Surprising Indianapolis is Hip, Walkable and Fun

Rich Grant

A lot of people were surprised when “Indiana-no-place,” was selected to host 2012 Super Bowl XLVI. They were even more surprised when Indy hit it out of the ballpark, staging one of the best Super Bowls and greatest parties the world has known. More than a million people celebrated on the streets of Indy, while the Super Bowl was watched by 111 million others across the U.S. - the largest audience in television history.

Well, no one should have been surprised. The year before, Indiana swept the Great American Beer Festival, winning more prestigious beer medals than any other state. Good beer makes anything possible. But people who have never been to Indianapolis and assume it is just another dying, dull, rust and corn-belt Midwest city could not be more mistaken.  Indy is amazingly sophisticated, and getting better by the day.

Indy’s very walkable downtown is green (with 350 acres of parks, rivers, tree-lined boulevards and canals); European (with impressive monuments and murals); trendy (with 300 restaurants and a national farm-to-table reputation); and artistic (with a unique pedestrian path that stretches across a state park, from a downtown zoo past world class history, art, and sports museums).

It is the cleanest city you will ever see, with horizon-to-horizon vistas of green trees, while armadas of white clouds float overhead in majestic Midwestern corn-blue skies.

Best of all are the people. Indy is home-base to a young, unpretentious crowd of locals who make no secret of the fact that they like good food (and lots of it), enjoy live music, partying, beer and fun, making this one of the hippest cities in the Midwest.

City Layout

The downtown was designed in 1820 by Alexander Ralston, an assistant to Pierre L’Enfant, the19th Century “genius” who brought us endless traffic congestion in Washington D.C.  Indy uses the same confusing city plan, a center circle with spokes of streets that radiate out, criss-crossing with traditional north-south streets. But no worries.   The city’s small enough, there are ample maps and signage, and once you learn a few high landmarks, you won’t be lost more than two or three times a day.

Indy is not Paris, and there are plenty of boring blocks for every great one. But it is a wonderful city to stretch your legs, and from any downtown hotel you can soon be strolling beside a canal, river, park or monument. Some things to do:

Bike The Indianapolis Cultural Trail

This brand new, $63 million, 8-mile, circular bike trail links every major downtown attraction and neighborhood and is a great way to see the city. Creative signage and patterns on the path make it easy to follow. Since the city is as flat as a cornfield, it’s effortless to zip around by bike.  Bike rentals are available at the City Market, an old 1821 gem of a brick warehouse. With a huge open hall, iron railings along the second floor and lit by skylights, City Market is filled with stalls selling a variety of food and is a favorite lunch spot for locals.

See the Monuments

Young farm boys from Indiana have been cannon fodder for America since the Civil War, volunteering – and dying – in astonishing numbers. Indiana’s casualty rate in all wars is double the national average. Some 75% of the Indiana men eligible for the army volunteered to fight in the Civil War.

In tribute to them, Indy has built more war monuments that any other city.  They are huge, impressive, and kept in immaculate condition. The museums that go with them are a tad underfed and could use some love, but the monuments are something else. Leading is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a 284-foot tower that is the heart of the city, from which all spokes lead out. You can climb 330 steps to the top (nearly as high as the Statue of Liberty) or take a reasonably priced elevator for $2. Everything about the monument is colossal.

The Indiana War Memorial, a few blocks away is a big, solid chunk of a memorial with a museum honoring the USS Indianapolis, the WWII ship immortalized in Jaws. The ship was on a secret mission in 1945 to deliver parts for the atomic bomb when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine. No one knew the ship had gone down. More than 900 men went into the water at night with nothing but lifejackets. Only 300 survived – many of those lost were eaten by swarms of sharks that surrounded the survivors and forced them into ever increasingly smaller circles. If you have trouble visualizing the horror of that, the museum has paintings to help.

Eat and Drink Indy Style

People in Indy like to eat…and why not? In this farming area, the food is fresh and portions can be outrageous, particularly anything with pork (pork tenderloin sandwiches are the city’s signature dish). Some classics not to miss:

The Rathskeller is a huge, rambling and authentic German beer hall with an equally large outdoor beer garden filled with live bands and hundreds of revelers. St. Elmo Steak House is where the Super Bowl celebrities dined. It’s all dark wood and clubby, known for their signature dish – a spicy shrimp cocktail.  The Slippery Noodle Inn is Indiana’s oldest bar and a former hangout of gangster (and local hero) John Dillinger. Dillinger allegedly shot holes in the back bar. There are slugs in the bricks, and the bar staff will show them to you if you ask. Although Dillinger was gunned down by the FBI in Chicago, he’s buried in Indy at the Crown Hill Cemetery. The Slippery Noodle is a downtown institution with live blues bands.

Walk White River State Park

In 1834, Indy built the Central Canal to the White River with the hope that it would provide power to turn the young city into an industrial giant. Fortunately, the canal was a complete failure and Indy never became an ugly manufacturing center like Detroit or Pittsburgh.

Today, the canal has gone through a renaissance and the waterway is lined with pedestrian and bike paths that connect it to a beautiful 250-acre park along  White River.  You can walk from the city’s unusual downtown zoo (where elephants stroll with skyscrapers as a backdrop) to a series of impressive museums.  The Eiteljorg Museum is one of the nation’s finest museums of Native American and Western art with big paintings by big name Western artists like Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington.

Next, door, the Indiana State Museum is a hodgepodge of natural and cultural history.  The big news is a Star Wars exhibit coming in May 2013, filled with costumes, artifacts and original models from the movies.

A few miles from downtown, the Indianapolis Art Museum is ranked as one of America’s top 10.  It’s located on 100 acres of land that was formerly the estate of pharmaceutical king J.K. Lilly Jr. That means there’s lots of money behind the museum, and it shows. There’s a bit of everything here, including an outdoor sculpture park, 54,000 artworks and dozens of familiar paintings by big name artists like Rembrandt, Turner, Monet, Renoir, and Gauguin.

Tour the Raceway

The Indy 500 is the largest one-day sporting event in the world, drawing 400,000 people on Memorial Day every May.  If you like auto racing, this is the ultimate bucket list destination.  There’s plenty at the 2.5 mile track to see year-round including a racing hall of fame displaying many of the winning cars.  Or you can take expensive (and scary) rides in race cars and pace cars around the track, reaching speeds over 100 mph, to see the track as race car drivers do – a frightening blur.  

Indy has always been best known for car racing, but today this surprising sophisticated city has much more to offer.

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