— INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA — Imagine the sound of 33 race cars all revving their engines, waiting for the flag to drop for the Indy 500. They are let loose. The noise is deafening.
It is thrilling watching the cars race around the oval, but Indy is more than the big race. Some would say that Indianapolis is the ‘sports capital of the world.’ There is a lot to keep sports fans occupied from the NCAA Championship, Hoosiers Basketball, and the Colts.
Indianapolis is a city that keeps adding action-packed adventures and activities for the entire family. The experiences will bring you back to Indy again and again.
When traveling to Indianapolis, there are many options. Try dining at fabulous restaurants, visiting outstanding museums, exploring lovely neighborhoods, and seeing the creative side of nature.
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Here are Heather Raulerson’s 16 Best Things to Do in Indianapolis
1. Children’s Museum & Sports Legends Experience
The Children’s Museum and Sports Legends Experience is a fantastic museum to experience for all ages. You can find tons of interactive exhibits, fun play areas, and learning opportunities. At the same time, the kids aren’t aware they are doing it. It helps to have a plan to make sure you see everything on the five levels of the museum. When I took my niece and nephew, we started at the top and worked our way down, exploring each room.
My nephew’s favorite things were riding the 1917 Dentzel Carousel and trying out his superhero skills at the DC Super Heros exhibit. My niece got a kick out of all the ‘old stuff’ in the American POP Culture exhibit.
It’s the largest Children’s Museum that I have been to. I was impressed by the variety of the exhibits. Especially moving was The Power of Children exhibit. It will be even stronger with the inclusion of Malala Yousafzai later this year.
I was transfixed watching videos of children that are now adults who were saved and smuggled out of Germany. No words, just raw emotion. Expect to spend a few hours exploring the museum.
After a quick lunch in the food court, we headed outside to check out the new Sports Legend Experience. This is a terrific addition to the Children’s Museum to get kids moving and enjoying sports.
The entire complex has 12 mini courts and fields where you can play sports. They include basketball courts, football, soccer, baseball, golf, tennis, and drag racing
I would recommend taking a lap around the complex to see what to do. Dive in and try your favorite sport or even a new one. If you have little ones, let them play in the giant treehouse in the center. It has sports symbols carved into the tree. You can easily spend an entire day engaging in fun physical activity and teaching your kids about health and fitness at the same time.
2. White River State Park
Spend some time wandering through White River State Park and enjoy the urban oasis in the middle of downtown Indianapolis. Within this 250-acre park, you will find seven museums: the Indiana State Museum, Eiteljorg Museum, the NCAA Hall of Champions, and the Indianapolis Zoo. Plus, while you are here, make sure to check out the permanent colorful public art sculptures throughout the park.
Did you know that Indianapolis has a central canal where you can go on a gondola ride like in Venice, Italy? You can even schedule one with a singing gondolier. Old World Gondoliers offer daily rides at 3 p.m., 5 p.m., and 7 p.m. Make reservations online to secure your spot during the summer. If you don’t want to ride in a gondola, you can also rent kayaks or paddleboats to enjoy the canal at your leisure.
3. Eiteljorg Museum
Eiteljorg Museum is the only museum of its kind in the Midwest. One of only two museums east of the Mississippi that explore both Native America and the American West. The Eiteljorg Museum is filled with American West art and exhibits that tell the compelling and complex stories of Native Americans. There are several short-term art exhibits throughout the year, along with the permanent collections.
Walking through the Native Peoples of Indiana exhibit, you can learn about the culture of three Native American groups – Miami, Potawatomi, and Delaware.
The exhibit tells the moving story of how they lost the right to their lands but persevered and maintained their traditions. They continue to pass them down to future generations. Some of those traditions include planting and growing Miami corn, making cradleboards, and creating Bandolier Bags. You can even try your hand at basket weaving or putting a tipi together while you are visiting.
4. Indiana State Museum
The Indiana State Museum is the culmination of the best Indiana art, history, science, and culture in a one-of-a-kind collection of over 500,000 objects. The museum is laid out in chronological order, so you can follow the flow from the dinosaurs, American Revolution, Indiana Statehood to how American pioneers created the Hoosier Identity. One of the exhibits has photos of Hoosiers and what they were famous for. I didn’t even know some of those people were from Indiana. Make sure to check out the Popular Culture exhibit. How many things did you have growing up? The Indiana State Museum is a great place to take your family to learn all about Indiana’s history in a fun and interactive way.
