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Why you should visit downtown Indianapolis in February

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In praise of one of America’s most underrated destinations.

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Indianapolis pork tenderloin Glane23, Wikimedia Commons. Banner Society illustration.

Every year, I go to Indianapolis at the end of February for the NFL Scouting Combine.

Every year, when I tell people I’m making this trip, they say something like, “Ah! Indianapolis in February! Has Vox Media also sent you to Siberia?” Coastal elites look down upon the Heartland, and everyone looks down upon the cold.

And every year, I respond, “No, Indianapolis in February is great.” People think I’m doing a bit, because Indiana in winter is not making the cover of Travel + Leisure.

But there is no bit here. Indy is a delight – I presume at any time – but certainly in February.

1. The ideal layout

Nothing in Indianapolis takes more than 15 minutes to reach. This starts when you land at the airport, which very much appears to be in the middle of nowhere. By the time you look up from your phone in the cab, Lucas Oil Stadium unfolds before you, the foreground to an attractive skyline that makes you realize, yes, you’re already here.

Probably not taken in February, but whatever.
tpsdave / CC0, Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know how they did it, but Indianapolis is both extremely dense and wide open. There’s a lot on every block, but the streets are wide, and the buildings are far enough apart that you can always see the sky – in stark opposition to parts of other major American cities, most egregiously New York.

Some people like walking outside and seeing nothing other than an endless ocean of concrete, metal, and LED boards ...

New York - Times Square Photo by Alexandra Schuler/picture alliance via Getty Images

... but I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all.

There used to be a Noodles & Company on Indy’s West Maryland Street. (That location has closed, but there are numerous options in the area.) You could step outside after eating your Wisconsin Mac-and-Cheese with meatballs, feel a mild chill, walk half a block west, and stand in an open park directly between the statehouse and the convention center. This quick toggle between dining and green space is inarguably pleasant.

The city also has a soldiers-and-sailors monument smack in the middle, with a traffic circle around it. If you’re a fan of symmetry (and most people are, studies suggest), you’ll be a fan of Indianapolis.

Serge Melki, flickr.

In any given late February, there’s a good chance Indy will be hosting a Big Ten basketball tournament soon. In that case, a handful of streets near the center will be renamed for Big Ten teams. This is confusing, yes. But there are few experiences quite like walking down Fighting Illini Avenue and bumping into Jon Gruden as he dashes across the street, perhaps because he was so engrossed in a shrimp cocktail that he was late to asking a Purdue offensive lineman which Power Ranger he thinks he is.

2. Easily identifiable landmarks

Are there a bunch of little neighborhoods in Indianapolis? Probably, but if you’re staying downtown, you don’t need to worry about their names. All you need to know is the very general locations of the J.W. Marriott (site of the preeminent hotel bar during the Combine), the football stadium, the basketball arena, and St. Elmo Steak House. Say you’re near one of them (because you are), and your location will be immediately discernible.

I call this area The Indianati.

“What about outside these few blocks?” you might ask. “Are there parks? Museums?”

Yes, but why do you need to know that? They don’t hold basketball tournaments or football exercise events there. Bring your kids and let them count reps during the bench press, run a 40-yard dash in a repurposed ballroom, or watch Northwestern go 11-of-38 from three-point range in a second-round loss to Nebraska.

If one of your kids wants to be a cop when they grow up, you can even walk them over to the NCAA’s national headquarters, just steps beyond The Indianati near the Marriott, and show them what it’s like.

3. A manageable temperature

The average temp in February is 32 degrees. It’s not warm, but it’s not Chicago. And if you are cold, I have even more layout news for you:

Downtown is blanketed by enclosed, heated walking bridges:

You can trudge all the way around downtown while stepping outside for a few blocks at most. This is one of the most brilliant pieces of planning any city has ever done.

4. Not too much Indiana bullshit

If you drive to Indiana, you’ll be greeted at the border by a sign welcoming you to “Lincoln’s boyhood home.” If you are not from Indiana, your response might be, “Whoa there, Indiana. Don’t you realize Lincoln was born in Kentucky and didn’t live in your state until he was seven? And that he left you at 21? And ran for office in Illinois before embarking on the parts of his life people actually care about?”

But there are no such signs in Indianapolis proper, or at least they’re kept out of view. You also won’t see other annoying Indiana stuff. Even if the Big Ten tournament’s in town, you won’t see the masses walking around in candy-striped warmup pants.

There’s one big building in town that says “INDIANA, A State that Works,” and you’ll have a hard time not reading that in the voice of Mike Pence speaking at an anti-union fundraiser. But that’s really all the Indiana bullshit you’ll get.

5. A signature food

You simply must get the pepperoni breadsticks at Kilroy’s near the basketball arena:

By me.

These are to die for. And you might!

6. There is a Restaurant You’re Vaguely Familiar With

The Restaurant You’re Vaguely Familiar With is a tourist staple of any city. Indianapolis has one, via one of the 2010s’ better sitcoms.

St. Elmo Steak House, also near the basketball arena! If you watched Parks and Rec, you know St. Elmo, because Nick Offerman’s character ate like nine steaks there, and for some reason Roy Hibbert and Newt Gingrich were involved:

It’s also a legendary haunt for NFL people. Peyton Manning practically lived there. Each year at Combine time, the town is ablaze with rumors of how some NFL coach (I think one was Sean Payton) stood up on a chair at St. Elmo and said – I don’t know what he said, but that’s not the point.

We’re not done! Indianapolis goes above and beyond.

Indianapolis is home to the Weber Grill Restaurant. That’s a whole Indianapolis restaurant devoted to Weber Grills. Let this Google reviewer explain it:

Great location, fantastic facility, excellent service, great portions. Food seems to be hit or miss. We’ve been there before and had fantastic food. This time, pork chops perfectly cooked medium, but the meat was tough. Beer can chicken over cooked and under seasoned. BBQ meatloaf. Supposed to be smoked. Zero smoke taste, nothing special. Sides were great.

“Food seems to be hit or miss.” That’s authentic as hell. (The reviewer gave four stars.)

Indianapolis also has a Primanti Bros. This is the iconic Pittsburgh chain that most commonly gets credit for the revolutionary “put french fries on a sandwich” concept. Indianapolis is the Pittsburgh of the Midwest, and if you think I mean that as an insult, I invite you to become more acquainted with my work.

7. Nightlife

Several restaurants are great after hours. Kilroy’s is a lot of fun if you want to sip cheap gin-and-tonics, look across the room, and realize, “Oh my god, that’s the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars!”

There are not many nightclubs that I’ve seen, but there are places where you can drink and shoot virtual deer.

Indy also has a Howl at the Moon, which everyone knows is one of the best chain bars in America for the purposes of getting one-dollar Landsharks on select weeknights. Again, if you think I mean that as an insult, please become more familiar.

Still not impressed by Indianapolis?

That’s fine. Go share a pork tenderloin with Bill Belichick on a heated skywalk, and you’ll come around.