Family approved! This underrated city is crammed full of fun
Last week, I asked our community on Facebook to give me some ideas for road trip destinations.
Some of the cities they suggested were familiar. One or two of them, I had never heard of before! (P.S I love when that happens.) The city we're writing about today was not suggested to me at all.
That's the question that has me confused, too. After visiting it ourselves, this city has become one of our go-to recommendations for family road trips. Exploration is not meant to be boring or predictable, which means sometimes, we need to give cities we have never considered a try. Have you been to Indianapolis, Indiana? If you haven't, be sure to read on. If you have, will you help me spread the message to other families?
Tell me: If you have been to Indy, what's your most favorite thing about it?
Friends call me, Indy.
Indianapolis, aka Indy, is a short 4-hour drive from Nashville, TN. A straight shot, you'll pass through other hip, family-friendly cities on the way, like Louisville, KY. Indy is often called Circle City for its popular Monument Circle. It's also referred to as the Crossroads of America, with six interstate highways intersecting right through it. And of course you remember this fun fact from elementary school -- Indy is the state capital!
What's so great about downtown Indianapolis?
But I'm going to give you a list of some of our family's faves. These are things we tried and vetted while visiting Indy. If you’re wondering about what to do in Indianapolis today, our recommendations come kid-tested and family approved!
1. Conner Prairie
An interactive history park. Those were the first words I heard about Conner Prairie. And while my mama heart was excited about my kids learning some history, the traveler in me held my breath and hoped it wouldn't be too much of a snooze-fest for them. Family travel jackpot! Conner Prairie is gem. Walking through villages teaming with people dressed in colonial-style costumes, fully inhabiting their roles and stories was such an appealing way to transfer history to little brains. They sat in a one-room schoolhouse and listened while the teacher discussed the schools supplies required. They visited a home of an elderly woman who abruptly stopped planting tomato plants in her backyard to show us a bowl of molasses on the window sill, her homemade remedy for catching pesky summer flies. My daughter walked through the mercantile store with the "store owner", figuring out the pricing for dress material, tea, and coffee beans. We soared in a vintage balloon, hundreds of feet in the air while catching a glimpse of Indy's skyline miles away. People often think of Virginia when planning for road trips that delve into history. Now, you can add Conner Prairie events to your list. This park is alone is worth the road trip. Be sure to book in the summer or fall, as most of the exhibits are outdoors and closed during the winter.
2. Indianapolis Zoo
This year, we have toured many zoos on the eastern side of the US. The Indianapolis Zoo ranks up there in the mega-zoo category. With rides, a splash pad, and a 4D theater experience, it gets rave reviews as a full zoo experience. My daughter's favorite thing was the dolphin exhibit, however, I think the macaws stole the show. Daily, a flock of macaws put on a show flying from distant trees in another part of the zoo to the main stage. It's a magnificent display. Another unique zoo feature was the orangutan exhibit. Dear Baby Jesus. You'll know what I mean when you see it. Let's just say, they have towering perches high above the zoo. Check out Indianapolis Zoo events when planning your trip.
3. Rhythm! Discovery Center
This was another stop on our itinerary that didn't really translate well on paper: a percussion museum. Yawn, right? But when I looked it up on TripAdvisor, the reviews were off the charts, with people saying they could spend hours there. So, with an open mind, which is basically the best way to travel, we went and discovered what all the hoopla was about. To put it simply: you can bang stuff here. Loudly. All kinds of instruments. You can clang and thwack away to your own unharnessed beat. It's a kids' dream come true, and to be honest with you-- a parent's too. I have always wanted to sit at a drum set and let loose. Sadly, it broke my heart to discover that my air drum skills were not as astounding as my real-life drum playing skills.
4. Downtown Indy, Crowne Plaza's Sleeper Car
This is the place to stay in Indy. I mean it. Book a sleeper car when the rates are low and build your entire trip around those dates. I had to drag my kids out of the room each morning. To them, the sleeper car WAS the destination. They didn't need any more of Indy to be impressed. This train car hotel made them giddy, and I understand why. Seeing real trains in a hotel hallway is enough to make a tiny kid's head explode from wonder. One can't escape the historical significance of this train car hotel, either. Lincoln's body was held here for one night after he was shot. Thomas Edison maintained an office here. Grand Central Station was a main hub for rail travel in the region, and it still operates two working rail lines today!
Tip: If you're a light sleeper, be careful when booking a room; ask for a sleeper car that is furthest from the train lines.