5. Indianapolis Zoo
The Indianapolis Zoo has 64-acres of indoor and outdoor attractions. The zoo is laid out in zones with names like oceans, deserts, forests, and plains. You have encounters with the animals. Watch animal care workers train elephants, or you can pet a shark. Don’t worry; they don’t bite.
The Indianapolis Zoo is the first institution to be triple-accredited as a zoo, aquarium, and botanical garden. Plan at least a half-day to see the 3,800 animals throughout this award-winning zoo. Don’t miss a ride on the Safari Jeep roller coaster.
The Indianapolis Zoo is a family fun-outing to meet and learn about animals. The zoo is also one of the world’s leading conservation organizations. The zoo contributes globally to conservation research, climate change research, and breeding projects for endangered species.
Zoo staff does a great job teaching visitors about essential conservation efforts. They will show you how to help the earth and the animals that live on it.
A new Alligator and Crocodile habitat opened in May 2021. American alligators were once an endangered species. They have rebounded because of conservation efforts. You’ll be able to see Orinoco crocodiles which are critically endangered species from Venezuela and Colombia.
Newfields is a massive 152-acre complex that used to be called the Indianapolis Museum of Art. There is more to explore than one of the country’s top ten largest and oldest art museums.
Newfields has some of the best-kept secrets in Indy—Lilly House, Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, Gardens at Newfields, Orchid House, Beer Garden, and much more.
Wander the gardens and see over half a million bulbs planted blooming throughout the year. Get inspiration for designing your garden. Admire the flowers and colors for each garden. They magically coordinate with the exhibits in the art museum, like the upcoming Van Gogh exhibit. Plan at least an hour and a half for garden exploring.
From the gardens, head inside. The art museum has multiple floors of creative exhibits. You will find contemporary and traditional art, innovative furniture designs, Asian sculptures, and paintings.
Curators bring the garden inside by placing orchids and plants around the art exhibits to make Newfields a cohesive adventure of art and nature.
7. Mass Avenue
Mass Avenue, located just a few blocks northeast of Monument Circle, is one of the four original diagonal streets of downtown Indianapolis from 1821. It is the heart of the city’s arts district.
Walk the five-block area to see gorgeous street art, including larger-than-life murals of famous Hoosiers, like Kurt Vonnegut and Mari Evans. This cultural district also has several theaters, art galleries, restaurants, and bars. You’ll find shops for souvenirs or a special gift.
8. Monument Circle
Monument Circle has a beautiful light and sound show in the evening. As the epicenter of Indy, you can watch the Soldiers & Sailors Monument and neighboring buildings light up with a nightly presentation, Shining A Light.
Check the website to find times and songs to be performed. To see the buildings lit up, the best viewing area is on the south steps of the Monument. While waiting for the performance to begin, walk around the circle and check out the murals. Climb the steps up the monument for a selfie.
9. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
There hardly isn’t a person out there that hasn’t heard about the Indy 500. But did you know that there is a museum right in the middle of the oval speedway? The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum displays the BorgWarner Trophy and tons of other past race memorabilia, photos, and trophies. You will also see many of the winner’s vehicles. Some of these race cars have a significant automotive history, including the first Indy 500 winner’s #32 Ray Harroun’s race car, which had the first rearview mirror on an automobile.
The museum rotates exhibits every six months, with plans for the museum are to add more interactive exhibits. There is so much race history to be shared since the Indy 500 started in 1911.
Future exhibits may include 1960-1972, exhibits focusing on the women of Indy 500, and the speedway’s cultural impact, whether it is automotive safety or inventions.
Visiting the Indiana Motor Speedway Museum with your family can bring a whole new generation into the love of racing. Make sure to check the website for hours, especially if there is track action that day. And if there was like when I was there, it is a thrill to hear those race cars zipping around the track, Vroom! Vroom!
10. Harry & Izzys
Visiting the iconic St. Elmo Steak House or their sister-restaurant next store, Harry & Izzys, is a must-visit in Indy. I got to experience a fantastic dinner at Harry & Izzys, which looks like sports betting place with a chalkboard on the wall with all kinds of Indy sports stats.
The steak with an orange brandy butter sauce, mashed potatoes, and the signature brownie for dessert is a must when dining here. Oh, and of course, you have to try the infamous shrimp cocktail.
Insider Tip: Make sure to remove most of the sauce on the shrimp before you eat it, as it is sinus-clearing, and this is no exaggeration.
