On Memorial Day Weekend, the eyes of the world will turn to Indianapolis, just as they have for the past 102 years, as the city plays host to the largest single day sporting event on earth, the Indy 500, which draws over 300,000 fans in person.
But once the checkered flag waves and the 2018 champion is crowned, Indianapolis will still be there for business and leisure travelers. Three weeks ago, I returned from my sixth visit to the “Crossroads of America,” and I’ll be making trip number seven to catch the big race next weekend. It’s a city with an exploding culinary scene that is easy to get to, about as cheap as any urban destination in America, with lots of worthwhile attractions and a litany of special and Bucket List events, full of new hotels and outdoor activities, and every time I come back wondering, why don’t you hear more about Indy? Why doesn’t it get more press?
Well, that is all starting to change.
From a business perspective, Indy has been crushing the meetings and convention scene, and competes toe to toe with larger and more established cities such as Miami, New Orleans and Dallas. It’s usually in the top dozen or so cities for this, but in terms of population is 35th in the country. Indy punches so far above its weight class for the meeting trade that many planners seem to think it is bigger than it is, thanks to a world-class convention center that is directly connected (weather-proof!) to several major and recently built downtown hotels. The excellent airport, a $1.1 billion state of the art facility, was built on a new site just a few years ago. The entire downtown revival has been a boon to business and leisure travelers, putting much within easy walking distance of visitors. That and the low cost of living and high quality of life are all reasons why Indy recently made the cut to the short list (20 finalists from 238 challengers) for Amazon’s new second headquarters, HQ2, alongside larger Chicago, Denver, LA, NYC, Boston, Austin, DC and Atlanta.
From a leisure perspective, it was no surprise to me when last year Travel + Leisure magazine made it one of the 50 Best Places to Travel in 2017 – alongside Bermuda, Cape Town, Honolulu, Jackson Hole and Madagascar! -writing, “The city shattered expectations of Midwestern dining a couple of years ago… and with hotels in the works from 21c, Ironworks, and home-goods brand West Elm, Indianapolis is poised to become America’s next big destination.” Rival Conde Nast Traveler named it to their list of the 10 Hottest Destinations for 2018, citing a 256 percent one-year explosion in Airbnb bookings.
After all my trips, I’ve had to explain the appeal to friends, and I’ve broken it down to half a dozen main reasons I like to visit, but there are many more (check out the city’s tourism site, VisitIndy, for more info).
Sports: As a city built around spectator sports, this is the 800-pound gorilla of Indy tourism – but it just keeps getting bigger. When you talk about Bucket List experiences, the Indy 500 is a dream for many sports fans, and that annual event has drawn crowds for over a century. But consider some of the other marquee competitions held here. How about the Super Bowl? I went when it was in Indy a few years ago and it is widely considered one of the most successful ever – on its own initiative the city created the concept of the fan village outside the stadium that is now considered an indispensable part for hosting the big game. The downtown area between Lucas Oil Stadium, where the NFL Colts play, and Bankers Life Field House, home to the NBA Pacers, is designed to be shut down and turned into a pedestrian street fair for games. The fact that the two stadiums are within walking distance of most top hotels is pretty awesome too. Indy is also the only city to regularly host the NCAA Final Four, both men’s and women’s every few years (the NCAA itself is based here), and this Bucket List March Madness finale is played at Lucas Oil. The newest addition to the rota is the College Football National Championship, leaving the South and West for the first time ever to be held here in 2022. That anchors a 13-month period that will see the NBA All-Star Game, Men’s Final Four, Big 10 Football and Basketball Championships – in addition to the Indy 500, NASCAR and full seasons of the Colts and Pacers. That is a lot of spectator sports, but Indy has also hosted the PGA Championship (John Daly broke onto the national stage here) and Senior PGA Championship, has an annual NASCAR race, and as home to several US national teams, hosts championships in diving, swimming and many other pursuits.
