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The Indianapolis 500 is awesome, but there's a lot more to do in this Midwestern Venice

July 2, 2018

A gondolier takes passengers on a cruise of the three-mile downtown canal loop.

INDIANAPOLIS — It was quite the scene. Thor aka Chris Hemsworth dropped the green flag. Kelly Clarkson sang the National Anthem. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers cheered on his girlfriend Danica Patrick. "Dancing With the Stars" alum Helio Castroneves hoped for his fourth victory — a feat which would ensure him "legend" status.

Oh yes, and it was the hottest temperature on record for the event — topping out at nearly 100 degrees.

It was my first time attending the Indianapolis 500, and I couldn’t help but wonder how someone more used to a two-minute horse race was going to fare during a three-hour car race.

Quite well, it turned out. It didn’t hurt that I was comfortably ensconced in a gloriously air-conditioned luxury suite, where Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Bureau staff were entertaining guests at the 102nd running of the race.

Some of our group braved the heat to venture down to the Pit and catch the drivers in the automotive version of the pre-game warm-up (never was warm-up quite so fittingly descriptive), although I’m not sure there were any takers for the Snake Pit, the electronic dance event where stagehands kept the 30,000-plus crowd cooled down by spraying them with large hoses.

Oh, in case you’re interested, the race was won by Will Power (no, I didn’t make up that name) of Team Penske who led for 59 of the 500 laps at an average speed of nearly 170 miles per hour.

A couple of other interesting factoids: the winner, instead of swilling champagne, takes a victory swig of … milk. Even more fascinating, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which between the grandstands and infield can seat 400,000, is the highest capacity sports venue in the world. It is so large that Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl and Vatican City can fit inside.

While I know that four fast wheels will never replace four fast legs in my heart, I thoroughly enjoyed my first Indy 500 experience.

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A HIP, HAPPENING CITY

Visitors don’t have to wait for the Indy 500 to take advantage of all that Indianapolis offers. A mecca for museums, it also boasts a robust food and drink scene, and has a canal winding through downtown that gives it the feel of a Midwestern Venice.

I have long been aware of the reputation of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the world’s largest — and some think the world’s best — children’s museum. It didn’t disappoint. There are dinosaurs, spaceships, Egyptian tombs and underwater treasures galore, but there are also serious exhibits such as Power of Children. Here, the lives of three extraordinary children — Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White — are used to teach us all a lesson in changing the world through personal courage.

Throughout the museum, visitors have a chance to explore environments ranging from caves to ponds. They can try their hand at being a meteorologist, naturalist or hydrologist, or they can test their hoops skills, fitness level or golf swing at the recently opened Sports Legends Experience.

This is one institution that justly deserves its recognition.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art, one of the 10 largest in the country, is another. Using the iconic Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture as your base, head off to galleries showcasing European, American, Native American, African, Asian and contemporary art, as well as decorative arts, glass art, textile and fashion art and design art.

The museum is set in a 100-acre woodland with gardens, terraces, water features and sculptures. Be sure to save time for the Lilly House, a 26-acre historic estate and house museum, curated to reflect gracious living in the early to mid-20th century.

Finally, seek out a table under a shaded arbor at the Beer Garden, and listen to the birds, crickets and other summer sounds. Speaking of summer, the month of June kicked off Summer Wonderland: Spectacular Creatures. Don’t be surprised to see five-foot birds, multi-colored baby elephants, orange and green penguins and purple and blue snails strutting their stuff.

In partnership with Cracking Art (which supplies 21c Museum Hotels with their penguins), the museum has brought hundreds of plastic animals in to fuse art with nature.

For something different, a one-hour cocktail cruise aboard a gondola or boat along the three-mile loop of the Downtown Canal is a perfect way to relax and unwind before dinner at one of the city’s excellent restaurants.

Bluebeard (named for a novel by Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegut) has, appropriately, a library-like theme and design — presenting the bill in an old library book is a clever touch. It’s known for its shared plates (the roasted cauliflower with anchovy, caper, mint, parmesan and sunflower seed is delicious).

Open Society is another place specializing in small plates — this time emphasizing South American dishes (you’ll get a chance to try purple potatoes, a staple in Argentina and Brazil), and the wine list is epic.

Whatever you do, don’t miss dinner at St. Elmo Steakhouse, an Indianapolis institution. If you combined New York’s Sardi’s, New Orleans’ Galatoire’s and Miami’s Joe’s Stone Crab, you would get St. Elmo’s, attracting diners since it opened in 1902. Steaks rule here, but don’t pass up the famous shrimp cocktail, dubbed the world’s spiciest dish.

Options for after-dinner cocktails range from hot spots such as Hotel Tango to cool places such as Bar One Fourteen. The former, owned by a Marine veteran (hence its military jargon name), is the first artisan distillery in Indiana since Prohibition.

The latter is the kind of hip, edgy place you expect in London or New York, but not the staid Midwest. With only 16 seats, it is the embodiment of an intimate microbar where patrons casually sip their drinks in the dark. Wait a few minutes and your eyes will adjust enough to at least get some idea of what you’re drinking.

Away from the roar of the engines, Indianapolis has much to offer travelers — from world-class museums to a City Market built atop underground catacombs.

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HEAR IT FROM THE LOCALS — HOW TO SPEND A PERFECT DAY IN INDY:

Kim Harms, Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: Sports venues are a must when visiting Indy. The iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway cannot be missed along with the Indy Racing Experience two-seater ride (if you think you drive fast, think again!) Check out an Indiana Pacers/Fever game, a tour of the Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium or a Pete Dye golf course. Even the minor leagues take team spirit to the next level. Take in an Indians baseball game at Victory Field or Indy Fuel hockey at Indiana Farmers Coliseum. And of course, the new Legends Experience at the Children’s Museum combines ALL sports.

Jess Parrotte, server at Bluebeard Restaurant: Stop in at Midland Arts & Antiques on Michigan Street. This magical place is perfect for browsing or finding a special treasure to take home. It’s patio season, and while I may be biased, Bluebeard has the best patio in the city. Order the chopped salad and formaggio sandwich, then hop around the corner to grab a handmade frozen delight from Nicey Treat. Last but not least, Garfield Park Conservatory’s sunken gardens is the most enchanted place in the city and only costs $2.

Nate Swick, Visit Indy: A summer day here should start with an early morning round of golf at Brickyard Crossing (four holes are inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). Afterwards, bike along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail and stop for lunch at Thunderbird. Post-lunch, a nostalgic game of duckpin bowling in the Fountain Square Theater Building is a must. Other must-dos include dinner on the roof at Livery, a concert on the lawn at White River State Park, and a nightcap, along with jazz and history, at the Slippery Noodle Inn, the oldest bar in Indiana.

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Associated Press