Often compared to the National Mall, White River State Park covers 250 acres in the heart of the city. Pedestrian paths lead along the White River and the Central Canal to some of the city's best-known cultural sites, including museums, monuments, art galleries, the zoo and botanical gardens. Here too are public lawns, sports venues and Victory Field, ranked one of the best minor-league ballparks in the country. You can rent a bicycle, surrey or paddleboat to explore; the visitor information center on Washington Street provides maps and brochures.
On the north side of the park, the Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial features 27 curved glass walls etched with the names of recipients of the nation's highest award for military valor, dating back to the Civil War. A good time to visit is at dusk, when lights illuminate the walls, one at a time, and a half-hour recording tells soldiers' stories.
Across the canal is Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. Indianapolis businessman Harrison Eiteljorg began traveling in the Southwest in the 1940s, and this pueblo-inspired building houses his life-long collection of paintings, sculpture, pottery, basketry, beadwork and weavings. Later acquisitions have made the museum one of the finest of its kind in the world, with signature pieces ranging from Frederic Remington's bronze “Bronco Buster” to treasured objects from Indiana's indigenous tribes.
Discover more heritage and culture next door at the Indiana State Museum. Here is hands-on history—not the dry and boring stuff—with more than 400,000 artifacts, dozens of multimedia displays and a six-story IMAX Theater. Highlights of this attraction include art, fossils, clothing, furniture, toys, minerals and prehistoric tools. The modern building, made of native limestone, is itself a work of art.
Exotic animals roam 64 acres in the western half of White River State Park at The Indianapolis Zoo. This attraction is recognized for its conservation programs and cageless habitats. You'll see lions and tigers and bears, of course, but also more unusual exhibits like the meerkat desert biome and the underwater dolphin-viewing dome. White River Gardens, part of the zoo, is an oasis of flowered pathways, fountains and horticultural displays. Experts are here to answer your gardening questions (are you over-watering your dieffenbachia?), and colorful butterflies drift through the Hilbert Conservatory from late March through Labor Day.
Sports fans at the park will make a hundred-yard dash to the NCAA Hall of Champions. Interactive kiosks, games, exhibits and theater presentations focus on what it takes to be a successful college athlete. Take your pick of 23 sports, from baseball and basketball to water polo and wrestling. You can even practice your jump shot in a 1920s-era gymnasium.
As the “Amateur Sports Capital of the World,” it's only fitting that Indianapolis should be home to the country's largest collection of sports-related art. The National Art Museum of Sport is a mile north of the Hall of Champions on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. An oil portrait of Larry Bird, a bronze bust of Yogi Berra and pen-and-ink sketches by LeRoy Neiman are among more than 800 pieces decorating the lobbies and corridors of University Place.
Indianapolis became the state's official capital in 1825, and the Indiana State House is a stately symbol of Hoosier pride. The 1888 Renaissance Revival building, which anchors the 9-acre capitol complex, is home to all three branches of government. You can take a tour of the State House with a guide—and see the Governor's Office, the House and Senate Chambers and the Supreme Court—or pick up a self-guiding brochure and wander the marble halls on your own. Visitors are encouraged to view the statues, portraits, murals and architectural details on all three floors. As you stand in the rotunda beneath the art-glass dome, look for a poem by William Herschell entitled “Ain't God Good to Indiana.”
A few blocks east of the capitol complex is Monument Circle and the city's most famous landmark, the Soldiers' & Sailors' Monument. Commissioned after the Civil War, this massive limestone tower is big enough to hold a museum in its base. The monument itself is 284 feet high (just 3 yards shy of the Statue of Liberty), with a surrounding series of heroic bronze sculptures. Locals know the statue of Lady Victory at the top as “Miss Indiana.” During the holidays, the light-strung monument becomes one of the world's largest Christmas trees. You can climb 330 steps or take an elevator to the observation deck for a panoramic view of the city.
