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Beyond the Superbowl  XLVI : 10 Incredible Things to See and Do in Indianapolis

By Susan McKee with four original photographs

Even if you’re not heading to the Crossroads of America for the Super Bowl next month, there are many reasons to schedule a stop in Indianapolis. Sure, all eyes will be on Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5, 2012, for the battle between the two top playoff winning football teams, but there’s more to Indy than pigskin.

In fact, the most celebrated sporting event in town doesn’t even involve a ball. I’m talking about the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, said to be the largest single-day spectator event in the world (although, by tradition, the exact count of tickets sold is never released publicly).

This is the first “must do” in Indy: A visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Indianapolis city centerEven if you’re not planning to be in town for the race (set for May 27, 2012), you can head out to the Westside and check out the track any day of the year. If the famed oval raceway isn’t in use for testing, plunk down $5 for a ride around the track on a narrated minibus tour in addition to the $5 for a ticket to get into the Hall of Fame Museum. Some 75 vehicles are on display at any one time, ranging from previous race winners to classic automobiles.

Number two brings you back to downtown. Another nickname for Indianapolis is the Circle City — a moniker earned by the street design downtown (fashioned after the layout of Washington, D.C.). There’s a circle is right in the center of the grid of the Mile Square — it was originally intended to be the site of the Indiana governor’s mansion but no governor’s wife was willing to live in such a visible location . For more than a century, it’s been anchored by the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, dedicated in 1902 to honor those who served in the military. Sit on the steps or climb to the top for a great view of the city. Bonus: Monument Circle is a free Wi-Fi zone.

cultural events ?ndianapolisYour third stop in Indianapolis gives a closer look at an Indy author whose fame was secured quite by accident. Kurt Vonnegut — a third-generation Hoosier — was a German prisoner of war when Dresden was firebombed by the Allies in 1945. His experiences provided the basis of Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade, published in 1969 against the backdrop of the social upheaval during America’s war in Vietnam. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, opened last year in downtown Indianapolis.

By now, you’re probably hungry. Sure, there are all sorts of fancy places to eat in town, but my recommendation for #4 is to try some good, down-home cooking at one of our cafeterias. Jane and Michael Stern, who have turned their Roadfood excursions into a publishing juggernaut, recently called Indianapolis the “nation’s cafeteria nexus” and recommended these three “square meal shrines”: Jonathan Byrd’s in Greenwood (check out the turkey pot pie), Gray Brothers Cafeteria in Mooresville (try chicken and noodles here) or my personal favorite, Shapiro’s Delicatessen just south of downtown Indy. I never order anything there except lox and cream cheese on a bagel followed by strawberry cheesecake, but deli fanatics swear by its corned beef on rye.

A bit of sophisticated culture seems in order at this point, so for number five, roll on out to the spacious grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Not only are there the usual galleries with all the usual paintings, etchings and sculptures you’d expect to see at a major museum, there’s something quite unusual: 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park. An outdoor gallery on (surprise!) 100 acres that includes woodlands, wetlands, meadows and a 35-acre lake, this is one of the largest museum art parks in the country, and the only one to feature the ongoing commission of site-specific artworks. Take the time to wander – – 100 Acres is open every day from dawn until dusk.

?ndianapol?sSpeaking of wandering, Indy also boasts one of the largest municipal parks — Eagle Creek. Legend has it that Daniel Boone carved his initials into a tree not too far from the park’s Nature Center. There are almost 4000 acres of parkland plus 1400 acres of water at this sixth site to visit in Indianapolis. The park is centered on Eagle Creek Reservoir on the city’s northwest side. Visitors can rent pontoon boats, go swimming at a sandy beach, hike on the 22 miles of marked trails, enjoy a picnic lunch or spend a quiet afternoon bird watching.

For number seven, let’s go shopping. Sure there are shopping malls in and around Indianapolis, but for some locally owned options head to Massachusetts Avenue. One of the city’s original Cultural Districts, Mass Ave has a vibe all its own. Look for art galleries, bars and boutiques plus independent eateries along this diagonal street just northeast of downtown. My absolute favorite restaurant anchors the far end: R Bistro. Menus change weekly to take advantage of locally available seasonal ingredients. You might want to stop for a beer at the Rathskeller, in the cellar of the Athenaeum: Das Deutsche Haus (designed by Kurt Vonnegut’s grandfather). This Bavarian-style restaurant and bar is said to be the oldest continually operating eatery in Indy.

Rathskeller VonnegutSpeaking of things cultural, don’t miss a chance to experience Indy’s Cultural Trail — eighth on my list of things to see and do. A unique urban experiment still under construction, the eight-mile trail is a bike and pedestrian path connecting neighborhoods and Cultural Districts (there are five downtown, including Mass Ave) and serves as the downtown hub for the entire central Indiana greenway system. In addition to plantings and benches, there’s informational signage and lots of public art.

Indianapolis means “city of Indians” and you can indeed learn about indigenous cultures in the Circle City. Just meander on over to “must see” site number nine, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. This isn’t a stuffy, historical kind of museum with musty buffalo heads, beaded moccasins and panoramas of the Grand Canyon. There are Western classics by Remington and O’Keeffe to be sure, but check out the artwork by contemporary Native Americans that is showcased along with a wide variety of temporary exhibits. One opening in March, Steel Ponies, explores the art, history and cultures that have developed around the motorcycle.

A personal favorite rounds out the list of 10 things to see and do in Indianapolis: the Children’s Museum. OK, I know what you’re thinking: only visitors with small children would be interested in a stop here. Not true. Adults are just as transfixed as kids by the 26-1/2 foot-tall Water Clock, telling time with 100 metal pieces, 40 glass pieces and 70 gallons of a water/methyl alcohol mixture. Those who love the glass art of Dale Chihuly are fascinated by the 43-foot-tall Fireworks of Glass, his largest permanent sculpture with more than 3,200 pieces of glass in the sculpture itself and an additional 1,600 in the ceiling.

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Susan McKee is an independent scholar and freelance journalist specializing in history, culture and travel.