At 12:45 pm ET on May 28, 2023, the Indy 500’s green flag waved and with a roar of the engines, the 107th running of the world’s largest single-day sporting event, the Indy 500, began. Little more than 24 hours later, our family of six – three adults, three children, and three generations arrived by car for three nights from Nashville to Indianapolis’s iconic speedway and pronounced it perfect timing. The participants: me, my daughter Kathryn and her family – husband Mark, Cassius (age 10), Laney (age 8) and Quinn (age 6).
A Thrilling Introduction to Indianapolis
With energy from a day earlier still palpable, our intro to the famous setting of the city’s renowned event set the tone. Upon boarding a bus and driving onto the 2.5-mile oval circuit, it was impossible not to reimagine overflowing stands and the crowd of cars circling the track at speeds greater than 200 mph hours ago. We experienced the racecourse’s four turns (the last deemed the most challenging), disembarked the vehicle and saw contender Roman Grosjean bike past. Our guide gave the kids fresh-from-the-race tire remnants. And when lying atop the asphalt surface – the winner’s tradition – to kiss the Yard of Bricks start/finish line like Josef Newgarden did to mark his 2023 victory by a mere .0974 of a second, let’s just say it was thrilling.
Our Indy 500 experience continued when checking into downtown’s JW Marriott Indianapolis – the race’s host hotel – to the accompaniment of international camera crews and prestigious guests arriving to attend the annual Victory Celebration (a dinner so lengthy, we watched it from our rooms both pre- and post-dinner).
I admit it, had we returned to Nashville the next morning, I would have been a forever fan of Indianapolis (or “India” as Laney initially referred to this new destination). But beyond the Indy 500 and our initial intro to this city with its surround-sound-like décor of the race’s traditional black-and-white checkerboard motif, it offers much more – especially for a multi-generational group.
Beyond the Indy 500
So, let me introduce you to the nation’s 16th largest city, its many perks and how to optimize a four-day visit. Called Mile Square, small and safe best describes its compact downtown, with no visible homeless and no boarded-up storefronts. With no hills as well, it’s easily bikeable and walkable.
There is a plethora of museums (including President Benjamin Harrison’s home) and the Indiana State Capitol – a building of exceptional architectural beauty that houses the state’s general assembly, office of the governor and the Indiana Supreme Court.
Tip: If there’s no time for a guided tour of the Capitol, make time for a quick walk-in to stand beneath its rotunda and look up at the stunning blue stained-glass dome.
More Downtown Experiences
Knowing its reputation as a cycling city, we hopped onto bikes to explore it. After bringing the kids’ helmets from home and renting bikes to follow the Cultural Trail (eight miles connecting downtown’s six cultural districts), we previewed a number of the city’s niche neighborhoods – an activity Quinn later deemed her favorite.
Again, our in-the-center-of-everything location at the JW Marriott (noted as one of the world’s largest and most luxurious of the brand) provided prime access to everything – including the Indianapolis Zoo. Recognized as one of 2023’s top 10 nationally ranked zoos, our walk through the butterfly exhibit entrance was a preview of experiences to come – Cassius (a self-avowed bear protector) visited the zoo’s resident Alaskan brown bear, the girls observed the elephants being bathed and all were able to get up close and personal to kangaroos in their walk-in enclosure.
The icing on this downtown center’s cake is that a river actually runs through it. White River State Park showcases a three-mile canal loop dotted with Swan pedal boats and gondolas, flanked by bike paths and lined with restaurants and museums including the Indiana State Museum and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. It is a lively downtown.
Discoveries Beyond Downtown
However, outside its urban core is the world’s largest museum dedicated to kids – The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Having received such accolades as one of the “top museums worth traveling for,” we knew we’d arrived when we spotted the life-size dinosaur replica peering into the building. Here, the girls acted as news anchors with their brother, Cassius, behind the camera; all (including mom) tested their Minecraft skills and Quinn (appropriately wearing her cowgirl boots) practiced farming maneuvers.
Tip: With five floors chock full of exhibits and interactive experiences, pre-establish a game plan to get the most from your visit.
It was during our discovery of another city district that we found two hands-on activities. The first was to make our own glass-art souvenirs at Indy Fused Glass, whose brochure promises “you don’t need to be a pro to create beautiful glass pieces.” And the delicious follow-up, also within the Circle City Industrial Complex, was chocolate tasting and drop candy making at SoChatti.
Dining and Shopping
Indianapolis’ food scene extends far past one’s sweet tooth to fare that is eclectically creative. On its menu, Union 50 has baked clam stuffie, kimchi meatloaf and beef tartare with quail egg and horseradish crema. A visit to Garage Food Hall equates to an around-the-world culinary trip. Choose from British-style fish and chips at The Harbour, Argentinian empanadas at Panada and everything Greek at Mama FoFo’s. At Harry & Izzy’s – sister restaurant to Indy’s legendary St. Elmo Steak House (a downtown landmark and favorite of Payton Manning and David Letterman) – there’s the same prime beef and world-famous St. Elmo’s shrimp cocktail. Though more family-oriented, its classic, back-in-the-day vibe includes high ceilings, dark wood accents and a wall of wines.
Tip: Go to Mass Ave for one-of-a-kind shopping and keep an eye out for Indy’s distinctive public art.
At the visit’s end, our Indianapolis scorecard teemed with so many neck-and-neck winners from culture, cuisine and children to museums and motorways that the tally was simple – too many attractions, too little time.
So, my best advice on arrival: “Gentlemen, start your engines.”