The Soldiers' & Sailors' Monument honors Indiana soldiers who fought in conflicts before World War I, and the chronology of fallen heroes continues at the Indiana World War Memorial. Due north on Meridian Street, this neoclassical plaza covers five city blocks. The main building, modeled after the ancient mausoleum at Halicarnassus, contains a military museum and a stirring shrine to patriotism. Outside is the statue “Pro Patria,” one of the largest bronze castings ever made. A 100-foot obelisk and fountain anchor the Veterans' Memorial Plaza to the north. Monuments to Hoosiers killed or missing in action in World War II, Korea and Vietnam stand on the mall outside the national headquarters of the American Legion.
Another shrine—this one erected by the Freemasons—stands just west of the mall on Meridian. Masonic symbols adorn the gothic spires and stained-glass windows of the Scottish Rite Cathedral. Built on the eve of the Great Depression at a cost of $2.5 million, the Tudor cathedral features richly carved woodwork, a 7,000-pipe organ and a 54-bell carillon housed in a “singing tower.”
About 10 blocks north is the home of the nation's 23rd president. Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site preserves the 16-room Italianate mansion of the “centennial president,” who was elected 100 years after George Washington. Harrison built his family home in 1875 and lived here, when he wasn't fighting in the Civil War or serving as president, until his death in 1901. The house contains thousands of political mementos and personal belongings, including fashions worn by the First Lady and her daughter.
Just east is another notable architectural restoration, the Morris-Butler House. In 1865, when John Morris built this 16-room Second Empire house in a new suburb north of town—today's Old Northside—it was the city's most fashionable address. Guided tours of the museum home offer a glimpse at the lives of an upper-class Victorian family and servants. A 19th-century art collection includes paintings, sculptures and lithographs.
The poet who immortalized Hoosier dialect made Indianapolis his home for 23 years, and his residence in the Lockerbie District remains exactly as he left it. The James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home contains its original wallpaper, the furnishings, even a photograph of the writer's dog. The 1872 house is thought to be the only late-Victorian preservation (not restoration) in the country. Riley is best remembered for his children's poems, including “When the Frost Is On the Punkin” and “Little Orphant Annie,” but perhaps his most famous line was, “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.”
Moving farther north of downtown (and you'll be getting excited directions from the back seat) is The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. The largest of its kind in the world, this giant playground covers five floors, 400,000 square feet and 13 acres—you get the picture. Eleven major galleries explore the physical and natural sciences, history, world cultures and the arts. Kids will remember the 9-foot-tall polar bear, the giant water clock, the working Dentzel carousel and the mastodon skeleton unearthed from an Indiana farm.
A treasure trove for grown-ups, the Indianapolis Museum of Art sits on the former estate of J.K. Lilly Jr., whose father founded a pharmaceutical empire. Four pavilions display paintings, sculpture, drawings and textiles from around the world, some dating to the Renaissance. On the grounds is Oldfields-Lilly House & Gardens, which contains original furnishings, decorative arts and Mr. Lilly's collections of books, coins, military miniatures and nautical items.
The 1,400-acre living-history museum at Conner Prairie in nearby Fishers reflects the lives of Indiana pioneers along the White River. Restored buildings include the 1823 Federal-style home of fur trader, entrepreneur and legislator William Conner. Visitors to the 1836 Prairietown can watch costumed villagers in the real-life business of elections, weddings and funerals; a Lenape Indian camp reflects the history of the Delawares. Crafts, family games and farm chores are all part of the old-fashioned fun.
After you've seen a 19th-century horse race, there's only one place left to go: Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Built as a testing ground for the state's fledgling auto industry, the track hosted its first 500-mile race on May 30, 1911. (Trivia answer: Ray Harroun won in the Marmon Wasp for a purse of $14,250.) The tradition of drinking milk in Victory Lane supposedly began in 1936 when Louis Meyer asked for buttermilk instead of the customary champagne. Inside the 2.5-mile oval is the Hall of Fame Museum, which displays racing memorabilia and more than 75 winning cars. Visitors can take a bus tour of the track when it's not in use. Here you'll see Gasoline Alley, the 13-story Bombardier Pagoda control tower and the 36-inch strip of original brick at the starting line that gave the track its “Brickyard” nickname. The speedway complex is 5 miles northwest of downtown.