The roar of the cars and crowds is an iconic start to summer for many as they flock to Indianapolis for the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend. But a 213-mile trip east on I-72 and I-74 yields many other delights, including dinosaurs, a gondola ride, LOVE and the spiciest appetizer around.
Nate Swick, senior communications manager with Visit Indy, says the Motor Speedway Museum inside the oval track can be fun even for those who aren't race groupies. Open all year, the museum offers a bus tour on the track, tons of old racecars and displays on the speedway's history. Memorial Day weekend may not be the best time to visit the museum, however, he warns.
Any time is good to experience one of the city's top draws, the five-story Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the world's largest. "It is a must-see for all ages," Swick says, with certain nights reserved for adults only. The museum is just north of downtown.
Dinosphere, with life-size replicas and a real dinosaur bone, is the most popular exhibit while a 7 ½-acre sports experience outside gets kids (and adults) moving, Swick says. A Minecraft exhibit also has been popular, but it closes at the end of May. A more serious section, The Power of Children, celebrates inspiring children.
North of that museum is another worth a visit. Newfields combines the Indianapolis Museum of Art with a chance to experience nature on 152 acres. Swick calls it one of the top 10 art museums in the country. It is also home to Robert Indiana's original LOVE sculpture. The sculpture, spelling out the word in giant letters, used to sit outside but has been moved indoors to preserve it.
If you hurry, you can catch an interactive Monet and friends exhibit in the Newfields' Lume gallery before the show ends May 28. Guests enter a large room where Impressionist art is illuminated on the walls and floor, inviting you to sit, lie down or wander around to take it all in. Several other major exhibits open later in the summer and the grounds are alive with water features, woodlands, lakes and meadows, making the season a good time to visit.
Farther south is the 250-acre White River State Park, which hosts several attractions, including Indianapolis Zoo, Indiana State Museum, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art, NCAA Hall of Champions, an amphitheater for summer concerts and plenty of green space. The zoo is smaller than those in St. Louis and Brookfield but can entertain for a few hours.
The Eiteljorg will feature its annual Indian Market and Festival June 24-25, and an ongoing Dorothea Lange photography exhibit runs through Aug. 6. "We are really lucky to have a museum like this. It is unique to the Midwest, as most like it are in the West," Swick notes.
He says his favorite part of the state park is the canal, where visitors can rent paddleboats, engage a gondolier to float along or walk, run or bike the path alongside the canal. Just north of the park, near the core of downtown, a new opportunity to enjoy the river opens in May. Several years of work to make the White River recreationally clean is paying off as this is the first year would-be paddleboarders and kayakers can rent gear to enjoy the water.
Another west-side park, Riverside, is the venue for summer Shakespeare performances in July and September.
All this activity is sure to make visitors hungry, and Swick says you may not want to leave town without trying one of the most popular dishes in Indianapolis, a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich. He says many restaurants vie for attention by serving the massive piece of meat on a small bun.
If you want to stake a claim for setting your taste buds on fire, order the St. Elmo shrimp cocktail, served as the only appetizer at St. Elmo Steak House, a downtown tradition since 1902. Swick says a Travel Channel writer deemed it the world's spiciest dish, owing largely to the horseradish, freshly shaved daily. A sister restaurant, Harry & Izzy's, also serves the appetizer and has branches on the north side and airport.
Fans know Indianapolis for sports other than motor racing, too. Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the NFL's Colts, looms large near I-70 downtown. The Pacers' NBA team and the WNBA Fever are hometown favorites. The NCAA Hall of Champions at White River might be a good summer stop while the pro teams are on break.
But come Memorial Day weekend, you can bet speed and sound dominate the city's attention.
For more information, go to visitindy.com.
Mary Bohlen, a Springfield travel writer and former University Illinois Springfield journalism professor, attended the Indy 500 as a teenager and still remembers the noise from the cars and crowd.