"This is not the city I grew up in," said Alyssa Starr Newerth, director of advancement at Indy Reads Books, a locally owned bookshop. "So much has changed. People love this city so much now — you can feel it."
There is a feeling that Indianapolis is in the midst of great change. It's not the bumpkin that uninitiated Chicagoans might expect. It feels progressive — some might even say hip — from a larger-than-life Kurt Vonnegut mural overlooking his hometown to "PUPstops" (developed by People for Urban Progress), which are salvaged and refurbished Bush Stadium Seats placed at city bus stops. Though well known for sporting events (Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400, the Colts, Pacers, etc.), it's becoming so much more.
"Indy is certainly known as a sports city, as we've hosted more than 500 international and national sporting events over the last 40 years," said Leonard Hoops, president and CEO of Visit Indy. "Yet it's our arts and cultural offerings that are racing into the forefront."
Aside from the new Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis has been transformed into an immersive and authentic Chinese experience thanks to a new, groundbreaking exhibit, "Terra Cotta Warriors: The Emperor's Painted Army." This exclusive experience, which runs through November, features real warriors and horses from the tomb of China's first emperor. It is the first time the Chinese government is allowing this particular exhibit, with more than 100 artifacts, out of the country.
Rent a bike and hop on the new 8-mile Cultural Trail, which connects all six of Indy's cultural districts and clears the way for more than 4 acres of new landscaping and public art without using any taxpayer dollars. Don't have a bike? No problem. Indy's new bike-sharing program also just launched, with stations of bikes all over downtown and close to the trail, making it easy to hop on and enjoy a ride.
While on the trail, head up Indy's "coolest corridor," Mass Avenue. Here you can pop into Indy Reads Books, the quintessential neighborhood nonprofit shop of used books, with all proceeds going to an adult literacy program. For some eclectic finds, browse Silver in the City, an independent shop full of stylish knickknacks. And for a sweet treat, there's Best Chocolate in Town, where you can sample some goodies handmade on the premises.
Ride your bike over to Indy's canal, which, just like Venice, has gondola rides. The refurbished Canal Walk is a waterside promenade for walkers, runners, bikers and sightseers.
Then there's a place that isn't new but is somehow bypassed by many visitors. "I can honestly say there's no other place like this in the country," said J. Stewart Goodwin, executive director of the Indiana War Memorial and a retired Air Force brigadier general.
The imposing neoclassical memorial made of Indiana limestone stands tall right in the center of the city. Take a moment to head inside and get a tour of the jaw-dropping Shrine Room, made of materials from all over the world, including stately columns of Vermont marble lit with blue glass windows and tiny blue lights overhead mimicking the starry sky.
The Indiana War Memorial Plaza Historic District contains two museums, three parks and 24 acres of monuments, statues, sculptures and fountains in the heart of downtown, making its memorial area second only to that of Washington in acreage and number of monuments dedicated to veterans.
Also launching by the end of the year is the nation's largest electric-car-sharing program, with 500 vehicles and 1,200 charging stations.
Take a ride up one of the city's most renowned boulevards, Meridian Street, gawking at the lovely, historic mansions on your way to charming Broad Ripple, a cultural district of Indianapolis and home of David Letterman. Take brunch at cute Petit Chou. Then enjoy a visit to the free Indianapolis Museum of Art, the nation's seventh-largest art museum and home to the original, iconic Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture. Out back is an amazing "backyard" park called 100 Acres, which includes woodlands, artwork and a 35-acre lake.
Eat and drink
There is a big farm-to-fork movement happening here, thanks to so many nearby farmers and Indy chefs who are increasingly interested in sourcing from their own area. Gastropubs and restaurants such as Recess, Black Market and Bluebeard, which change their offerings regularly depending on the season, have spurred on others to do the same.
Recently opened Plow and Anchor, helmed by a James Beard nominee and former Bluebeard chef, focuses on fresh seafood and local produce. Also making waves are newcomer Thunderbird, with a Southern-inspired menu and killer cocktails, and Union 50 and its chef-driven American cuisine back on Mass Avenue.
Named one of the best bars in the nation in 2013, Libertine is in the heart of downtown and way cooler than you might expect. The dapper mixologists don't miss a beat with their craft cocktails and small plates.
The sleek, year-old Alexander Hotel's centerpiece is its bright lobby filled with modern art commissioned in collaboration with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The state's first LEED-certified hotel is a testament to Indy's new direction with its boutique, artsy vibe.
If you go
Indianapolis is about three hours south of Chicago via Interstate Highway 65. Amtrak runs daily direct service from Chicago (800-872-7245, amtrak.com) with one-way rates about $24.
Best Chocolate in Town, 317-636-2800, bestchocolateintown.com
Black Market, 317-822-6757, blackmarketIndy.net
Bluebeard, 317-686-1580, bluebeardindy.com
Cerulean, 317-870-1320, ceruleanrestaurant.com/Indianapolis
Libertine, 317-631-3333, libertineindy.com
Petit Chou, 317-259-0765, petitechoubistro.com
Plow and Anchor, 317-964-0538, plowandanchor.com
Recess, 317-925-7529, recessindy.com
Thunderbird, 317-974-9580, thunderbirdindy.com
Union 50, 317-610-0234, union-50.com
The Alexander Hotel, 317-624-8200, thealexander.com
Things to do
Blue Indy Carshare, blue-indy.com
Children's Museum, 317-334-3322, childrensmuseum.org
Canal Walk, 317-233-2434, discovercanal.com
Indiana Pacers Bikeshare, 317-653-1948, pacersbikeshare.org
Indianapolis Cultural Trail, 317-454-8525, indyculturaltrail.org
Indy Reads Books, 317-384-1496, indyreadsbooks.org
Mass Avenue, discovermassave.com
Silver in the City, 317- 955-9925, silverinthecity.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun