Walking the streets of Indianapolis can feel like a trip back in time, juxtaposed by a futuristic backdrop of skyscrapers.
In many ways, Indy is the epitome of a Midwestern city. Wide, welcoming streets crisscross the city. Lining them are the behemoth brick factory buildings of yesteryear, swaying green trees, storefront facades and bustling sidewalks. Flowing through the city center is a canal with sparkling blue water and picturesque walkways.
When the booming factories of the Midwest got hit with de-industrialization in the latter decades of the 20th century, the Rust Belt formed. Cities lost huge percentages of their population and were nearly forgotten. Many have had to make a choice: to perish or reinvent themselves.
Indianapolis was one of the latter.
The city has weathered the storm of shifting industries by branding itself as one of the nation’s top destinations for sports-related tourism and other family attractions. Additionally, by investing heavily in its beautiful downtown, the city has revitalized itself and opened the nation’s eyes to all its fascinating nooks and crannies.
If you are headed to Indianapolis, there are some things you absolutely must see — let’s have a look at some of the best attractions in the Indianapolis area, as well as attractions in Indianapolis you can visit for free.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Even if you’re not a NASCAR fan, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is worth a visit. As the nation’s most famous and iconic speedway, it is a piece of living history.
The speedway has long been the home of the Indianapolis 500, the top car race in the nation, which has been an annual event since 1911. Furthermore, it hosts NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 race and the Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix, as well as the occasional PGA game and even daring air races with planes. The arena can hold a quarter of a million spectators in the stands and 150,000 more on the ground.
Sorry, maybe you missed that — the place can hold 400,000 people. To put that number in perspective, it’s more than the population of Cleveland.
Carl Fisher designed the track and hosted its first race in 1909, though at the time, the cars were racing on a surface of crushed gravel and oil — hardly ideal for high-speed racing on narrow tires. The track itself is a 2.5-mile oval, which was paved with bricks for the 1911 race until the strain of faster and faster cars necessitated asphalt. The finish line, however, is still paved in bricks as a celebration of its history.
It took 500 manual laborers, a fleet of mules and steam-powered machines to get the track up and running in time for its first event. Fisher and the team worked with fervor, as he was inspired to build the track after seeing the popularity of similar racetracks in Europe. The American audience, it turned out, was hungry for such a place and quickly ate it up.
This monument, located in the middle of downtown Indianapolis, has become the city’s unofficial symbol. Erected between 1888 and 1901, it is a memorial for the soldiers and sailors who lost their lives in the Civil War. Its neoclassical design and 284-foot prominence make it a natural attraction in the city, as does its central location at the intersection of Market and Meridian streets.
Colossal stone steps make it a great place to relax and eat ice cream on a sunny day, and there is even an underground exhibition housing artifacts and memorabilia from the Civil War. It is also a perfect spot to duck into when that rogue afternoon thunderstorm comes along.
The statue at the top of the monument is affectionately known as “Miss Indiana.” She is a symbol of victory, complete with sword, torch and eagle.
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Any city worth its salt should have an art museum. Indianapolis raises the bar with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a cavernous multiplex in the downtown area whose abundance and variety of art rival any museum in the country.
This building holds an astounding 54,000 pieces of artwork from many different places, styles and centuries. See multimedia installations from South America, North America, Africa, Asia and Europe, including many works from some of the world’s most cutting-edge artists.
This museum goes above and beyond the call of duty, however. Intended to serve as a boon to the artistic spirit of Indiana’s capital, the museum also engages the local community in many different ways. Throughout the year, they present films, various types of performance arts, educational outreach, lectures and other cultural events to inspire the community.
White River State Park and the Canal
Standing in the middle of White River State Park, you’ll have to actively remind yourself that you are, in fact, in a large city. Enjoy the gentle rustle of leaves as the wind blows through the trees, and relax in the green grass that stretches from end to end in this 250-acre paradise.
For all its popularity as one of the top tourist attractions in Indianapolis, this park is also a spot for seclusion and quiet. Business workers often come here during their breaks to unwind and eat lunch in the grass before heading back to the office, and anyone with an outdoor workout routine loves the park for its jogging and biking trails along the water.
Oh yes, the water — the Indiana Central Canal runs straight through this park. This canal is a historical oddity in itself. Started just after the Erie Canal, which sent the nation into a frenzy of canal construction, the original design was intended to stretch 296 miles and connect Indianapolis with the Ohio River.
However, a financial panic struck in 1837, and only a paltry eight miles of canal were ever completed. After sitting in disuse for many years, the canal was eventually revived, and now serves as a major scenic attraction for Indianapolis.
In White River State Park, people jog, bike and walk around the canal, as well as ride in paddleboats and gondolas along its beautiful length. The park is the perfect place to spend an afternoon, as there is a nearly endless supply of things to do and ways to have fun. And did we mention the park is one of the top attractions in Indianapolis for free?
We shouldn’t neglect to mention the park also provides access to things like the Indianapolis Zoo, the NCAA Hall of Champions, the Indiana State Museum and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
The visionary Harrison Eiteljorg founded this museum, which has truly put Indianapolis on the map in terms of culture and advancement of Native American and Western art. Among its collection are some of the world’s finest displays of Native art from both the past and present, as well as big names such as Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Russell and Kay WalkingStick.
