When stacked against its more “cultured” Midwest neighbors — like Chicago and Minneapolis — Indianapolis often gets a bad wrap. There’s a reason it once garnered the unfortunate nicknames Naptown and India-No-Place. Not long ago, the city was legally required to roll up its sidewalks and cease all semblance of fun after 6 p.m. (OK, that was a joke.)
However, in the last few years, Indy has undergone a dramatic and welcome renaissance. It’s evolved well beyond the days when it was only about racing and amateur sports. If you haven’t visited the city in the last decade, you’d be shocked at how much it’s changed. Craft beer bars, artisan shops, and fantastic restaurants are sprouting from the one-time sleepy concrete jungle. With that in mind, here’s the lowdown on the best places to eat, play, sleep, and stay in the Midwest’s most underrated urban hub.
Explore the Canal Walk
Nothing has revitalized downtown Indianapolis like the rebirth of the city’s beautiful Canal Walk (a.k.a. The Central Canal). Particularly for first-time visitors, it’s an ideal way to literally get the lay of the land. The winding, three-mile pedestrian loop is home to some of the city’s best cultural attractions. To wit: the Indiana State Museum, the Herron School of Art and Design, and the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.
If you’re interested in something a bit more “heart-pounding” and don’t take yourself too seriously, check out Segway Tours of Indiana for a thoroughly nerdy two-wheel tour of the canal. For a not-so-nerdy two-wheel alternative, Active Indy will hook you up with a customizable running or biking tour through the city, including the canal and beyond. (Incidentally, don’t miss the worst-named college in America with a quick stop at the entrance to Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.)
Let’s dispense with the obvious: Racing is woven into the DNA of Indiana. It’s as much a part of the state as Sun King beer and Hoosiers. So, if you’re already a race fan, we needn’t tell you to start planning a trip to Indianapolis. But, even if you aren’t into racing, there’s one must-try experience for any visitor who appreciates a good adrenaline rush. The aptly named Indy Racing Experience allows just about anyone with a pulse and a driver’s license to get behind the wheel of a legit Indy racecar. Wanna-be drivers can lap the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway at up to 135 miles per hour. If getting behind the wheel is too intimidating, opt for a Ride Along, hop into a purpose-built tandem racer with a professional driver, and rip up the straightaways at up to 185 miles per hour. (We recommend ear plugs and a clean pair of underwear.)
Visit the Zoo
A day at the zoo making faces at koala bears and baby tiger cubs is enough to put a smile on the face of even the most hardened, crotchety thirty-something. The Indianapolis Zoo is home to more than 1,400 animals spread across five biomes. The ocean exhibit is the real get for animal lovers, as the zoo is home to the country’s only underwater dolphin viewing dome.
James Dant is Indy’s best nod to a modern haberdashery. The industrial storefront boasts every bit of clothing, accessory, and grooming essential a snappily-dressed gentleman could want. Hemp chambray shirts, selvage jeans, organic shave oils, and solid colognes are all on offer. Just remember to bring your wallet. Looking this good doesn’t come cheap.
If you like your men’s shops a little more “full-service,” head to the 1930s-inspired Red’s Classic Barber Shop Co. It’s a local institution known, first and foremost, as a great place to get a shoe shine and a shave. But their solid selection of men’s accessories (scarves, hats, cufflinks, and shaving essentials) is second to none. Their “who’s who” gallery wall of celebrity customers — including the likes of Tom Brokaw, Randy Couture, and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels — is a testament to their long-standing popularity.
Eat and Drink
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, you’ll find no shortage of amazing places to imbibe downtown. It might seem surprising, especially in a city long known for its obsession with corn on the cob, sugar cream pie, and deep-fried whatever. However, the downtown core is now gentrifying at a lightning clip, and with it the comes destination-worthy gastropubs, microbreweries, and world-class restaurants.
The Kurt Vonnegut-inspired Bluebeard is situated in one of Indy’s oldest neighborhoods. The unique small plate lineup is inspired by and sourced from local farms. The menu changes regularly, but you can expect unique creations like FPB&J: foie peanut butter, plum and blueberry jam, pullman toast, and frozen milk. The carefully curated beer, wine, and cocktail menus make this a worthy stop even if you’re not hungry.
If it’s something more substantial you’re after, pop in to Mimi Blue. This nearly 80-year-old local institution made a name for itself by elevating the lowly meatball to haute cuisine status. On a slider, a la carte, or in a sandwich, this place is serious about meatballs, and somehow it all just works.
For an after-dinner tipple, stop at Hotel Tango, the city’s first distillery after changing its draconian, Prohibition-era laws in 2013. The rustic, no-frills space offers an excellent craft cocktail menu inspired by the spirits distilled on-site. Grab a bottle of Bravo Bourbon and Oscar Charlie Orangecello to-go.
When you’re ready to get up the next morning and do it all over again, hop a BlueIndy car to the auto-garage-turned-diner at Milktooth. The experimental brunch menu is unlike anything you’ll find within 500 miles of the city (think pearl sugar and sourdough lemon poppyseed waffles or Spanish manchego and grapefruit dutch baby pancakes). The specialty coffees are just as intriguing. Check out the Love Train (espresso, sage, vanilla, coconut, and caramel sticky bun sauce). Go hungry and early — they don’t take reservations.
The Conrad Indianapolis raises plenty of eyebrows from Indy locals as the city’s swankiest accommodations. In addition to its luxurious, over-sized rooms, the hotel is home to an art gallery and a wine tasting bar with one of the best outdoor patios for downtown people-watching. Its location is adjacent to the famous Artsgarden, and easy walkability to everything downtown both make it an ideal home base for travelers.
For some of downtown’s most locally flavored lodging, crash at The Alexander. The swanky, modern, steel-and-glass exterior belies a surprisingly unpretentious hotel with an accessible brand of sophistication. The hotel works closely with the Indianapolis Museum of Art to curate a collection of fixed and rotating art exhibits. The result is a bit like spending the night in a contemporary art museum but without the usual snobbery. Even for non-guests, it’s worth a visit, if only to grab a Signature Old Fashioned and a plate of root-beer-glazed pork belly at the chic, artist-designed Plat 99 Mixology Lounge.
When to Go
Indianapolis experiences four distinct seasons. Summers are hot and humid, though not unbearable. Winters are cold, but rarely brutal or bitter like in Chicago. So, the best time to go depends on what you’re looking for. Our vote is for June or July when the city is at its peak in terms of festivals, events, and the best outdoor adventure opportunities.
- May: Depending on your brand of fun, Memorial Day is either the best or worst day of the year to visit Indianapolis. The Indianapolis 500 takes place this holiday weekend. To say the crowds (and the hotel rates) are insane is an understatement. Plan accordingly.
- July: Fourth of July celebrations are a great time to visit almost any anywhere in the U.S. Outside of Washington, DC, Indianapolis is home to more military museums and memorials than any city in the country. Indy knows patriotism, and the annual, four-day Independence Day celebration is a testament to that with orchestral concerts, the Downtown Freedom Blast, and, of course, lots and lots of fireworks.
- August: If you’ve never experienced a proper Midwest state fair, you’ve frankly never experienced a real state fair. For more than 160 years, the Indiana State Fair has been a staple of the country’s state fair scene. The two-week event packs all the essentials: barnyard petting zoos, Midway rides, free concerts, and fried everything on-a-stick. As we mentioned, Indy is one of the fastest growing food cities in America. The summer session of Devour Indy is a two-week event where foodies can visit more than 300 restaurants throughout the city to taste specially priced three-course sampler menus.
- September: Indianapolis is home to the annual CANvitational, the Midwest’s largest festival dedicated entirely to canned beers. It’s a great opportunity to sample beers from more than 65 breweries throughout the country, many of which aren’t typically for sale in Indiana.
- October: Whether glued to the ground or not, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the American home of all things speed. Every October, the track hosts the Red Bull Air Race, a two-day aerial track event designed to push the limits of the world’s most elite pilots.
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