But if just watching is not your thing, you can get active – Indy was named the nation’s most-improved bike friendly city in 2017, and has a great dedicated cycling trail, guided tour company and racks of self-serve urban rentals. It is also home to the world’s largest half-marathon each spring (OneAmerica 500Festival Mini-Marathon) which includes a loop around the 3-mile oval within the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Then there’s the golf (see below).
Food & Drink: Come for the big games, stay for the great food. Culinary site Thrillist named Indy one of the 7 Most Impressive American Cities of 2017 for food, the same year Food & Wine Magazine named it one of the Top 20 Food Cities in the U.S. From Midwestern comfort foods like tenderloin sandwiches to omakase from James beard nominees, Indy is having its moment in the culinary sun. Another Beard nominee and Indy’s food Queen, Martha Hoover, now has around ten eateries of very varied concepts, and her latest, Crispy Bird, serves insanely good fried chicken using a French-inspired heritage breed chicken she is having custom raised on an Indiana farm, making this the only place in the outcry you can eat it. Perhaps the richest classically trained chef on earth, Kimbal Musk, business partner of his famous Tesla and SpaceX brother, just expanded his burgeoning healthy restaurant empire here from Colorado with two new eateries. Famed race car driver AJ Foyt and his family recently opened a wine bar and tapas style tasting room cum racing museum directly across from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the famed “Brickyard.” The Foyt Wine Vault brings the best of the award-winning Foyt Family Napa and Sonoma vineyards to the Midwest.
Value: Everyone likes a deal, and when you visit Indy you might think everything is on sale. According to the local tourist board, over the last 12 months, the average daily hotel rate was $112, a pittance compared to pricy metro areas like New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Boston, but also more affordable than Nashville, Austin, Denver, Cincinnati, Kansas City, or Minneapolis. On top of that, so many of the main hotels are new or feel new and are so well located you get even more bang for the buck, and I recently stayed in one of the most over the top choices in the entire city, the hotel within a hotel Conrad Collection Suites on their own floor within the downtown Conrad hotel. Even without the original Picassos, this was one of the nicest hotel suites I’ve seen in this country, and far more swank than say, the Presidential Suite in the Four Seasons Las Vegas, yet the full-blown luxury apartment-style suite typically runs around $650 and goes as low as $400. That is insane. Other top choices are the Westin, JW Marriott, Omni, acclaimed boutique hotel The Alexander, and the newest, the Le Meridien. As Travel + Leisure noted, there are several more notables coming soon. But it’s not just hotels – food, drink and entertainment are all similarly scaled down in price. The rarefied BLT stone hearth pizza at Beard-nominee Hoover’s artisanal Napolese features leeks, taleggio and jowl bacon from the Smoking Goose charcuterie and runs all of fifteen bucks, and for Indy, that’s expensive.
Steak: In their rush to sing its on-trend culinary praises and relish the hipster craft cocktail scene, the nation’s critics have largely overlooked the fact that Indy is one of America’s great red meat cities, especially given its size. The legendary spot and the city’s single most famous eatery is St. Elmo’s, the steakhouse of choice since 1902 and renowned for its signature shrimp cocktail with ultra-spicy sauce. St. Elmo’s has won a James Beard Award and its cellar, with thousands of bottles, earned Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence. They serve a litany of beef styles and cuts, from a “Cowboy” ribeye to grass fed hangar steak to rare bone-in filet, but I like the pork chops as well, sourced from an Indiana family farm, as are the lamb chops. Just down the street is Harry & Izzy’s, a St. Elmo’s spinoff by some of the original restaurant partners and newcomers like former Colts star Peyton Manning, with a hipper more modern feel but a classic steakhouse menu. Wildly popular in Indy, it has two satellite locations including the airport, and also serves the signature “World Famous St. Elmo” shrimp cocktail. Prime 47 is another independently owned downtown steakhouse focused on USDA Prime Beef (about the top 3% of what is available domestically). Char Blue is a southern influenced take on the upscale steakhouse model by another former Colt, Gary Brackett, with a clever focus on fun, like the “Amuse Booze” a small pour complimentary cocktail of the day, beef from Allen Brothers butchers, and oddities like a Hickory Roasted Venison Chop. There is even a branch of one of my personal favorites, Red, The Steakhouse, a great high-end concept (with real imported Japanese wagyu), originally from Cleveland and now Indy by way of Miami’s South Beach. If you are in the mood for one of the nation’s more reliable deluxe steakhouse chains, you can hit Shula’s, Ruth’s Chris, McCormick & Schmick’s, Morton’s, Capital Grille, or Hyde Park Prime.
