Finding the Indie in Indy

Nicknamed the Crossroads of America for the several major highways that intersect there, Indianapolis is less than a day’s drive for more than half of the U.S. population.

It also touts the most well-connected convention center in the country, with close to 5,000 rooms within a quick skywalk stroll of the Indiana Convention Center. Plus, the city’s grid-like layout is easy to navigate, and meeting planners have a cluster of beautiful venues to choose from.

But what gives Indy its flavor, its quirks, its je ne sais quoi? In April, during a three-day visit hosted by Visit Indy, I set out to discover what makes Indy tick.

My first stop, at Hotel Tango Artisan Distillery, hit the nail on the head. Locals Travis and Hilary Barnes opened the business in September 2014, turning an 1890s-era carriage-repair shop into a rustic, open space that houses both a comfortable bar and the distillery. (Groups of up to 250 can rent out the entire space.) Crafting gin, vodka, rum, limoncello, and moonshine (and soon whiskeys), the distillery is at the center of Indy’s emerging Fletcher Place neighborhood, just a few minutes from downtown.

I returned to Fletcher Place the next day for brunch at Milktooth, an adorable converted-garage breakfast diner run by an even more adorable couple, Ashley and Jonathan Brooks. Jonathan, who Food & Wine just named one of 10 “culinary superstars of tomorrow,” laces his lighthearted but seriously creative menu with traces of childhood nostalgia, like sweet-tea-glazed fried chicken wings and Dutch pancakes served with ham from local meatery The Smoking Goose.

It was during my second morning exploring downtown by bike with Nathan Smurdon of ActiveIndy Tours that I found yet another example of creative energy fueled by young locals. A longtime resident and a former national sales manager at Visit Indy, Smurdon in 2012 started ActiveIndy Tours, which offers guided tours for biking groups of up to 60 and walking groups of up to 150. We mostly stuck to the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an eight-mile pedestrian pathway that connects Indy’s six cultural districts, stopping to check out the many monuments, museums, and art installations along the way.

Therein lay my next surprise — Indy has a rich, and growing, arts scene that has seeped into some unexpected places. For example, The Alexander is more art gallery than hotel, and at Conrad Indianapolis, four new art-themed luxury suites feature signed works by Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. 21c Museum Hotels, an art-focused chain of boutique properties, has announced plans to redevelop Old City Hall into a hotel as well.

My last hotel stop of the trip, Le Méridien Indianapolis, took a restaurant-first, property-second approach when it opened in late 2014. The boutique leans toward smaller corporate groups, offering them unique hyper-local amenities like customized cocktail barrels — miniature barrels that instead of whiskey are filled with cocktails made with liquors from Indy favorite Hotel Tango.

Jennifer N. Dienst

Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.