Saturday, 23 June 2012

Indianapolis: Cars, cream pie... and culture

'Where are you going on holiday this summer then?'
'Oh, right'. [pause] 'Why?'

For the past few months, every time anyone has asked me that question beloved of hairdressers, I've watched their facial expressions change to confusion at my reply and fielded numerous enquiries as to why I'd chosen the Hoosier heartland over... well, anywhere else, really. When Brits go to the USA on holiday, they opt for a long weekend of cocktails and culture in the Big Apple, a fly-drive to Florida or maybe even a multi-stop trip to California's hotspots. But ten days in the midwest? Apparently that's not a particularly common (or even comprehensible) vacation.

Why had I chosen to visit Indianapolis over America's other attractions, or even a European destination? Simple: to see my friend Vicki, who relocated there earlier this year. In addition to visiting her, it seemed like a great opportunity to get to know a city I probably would never have been to otherwise. After all, Indianapolis's pin isn't very prominent on the world tourist map. But as I discovered, it's all the better for it.
The event that puts Indy on the world map

As a city with a population of 830,000, Indy isn't exactly off the beaten track, but nor is it a bustling metropolis playing host to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Well, with the exception of the final week in May, when the city prepares for the main event in its calendar: the Indy 500. Entirely by accident, I'd managed to book a flight arriving the evening before the big race. Keen to capitalize on my lucky booking, we bought tickets for the race. In the week leading up to 'the greatest spectacle in racing', Indy puts on a festival with a range of racing-related events, including vintage car laps and a street parade. Unfortunately I missed out on these activities, but the atmosphere on race day itself made up for it. As the biggest one-day spectator sport event in the world, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (to use its official title) draws vistors from all over the globe, including two unsuspecting girls from the north west of England. Put simply, it was overwhelming: foot and four-wheel traffic swarmed towards the Speedway, loaded down with refreshments to last through a long day in the blazing sun.

Ask a Brit for their impression of America, and the word 'big' will crop up somewhere: big country, big roads, big portions. The scale of the Indy 500 definitely fell into this category. In the build-up to the race, more than a degree of patriotism was on show, with renditions of 'America the Beautiful' and the national anthem accompanied by much heart-clutching and hat removing. It certainly wasn't something you'd see in Britain, but the level of evident national pride was quite humbling. When the race finally began, we sat back and watched the 33 cars tear around the track for 3 hours. As clueless individuals whose knowledge came from a quick run-down from Vicki's long-time Indy resident cousin and a few facts gleaned from the official programme, we found our interest came and went in waves: lead changes and crashes sparked it, but our picnic diverted it. The final few laps were undeniably gripping though, with a crash and a last-minute lead change signalling victory for Scottish driver Dario Franchitti. For a full account of the race, read my article on The Travel Belles.

I've got my sights set on the 2013 title

Despite our lack of racing savvy, the Indy 500 was an incredibly enjoyable spectacle. Keen to learn a little more about the history of IndyCar racing and the Speedway itself, we returned a few days later to tour the Hall of Fame and take a spin around the track (on a bus rather than in Franchitti's car, unfortunately). Established in 1909, the Speedway is part of Indy's cultural landscape. But Indy also had plenty to offer on a more typically cultural level, as I found when we explored downtown. Set around a network of canals, downtown Indy is surprisingly small-scale. Of course, there are a number of skyscrapers, impressive government buildings and the awe-inspiring Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, but the centre is relatively compact and easily walkable. Studded with shops, restaurants, sports stadiums and theatres, downtown Indy has plenty to keep both tourists and locals occupied for days.

The waterways that form part of the Canal & White River State Park are an ideal starting point for a cultural exploration of Indy, with a number of museums backing onto the canals. I wandered into the Indiana Historical Society (admission $7), a history museum that's far from fusty. With permanent exhibitions covering different aspects of Indiana's past, the museum's real draw is its 'You are there' areas. I wandered into the 'Busted! Prohibition Enforced' exhibition unsure of what to expect. A friendly attendant explained that the museum's 'You are there' exhibitions use an old photograph illustrating a moment key to an aspect of Indiana's history and recreate the scenario in and around that photograph with the help of period props –and live actors. Stepping inside a recreation 1920 police station, I was greeted by a 'detective' who had recently discovered the state's largest producer of moonshine. He talked me through the crimes of the liquor producer, before taking me into the cells to meet him prior to his trial. A little acting was also required on my part, as I thought up questions to ask both the officer of the law and the reprobate. It's a fun way of bringing history to life, and would certainly help to maintain kids' interest in a museum visit.

The country house at Indianapolis Art Museum

Thankfully for me, no acting was required at any of Indy's other museums, which include the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art and the Indiana State Museum. A few miles out of town, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (free admission) provides over two hundred acres of respite from the city: in addition to the modern, light-filled museum, there's also a country house, formal and informal gardens and a 100-acre art park featuring commissioned artworks. Those who find typical art galleries dull will love the interactive nature of the art park, which actively encourages exploration and offers a space for families to play and picnic in addition to soaking up a bit of culture. There's also an on-site café offering sandwiches, soups and other light fare.

As you'd expect from a state whose signature dish is sugar cream pie, much of the food available in Indy doesn't exactly fall into the 'healthy' category. As something of a food-lover, I was impressed with the range of cuisines available, with everything from tapas to burritos to hearty American cooking on offer, as I'll be exploring in a future post.

The Monument

An uncommon holiday destination Indy might be. But an incomprehensible one? It shouldn't be. Down to earth, low-key but with a packed cultural and sporting calendar plus plenty of affordable eateries, Indianapolis is a perfect place for a vacation if you ask me.


  1. I love it that you visited part of the US in between the two coasts. I've never even been to Indianapolis and am glad to have learned more about it! There's a lot of space and people between NY, CA and Florida, and I'm sure this visit gave you quite a different understanding - we're a diverse place, huh?

  2. Very diverse! It's made me keen to see more. I'm really glad I went somewhere less 'obvious' this time though. More Indy posts coming up...

  3. Sounds like a great place to visit

  4. I like your travelling account so much- it reminded me how tired I am with the stress at work and how I lost my bond with nature and with pleasant emotions in life. I think it is high time for me to plan a trip and shake off the tension from me.


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