Indianapolis is full of surprises. Go around a corner in the middle of Indiana’s capital and largest city and you may encounter a canal lined with paddle boats. Around another there’s a white terracotta building that looks like it could house a Smithsonian museum but turns out to have been a Coke bottling plant that’s now a boutique hotel. Around another corner stands the former vice president—I almost bumped into him getting off an elevator.
I wasn’t expecting to be able to navigate a motorsports mecca totally car-free or to encounter a liberal attitude toward open containers in public (Indianapolis, like New Orleans’ Bourbon Street and Kansas City’s Power & Light District, allows you to walk around with a beer). And even for a Kansas Citian used to kindness from strangers, “Hoosier Hospitality” is almost jarring in its ubiquity and force. From KC, Indianapolis is just a little closer than Chicago, and it’s worth a long look the next time you’re booking a weekend getaway. It’s probably not at all what you expect. Here’s our idea of a perfect weekend stay.
Get Your Bearings
Indianapolis is in the center of Indiana, about seven hours east on I-70. Sure, it’s a good one-night stop if you’re road-tripping to the East Coast, but the city is a worthwhile destination in its own right, especially if you’ve got a rooting interest in a team playing under the retractable roof of Lucas Oil Stadium or on the hardwood at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
At the center of town is a traffic circle surrounding the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which stands almost three hundred feet tall. There are four diagonal streets that shoot off from the circle, all named after states. The first one to know is Massachusetts Avenue, locally known as Mass Ave, which runs northeast.
On this trip, we stayed at the Bottleworks Hotel (8550 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis; bottleworkshotel.com), a new boutique lodging inside a salvaged Art Deco-era Coca Cola bottling plant—it was the largest Coke plant in the country and the company’s flagship during its golden era. The edifice is etched with detail, and the mosaic-tiled floors are works of art in their own right. The hotel anchors the Bottleworks District at the far end of Mass Ave, where you’ll find a new food hall, brunch spots, a hip Living Room movie theater and a retro-chic duckpin bowling alley and arcade.
Take The Edge Off At The Garage
Indianapolis is undergoing massive construction on its downtown freeways, with both I-65 and I-70 closed downtown, pushing traffic into unusual patterns that may have snared you in a jam. The Bottleworks District happens to be well situated for avoiding the jam, but if you find yourself thirsty, The Garage Food Hall (906 Carrollton Ave., Indianapolis) across the street from the hotel has options including Hard Truth Distilling’s cocktail bar, where drinks are mixed with locally distilled spirits. We had a great tropical drink with toasted coconut rum, pineapple and a kiss of jalapeno for heat.
For a Midwestern city that has a strong association with motorsports—more on that in a minute—Indianapolis is extremely easy to navigate by bike, foot or scooter thanks to an eight-mile loop called the Cultural Trail (indyculturaltrail.org). The trail is made from hexagonal red pavers, and most of it is lined with low-maintenance landscaping like daylilies, sage and rain gardens. Although it was built for pedestrians and cyclists, the trail has also become popular among riders of pay-by-the-minute Bird and Lime electric scooters. You’ll find the scooters dotting the trail, including a cache of freshly charged rides lined up neatly in front of the Bottle works Hotel in the morning. Other than the Speedway, which is five miles west of downtown, you can scoot, cycle or walk pretty much anywhere you want to go in Indy using the Cultural Trail.
Historic steakhouses are generally hit or miss when it comes to maintaining stan-dards that match the menu prices. Indy’s landmark St. Elmo Steak House (127 Illinois St., Indianapolis) was founded in 1902 and belongs to an exclusive club of spots that are not only the oldest and best-known but also the best. The room is covered in photos of celeb diners (one Indy couple became local legends after hanging their own) and the newest servers still have decades of seasoning at St. Elmo. There is only one appetizer offered: shrimp cocktail served with a mound of fresh-ground horseradish. The horseradish is delivered daily as a whole root as big as your forearm from a farm south of St. Louis. It possesses an intoxicating heat that imprints itself on your brain—I can still summon the sensation months later. The bone-in Cowboy ribeye is the recommended steak and is prepared exactly as requested.
Indianapolis is a heavily German city, and the community’s landmark is the Athenæum, originally known as Das Deutsche Haus, an ornate brick structure that served as a gymnasium and clubhouse for the various special interest clubs catering to Hessian immigrants. The architects were Arthur Bohn and Bernard Vonnegut Sr.—yes, the same family of Vonneguts. There’s a traditional German restaurant in the building called The Rathskeller (401 E. Michigan St., Indianapolis), but the real action is the large beer garden out back, where White Claw has largely supplanted Weihenstephaner.
Get A Handle
Right across the street from the Bottleworks Hotel, you’ll find Love Handle (877 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis), a laid-back counter-service brunch spot serving up hearty fare like a bowl of three-cheese jalapeno grits served with a fat slab of pork belly and a plate of fried catfish smothered in brown country gravy. The terminus of the Cultural Trail is right out front, so you can grab a scooter or bike and roll straight down the trail next to Mass Ave after.
White River State
White River State Park sounds like the name of a place where you’re going to pitch a tent, but it’s actually an urban park that contains many of the city’s top cultural institutions and amenities, including the zoo, the state museum, a large amphitheater and the national headquarters of the NCAA—built when Indy lured the governing body of college athletics away from Overland Park in 1999. In addition to the river, the park is home to a stretch of canal dug out in the early 1800s that’s now built up for strolling. The entire park is an idyllic place: Shady picnic tables sit under greenery-laden trellises; the zoo’s walls are made of huge slabs of Indiana limestone and the banks of the lazy green river are lined with stumps and milk crates perched there by fishermen. Whatever else you do, visit the Eiteljorg Museum (500 W. Washington St., Indianapolis), which has one of the largest collections of Western and Native American art in the world, including work from Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Kay Walking Stick and Andy Warhol. The area is also home to the largest children’s museum in the world, which is almost a half-million square feet.
Kurt Vonnegut Museum And Library
Kurt Vonnegut, arguably the greatest novelist of the twentieth century, was born and raised in Indianapolis, where his family had deep roots. The city provided the backdrop for some of his best-known works (there’s a lot of Indyness about Midland City, Ohio). His legacy is celebrated with a newish museum (543 Indiana Ave., Indianapolis) on a corner where the young author used to go for jazz shows. The museum is still growing into its new space, but among the collection is the Smith-Corona 2200 typewriter Vonnegut used for most of his novels, a vast collection of his doodles, his purple heart from surviving Dresden and a small selection of the fanmail he received and his correspondence back. Did you know Vonnegut had an intense distaste for Bob Dylan? After this tour, you will!
Speed A(way) Time
The largest sports venue anywhere in the world is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (4790 W. 16th St., Indianapolis), which sits about five miles west of downtown Indy in a neighborhood that’s home to its own collection of bars and restaurants. A quarter of a million people gather to watch races here, and on a race weekend the area is a little like Sturgis crossed with a wholesome county fair, with peanut butter whiskey and vapes being marketed next to families grilling out. The raceway is worth seeing even without cars zipping by. Its massive infield is home to an eighteen-hole golf course that’s been named one of the nation’s top hundred by Golf Digest. Spend enough time in Indy, surrounded by motorsports lore, and at some point, it’s natural to wonder to yourself if maybe you could skillfully make left turns at high speed. Scratch that itch and come to the realization that, no, you cannot do that, by scheduling a racing session at Speedway Indoor Karting (1067 N Main St., Speedway, Indiana). You’ll leave humbled and outside the jams caused by the I-70 closure ready to drive responsibly on your way home