When I think of Indianapolis, I think about art. That may not be true for everyone who visits the “Crossroads of America,” a place often associated with fast cars (the Indianapolis 500), sports fanaticism (the Pacers and Colts, for starters) and towering monuments. (The capital city of Indiana ranks just behind the District in number of memorials and monuments.) But beneath the fumes and fans is a scrappy, creative community determined to make art part of the everyday Indy experience. There’s an exceptional art museum (Newfields) on a 152-acre, sculpture-splotched campus; a winding, eight-mile-long Cultural Trail dotted with bike-share stations that connects a handful of neighborhoods and cultural districts; a hotel, the Alexander, with a $3.5 million, museum-grade collection of art; fun and funky independent boutiques along Massachusetts Avenue, a.k.a. “Mass Ave.”; and even an avant-garde food scene. (I’m still thinking about the dramatic egg I ate at Bar One Fourteen.) And that whole Hoosier hospitality thing? The people are as friendly as I’ve ever encountered, whether they’re fellow shoppers at Indianapolis City Market awaiting their pour-over coffee, Lyft drivers or duckpin bowling attendants. Today, that sort of warmth feels like its own kind of art.
I love losing myself in the contemporary section of 1Newfields 1Newfields Google Map: 4000 Michigan Rd. Website: www.discovernewfields.org 317-923-1331 , formerly known as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where so many works manage to draw a smile. There’s the room dedicated to little plastic figurines holding up a translucent floor (in “Floor,” by Do-Ho Suh). And the space where speakers and wires dangle from the ceiling, transmitting eerie, whispered words of tenderness, such as “I love you” (in “Terrain” by Julianne Swartz). Newfields is one of the largest encyclopedic art museums in the country, meaning the art spans time and place. It’s on a sprawling, sculpture-filled array of woodlands and wetlands that is worth a couple of hours (unless it is 1 degree out, as it was on our visit). People tend to raise an eyebrow when I tell them one of my favorite art museums in the world is in Indianapolis — unless they’ve been here. Then they get it.
Since 1850, the bar now known as 2 Slippery Noodle Inn 2Slippery Noodle Inn Google Map: 372 S. Meridian St. Website: www.slipperynoodle.com 317-631-6974 — Indiana’s oldest continuously operating bar — has been a roadhouse, a brothel, a station on the Underground Railroad and a hangout for gangster John Dillinger. (Ask to see the bullets lodged in one of the walls.) Today, it’s a dive bar in the best possible way — with air that smells deep-fried, buzzing neon signs and cheap shots — where you can hear rollicking live blues music seven nights a week.
In the waiting area of the 3Indiana Medical History Museum 3Indiana Medical History Museum Google Map: 3045 W. Vermont St. Website: www.imhm.org 317-635-7329 , placards sit by jars of preserved organs and explain what went wrong. One holds the brain of a man who turned violent after being shot in the head during the Spanish-American War. Another brain belonged to a person who was kicked in the head by a horse at 9, but didn’t have any symptoms of trauma until adulthood. They were studied here, in the Old Pathology Building of what was once known as the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, then finally Central State Hospital. The facility opened in 1848 and was, at the time, a progressive teaching institution that sought to understand and help patients with mental illnesses, rather than lock them away. A guided tour takes visitors through laboratories and a spooky autopsy room in this frozen-in-time building, which became a museum after it closed in the 1960s.
A refurbished 1920s multiplex in the Fountain Square neighborhood is the unlikely home of 4Action & Atomic Duckpin Bowling 4Action and Atomic Duckpin Bowling Google Map: 1105 Prospect St. Website: www.fountainsquareindy.com 317-686-6006 . Walk down the stairs to the basement and you’ll step right into the “Leave it to Beaver” era: a turquoise-and-white-checkered alley straight out of the 1950s. First lesson: Duckpin bowling, with its coconut-size ball and squat pins, is more challenging than regular bowling, which is why each player gets three rolls per turn. Don’t expect a perfect game (or to even pick up a spare, if you’re like me). The alleys — and balls — are as vintage as the surroundings, but it’s still a blast.
