When I think of Indianapolis, I think about art. That may not be true for everyone who visits a city associated so often with auto racing or college basketball.
But beneath those is a scrappy, creative community determined to make art part of the everyday 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 "Mass Ave" (Massachusetts Avenue); and even an avant-garde food scene. (I'm still thinking about that egg I ate at Bar One Fourteen.)
And that whole Hoosier hospitality thing? The people in this state capital city of 850,000 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.
4000 Michigan Road; discovernewfields.org; 317-923-1331.
I love losing myself in the contemporary section of Newfields, 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 ("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" ("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.
Slippery Noodle Inn
372 S. Meridian St.; slipperynoodle.com; 317-631-6974.
Since 1850, the bar now known as Slippery Noodle Inn — 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 buzzing neon signs; air that smells deep-fried; and cheap shots — where you can hear rollicking live blues music seven nights a week.
Indiana Medical History Museum
3045 W. Vermont St.; imhm.org; 317-635-7329.
In the waiting area of the Indiana Medical History Museum, placards sit near jars of preserved organs and explain what went wrong. One container holds the brain of a man who turned violent after suffering a gunshot 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.
Action and Atomic Duckpin Bowling
1105 Prospect St.; fountainsquareindy.com; 317-686-6006.
A refurbished 1920s multiplex in the Fountain Square neighborhood is the unlikely home of Action & Atomic Duckpin Bowling. Down the stairs to the basement is a turquoise-and-white-checkered alley straight out of the 1950s. 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. (On the East Coast, duckpin bowling is mostly found in parts of New England and around Baltimore.) The alleys — and balls — are as vintage as the surroundings, but it's still a blast.
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 – easily reachable on a Pacers Bikeshare bicycle via the paved Cultural Trail.
Broad Ripple Village
Boundaries — North: White River. South: Kessler Boulevard. East: North Evanston Avenue. West: North Meridian Street
There's a college-town feel to Broad Ripple Village, 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.
Aristocrat Pub & Restaurant
5212 N. College Ave.; aristocratpub.com; 317-283-7388.
We're sitting by a cozy fireplace at the Aristocrat Pub & Restaurant, surrounded by wood-paneled walls and tidy booths. I've just told the hippie-ish 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, overwhelming its bun. But that doesn't stop us from devouring every tender bite.
Bar One Fourteen
114 E. 49th St.; baronefourteen.com; 317-946-0114.
"You're the only man here," I whisper to my husband, as we glance around the dark, 16-seat room that is Bar One Fourteen. 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.)
St. Elmo Steak House
127 S. Illinois St.; stelmos.com; 317-635-0636.
It's easy to spot the people at St. Elmo Steak House who have just bitten into the famously spicy shrimp cocktail. 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.
534 Virginia Ave.; milktoothindy.com; 317-986-5131.
I can understand why everyone I talked to loves this breakfast-and-lunch spot housed in a former garage. The bright, rollicking diner serves brunch six days a week (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.
Homespun: Modern Handmade
869 Massachusetts Ave.; homespunindy.com; 317-351-0280.
Cross a museum shop with Etsy and you've got Homespun: Modern Handmade. 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.
Indy Reads Books
911 Massachusetts Ave.; indyreadsbooks.org; 317-384-1496.
The sign outside 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.
Indianapolis City Market
222 E. Market St.; indycm.com; 317-634-9266.
Before you start wandering around the stalls at the Indianapolis City Market, 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. The hours posted are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, but it's pretty much a ghost town except during weekdays at lunchtime or happy hour at Tomlinson Tap Room.
811 Massachusetts Ave.; 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 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.
333 S. Delaware St.; thealexander.com; 317-624-8200.
At the Alexander, 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.
Le Meridien Indianapolis
123 S. Illinois St.; lemeridienindianapolis.com; 317-737-1600.
Formerly the Canterbury Hotel, Le Meridien Indianapolis 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 aromas. You can't beat the downtown location. Not only is it a few steps from such favorites 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 skywalk, so you access shops and restaurants and get in some mall walking without checking the wind chill.