Robert Indiana’s famous Love sculpture at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
By Sherry Ott / Ott’s World
It would be easy to think that Indianapolis wouldn’t have much going on beyond the Indy 500, the famous car race for which it’s best known. For a long time, I did.
I grew up nearby, in Peoria, IL, a three-hour drive from Indianapolis. When I left the Midwest 20 years ago I had sort of written off this city as I started to experience what larger metropolises, like San Francisco and NYC, had to offer in the way of art, nature, and food. I hadn’t looked back. But I recently revisited Indianapolis and quickly learned that I was oh so wrong.
That’s not to say the speedfest isn’t a top reason to visit; in fact the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 is coming up in May 2016, and no doubt this city will see more fans than ever.
But while this is a city of fast cars, it’s also a city of more leisurely pursuits — a haven for creators, innovators, and artists, for outdoor enthusiasts who don’t mind taking the slow lane, and for food lovers who want to linger over a delicious dinner. Here’s how to take a relaxing and reinvigorating break in Indianapolis.
1. Take in the art
Think outside of the box, Indy isn’t just about the traditional museums; it shows off its artistic side everywhere in the city.
Roy Lichtenstein’s Five Brushstrokes is installed outside Indianapolis Museum of Art (Photo: Sherry Ott)
Traditional Art: I walked into the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) and looked up. The building was modern and open and I felt as if I had been swallowed by art when I stepped in the front door. The museum is one of the ten oldest in the country and its collection includes American, Asian, European, and African works of art and textiles; it has a commitment to design arts as well. As you’d expect, the IMA usually has at least one exhibit devoted to cars. When I visited, it was a beautiful display of what cutting-edge automobile technology and design has looked like through the years. Now it’s a selection of artworks from the museum’s collection that have been inspired by cars.
The sculpture Team Building (Align) hovers over 100 Acres. It’s constructed from two 30-foot-wide metal rings whose shadows overlap during the summer solstice. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
Outdoor Art: Sculptures and outdoor art can be spotted all over the city in parks and public spaces. This was not the Midwest that I used to know! Check out 100 Acres Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, a part of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. True to its name, this merging of contemporary art in nature is located on 100 acres that includes untamed woodlands, wetlands, meadows, and 35-acre lake. The greenspace is one of the largest museum art parks in the country, and features ongoing commissions of site-specific artworks.
The birds on the wall of the Alexander Hotel are crafted from vinyl records, including those of Indiana’s own Jackson 5. (Photo: Alexander Hotel/Kristin Hornberger)
Hotel Art: The Alexander Hotel is Indy’s hip art hotel curated by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The works here have been commissioned exclusively for the hotel and reference or are inspired by Hoosier state culture and history.
2. Hit the trails
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is all about speed, but I loved slowing down and seeing Indianapolis at a more relaxed pace.
Canal Trail: The canal trail is part of the Indiana Central Canal Towpath, which was dug in the early 1800s. Recently refurbished, the Canal Walk winds through the downtown area as a waterside promenade for walkers, runners, bikers and Segway-ers! Topping out at 10mph, a Segway is no Indy car, but a Segway tour is a great way to get around and see downtown. The canal is reminiscent of the San Antonio River Walk but less commercialized and more family-oriented. Every corner I turned on my Segway revealed a new form of transportation around the canal: family group bike, sitting bike, kayaks, group paddle boats, a Venetian gondola complete with a gondolier singing for you under bridges, skateboarders, and of course more cool Segways.
Taking a Segway tour as a ‘fast’ way to get around the river and canal trails. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
Cultural Trail: If you prefer to cover more ground, then check out the eight-mile Indianapolis Cultural Trail. This biking and walking trail connects six of Indy’s cultural districts. The trail is well maintained and used and has been the driving force behind much of the neighborhood revitalization throughout Indy. As a visitor, the best way to experience the trail is by utilizing the easy city bikeshare. Rent a bike for a day or for an hour and get around the whole city while enjoying parks and public art along the way.
The Indy Cultural Trail runs through the heart of the city. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
3. Eat well, no matter your taste
Foodie scenes are not only happening on the coasts — Indianapolis had taken on the local food movement whole hog.
The Classic: A visit to Indy requires a stop at St. Elmo Steak House, where the food and the wait staff are an institution. This is one of those serious old-time restaurants serving traditional foods in big portions; a place where being a waiter is a career path. A writer once deemed its shrimp cocktail the spiciest in the world, and it’s also known for its big steaks and equally big menu; it was impossible for me to decide what to order. Our waiter, Dave, was close to retirement and had been working there since 1986. Once I heard this, I trusted Dave with my evening completely. When I asked him to simply order for me, he surprised me and said, “First, I need to learn about you…” A smile crept across my face; I adore it when someone surprises me with exactly what I want to hear. Now this was a waiter who was more than a waiter, he was a food therapist.
St. Elmo Steak House brags that it has the spiciest shrimp cocktail around. Have you braved it? (Photo: Sherry Ott)
The Hipster: Built in an old garage, and filled with tattoo-laden chefs and wait staff, Milk Tooth could be mistaken for a café in Brooklyn. Specializing in morning menus, chef/owner Jonathan Brooks is committed to using only local ingredients and pouring the best coffee in the city. The bright, hip design was the perfect atmosphere for inventive food and flavor combinations. It was so hard to choose from their brunch menu that we got three items to share between the two of us!
Pancake with cranberry mustard sauce at Milk Tooth. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
Fine Dining and Drinking: If you prefer your food to look like a work of art, then head to Cerulean where the food is just about too pretty to eat. This beloved local farm-to-table gem used to require a trek out to Winona Lake, Indiana, but now there’s an outpost at the Alexander Hotel. Remember how that hotel is a partnership with the Indianapolis Museum of Art? Well, then it’s no surprise that the plates here are like a canvases. You can try a little of everything with the five- or seven-course tasting menu. And if you are looking to quench your thirst along with your creative side, head upstairs to Plat 99; a mixology bar where the drink menu rotates regularly. Bartenders look like a crazy scientists as they blend ingredients and flavors you would never imagine drinking.
Taste the local variety at farm-to-table Cerulean. (Photo: Sherry Ott)
After my weekend in Indianapolis I learned that the things to do in this city are never-ending — and as fast or slow as you want them to be.