Beyond March Madness in Indy

The nation’s hotspot for sports this month is Indiana, where 170 pro, college and high school basketball games happen in 33 days.

Indianapolis is the epicenter, hosting an easy majority that includes Big Ten men’s and women’s tournaments and nearly all 67 games in the NCAA Division I men’s tourney (nearby West Lafayette and Bloomington help host first rounds). This unprecedented saturation by the bucket is precipitated by the pandemic.

Some cities feel stagnant when you visit more than once. Not Indy, whose leaders – excuse the metaphor – have kept their eye on the ball when deciding how the city would change and grow.

New are Garage Food Hall and the 139-key Bottleworks Hotel in the revamped Bottleworks District, former home to an art deco bottling facility that in 1949 was the world’s biggest for Coca-Cola.

A paved rec trail runs through The AMP (short for “artisan marketplace”), a new open-air spot to shop, eat and imbibe. Revamped shipping containers are restaurant stalls in this part of the edgy 16 Tech business incubation hub.

Both areas are adjacent to downtown Indy, already attractive because so much is easily accessible by bicycle, Segway, foot or paddle (along White River).

The city, decades ago, decided it wanted to be known for sports and nurtured a “built it and they will come” attitude. That included construction of a downtown football stadium in 1982, before the city courted the NFL Colts from Baltimore.

Thirty years later, Indy was hosting the Super Bowl. And now, it’s basketball central for March Madness.

All is evidence of a city not satisfied with simply hosting (since 1911) the Indianapolis 500, the world’s largest, single-day sporting event.

Why visit if there’s no big sports event, or you don’t have a ticket to watch? Answering that is too easy. Here’s a part of what I enjoy.

NCAA’s headquarters are in downtown Indianapolis, as is the NCAA Hall of Champions, a must-stop for college sports fans to play and reminisce about what makes their favorite team great.

Look for the interactive NCAA attraction in 250-acre White River State Park, rich with green space, outdoor sculptures, paved paths, museums and other attractions. My favorite: Indianapolis Zoo, home to the International Orangutan Center, and the rare Midwest location for getting in water with dolphins.,

Also stellar: Eiteljorg Museum, a repository for a wide mix of long-ago and contemporary Western and Native American art. Such a specialty on this large of scale is rare in the world.

The Indy 500 is a May event but open all year and inside the track is Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, home to winning racecars and other rare, vintage roadsters.

Also a short drive from downtown is Indianapolis Museum of Art, on the 150- acre Newfields campus that contains a National Historic Landmark mansion, gardens, nature park, sculptures and art installations. Opening in June: The LUME Indianapolis, a digital production that turns two-dimensional paintings into three-dimensional immersions that visitors can use all senses to explore.

No museum for youngsters is larger than the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. On the outside, it looks like dinos are on the loose. A big talker indoors is a 43-foot-tall glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, fun to examine from bottom’s up. The nonprofit’s 13 major galleries on 30 acres provide creative introductions to science, play, international cultures. To burn off energy: the hands-on Sports Legends Experience. Look for profiles of children in history-making circumstances (Anna Frank, Ryan White, Ruby Bridges); the story of Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is added in September.

Hungry? St. Elmo’s, an old-school cool steakhouse in business since 1902, earns raves for its only appetizer: the shrimp cocktail, drenched with spicy hot cocktail sauce.

Thirsty? Tip a cold one at the Slippery Noodle, around since 1850 and the city’s oldest bar. Live blues is the specialty.

A third iconic setting: German Spaten and Schnitzel at the Rathskeller, Indy’s oldest operating restaurant. It has a beer garden too. Find it inside the 1893 Athenaeum designed by Bernard Vonnegut (whose author-son is celebrated at Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library).,