Weekend Wanderlust: A getaway to the Circle City

A monthly guide to day trips around Ohio and beyond. This month: Indianapolis

Kevin J. Elliott
Bottleworks Hotel in Indianapolis

During the next four months, Weekend Wanderlust will be taking you out of Ohio on a series of summer getaways in metropolitan areas within a three-hour drive of Columbus. Given the logistical snafus that still thwart stress-free international travel, and even domestic air travel, think of this as a guide to staying regional. It’s a way to get reacquainted with some wonderfully dynamic Midwestern cities. This month we head west to the capital of Indiana: Indianapolis.

Pulling into Indianapolis on a perfectly pleasant Friday afternoon, I was determined to discover what it is that makes this capital city distinctive from the rest of the world.

Indy’s grid is familiar, if a bit crooked, with long, flat avenues lined with spartan row houses and bungalows that have, thankfully, yet to disappear. On the near east side we made our first stop at a nondescript architectural salvage in hopes of seeing the Teeny Statue of Liberty Museum, a tiny room filled with the largest collection of miniature versions of the titular statue. It was closed. 

Luckily, what makes Indy distinct is the people – friendly, unfussy and inviting. The employees at Another Fine Mess next door proved the point, unlocking the Teeny museum for us and pointing out the tiniest replica on hand.

As we made our way to our hotel, we noticed house after house adorned with checkered flags. Sure, Indianapolis is home to the NCAA Final Four (Indiana is, after all, the “Land of Basketball”), the NFL's Colts and the NBA's Pacers, but the city truly comes alive during the three weeks in May that lead up to the Indianapolis 500, held annually Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a few miles from downtown. 

“This is the best time of year to live in Indianapolis,” said our chatty, inviting Lyft driver, whose radio was tuned to the GMR Grand Prix, a 500 warm-up race. “It gets even crazier next weekend. It’s just electric here. I love it.”

Kurt Vonnegut mural in Indianapolis

Given the city’s penchant for speed, it has a decidedly laid-back, straight-laced vibe. Indy is endlessly walkable, whether taking a stroll along the central canal (where many of Indianapolis’ interesting museums reside) or on the cultural trail, which boasts eight miles of pedestrian-focused throughways that encircle downtown and highlight the area’s green spaces and historical landmarks.

Should you need an engaging tour of our 19th state, the Indiana State Museum is a great place to start. Much like our Ohio History Connection, the state museum surveys Indiana’s timeline from the prehistoric to present day through three massive floors of interactive displays. Currently there’s an exhibit on Major Taylor, who in 1896 became the first African American cyclist to go professional, touring the world and dominating the competition despite the racism that kept him out of his hometown bicycle shops and clubs.

Two other Hoosiers that Indianapolis loves to claim and celebrate are President Benjamin Harrison and writer Kurt Vonnegut. The former preferred his time as a Civil War general over his brief tenure in the White House. Harrison's home from 1875 until his death in 1901 is now filled with artifacts that detail his indelible link to Indiana history and the few presidential triumphs he achieved, such as securing federal land for the national parks. 

The Kurt Vonnegut Library and Museum, on the other hand, is small but mighty, championing the “principles of free expression and common decency.” Here the acclaimed writer is honored with his own words rather than extraneous exhibits. There’s a room dedicated to his fight against censorship and the efforts to ban his books, and another that magnifies the impact of arguably his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Throughout the city, his likeness and his words adorn the walls and sidewalks.

The Bottleworks District and its flagship Bottleworks Hotel is where my partner and I held court for the weekend. Once a Coca-Cola bottling facility that sat vacant for decades, it has recently been upcycled, restored to all of its art-deco glory, and is an inclusive entertainment complex complete with a theater, a brand-new Pins Mechanical Co., the Garage (a food hall concept) and other amenities that could dissuade visitors from exploring the city any further. The hotel alone is a stunning combination of original 1920s designs and sleek modernity, while the rest of the campus goes beyond the standard-issue mixed-use of an Easton or Bridge Park by building on the original architectural beauty. Plus, it’s located right on Massachusetts Avenue, within walking distance of downtown and most of the attractions worth visiting.

St. Elmo Steakhouse in Indianapolis

The flavor of Indianapolis is best sampled at St. Elmo Steakhouse, and while a bone-in cowboy ribeye seems apt for Indiana, the landlocked capital’s signature dish is the restaurant's world famous shrimp cocktail – not particularly for the seafood, but for the house-made, horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce. A downtown staple since 1902, the popular steakhouse had a long wait when we visited, so we opted to sneak upstairs to the 1933 Lounge, a tasteful faux-speakeasy that makes a mean Sazerac and serves an abbreviated menu, including the aforementioned shrimp delicacy.

On the first night of our getaway, we dined at Root and Bone, opened by Top Chef competitor Janine Booth and her partner, the James Beard-nominated Jeff McInnis, after previous openings in New York, Miami and Puerto Rico. There you can get slightly askew twists on Southern classics. The “drunken” deviled eggs and sweet-tea brined fried chicken are highly recommended. Elsewhere in Indianapolis, you can’t go wrong with a cheap burger at the Workingman’s Friend, a blue-collar diner that has served the industrial east side for over a century. It’s not just the finest burger in Indiana – it may be the best within the entire Midwest. 

Although Indy’s restaurant scene seemed somewhat modest, the cocktail programs and dive bars were extremely impressive. There is nothing like The Inferno Room that I know of in Columbus, Ohio. Of course there are and have been tiki bars in our city, but none with the overall experience and craftsmanship seen here. Within the Inferno Room’s darkened, multi-level treehouse, the drinks are made with barrels of quality rum, fire and magic. We visited a second time before leaving town.

A block away and around the corner, hidden behind an unmarked door, down a hallway and through another unmarked door, is the Commodore. Yes, it’s that elusive – so much so that it just recently showed up on Google Maps. Instead of the barrage of trendy drinks with goofy ingredients, the Commodore puts its own spin on time-tested classics to great effect. The “Hoosier Saturn,” for example, is an Indianapolis-specific recipe of gin, citrus and falernum standard. Absolutely divine. Seek it out.

Winding down the weekend, particularly in the summer, a patio brunch at Milktooth is a perfect way to end a whirlwind visit to Indy. The itinerary could also include a trip to Newfields, the city’s art museum with an adjacent 100 acres of trails and gardens, or Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the largest of its kind in the world. But by Sunday, we were exhausted. Though many aspects of life in Indianapolis feel uncannily similar to Columbus, the change of scenery alone is worth the trip.