Racing Off to Indy
Indianapolis is an accessible big city, with good old-fashioned Hoosier hospitality as a way of life.
Is Indy the land of the movie Hoosiers or, more modern, The Fault in Our Stars? How about both.
While Indianapolis certainly loves its sports — and its real-life and fictional underdogs like Notre Dame’s Rudy Ruettiger and the Breaking Away crew — the Crossroads of America is also home to the largest Children’s Museum, Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture, trendy restaurants and a cultural trail that connects art, parks and historical museums. It’s well worth a second look — and a weekend getaway.
And there’s no better time to make the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Chicago than in the Spring, as the month of May is consumed with one of the most famous races in the world — the Indianapolis 500. Race fever grips the largest city in Indiana as qualification races, daily practices, concerts, balls and the largest half marathon in the United States, which ends with a lap around the track, build up anticipation before “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” itself.
Plus, for being the Midwest’s second largest city, Indianapolis still feels pretty accessible, with good old-fashioned Hoosier hospitality a way of life, not just in the movies.
The Indy 500: More Than a Weekend
Andretti. Unser. Foyt. These legends of Gasoline Alley aren’t just names memorized by Indiana schoolchildren, but are world-renowned for their feats at the Indianapolis 500, held every Memorial Day Weekend since 1916.
The largest single day sporting event in the world brings more than 300,000 people to Indy. The race is much more than 33 fast cars flying around a track 200 times to complete the fabled 500 miles. It’s the unmistakable sound of burning rubber, pit crews that change tires in the blink of an eye, people and celebrity watching, the final sprint to the finish when one false move can ruin a driver’s dreams to win the world’s biggest sporting event, and finally, the best tasting-bottle of cold milk for the winner.
Plus, attending is a pretty attainable wish, as the race offers tickets starting at $40. It’s worth the extra money to buy passes to access the pits and garages pre-race, as this is where you’ll see drivers, crews, cars and celebrities up close.
Race weekend’s marquee events are Carb Day on Friday; the downtown 500 parade, Snakepit Ball and Legends Day at the track on Saturday; and the big race itself on Sunday, complete with Air Force fighter jet fly-overs and celebrities leading the Pace Car laps. If the best seats are sold out, hearty souls can try General Admission infield seating, which is available even on race day.
Year round, visitors can tour the Brickyard and stroll through the Hall of Fame Museum or Brickyard Crossing Golf Resort. Better yet, they can experience the thrill of racing around the track themselves as a passenger in the Indy Racing Experience Driving Program. How much speed do you need? Find out as you sit shotgun with an Indy 500 race car driver in a Two-Seat Ride, trying to catch a lead Verizon Indy Series race car around the track, as fast as you can handle (or, 130 mph tops).
Behind-the-Scenes Sports Tours
Indy is the amateur sports capital of the world, playing host to numerous NCAA Final Fours, the Pan Am Games and Big Ten Football Championships.
Visitors can still sign up for behind-the-scenes tours of Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. The multipurpose facility seats more than 67,000 fans. Public tours last 90 minutes and include visits to the playing field, an NFL locker room, the press box and numerous other non-public areas.
Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the home of the Indiana Pacers and Indiana Fever, also offers a behind-the-scenes tour. All 750,000 square feet of the stadium pay tribute to Indiana’s rich basketball history through its retro-style field house design.
The Children’s Museum: Lots to See for Adults, Too
Indianapolis is home to the world’s largest museum for kids, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. The 472,900-sq-ft facility located on 29 acres is a must-see destination, whether one has kids or not. Plan plenty of time, if not most of the day, to spend at this 93-year-old, award-winning museum that continually reinvents itself while creating family learning experiences.
This spring, the museum unveiled its largest expansion in 40 years. The Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience is a $38 million, 7.5 acre addition devoted to fitness, exercise and activity. This immersive exhibit allows children to experience sports from their sports stars’ perspective — and get moving while they have fun.
Visitors can walk through the Avenue of Champions, which features some of Indiana’s most beloved sports icons —Indy champ A.J. Foyt, basketball greats Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson and Olympic gold medalist Wilma “Skeeter” Rudolph. Then, there’s a walk or ride up the Tree of Sports, a 25-ft-high tree sculpture carved with sports symbols, before whizzing down one of three slides.
The outdoor campus features 12 zones, ranging from a recreated Indianapolis Motor Speedway Pedal Car Racetrack to a mini golf course designed by Pete Dye.
At the main campus, children can slide down a river of chocolate, come face to face with full-size dinosaur skeletons in the Dinosphere; learn the day-to-day duties of an astronaut in the International Space Station; fly over the great wall of China; examine the 5-story-high Fireworks of Glass; and learn how even children can change the world — by stepping into a replica of Ryan White’s bedroom, Ruby Bridges’ classroom, or Anne Frank’s annex and watching live re-enactments of their struggles and achievements.