We didn't mind the quiet rumbling of trains at different times during our stay, as it enhanced the experience for us. Spending time in Grand Central Station and the Crowne Plaza was something akin to a history-lover's Disneyland.
5. Children's Museum of Indianapolis
This is the largest children's museum in the country -- oh wait, I mean, the world! With over 1 million visitors a year, this five-floor museum is consistently ranked as Indy's #1 attraction. You could easily block off a good 6 hours here, 3 before lunch and 3 after lunch. There is a food court on-site, but for those families traveling on a budget, you can pack a picnic lunch in a cooler bag and leave it in a locker to avoid a pricey food bill.
You know the mark of a good art museum when your 7- and 8-year old can enjoy it as much as you do. I have been to stuffy art museums where you spend more time walking BETWEEN exhibits than you do seeing exhibits. This place provides a good balance of "experience me" and "please, don't touch." During the summer months, the museum sets up an artsy, outdoor mini-golf course that is included in the cost of admission. There is also a surprise exhibit on the 4th floor, a sort of legendary exhibit that employees on each floor kept encouraging us to check out. Our biggest regret was that we were never able to view this epic mystery. The museum closes promptly at 5:00:00. That's right, not 5:00 and one second, which is when we were at the entrance to the 4th floor mystery. At 5:00 and 3 seconds an employee was blocking our entrance and waving us away. Despite my attempts to shamelessly use my kids' cuteness and my out-of-town travel writer status to bend the steely rule: all exhibits close at 5:00 on the dot. Check the Indianapolis Museum of Art hours here.
My advice: see the 4th floor first.
7. 100 Acres Park
Part of the Museum of Art and included in your admission price, this is a nice way to run off energy after the museum. The kids enjoyed playing on the giant skeleton bones, providing a nice supplement to our homeschool lesson for the day: what are the bones of the axial skeleton? We also spent time spying nature through scopes set up around the park. Unlike the main building, the park does not close at 5:00, so you can spend some time here after the museum closes.
8. Paddle boating Canal Walk
Right smack downtown, you'll find a peaceful canal. You can walk or bike alongside the waterway, or rent a kayak or paddle boat and explore the waters. We opted for a 4-person paddle boat and huffed and puffed along the canal for an hour. Well, that's not entirely true. My kids paddled while I floated. You see, they begged for a turn to pedal. Pleaded, in fact. They swore they could do it with no help from any adults. I told them, I wasn't too sure they could pull it off, but I offered to let them prove me wrong. (*Whisper voice* --That's called Mommy Psychology 101.) I was able to enjoy the little slice of pseudo-European life, passing Italian gondolas and floating happily under city bridges, while my kids energetically paddled away!
9. Capitol Building Tour
We're making an attempt to visit state capitals this year, and we were happy to check this one off the list. In a time when it seems all faith is being lost in government and its officials, I find it a helpful practice to introduce my kids to the buildings, the offices, and the seat of government and work my way backwards. Starting with the ideals, and seeing how frail people attempt to fit those ideals into a broken society has been constructive for us in connecting to the humanity behind the government machine. The capitol building offers complimentary self-guided and guided tours. Unfortunately, the governor was out of town, but that didn't stop one kind tour guide from walking us into the governor's office to show us around.
10. Traders Point Creamery
This place had me at farm-to-table. Swoon. Organic? Yes, please. I'm a fan of helping families connect the dots on where their food comes from. Milk doesn't just appear in jugs at the grocery story. Burgers were not just created in perfectly round patties to be thrown on the grill. Understanding the process of food, what's in season, how everything plays a part in the circle of consumption, these topics go beyond textbook education. These are critical life lessons. Enter Traders Point Creamery, a family-owned business that enhances the Indy travel experience, as much as it does the local community. Make a stop here for fresh, homemade ice-cream and cheeses. Book a reservation to eat dinner on-site at the swanky restaurant, a style I can only summarize as farm chic. Every evening at 6pm, the farm provides an up-close opportunity to watch the cows being milked--for FREE. You can take a leisurely walk around the grounds or peruse the farm market. Whatever you do, be sure to add this country experience to your big-city Indy trip.
So, why Indy?
We feel pretty certain that these activities are a great mix for families with children of varying ages. It's pretty rare to have a city meet that need so gracefully. This is also a great educational trip, as well, with lots of hands-on experiences to make the trip memorable. Let us know if you venture out to Indy. We want to hear all about it!