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Scratching the surface in 36 hours

By Kate Silver, Special to Tribune Newspapers

7:32 PM EST, November 4, 2012

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INDIANAPOLIS — Thirty-six hours. One hundred-and-eighty three miles from Chicago. Fifty thousand (plus!) works of art. One breaded pork tenderloin sandwich.

What's with the numbers? Google Indianapolis and see for yourself. Everywhere I look — the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association (visitindy.com), museum websites, hotel sites — numbers, rankings and nicknames seem central to the Hoosier tongue.

Indianapolis is the 12th-largest city in the U.S. and the anchor of a nine-county metro area in central Indiana. The "Racing Capital of the World" sits at the "Crossroads of America" and is home to six cultural districts, five of which are connected by 7.5 miles of bike paths. Every year 22 million people visit here and spend about $3.56 billion, supporting the 66,600-strong hospitality industry.

Of course, numbers alone can't possibly do a city justice, so I decided to see for myself. Having heard about a growing arts and cultural scene, I designated 36 hours to exploring the visual and edible side of Indianapolis. Here's what I brought home.

Friday, noon arrival

First stop, Broad Ripple Village, just north of downtown. Look past Subway and Applebee's, and you'll find a walkable neighborhood with inviting bicycle paths, charming bungalows that have been converted into shops and galleries and what is touted as the city's only independent, general interest bookstore, Big Hat Books.

Famished, I made a beeline for Plump's Last Shot. That seemed like an odd name for a restaurant, until I learned that it was opened by Bobby Plump, who made history with his winning basket at the 1954 Indiana state basketball championship, a victory that inspired the movie "Hoosiers."

Dark and a bit worn, the bar/restaurant is filled with sports memorabilia from back in the day. But it's the Hoosier Tenderloin that holds my attention. This breaded pork tenderloin sandwich is considered by some to be Indiana's culinary claim to fame (Indiana is the fifth-largest producer of pork in the nation), and judging by this Plump-wich, I bit. Imagine a chicken-fried steak, multiply its size by two, substitute the other white meat and put it on a bun, and you've got a delectable mess of Midwest farm fare.

Afternoon exercise and art

Having read about the cyclist-friendly vision for Indianapolis, I brought along my bicycle. I hopped on the Central Canal bike trail and pedaled along the protected lane, following a crushed-limestone path along the canal, toward the 152 acres that make up the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, one of the 10 largest encyclopedic art museums in the nation ("encyclopedic," meaning it's home to art spanning all cultures and periods).

Sculptures stipple the property, the most intriguing of which is "Indy Island," a small, white igloolike island in the middle of a lake, which is actually home to an artist-in-residence or two during the summer. Inside the museum it just keeps getting better. Sophisticated yet accessible, the art ranges from ancient (ceramics from the Mediterranean) to modern (a translucent bridge held up by thousands of small plastic figurines), serious (the Musha-e exhibit of Japanese Warrior Prints) and fun (a fashion exhibit with a dress made entirely of gold safety pins).

For its depth, variety, size and tranquillity, I would put this museum on par with the best I've ever seen anywhere. If it weren't for my dinner reservations, I could have spent the entire day there and still not seen it all.

Digs and dinner

I returned to the car and headed to my hotel, the JW Marriott Indianapolis Downtown, which, appropriately, also has a number of rankings to which it lays claim. It's not only the tallest hotel in Indiana (375 feet and 34 stories), it's the largest JW Marriott in the world (1,005 guest rooms) and home to one of the largest Marriott ballrooms in the world (40,500 square feet). It's also a work of art in itself.

The lapis-blue structure juts like an exclamation mark into Indiana's skyline, adding a modern splash of architecture to the city. From my room on the 29th floor, I got an even better perspective of Indy. I saw directly into the baseball diamond at Victory Field, traced the canal system, spotted the NCAA Hall of Champions and gained a fuller appreciation of the size of the 12th-largest city in the country.

Dinner is at Recess, a farm-to-table restaurant that locals will tell you has helped advance the culinary scene. The four-course, prix-fixe menu changes daily: recent highlights have included Gloucester scallops, Viking lamb rib-eye and veal strip loin, along with decadent French-inspired sauces. On the night I was there, everything from the salad with Manchego cheese to the fork-tender bison steak was spot-on. Couple that with a deep wine list and affordable Indiana prices (it was $56 for four courses), and Recess should be a part of any gastronaut's itinerary.

Touring the town

Hopping on my bike, I acquainted myself with the city, circling through downtown, past the Indiana Convention Center & Lucas Oil Stadium and downtown's Habitrail-like series of connecting pedways, around Circle Centre Mall. I made my way to Monument Circle, riding around the brick-lined streets to admire the towering Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, only to be distracted by a whiff of chocolate from the South Bend Chocolate Co.

I stopped in for a mocha made with its famous sweet-and-a-little-bit-salty dark hot chocolate, topped with whipped cream and a cherry. It's hearty enough to qualify as breakfast. Then I pedaled a few blocks northwest to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis, and this small library/bookstore/museum has some pretty nifty trinkets from his day, such as his art, his typewriter and a rejection letter from a publisher calling his humor too heavy-handed.

Cultural path and fountain square

As noon approached, I followed my nose to the wood-burning smells of Coal Pizza Co. and savored a delicious margherita pizza made with hand-pulled mozzarella.

Then I was off to the city's Cultural Path, a bike lane that took me about two miles, to the artsy Fountain Square neighborhood. I wandered past the original Fountain Square Theatre Building, which dates to 1928 and is now home to bars, restaurants, two duckpin bowling alleys and an inn, all with a rockabilly flair. After window-shopping at a few antique stores and boutiques (admiring a series of purses made from old vinyl records), I decided that this is where I would live if I ever moved here.

As the sun started to nod off, I pedaled back to the car and hit those famous crossroads from the Circle City to the Windy City. Even after a packed trip, I know there still are a number of galleries, restaurants and even a Museum of Miniatures Houses in Carmel, a near north suburb, that I missed. They'll have to wait until next time.

If you go

Coal Pizza Company, 317-685-2625, coalpizzacompany.com, $8 - $16 per 8-inch or 12-inch pizza

Indiana Cultural Trail, indyculturaltrail.org

Indianapolis Museum of Art, 317-923-1331 imamuseum.org, free

Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, 317-652-1954, vonnegutlibrary.org, free

JW Marriott, 866-704-6162 marriott.com/hotels/travel/indjw-jw-marriott-indianapolis starting at $244/night

Plump's Last Shot, 317-257-5867, brickyardmarketing.wix.com/plumps-last-shot, $7-$10 entrees

Recess, 317-925-7529, recessindy.com, $56 per person, four-course meal

South Bend Chocolate Company, 317-951-4816, sbchocolate.com, mocha $3.50-$4.50

ctc-travel@tribune.com