A City Where the Past Comes Alive
Another interactive history museum is Conner Prairie, where the past comes alive in north suburban Fishers, as costumed interpreters show how pioneers lived in the 1836 town. Visitors can experience a 1859 Balloon Voyage by rising 350 feet high above the prairie.
Downtown’s White River State Park is home to 250 acres of green space in the center of Indianapolis. Families can stroll urban pathways, rent a bike or surrey and take pedal-boat rides on the Central Canal. The park connects the city’s major attractions, including the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the Indiana State Museum, the NCAA Hall of Champions, the Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial and Victory Field Baseball Park.
The park also swings by the Indianapolis Zoo, a world-class attraction hosting a million visitors a year. Make sure to see the Dolphin Presentation and Butterfly Kaleidoscope, then chat with animal keepers and visit the 3-plus acre White River Gardens.
This past April commemorated 50 years since Robert F. Kennedy’s iconic speech in Indianapolis, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visitors can view the Landmark for Peace Memorial located in MLK Park, a sculpture representing RFK and MLK reaching out to each other.
Just down the street is the home of Indiana’s only president, Benjamin Harrison, providing another historic arm to the Old Northside neighborhood.
Visitors soon find that Indianapolis is second to only Washington, D.C., in monuments and memorials, and devotes more acreage to our nation’s fallen than any other city, including the Indiana War Memorial Museum, Indiana War Memorial Plaza and Veterans’ Memorial Plaza. The city grid itself was inspired by Washington, D.C., with all roads leading out from the center of the city. There, tourists can view Monument Circle, which includes the iconic 1902 Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Try climbing the steps or, better yet, take an elevator to the top for a 360-degree view.
Connecting Art and Exercise
Indianapolis loves to make it easy for people to combine exercise with culture. Five years ago, city leaders took out one lane of traffic all across the city to make way for an 8-mile walking and biking trail that connects the city’s six cultural districts. Make sure to walk part or all of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, as millions of dollars of public art and green space will flank your path.
Plus, who can resist posing for a picture in front of the iconic 1970s LOVE sculpture at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at the Newfields campus? The grounds are home to the Oldfields-Lilly House Tour (the former home of Eli Lilly and Company president, J.K. Lilly, Jr.), a garden tour, a beer garden, Yoga at Newfields, and many traveling art exhibits and classes.
This has been proclaimed the Year of the Arts in Indy. Fountain Square is one of Indy’s funky arts districts, while Massachusetts Avenue also provides cultural offerings. The Cabaret and Phoenix Theatre have new spaces that provide sleek additions to an already impressive arts scene. Summer highlights at The Cabaret include concerts from Broadway stars Jennifer Holliday in June and Laura Benanti in July. A longtime favorite, the Indiana Repertory Theatre hosts the backstage comedy Noises Off in May and kicks off its 2018 – 19 season in September with Holmes and Watson. Broadway in Indianapolis plays at Clowes Memorial Hall and Murat Theatre, with the summer line-up of shows including Wicked, Rent and The Lion King.
Murat Theatre, along with Ruoff Home Mortgage Music Center, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and White River State Park, are among the city’s top-tier live music venues. Look for tour stops from Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, David Byrne, Jimmy Buffett and Miranda Lambert, among others this summer.
Dining: From Haute to Hip
After a full day of sightseeing, you deserve a St. Elmo’s Shrimp Cocktail, the “world’s spiciest dish,” along with a great steak. St. Elmo Steak House on Illinois Street is Indy’s premier, fine-dining restaurant and is a visitor favorite.
Slippery Noodle Inn is another legendary downtown spot and the oldest bar in the state. Considered Indiana’s home of the blues, live music is customary every night in the historic building that — at different times in its colorful history — was a luxurious inn, a former stop on the Underground Railroad and a brothel. Look for Gangster John Dillinger’s bullet holes as well, which are still in the walls.
Some of the new hip spots to note include Bluebeard in Fletcher Place, themed after a novel by Indy native Kurt Vonnegut; Bar One Fourteen in SoBro, a New York-style bar with 16 seats, blacked out windows and a unique listening space; Tinker Street Restaurant & Wine Bar in the Old Northside Neighborhood; and Livery, just off Mass Avenue in a former, well, livery.
Another great place to grab a cocktail is Hotel Tango, a distillery founded by an Iraqi war vet (Travis) and his wife (Hillary) — thus the name Hotel Tango after the letters H and T in the phonetic alphabet.
Day Tripping from Indy
If there’s time for a day trip, try heading south to Indiana University in Bloomington to check out a Big Ten college scene, Columbus for outstanding architecture and public art, Hamilton County for an afternoon of golf, or Brown County for phenomenal hiking and exploring.
While many will initially visit Indy to see the larger-than-life Indianapolis 500, they are bound to return for the city’s welcoming culture, family activities and, yes, healthy lifestyle.
Megan Pellegrini is a proud former Hoosier, who grew up wanting to be a race car driver but settled for the fast-paced world of freelance writing. She is a former contributor to Indianapolis Woman magazine and many Chicago-based