, salads, bowls and juices.

For the Cocktail and Beer Connoisseur

Courtesy of The Inferno Room

For some polished swagger, the dimly-lit Bar One Fourteen has your champagne needs covered; they also whip up bespoke cocktails and small bites — the hungry can opt for the ‘Fancy AF’ Burger topped with shaved black truffles. Meanwhile the music, both assorted vinyl and reel-to-reel compilations, is compliments of local musician Vess Ruhtenberg. And, while no visit is complete without scoring a table at the venerable St. Elmo Steak House, just upstairs, the brick-exposed 1933 Lounge slings dirty martinis and single malts alongside sinus-clearing orders of the kitchen’s famed, horseradish-drenched jumbo shrimp cocktail.

On Delaware Street, mix farmhouse beers, fruited sours and IPAs at Central State Brewing Co; or head to New Day Craft for ciders and fermented mead. In Fountain Square, the red-hued, Polynesian-flared venue, Inferno Room whips up tropical-island concoctions such as classic mai tais and banana daiquiris. Nearby, the veteran bar Thunderbird, known for its live music, is also home to potent drinks and a late-night kitchen dispensing pimento cheese dip and fried chicken. There’s also a beer and shot combo (we’re fond of the Urban Chestnut Lager with a shot of tequila). For late-night entertainment, the quirky White Rabbit has cabaret and in-house burlesque.

For the Art Aficionado

Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923–1997), Five Brushstrokes, designed 1983–1984, fabricated 2012, painted aluminum, various dimensions. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Robert L. and Marjorie J. Mann Fund, Partial Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, 2013.443A-E.4 © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation

For visual diversions, The Indianapolis Museum of Art features an expansive selection of Asian and African collections as well as American impressionist paintings and contemporary pieces. Outside, don’t miss the “Love” sculpture by Robert Indiana and a ravine garden designed by the Olmsted Brothers firm. Later, stroll the nature-filled, 100-acre park, anchored by untamed meadows and woodlands and a lake; you’ll also find rotating sculptures. For families, The Children’s Museum, flanked by a five-story T-Rex, houses one of the largest fossil collections alongside a primer on historical figures from civil rights activist Ruby Bridges and Holocaust diarist Anne Frank. There’s also a climbing wall, a 43-foot tall Dale Chihuly sculpture and antique carousel. Later, stroll around Fountain Square for a series of wall murals, one of which includes author Kurt Vonnegut.

For the Outdoorsy Type

Getty Images

A few years back, the city unveiled a robust recreational bicycle program with an eight-mile “Cultural Trail” connecting various neighborhoods to its urban core — also ideal for a jog or stroll. Just south of downtown, Garfield Park hosts both a tropical rainforest conservatory and sunken garden, both designed by highly-touted German landscape architect George Kessler. Meanwhile, the expansive 18-mile Monon Trail lets you stretch your legs, hopping off at lively, fuel-up spots like Provider Coffee HouseCannonball Brewery and Locally Grown Gardens (doubling as a chic market for seasonal produce and homemade sugar cream pie). And in Broad Ripple, Public Greens, owned by the industrious Martha Hoover, whose Patachou Foundation helps nourish food insecure children, offers a chic patio for healthy mains (wild rice bowls) and hearty sides (scallion fritters).

For the Shopper

Courtesy of Penn & Beech Candle Co.

The chic general store Onatah hawks scents from Maison Louis Marie alongside leafy potted plants, Baggu totes, ceramics, note cards and natural beauty products, while 8 Fifteen lets you browse strappy sandals, cozy sweatpants and airy sundresses. For furniture and home inspiration, visit the airy-industrial boutique and design firm Haus Love. For earth-minded gifts, the local nonprofit People for Urban Progress (PUP) sells upcycled backpacks and totes using Amtrak seat covers and cushions. For used books benefitting adult literacy, the discerning Indy Reads Books staff will help you find eclectic titles or recommend in-store author events with writers like local author John Green who penned "The Fault In Our Stars". Alternatively, create your own custom-scented soy wax candles (while sipping on a glass of bubbles, of course) at Penn and Beech.

For the Day Tripper

Christian Horan/Courtesy of Graduate Bloomington

About an hour southwest of town, the charming college town of Bloomington, IN. makes for a scenic escape. In the morning, grab your coffee and Southern-style shrimp and grits at the airy, down-home Sweet Grass. When the great outdoors beckons, explore the rolling hills and trails of Hoosier National Forest or enlist in kayaking, fishing and boat rentals at Monroe Lake. Later, for drinks, drop by the Wood Shop tasting room for Upland Brewing’s sour ales. This fall, the long-awaited renovation of the pie-shaped, I.M. Pei-designed Eskenazi Museum of Art will unveil 45,000 works of art (including Islamic and Asian collections) alongside a new café. Come night, rest your head at the Graduate Hotel on Kirkwood, whose 150 light-filled rooms smack of campus-cool vibes alongside a roof deck with sun loungers.

For the Sports Enthusiast

Courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Part of Hoosier pride stems from its robust sporting roster. The city hosts NFL football team The Colts, as well as NBA team The Pacers. It’s also home to the legendary, 2.5-mile round Indianapolis 500 Motor Speedway, where each Memorial Day weekend, an elite international pool of drivers gathers for what’s billed as the “greatest” spectacle in auto racing. Miss the big day? Inside the track’s infield, golfers can tee off from four holes while automotive buffs can check out the collection of vintage cars at the Hall of Fame Museum. For a taste of Indiana high school basketball lore, visit the no-frills Plump’s Last Shot and order a cold domestic pint and pork tenderloin sandwich.

Courtesy of Conrad Indianapolis

Where to Stay in Indianapolis

Next summer, the first West Elm-branded hotel opens its doors inside an old art deco Coca-Cola bottling plant. For now, drop your bags at the Conrad Indianapolis, which has classically-appointed rooms alongside a floor of art-themed suites nodding to modernism, pop art and surrealism. Weary travelers shouldn’t miss their onsite spa (try an invigorating rosemary mint body treatment or dual exfoliation facial). Meanwhile, the less-formal, contemporary 209-room Alexander nods to local art installations and has a cocktail bar with kaleidoscopic Murano glass pendants.

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