The exhibitions are both an artist’s dream and a means of learning about the history and context of North America’s native people. Subjects such as the role of pistols and motorcycles in the American West, the confluence of Native American and African experience, the history of Jews in the West and more are common offerings in the museum.
Furthermore, the museum hosts numerous activities to engage the community. They host residencies for Western and Native artists, deconstructive studies of things like the role of LGBT members in Western films and celebrate the history of women in the American West.
This museum is the only one dealing with Native American and Western art in the whole Midwest, and is a rare find east of the Mississippi. Don’t miss the chance to learn about a point of view that is so vital to our culture and history.
NCAA Hall of Champions
Oh, you simply must visit the NCAA Hall of Champions. This building is the ultimate tribute to student-athletes, and for anyone who enjoys college sports, it is an emotional and jaw-dropping experience to walk around this building.
The NCAA has more than 400,000 athletes, and their lifestyle is sometimes beyond imagining for those of us who haven’t lived it. The combination of the immense pressure of student life, grueling practices, high-stakes games and frequent stardom are a tough package to handle, and this place gives a comprehensive view of what it feels like.
The two-story building features exhibits of student-athlete life and what it requires. On the first floor is Arena, which pays tribute to every one of the NCAA’s 24 different sports. The exhibit also includes trivia, team stats, heart-pounding highlight reels and donated mementos from various colleges. Then, make your way to the second floor, where the Play exhibit allows interactive competition and simulators to put you in the game. There is also a recreated gym from the ‘30s, as well as a simulator for skiing.
As one of the nation’s sports capitals, Indianapolis beats the competition with places like this. But read on — there’s more.
Lucas Oil Stadium
If you have a chance to see an event at Lucas Oil Stadium, do it. This giant stadium opened in 2008 and hosted the 2012 Super Bowl, and is regarded as one of the finest stadiums in the country.
Part of the charm of this incredible facility, and indeed what makes it so famous, is its immense retractable roof. This roof is a marvel of engineering, its two halves rising to form a ridge 270 feet above the field below. It takes nine minutes for this roof to open, and when it does, it sports the biggest opening in the country: a 4.5-acre view of the sky above.
The arena’s events go beyond football, as well. They have hosted several huge concerts, as well as dirt bike races, monster truck events, firefighters’ conventions, marching band state finals and conferences.
Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
You know it’s a good museum when there is a multi-story-tall brachiosaur trying to get in. This museum is everything a child — or an adult — could want, and it is one of the best family attractions in Indianapolis.
First off, much of this museum is hands-on. Children want to touch things, and the exhibits celebrate that by providing displays that are totally acceptable to touch. There are puppet shows, a large tree for reading time and lots of space for arts and crafts.
The museum’s Dinosphere transports visitors back 65 million years to a different world. The atmosphere takes on a different color, the vegetation is strange and monstrous beasts lurk all around. Both children and adults will enjoy searching for their favorite dinos, such as Tyrannosaurus Rex, raptors and triceratops.
Indianapolis’s central location, as well as its ability to attract people from all over, has created a culinary melting pot. There are fantastic Indian, Mexican, Italian and other international cuisines lining the streets, as well as small bakeries offering delicious pastries.
Giordano’s has brought the magic of deep-dish pizza to Indiana’s capital. The pies take about 45 minutes to make, but the reason is soon evident — each pizza is a multi-layered masterpiece. At the bottom is a crispy crust, followed by toppings and cheese, then topped with a thin, flaky crust and tomato sauce. When you take the first bite of this pizza, you’ll understand why the Chicago school of pizza-thought has persevered so long and become such a staple of America’s cuisine.
Indianapolis also boasts some of the country’s best coffee shops. Try an espresso at Calvin Fletcher’s Coffee Company, an Americano at Bee Coffee Roasters or a latte at Coal Yard Coffee.
“We’re not a zoo doing conservation — we’re a global conservation organization that is a zoo.”
These are the words of Indianapolis Zoo CEO Mike Crowther. With sustainability and animal conservation as their primary focus, this zoo has an ethical atmosphere that makes visiting it an absolute pleasure. While you walk through green areas housing monkeys, lions and more, you can also feel good about the greenness of the institution itself.
For instance, the Indianapolis Zoo uses 100 percent renewable energy, and they recycle nearly all their cardboard and pallets — enough cardboard to match the weight of six elephants, and pallets that would stack up as tall as 98 giraffes.
The zoo also helps the plight of the African elephant by contributing large sums to the Tarangire Elephant Project. This conservation effort keeps the migration paths of the elephants open and gets rid of poachers who endanger them. Similarly, the zoo has played a key role in the nonprofit International Iguana Foundation, which distributes funding for various conservation projects all over the world.
Jurassic Park may be a fantasy, but the Indianapolis Zoo has come close to making it a reality by helping breed two of the planet’s most endangered lizards, the Jamaican Iguana and the Grand Cayman Island blue iguana. They also have helped the tropics by being a leader in guiding sustainable palm oil production.
When you visit the zoo, make sure to connect with them to get tips on how to be a better conservationist in your own way — whether it is by helping an organization or simply in your backyard.