Indianapolis was once the sleepy state capital of Indiana. Today, it’s still the state capital, but it’s anything but sleepy. There are plenty of fun things to do in Indianapolis with kids. Most are just as much fun for adults. Here’s how to make the most of a weekend in Indy.
2 Days in Indianapolis
As a college journalist, I remember arriving in Indianapolis at 9pm on a weeknight only to find that, literally, nothing was open downtown. We were hungry but couldn’t find an affordable place to eat. (The iconic St. Elmo Steak House was waaaay out of our college newspaper budget.) We ended up buying things wrapped in cellophane from a corner gas station.
So I wasn’t that excited when I was invited to return to Indianapolis about 10 years ago. But, I figured, every place deserves a second chance, right? Boy, has Indy redeemed itself. I’ve since returned three times, most recently in the summer of 2016, and I find more to love on each visit.
There’s plenty to do, and Indianapolis is compact enough to see a lot of it in a weekend visit.
The Indianapolis Canal. Photo by Cindy Richards / Empty Nest TravelingMom
Things to Do in Indianapolis – Start at White River State Park
This is a shining example of urban vision at its finest. In the 1950s, central Indianapolis was home to paper mills, meat packers and other dirty, smelly factories. Those had closed by the 1960s, leaving the center city a dead zone of abandoned buildings. In the 70s, the state legislature created a commission to reclaim the space as pubic land. In 1988, the Indianapolis Zoo moved to the park, followed a year later by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
Today, White River State Park is home to the zoo and the Eiteljorg, along with the Indiana State Museum, an IMAX theater, NCAA Hall of Champions (with interactive sports exhibits on the second floor) and a minor league baseball stadium. It’s also the place to find affordable parking if you drive to town.
Pick a Museum
You only have a weekend, so you won’t be able to do justice to the Indiana State Museum, the NCAA Hall of Champions, and the Eiteljorg. So pick the one that works best for your family and plan to spend at least two hours.
The Indiana State Museum would be my recommendation. It has history. It has art. It has the IMAX Theater. And it has the Farmers Market Café, which is where you should have lunch before moving on to the Indianapolis Zoo. The same caterer serves equally delicious and equally unique meals at the Eiteljorg. So if you opt for an art experience, buy lunch there before moving on.
The NCAA Hall of Champions is the place to pick if you have an athlete in the family. Pick up a scavenger hunt guide at the front desk, the perfect jumpstart to get the kids interested in reading and learning about each of the collegiate sports featured in the museum. (Turn in your answers for a prize before you leave.) The real fun, though, is on the second floor where visitors can kick soccer balls at virtual goals, sink a free throw, and try to strike out a virtual batter. Don’t forget to look up when you walk in the entrance to see the sculpture of the diver.
Things to Do in Indianapolis – Don’t Miss the Zoo
Just a short walk across a bridge decorated in colorful sculptures is the Indianapolis Zoo. It’s the largest privately funded zoo in the country and home to the International Orangutan Center. This remarkable exhibit is included with zoo admission. I could spend hours just watching these magnificent creatures through the glass. A skyline ride gives visitors an orangutan’s view of the world. On the day I visited, the wait was more than 60 minutes in blazing heat and sun. The ride wasn’t worth it.
There’s also a cute roller coaster just right for little ones and other rides and experiences that require an extra fee. The pricing structure is complicated but it’s always cheaper to buy a package deal online before you go.
Getting Around White River State Park
This is a lovely spot for a stroll. But if you’re traveling with kids, there are better ways to get around they likely will want to try.
If you’re visiting with younger kids on a hot day, opt for the paddle boats in the canal that winds through the park. I saw one family of 4 with a very pregnant and overheated mom dragging a foot in the cool waters of the canal while dad and the older son peddled. the younger boy draped himself over the side of the yellow boat, dragging a hand in the water.
On a slightly cooler day, you can rent family bikes (there’s a triple surrey that seats six) to peddle around the park. If you’re feeling ambitious, take a longer jaunt to bike some of the eight miles of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which connects the center city to neighborhoods, cultural districts, and entertainment areas.
Older kids, though, will want to take a spin on a Segway. That’s how we toured the park. Is it fun? Yes. Absolutely. But it does take some getting used to.
TravelingMom Tip: If you’re touring with a group, volunteer to be one of the first ones to climb onto a Segway. That will give you a few minutes to get the feel of the thing before the tour starts. And don’t be surprised when you’re done to find that your feet hurt. Propelling the Segway uses muscles in your feet and lower legs that aren’t used to that sort of work-out.
Things to Do in Indianapolis – Take in a Concert
During the summer, a corner of the lawn along the river is turned into an outdoor concert venue. We saw Weird Al Yankovic. (Great fun. Really. The guy knows how to entertain a crowd!) from the reserved seats way in the back. Those seats can be pricey, although it does include bar service and parking in the adjacent lot. The lawn seating is a better deal for family and the venue is small enough. With a giant screen at the back of the stage, I can’t image there are any bad seats in the house.
Things to Do in Indianapolis – Cheer on the Indy Indians
The Indianapolis Indians are the AAA team for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I’m a baseball fan, but the cost of a major league game has surpassed the budget of many families. For that reason, I like independent minor league games; they’re affordable fun for families. But the baseball isn’t always top-notch. The Indy Indians are a good middle ground—still affordable, still fun, and still pretty darn good baseball.
And, like the majors these days, the food is pretty darn good as well. I ate a Caribbean chicken-pineapple-green-pepper shish-kadog (shish kabob on a hot dog bun) that was delectable. The jerk chicken sauce was just spicy enough to be interesting without being painful. I washed it down with an Indy Indians specialty, the Cove Cooler. It’s Jim Beam with lemonade and peach schnapps. If that’s too food-forward for you, Victory Field also has the traditional selection of hot dogs, giant pretzels, beer and soda.
Where to Eat in Indianapolis
The food scene in Indianapolis has come a long way since my ill-fated collegiate attempt to find an affordable meal. St. Elmo is still the standard bearer for fine dining in downtown Indianapolis. If you happen to be visiting without kids, as I was, definitely head there for one of the signature steaks and super spicy shrimp cocktail.
If you have kids in tow, there’s now another option: Harry & Izzy’s. This St. Elmo offshoot has the same great steaks and incredible appetizers (along with the shrimp cocktail, we sampled the grilled slab bacon with root beer maple glaze. Yum.) in a more casual setting complete with a kids’ menu.
For a more casual bite, head to the High Velocity Sports Bar in the J.W. Marriott, across the street from the Eiteljorg Museum.
Order the pork tenderloin, which I learned on this visit is the Indiana State sandwich. It’s a giant piece of breaded, deep fried pork tenderloin on a brioche bun and topped with slightly spicy jalapeno coleslaw. I headed there on the recommendation of a local who said the High Velocity pork tenderloins are the best in the city. And he said that while he was eating a pork tenderloin at another restaurant! It’s the first pork tenderloin sandwich I’ve ever had, so I can’t say if it’s the best in Indianapolis. But it was dang good.
Where to Stay in Indianapolis
Marriott hotels have taken over a city block across from White River State Park. While I was hosted at the higher end J.W. Marriott, if I had visited with little ones, I would have opted instead to stay next door at the Springhill Suites—more space for less money. And breakfast and wifi are included in the price. (Note that if you stay at one Marriott property, you can access amenities in the other via enclosed walkways and charge your dinner, Starbucks or purchases to your room.)
Getting To and Around Indy
If you stay downtown, you won’t need a car. Indy is super walkable and there’s a bike sharing program if you want to explore further afield, like the 8-mile Cultural Trail. So if you’re flying, save the car rental fee. If you’re driving, fear not. Parking is cheap. Even the high-end hotels charge less than $40 a day for parking. There’s metered parking available on the streets. But perhaps the best urban parking deal anywhere is at the underground White River State Park parking garage. In summer 2016, the 24-hour rate was a measly $10.