The craziest thing? All 11 of these top shelf steakhouses are within a few blocks of each other and every top downtown hotel. It’s hard to walk three minutes without passing dry aged beef.
Golf: One of Indy’s best kept secrets is its golf scene, at least beyond private Crooked Stick, where John Daly won his first Major. Crooked Stick is where Indiana native and the most awarded golf course architect of all time, Pete Dye, lives, and Dye has made himself felt all around the city. Most famously this means Brickyard Crossing, his fantastically fun layout that plays in and around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – yes, there are several holes in the infield of the oval track, and since some sort of engine or tire testing goes on nearly every day, you might putt out while the noise rattles your teeth. It’s a one of a kind experience but it is also a great golf course, and in keeping with Indy’s all-around value proposition noted above, the most you can ever pay is $110 with cart which is a great deal. It is the crown of the Pete Dye Golf Trail, seven public Dye-designed courses across Indiana, three of which are in the city. Brickyard Crossing is the best, but there are also Maple Creek and The Fort, a personal favorite of his (Dye told me so himself). For avid players it is worth the drive out to the French Lick Resort, in Southern Indiana, home to Dye’s all-time most challenging design (8,102 yards with an unbelievable 80 rating), which hosted the Senior PGA, and a Donald Ross-designed course that hosted the PGA Championship and remains one of the most affordable Major venues open to the public.
Unique Attractions: What else does Indy offer? Try Newfields, the art campus that includes the Indianapolis Museum of Art, with the nation’s most comprehensive collection of Neo-Impressionist paintings, galleries from Asia, ancient Greece, and South America, and masterpieces by Rembrandt, Cezanne, Picasso, O’Keefe, Hopper, and Lichtenstein; the Lilly House, the 26-are former private estate of the Lilly pharmaceuticals founder and a National Historic Site; and the 100-acre Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park. You know those famous square, red LOVE statues seen in New York and Philadelphia? They are just copies of the real thing by artist Robert Indiana, whose 3-ton original is displayed here. This open-air park campus is one of the biggest attractions, but elsewhere you will find a hodgepodge of fun random things to check out, like the Teeny Statue of Liberty Museum, a kitschy 9-by-16-foot spot jammed full of around one thousand Statue of Liberty-themed pieces. The Indianapolis City Market is worth a visit, with two dozen local food vendors focused on the Midwest and a craft beer tap room with 19 rotating Indiana-made brews on draught. The catacombs beneath the Market are like something you’d expect to find in Rome, more than a century old, with public tours available on 13 Saturdays each year. Speaking of Italy, Indy also has its own downtown canal with gondoliers (really!). You can also rent pedal boats or enjoy the 3-mile round trip pedestrian canal walk, or Sunday morning canal yoga in warm weather. If you’ve seen the movie Jaws, you may be familiar with the story of the USS Indianapolis, sunk on its way back from a secret mission delivering the Atomic bombs to the Japanese theater in World War II, but to really learn this amazing story of American history, visit the USS Indianapolis Memorial. The Indiana Medical History Museum occupies the Pathology Lab at the former Central State Hospital campus, and still displays the autopsy tables, chemicals, and equipment. Less creepy is the award-winning Indianapolis Children’s Museum, consistently named one of the best in the nation. Famous for the life-sized dinosaurs erupting through its exterior walls, in 2018 the New York Times named it One of the Top 10 Coolest Museums in the World – of any type. There is a small museum dedicated to collegiate sports at NCAA headquarters, and also a great auto museum within the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and tours include a bus ride around the famous oval.
More Info: www.forbes.com