Halfway around the world, tell a cabbie you’re from Indianapolis and he’ll grin and say, “Vroom-vroom!” Ah yes, The Race, as the locals call it, the only thing the city was known for once upon a time. Now, it's got Peyton Manning, too, and those gorgeous Colts, who bring out the blue all over town. And that is the tiniest slice of the sports picture. And sport, while we love it in all shapes and forms, gets upstaged regularly these days by the city’s awesome arts offerings and multitude of other diversions.
Outside of missing football and golden fall days, May is the month to be in Indianapolis because the weather is as good as it gets and the city is spit and polished for company and lots of it, especially this year. Potholes are being plugged, streets are being scrubbed, and facades are getting a facelift, all preparations in hyperdrive for Super Bowl 2012. And one more thing: The new Indianapolis International Airport, one of the first designed and built in the country after 9/11, is a breeze to get through and to navigate.
5… Fast times at the Brickyard
The Indianapolis 500 rarely sells out these days, but you’ll want to order your tickets early to get the best ones. Turns are best for seeing cars in motion, but you don’t want to be too low, because you’ll miss the vista. To see pit action, you’ve got to be in the Paddock, where tickets are pricey. And no seat gives you a view of the entire track—not even if your last name is Hulman or George. The infield? Well, that’s where people are drinking, not watching The Race. Natives bring their own food and beverages—every grocery offers 500 lunch boxes—and wear comfortable shoes. No matter where you park, it’s a hike to your seat.
There is more to the venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway than the 500. The entire month of May was once track-centric, but now festivities kick off with the mini marathon - the largest half-marathon in the country - and a hot-air balloon launching, both on May 7. Cars whiz around the track on plenty of other days, including practice, qualifying, Carb Day and Pole Day, all open to spectators. The speedway hosts two other major races annually—the Brickyard 400 NASCAR Spring Cup race and the Red Bull USGP motorcycle race—and boasts a museum and, in the center of the 2.5 mile oval, a golf course, open to the public, but not on Race Day. (In fact, if for some crazy reason you’re in town Race weekend but you’re not going to the Race, it’s a good day to book a tee-time at one of the city’s municipal courses.)
4…Out and about downtown
Perhaps because there’s no ocean, no great lake, Indianapolis has made best advantage of the water it’s got: the fitful White River and a canal, a hoped-to be extension of the Erie Canal, rendered obsolete before it was ever finished. In the past couple of decades the river has been cleaned up and 250 contiguous acres right downtown were fashioned into the splendid White River State Park. The canal has been revitalized, gaining charm it most certainly never had in the 1800s when it was built.
The best way to scope out the canal and park is by Segway. Sign up on line (segwayofindiana.com) for two-hour tours, which includes instruction. It’s a unisex activity and the best fun you’ll have on two wheels. Really. The ride cruises by the NCAA headquarters and museum, the Indiana State Museum, the Indiana Historical Society, the Indianapolis Zoo, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, and a couple of war memorials: the Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial and the U.S.S. Indianapolis Memorial. Speaking of which, there must be patriotic juice in the water, because Indianapolis fathers and mothers have built tributes to the military all over downtown, including at the city’s epicenter: the Soldiers and Sailors Monuments, bull’s-eye for Indy and complete with a Civil War museum in its base.
Beyond the Canal, the city is just completing the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a landscaped bike and pedestrian pathway that snakes around Indy connecting the popular districts and is dotted with public art. The Cultural Trail connects to Indy Greenways, tendrils that shoot out across the city, the most popular of which is the Monon Trail. A rails-to-trails line, the Monon begins downtown but is at its liveliest in Broad Ripple.