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11. Bottleworks District
The Bottleworks District is newly opened in 2021 with the remodeling and reimagining of the world’s largest Coca-Cola Bottling Plant during the 1920s-50s. The Bottleworks Hotel anchors the district with a stunning makeover of the former plant. When you step into the lobby, you can admire keeping the bronze accents on the ceiling and throughout the complex. Walk past the billiards table through the shiny bronze doors to see the gorgeous spiral staircase.
Further down in the district is the Garage Food Hall, where you will see a variety of food available for you to munch on while listening to musical artists, DJs, or shopping among the unique vendors in the hall. You can try lobster rolls, burgers, pizza, Venezuelan cuisine, and Brazilian street food while sipping craft beers or creative cocktails.
There are plenty of tables indoors and outdoors to sit and relax. Other things to do in the Bottleworks District are to shop at the boutique stores, relax in the spas, eat at the fabulous restaurants, take in a film at the Living Room Theaters, or play duckpins or other classic games at Pins Mechanical. The district can be found at the end of Mass Ave.
12. Broad Ripple Neighborhood
Leave the downtown area to explore the Broad Ripple Neighborhood. There are unique shops, art galleries, restaurants, and the Monon Trail for strolling or bike riding.
You will find the ultra-feminine and very pink Cake Bake Shop, Just Pop In (gourmet popcorn), and Plump’s Last Shot, owned by Butler Bulldog Bobby Plump. He inspired the Hoosiers movie. Keep an eye out for the street art when you are wandering around.
Milktooth is a trendy brunch spot with people waiting in line before the restaurant even opens. Even with the crowds, you will not have to wait long for your food to show up at your table. They offer plenty of small and large plate options, sandwiches, and my favorite, Chocolate Babka French Toast. With the lively atmosphere, friendly owners, and great food, you can’t go wrong in choosing to eat at Milktooth. Milktooth is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays to Mondays.
Modita is one of the newest restaurants to open and is located within the Bottleworks District. This Asian-inspired fusion restaurant offers fresh and unique ingredients; make sure to check out their Grow Wall. They have sushi, Dim Sum, noodle and rice dishes, as well as grilled items. Don’t forget to make reservations if you walk in from the street; there is no guarantee that you will get a table as they will sell out. Modita opens every day at 4 p.m.
15. Café Patachou
Café Patachou is directly across from the Indiana Statehouse, which makes this a bustling location for lunch. Whenever you see a line out the door, you know the food is going to be fabulous. I had a unique grilled cheese sandwich. It was a southern-style waffled grilled cheese with cheddar on sourdough and a little bit of sugar.
When you purchase your lunch at Café Patachou, you are helping them to serve 2,000 after-school meals at eight Indianapolis schools. If you want to learn more or volunteer, check out the Café Patachou Foundation.
16. Crowne Plaza – Historic Union Station
This is an excellent place to stay when visiting Indianapolis. The hotel is where a former train yard existed, and you can stay in a train car overnight that sits on actual rails that they used to run on. The hotel connects to the Historic Union Station, where over 500,000 passengers passed through here each month. Almost 200 trains stopped through here daily.
Today the Grand Hall is rented out for weddings and events, and there are only a few freight train tracks left still operating in the back of the complex.
Wandering around the hotel, hunt for the ghost statues of past passengers from the 1920s – 40s. They give the hotel a feeling of stepping into the past.
I was curious about the train station as the photos on the wall in my room were breathtaking, and I wanted to see the ornate stained-glass window up close. On a guided tour of the Grand Hall, I learned all about the history of this magnificent building, including that Thomas Edison was a telegraph operator here. Still, he got fired for doing too many useless experiments. Can you imagine that?
In addition, Abe Lincoln passed here twice. The first was to go to his first inauguration. The second time after he had died, they laid him in rest here for a few days before his transfer to Illinois for his burial.
Interesting Fact: Several underground tunnels were used for the undesirables—prisoners from the courthouse. Others were used on the Underground Railroad and connected to Slippery Noodle Bar, where they were helped to escape. Union Station is a stunning building with a tremendous amount of history that still needs to be shared.
Indianapolis is a town that the most die-hard sports enthusiast would love, and it is much more to relish. Enjoy a leisurely stroll in White River State Park. Go for a ride on the canal; dine at iconic restaurants on incredibly delicious food. Spend afternoons wandering through unique cultural museums or neighborhoods within the city.
Indy is a friendly place with an easily walkable downtown, making it like a big, small town. Whatever you choose to do while visiting Indianapolis, you can guarantee that you’ll have a wonderful time.
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