Indianapolis: major sports hub, and more

If you are a Wisconsin Badger fan, March Madness might mean a trip to Indianapolis, which hosts the Big Ten basketball women’s and men’s tournaments at Conseco Fieldhouse.

“In Indiana, basketball is religion. Conseco Fieldhouse is the cathedral.” This is what Hoosiers declare online, and behind-the-scenes fieldhouse tours are commonplace. Opening in late summer: the $675 million Lucas Oil Stadium, which replaces the RCA Dome for pro football games.

This city has multiple personalities, and a rabid passion for sports is the foundation for one of them. What else would you expect from a place whose native sons include the late, great and restless Kurt Vonnegut, as well as sassy and smart David Letterman?

With respect to the comedic talk show host, here’s a Top Ten list about what makes Indianapolis a worthy getaway, even when there is no basketball tournament to take up most of your time.

1. It’s easy to shift into overdrive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame, whose exhibition fleet includes winning Indy 500 cars and other rare, vintage roadsters. www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com, 317-492-6784.

2. May as well do the 90-minute track tour while in the neighborhood. That includes a ride around the 2.5-mile racktrack, but you’re going 35 mph – tops – instead of 220. www.brickyard.com, 317-492-6747.

3. Daredevils, in good weather, can scoot behind the wheel of an Indy racecar and drive, after a bit of instruction. You wear a helmet and race suit; bring your own adrenalin boost. Not that brave? Another option is to suit up and ride in a two-seater, behind a trained racetrack driver. Neither is a cheap thrill: It’s $475 to ride for three laps, $399 to drive solo. www.indyracingexperience.com, 888-357-5002.

4. Book a walking tour through Indianapolis Downtown Inc., to study local architecture or history. Sound like a snoozer? Not if the choice is “Sin and Redemption,” whose stops include the oldest church (Christ Church Cathedral) and the oldest bar (The Slippery Noodle). www.indydt.com/downtowntours.html, 317-237-2222.

5. No formal tours are given, but Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse was the largest basketball arena in the county when it opened in 1929. Taking a peek will delight fans of the 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” because this was a filming site and where the final game in the movie actually was played in 1954. Open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. www.butlersports.com (click “facilities”).

6. White River State Park, a 250-acre urban oasis, is home to the Eiteljorg museum of Western/Native American art, Victory Field minor league ballpark, White River Gardens, the Indiana State Museum and Indianapolis Zoo. The NCAA Hall of Champions, an A-list attraction for sports lovers, is closed temporarily because of water/smoke damage from a fire. www.discovercanal.com, 317-233-2434.

7. Any age should find something to appreciate at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. The biggest lure: a brilliantly colorful, 43-foot-tall Dale Chihuly glass sculpture, the motivator for learning more about the art of glassblowing at other exhibits. www.childrensmuseum.org, 317-334-3322.

8. Haute Chocolate, instead of high tea, is served during afternoons at the Petite Chou, which presents gourmet chocolate drinks, plus an array of chocolate pastries and desserts. www.cafepatachou.com, 317-259-0765.

9. Drink German beer at the rollicking Rathskeller, the city’s oldest operating restaurant, inside the 1893 Athenaeum, designed by Bernard Vonnegut (author Kurt’s father). www.rathskeller.com, 317-636-0396.

10. Many sports venues and city attractions are within a walk, making Indianapolis a hassle-free destination. A 7.5-mile bike/hike trail in 2009 will connect five downtown cultural districts. www.indyculturaltrail.info, 317-713-3333.

For more about Indianapolis: www.indy.org, 800-323-INDY. The official gathering spot this month for Wisconsin basketball fans, as designated by the city’s visitors association, is the Hard Rock Café.

Note: Indianapolis hosted a 2007 Midwest Travel Writers Association conference.