TRUE, THE NEW Indianapolis International Airport is filled with plenty to do and see, including $4 million worth of art, but just 10 minutes away is a far more heart-pounding destination: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of the Indianapolis 500. Admire the accomplishments of past winners at the on-site Hall of Fame Museum. If you’re feeling particularly brave, take your turn behind the wheel of an authentic Formula One car and fly through three laps at 100 miles per hour or faster, courtesy of Indy Racing Experience.
Five minutes from the Speedway lies downtown Indianapolis. The cultural traveler will enjoy checking out the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the only museum showcasing Native American and Western art in the Midwest. The Indianapolis Museum of Art is another option and offers more than just the standard art exhibition -- its newly opened design center features furniture, accessories, and textiles for sale. If the skies are fair, take a stroll through the Oldfields-Lilly House and Gardens, a 26-acre historic site located on the museum grounds that feels more like Versailles than like central Indiana.
If you’re willing to be interactive, reserve a 90-minute playdate with the dolphins at the Indianapolis Zoo. Looking for something less … wet? Watch the interplay of light and shadow at Christian Theological Seminary’s famous Sweeney Chapel. For the opposite of austerity, taxi to the Conrad Indianapolis’s Spa Chakra for the Jet-Lag package, which includes an hour-long massage.
Serious foodies should reserve the chef ’s table at Oakley’s Bistro and watch Steven Oakley work his magic, or eat on the deck at Rick’s Cafe Boatyard on Eagle Creek Reservoir. If you have a really long layover, sail there from the Eagle Creek Park marina.
FEELING LUCKY? The venerable Churchill Downs is less than 10 minutes from Kentucky's Louisville International Airport by cab. Place your bets in spring or November. If the track’s dark, visit the adjacent Kentucky Derby Museum, sift through old film footage, and watch Seattle Slew win the 1977 race all over again. The garland of roses of the 2005 victor, Giacomo, was freeze-dried and donated; it’s on display in the museum’s Winner’s Circle.
The Speed Art Museum, Kentucky’s largest and oldest museum, has a generous endowment and gets top-flight exhibits. Its permanent collection spans 6,000 years and includes more than 13,000 pieces. West Main Street is home to two museums of different sorts: the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the Frazier International History Museum, which happen to be located across the street from one another. Since 1884, the Slugger Factory has churned out thousands of its famous bats -- the official bats of Major League Baseball. Across the street, the Frazier has more unique treasures. “The Frazier has a surprising collection of weapons and armor from the Middle Ages to today,” says Bruce Allar, editor of Louisville Magazine.
Refresh yourself with food, drinks, and cutting-edge art at the 21c Museum Hotel, which was developed out of a cluster of five historic buildings by Louisville philanthropists and art collectors in 2006. Promptly after its opening, the hotel’s restaurant, Proof on Main, was named one of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants, and the bar remains the place to go for people-watching and wine wafting. From there, wander down East Market Street and peek into the many art galleries, shops, and restaurants that line the road.
Or leave civilization altogether and climb to the summit of Iroquois Park, known in town as Louisville’s Yellowstone. Situated just south of downtown, this Frederick Law Olmsted–designed park offers a sweeping view across the whole of Louisville, giving you the perfect vantage point from which to drink up the city.
6. TWIN CITIES
YOU JUST CAN’T talk about Minneapolis without talking about St. Paul. The cities are equidistant from Minnesota's St. Paul– Minneapolis International Airport and are easily reachable by the speedy and convenient Metro Transit light-rail. In less than 10 minutes, you can get to Historic Fort Snelling, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. There, you’ll see reenactments of 1820s military ceremonies, blacksmithing, and carpentry.
Head in the opposite direction of Historic Fort Snelling and you'll find the Mall of America, in Bloomington. The largest mall in the country has become a bit of a cliché, but your visit needn’t be. Feed sharks at Underwater Adventures Aquarium, the world’s largest underground aquarium (located beneath the mall), or feel what it’s like to pilot an F/A-18 Hornet at A.C.E.S. Flight Simulation. You can also hang out in the four-story Lego Imagination Center, where you’ll be in esteemed company: Fortune pronounced these bumpy little plastic bricks the “toy of the [twentieth] century.”
If you’re in St. Paul come dinnertime, stop into Heartland. Founding chef Lenny Russo blends categories in this restaurant that are at once organic, Midwestern, and contemporary. If you’re headed for Minneapolis, try Moto-i, the first sake brewpub to open outside Japan. Since sake is the main attraction there, don't settle for sipping just one; instead, order a flight so you can sample and share. The food is phenomenal, and the mood is hip yet relaxed. And best of all, thanks to an affordable menu, you won't break the bank.
The Twin Cities are widely known for their art and architecture. Do as the Minnesotans do and admire the Frank Gehry–designed Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, which foreshadowed Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The Minneapolis Central Library, designed by Cesar Pelli, is also worth checking out, and there are even more reasons than before to visit the Walker Art Center, thanks to a stunning expansion by Herzog & de Meuron, the firm that created London’s Tate Modern. Another draw is Wolfgang Puck’s 20.21 Restaurant and Bar, located inside the museum.