We’re sitting by a cozy fireplace at the 5 Aristocrat Pub & Restaurant 5Aristocrat Pub and Restaurant Google Map: 5212 N. College Ave Website: www.aristocratpub.com 317-283-7388 , surrounded by wood-paneled walls and tidy booths. I’ve just told the hippieish waitress that I heard they serve the best pork tenderloin sandwich in town. She nods in agreement, purring, “We really do.” That’s when she refers to the sandwich, a signature culinary creation in Indiana that’s like a porcine version of chicken-fried steak or Wiener schnitzel, simply as breadeds — “Two breadeds, then?”—and I fall a little bit in love with the place. Our Hoosier Tenderloin sandwiches are served within minutes, fresh out of the fryer and piping hot. The pounded pork fills the whole plate. It’s so enormous that its hamburger bun appears to be minuscule, and reminds me of comedian Chris Farley doing his “fat guy in a little coat” routine. But that doesn’t stop us from devouring every tender bite.
“You’re the only man here,” I whisper to my husband, as we glance around the dark, 16-seat room that is 6Bar One Fourteen 6Bar One Fourteen Google Map: 114 E. 49th St. Website: www.baronefourteen.com 317-946-0114 . It’s a funny realization because the self-described “luxe microbar, dining and listening room” is, by no means, a space that would seem to draw women more than men. In fact, everyone in the butter-scented, candlelit room except us appears to be digging into the $28 Fancy AF Burger with shaved, black truffles, wrapped in foil and served on a silver platter. (We have another meal scheduled or we, too, would indulge.) As Jimi Hendrix flows from the stellar sound system, we sip cocktails served in lavish vessels (a bronze pineapple) and marvel at the inventive light bites — especially the soft-scrambled egg, which is a single egg, scrambled and returned to its shell, topped with caviar and surrounded by sea-green chive foam. It looks like a work of art, and each bite feels a little extravagant. (Make a reservation online to guarantee a spot.)
It’s easy to spot the people who have just bitten into the famously spicy shrimp cocktail at 7St. Elmo Steak House 7St. Elmo Steak House Google Map: 127 S. Illinois St. Website: www.stelmos.com 317-635-0636 . First, there’s the look of shock and betrayal: What have you done to me? The nose runs. The eyes water. The face reddens as adrenaline rushes. Then, with a look of accomplishment, they dive back in for more of that five-alarm, horseradish-y sauce. The appetizer is like a rite of passage at this Indianapolis classic, which opened in 1902, and is known for its top-of-the-line steaks prepared simply and flawlessly. Each meal here doubles as trip in a time machine: It’s delivered by a server wearing a tux and accompanied with Navy bean soup or tomato juice.
8Milktooth 8Milktooth Google Map: 534 Virginia Ave. Website: www.milktoothindy.com 317-986-5131 is kind of like Sara Lee: Nobody doesn’t like it. Everyone I talked to, in fact, loves this breakfast-and-lunch spot housed in a former garage. I can understand why. The bright, rollicking diner serves brunch six days a week (it’s closed on Tuesdays), infusing a splash of genius with homestyle favorites. To wit: a Dutch baby pancake piled with roasted apples, lemon caramel and whipped sour cream; a sourdough lemon poppy seed waffle with pearl sugar, slathered in persimmon butter and maple syrup; a side of rutabaga and potato latkes. Oh, and since it’s brunch, you’re totally justified in having a cocktail, like a Dreamsicle mimosa, made with fresh orange juice, bergamot vodka, vanilla cream simple syrup and bubbles.
Cross a museum shop with Etsy and you’ve got 9Homespun: Modern Handmade 9Homespun: Modern Handmade Google Map: 869 Massachusetts Ave. Website: www.homespunindy.com 317-351-0280 . This small-but-mighty boutique on Mass Ave. sells wares from hundreds of artists and crafters, and its shelves and walls are chockablock with funky jewelry, fragrant hand-poured candles, bright contemporary art and beautiful ceramics. Catch the craft bug? Homespun has you covered with its crafting kits, which help the less creative among us embroider a doll, assemble a fox ornament, hand-stitch a raccoon and bind a book. Souvenir seekers take note: Homespun is also rich in Indiana pride. Looking for Hoosier-state-shaped earrings? You found ’em.
The sign outside 10Indy Reads Books 10Indy Reads Books Google Map: 911 Massachusetts Ave. Website: www.indyreadsbooks.org 317-384-1496 instructs visitors to “Do Good. Read More.” It’s a good message for all of us, especially coming from this independent bookstore where revenue funds a nonprofit organization that provides free tutoring to promote adult literacy. Here, children’s books sell for $1, and near the door is a “pay what you can” cart encouraging everyone to be a book lover, regardless of means. The store has a variety of new and used books, along with a section highlighting local ties, with books by Kurt Vonnegut, who was born here, and young-adult author John Green, who lives here.