3… Up for a meal, out for an Evening, down for the night
St. Elmo Steak House, noted for its steaks, natch, and its shrimp cocktail is the downtown classic, around for 100 years, now with a contemporary cousin a skip south, Harry and Izzy’s. For a street full of inspired local dining downtown, head to Mass Ave, the arts district and home to R Bistro, Bazbeaux Pizza, and more. Rub shoulders with locals at the Workingman’s Friend (234 N. Belmont), which is a cross between a dive and a power-lunch spot. Zing, 543 Indiana Avenue, is the post-concert, upscale cocktails and dinner spot. The Slippery Noodle is the epicenter for jazz, and Broad Ripple draws a lively young crowd—and that’s a euphemism for just what you imagine it is. And one more infallible dining recommendation: any one of the Patachou empire sprinkled throughout the city: Café Patachou (four, including one at the airport) Petit Chou (two) and Napolese. The menu proclaims what Patachou is: a student union for adults.
The craft brew craze has hit Indy too, with at least a dozen choices in the city. Notable picks: Brugge Brasserie (no matter what else you order, get fries) and Three Wise Men Brewing Company, both great stops for great brews in Broad Ripple, and Sun King Brewing, downtown at 135 N. College Avenue. The former two offer food and brews; the last is actually just a brewery, although it has a tasting room and carryout. Check the web site, www.sunkingbrewing.com, for hours.
If you’re headed to town for the Race, finding a room can be tough. If you’re out of luck in town, shoot for lodgings in Brownsburg, west of downtown off I-74, where you’ve got a straight shot to the track. Cautionary note: For Race weekend, most hotels jack up the prices and many require nonrefundable deposits and minimum stays. The au courant spot to stay is the J.W. Marriott, the largest one of the brand in the world, just opened in February 2011. Big Blue, as it’s been nicknamed, pierces downtown’s western skyline and is already sold out for Super Bowl 2012, although it has rooms for Race weekend. For pampering, try the luxe Conrad or the Canterbury, the city’s classic belle.
2…Venture forth: dinosaurs at the door, art in the park, house on the prairie
Whether or not your kids are in tow, the Children’s Museum is awesome. Just drive north on Illinois Street and you’ll soon see the dinosaurs bursting out one wall and trying to climb in the windows of another. The largest children’s museum in the world, it’s jam-packed with every dream-come-true activity for kids.
Farther north and a smidge west, just across the road from the sprawling Crown Hill Cemetery (resting place for the notable, President Benjamin Harrison, with a wife on either side, and the notorious, John Dillinger), you’ll land on the sprawling grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. No stuffy showcase, IMA, draws all strata. Lush gardens, formal and informal, are the most popular spot in town for brides to be photographed, and there’s 100 Acres, the new art park, with its own lake, complete with sinking ship, giant skeleton (you can climb up and jump from bone to bone) and plenty of other outdoor sculptures. And way north in Noblesville, about 45 minutes northwest on Allisonville Road, you’ll hit Conner Prairie Interactive History Park. Five themed areas introduce guests to life in Indiana, starting with an Indiana encampment and moving forward in time to a Civil War adventure, opening this June. Check the web site, www.connerprairie.org, for Follow the North Star, a phenomenal 90-minute recreation of the experience of a fugitive slave. Reservations required; gripping experience guaranteed.
1…Did we mention sports?
Beyond the Race, the city has a multitude of spectator sports and recreational activities. The Indianapolis Indians play right downtown in a Camden Yard-like ballpark. Locals consider an Indians game some of the best affordable fun in town. Naptown Roller Girls, who play passionately October through April at the Pepsi Coliseum at the State Fair Grounds, have been building a fan base since their inception in 2006. As an amateur sports sensation, the city regularly hosts events, such as the NCAA Final Four and national diving championships. Even if you’re not in town for a Colts game, touring Lucas Oil Stadium is a kick; three tours a day are offered on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
If you’d rather participate than watch, canoeing and kayaking are classic Hoosier options. Check with Rusted Moon Outfitters (www.rustedmoonoutfitters.com) in Broad Ripple, where you can get rentals and, if you need it, instructions. You can put in on the White River. The nonpareil excursion is between Crawfordsville, an hour west on I-74, and Turkey Run State Park; Clements Canoes is the purveyor. To check out other water runs and outfitters, contact www.indianaoutfitters.com. Paddle happy.