Go There: There's a Lot More to Indianapolis Than the Indy 500
Indy is a fun, safe, lively travel destination. Check out our tips for where to stay, where to eat, and what to do here any time of year.
This past weekend, 135,000 people descended on Indianapolis for the Indy 500. The iconic racing event is certainly a great reason to visit the Indy area, but Memorial Day weekend isn’t the only time you should consider Indy as a travel destination. This fun, energetic city always has tons going on and a growing list of cool neighborhoods, restaurants, shops and bars to fill even the most ambitious traveler’s itinerary.
Indy was the first place I traveled after a year of staying home, and it was the perfect weekend getaway and reentry to the real world. Looking for a welcoming, safe and accessible place to unwind and explore? I highly recommend checking out Indy. Read on for the scoop on where to stay, what to eat and what to do (and the very specific thing I did that you definitely should NOT do).
Where To Stay
I live in Nashville, which is perhaps the shiny-new-high-rise-hotel capital of the world right now. I can certainly appreciate the allure of a glass-walled luxury property and the requisite rooftop bar and infinity pool on the top floor, but sometimes the newness of these places gives me the feeling, even in my own city, that I could be sipping this $14 cocktail anywhere.
Which is why places like the Bottleworks Hotel are so special and so important. The Bottleworks building used to be a Coca-Cola bottling plant and was recently converted into a hotel. The property is gorgeous and quirky, with preserved details and historical tidbits woven throughout the lobby, rooms, hallways, bars and lounge areas.
There’s a sense of history and place here that you can feel, that makes you feel anchored and connected to the city in a way a shiny new high-rise could never. My room was modern and beautiful in all the best ways, but even without the gorgeous terrace overlooking downtown Indianapolis, I always knew exactly where I was.
Where to Eat
Question for America at large: why are we not talking about Indianapolis as a foodie city? We should be. The city’s distinct neighborhoods boast impressive and unique restaurant rosters, from pizza at King Dough to empanadas at Livery to the growing list of local breweries like Metazoa and Sun King.
My favorite spot is Garage Food Hall, a bustling food hall across the street from the Bottleworks with everything from arepas to burgers to seafood. The lobster roll from J’s Lobster & Fish Market is an absolute must, but every single thing I ate here was phenomenal (and I ate a lot).
You can’t go to Indy and not order the fried chicken at The Eagle. But their sides — especially their mac and cheese — deserve some love too.
The sexy speakeasy vibe at ball & biscuit cocktail bar is hard to beat. But the cocktails, like cognac-sherry-ginger-lemon-vanilla concoction “The Bebe,” are even better.
Oh! And don’t miss St. Joseph Brewery, an old church that’s been converted into a charming pub and brewery.
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What to Do
Indy is walkable and easy to get around, so it can accommodate the most packed itineraries, but it’s also perfect for my favorite style of travel: wandering around, popping into little boutiques, and eating 6-8 meals a day (see above).
The Mass Ave Cultural District is home to an eclectic mix of bars, theaters, shops and restaurants. Walking around on a Sunday morning, I stumbled across an outdoor concert set up in a tiny park. I got a coffee and hung out for a bit to soak up the music and watch the kids dancing on the grass. Between songs, the singer talked about the creative energy growing in Indy, and I could feel it all around.
I was told Fountain Square was the “cool hipster neighborhood” so of course I went to do all the required hipster activities I secretly love. I ordered a fancy latte (and snapped photos for Instagram) at the beautiful and friendly Bovaconti Coffee. I browsed amazing and well-priced vintage clothes at Zodiac Vintage and bought a t-shirt I’m obsessed with (sidenote: it has been a while since I publicly ranted about how the Midwest has the best vintage shopping in the country, but it DOES).
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I snapped pics of street art and browsed stores selling ceramics and succulents. The record store, Square Cat Vinyl, was closed to foot traffic, but I can’t wait to go back and spend a few hours there.
Want to see the city from a different angle? Check out the best view of the city’s skyline at Highland Park, or rent bikes and explore the miles of trails along the river, through downtown and beyond.
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What Not to Do
Do not, as I did, refer to the Indy 500 as a Nascar event in a crowded restaurant. If you do this, as I did, the result is a record-scratch followed by stunned silence punctuated only by someone dropping their fork in shock on the other side of the room. Your kind host will whisper, “They’re Indy cars. It's a totally different thing.” And you will apologize profusely for this devastating gaffe and hope you haven’t been banned from the city permanently, because you really like it here and want to come back.
Indy doesn’t deserve to be pigeon-holed as JUST a sports town, but it is, undeniably, a sports-obsessed place, and a place that does sporting events extremely well. While I was there, the city was safely, thoughtfully, and successfully hosting the NCAA tournament, and seeing March Madness games in-person deserves a spot on every college hoops fan’s bucket list. But the opportunities to see live sports in Indy is long and diverse, from (ahem) Indy car racing to Pacers and Fever games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse or Colts games at Lucas Oil Stadium. Most people’s first experience with Indy is a sporting event, and if you have the chance to come here for a tournament or a game, DO IT — but do me a favor and schedule an extra day or two to experience all the great stuff this energetic and fun city has to offer.