First things first: Before you start wandering around the stalls at the 11Indianapolis City Market 11Indianapolis City Market Google Map: 222 E. Market St. Website: www.indycm.com 317-634-9266 , head directly to the second floor for a little fuel at Mile Square Coffee, where they break out a torch to make the campfire-kissed Smoked Bergamot Chai Tea Latte. (It’s as dramatic as it sounds, and priced accordingly at $5.99.) Now you’re ready to explore the lofty market, which dates to 1886. Sniff the bright bouquets at the Flower Boys, sample the pastel macarons at Circle City Sweets, peruse the artisanal kraut (made with beets, ramps and other fruits and veggies) at Fermenti Artisan and consider dozens of quick (and even healthy) lunch options throughout. While the hours posted are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday (and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday), it’s pretty much a ghost town unless you’re here during the weekday at lunchtime or sipping a local beer during happy hour at Tomlinson Tap Room.
My head turned as I drove along Mass Ave. and saw people walking into a place called 12Art Bank 12Art Bank Google Map: 811 Massachusetts Ave. Website: www.artbankgallery.com 317-624-1010 . Is it a bank? A gallery? Both, it turns out. The former Massachusetts Avenue State Bank, constructed in the 1920s, is now a funky art gallery displaying works — available for purchase — from a patchwork of artists. Lest you forget you’re inside a bank, reminders abound, such as the teller area for purchases and the old vault at the end of a hallway that serves as the Book Nook and displays local literature.
At the 13 Alexander 13Alexander Google Map: 333 S. Delaware St. Website: www.thealexander.com 317-624-8200 , art isn’t just decoration, it’s the soul of the boutique hotel. A $3.5 million contemporary collection curated by Newfields flits around the lobby, where records transform into birds and fly out of a turntable, and floats around the bar, where mystical glass lamps bob like spindly illuminated jellyfish. Whimsical works draw smiling visitors down hallways and around corridors to see what’s next. I recommend grabbing an Old Fashioned and a complementary bag of truffle popcorn at the lobby bar, Plat 99, then taking a spin around before retiring to your colorful room — where “Do Not Disturb” signs are written as haiku.
Formerly the Canterbury Hotel, 14Le Meridien Indianapolis 14Le Meridien Indianapolis Google Map: 123 S. Illinois St. Website: www.lemeridienindianapolis.com 317-737-1600 opened in a historical building after a massive renovation a few years ago. The result is subtle elegance, with lots of gray-and-metallic, artful touches, along with tantalizing smells. (Seriously, I couldn’t get enough of the seasonal signature scent —called Woodlands by Ambius— that was wafting through the lobby and hallways.) You can’t beat the downtown location. Not only is it a few steps from Indy favorites such as St. Elmo Steak House, but it’s one of 12 downtown hotels connected to the Indiana Convention Center, Lucas Oil Stadium and Circle Centre Mall via a Habitrail-like “skywalk,” so even if it’s frigid out, you can access shops, restaurants and bars — and get in some mall walking — without checking the wind chill.
“Rockabilly” is the word that comes to mind whenever I visit 15 Fountain Square 15Fountain Square Google Map: Boundaries North: Railroad Tracks just south of Bates Street South: Pleasant Run Parkway East: State Street West: I-65 . Historical brick buildings surround a central fountain, and quirky vintage, thrift and one-of-a-kind shops are a welcome respite from chain stores and malls. If getting a tattoo (Fountain Square Tattoo), doing the Lindy Hop (swing dancing at Fountain Square Theatre) and nerding out over comic books (Hero House Comics) and vinyl (Square Cat Vinyl) are your idea of a fun day, Fountain Square is your gal. The neighborhood is about a mile and a half southeast of downtown, and if the weather’s nice, you can hop on a Pacers Bikeshare bicycle and pedal your way here via the paved Cultural Trail.
There’s a college-town feel to 16 Broad Ripple Village 16Broad Ripple Village Google Map: Boundaries North: White River South: Kessler Boulevard East: North Evanston Avenue West: North Meridian Street , thanks to its proximity to Butler University. Located about a 20-minute drive north of downtown, the energized area checks all the boxes of a modern “top neighborhood” list: excellent coffee at Monon Coffee, an extensive new-and-used music selection at Indy CD and Vinyl, a natural-food shop, yoga studios and quirky gift shops and boutiques, along with restaurants and bars galore, and enough density to be walkable. If you feel like a leisurely bike ride, the Monon Trail, which was once a railroad path, passes over a canal and the White River and winds through neighborhoods, eventually connecting you with the Cultural Trail downtown.
Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.