Race to Indy for fab food, urban trails and a run-in with a yeti
Recently, we spent three days discovering Indianapolis and determined that, in general, it felt somewhere between Milwaukee and Chicago in size and vibe.
With roughly 800,000 people, Indy is actually closer to Milwaukee's population of just under 600,000 as opposed to Chicago's 2.5 million, but when walking and driving around, it felt like the Midwestern love child of the Windy and Brew Cities.
We had never been to Indy before, so we really weren't sure what we'd find or what we'd think of the city, but after a long weekend and a lot of investigating, we came home eager to share our findings with Milwaukeeans who might want to give Indy a whirl.
"Even as the nation's 13th largest city, first-time visitors are always surprised to see just how abundant the cultural offerings are in the city," says Morgan Greenley, senior communications manager for Visit Indy. "We're more than just racing."
Indianapolis was co-designed by Alex Ralston, who had previously assisted Pierre L'Enfant as he designed Washington, D.C. and, consequently, the layouts of the two places are often compared.
For Indianapolis, Ralston created a circular Downtown design that originally was to include the governor's mansion, but instead became the location of the city's now-famous Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.
Hence, the city is sometimes called The Circle City, and other times Naptown, but it is more commonly nicknamed simply, Indy.
In the '80s and '90s, Indy faced many of the same challenges as many other medium-sized cities, including urban decay and "white flight." However, at the end of the 20th century, the Downtown neighborhood underwent a major revitalization effort which has allowed the city to host numerous large-scale conventions and sporting events, including the Indianapolis 500 and the Big Ten Conference football games.
Perhaps the most impressive and innovative aspect of the city is the Cultural Trail, an eight-mile urban path for bikers and pedestrians that was completed in 2013 and connects the city's five downtown districts, neighborhoods and entertainment offerings.
From its inception, the Cultural Trail was dedicated to supporting public art and more than $2 million in private funding was allocated to allow for many public art displays along the trail.
One of the most appealing aspects of road tripping to Indianapolis is how easy it is to get there. With only 280 miles between the two cities, we made it there from Milwaukee in under four hours without any major traffic issues either way.
It is also a fairly easy city to navigate and, best of all, we found the parking to be cheap or free and plentiful.
Also, even though it is just a few hundred miles to the south of Milwaukee, Indianapolis' March weather was 10-15 degrees warmer the entire time, with one of the days during our four-day visit reaching into the 70s.
There are many hotel and motel options in Indianapolis, including the 1,005-roomed JW Marriott, which is why the city is able to welcome such large conventions. (In 2003, GenCon, the largest gaming convention in North America, moved from Milwaukee to accommodate the massive increase in attendees.)
We stayed at the smaller, more boutique-y Conrad Indianapolis and had a fantastic experience.
The five-star hotel is a mix of history and contemporary luxury (case in point: there was a television in the our bathroom) with an eclectic collection of art in the lobby, hallways and rooms.
"We pride ourselves on offering both world class and local art," says Jacqueline Cromleigh, the Conrad's PR and marketing manager.
We spent an evening at Tastings chatting with Cromleigh. We had enjoyed self-serve wine in Milwaukee at Black Sheep, however with 150 different wines on tap, Tastings is the sommelier's or amateur sommelier's smorgasbord.
Tastings also offers small plates, including delicious, moist crab cakes.
The Conrad staff was so genuinely fun and friendly that we sought out their input and conversation on numerous occasions.
Conrad concierge Lee Ann Parrotte provided print-outs of maps, but even more valuable, the kind of local insider information that is gold to us. With a solid and insightful understanding of Indianapolis neighborhoods, she was able to suggest locales that were not already on our radar.
"There's an unmatched heart and soul in the Fountain Square neighborhood," says Parrotte. "And I hope it stays."
And indeed, our visit to the Fountain Square neighborhood was one of the high points of our weekend. The neighborhood is just southeast of Downtown and home to a funky mix of entertainment offerings, galleries, studios and living spaces. It reminded us of Milwaukee's Walker's Point neighborhood.
Fountain Square Theatre Building features bars, restaurants and two duckpin bowling facilities. Action Duckpin Bowling – a 1930s vintage alley that's similar to Koz's Mini Bowl in Milwaukee but has eight lanes and electric as opposed to human pinsetters. Also, Atomic Bowl – a '60s-style alley — is located in the building.
Across the street, Funkyard Cafe features coffee, tea, gelato, local art and second-hand books and records. We spent an hour or so people watching and witnessed this great conversation between two 30-something men.
"Can I borrow that Etch-A-Sketch?" one man asked, nodding to the toy on the table.
"Absolutely," the second man said, handing it to him.
On the topic of coffee shops, we also visited Bee Coffee Roasters, a hand-brewed coffee and espresso shop with two locations. It reminded us of Milwaukee's Valentine Coffee and we took home a pound of beans as our souvenir.
We also took home a variety of peculiar sodas from Rocket Fizz including hot chicken wing, peanut butter, cookie dough, ranch dressing and jelly and pumpkin pie. We don't recommend the chicken wing variety, but the others were oddly tasty.
Must-visit Fountain Square nightspots include intimate live music venue Radio Radio and the burlesque and bingo bar, White Rabbit Cabaret.
Our other favorite Indianapolis watering holes were the Slippery Noodle Inn, the oldest continuously operating bar in Indiana that once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the Red Key Tavern, which we stumbled into simply because the vintage neon sign was appealing.
Located in what's referred to as the SoBro neighborhood (south of the party-hardy Broad Ripple 'hood), the Red Key has been around for 63 years and three generations. Dusty model airplanes still hang from the ceiling and Bing Crosby's still blasting from the jukebox. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)
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