The swagger of the Super Bowl Committee (now called the Super Bowl Host Committee, thank you very much) is all the more remarkable when you know something about Indianapolis. Here was a landlocked railroad stop with no beaches, no mountains, no casinos, no desert spas — no glitz, no glamour. And until recently, Indianapolis had a bad inferiority complex; those who lived here gave it nicknames like India-no-place and Naptown. People drove downtown to work in office buildings in the morning, and then, in the evening, they clocked out, shut off the lights and drove home. Out-of-town visitors came to Indianapolis once a year, in May, for the Indianapolis 500 (still considered the largest single-day sporting event in the world) and didn’t return again until the following spring.
But starting in the early 1980s, city leaders hatched a plan to make downtown a leisure destination. Then they began building. The city’s recently minted NBA franchise, the Pacers, got a new arena (now demolished). On spec, Indianapolis built the Hoosier Dome (also now gone), and soon after, the erstwhile Baltimore Colts rolled into town in Mayflower moving trucks. Planners also saw a possible niche in amateur athletics, and their efforts landed the Pan American Games in 1987, a mini Olympics, and, later, the FIBA men’s basketball World Championships. The city has hosted the men’s Final Four six times, with another on the way in 2015, and the NCAA relocated its national headquarters here in 1999. “There’s a reason the NCAA likes having the Final Four here,” Miles says. “Our track record is that we do them really well.”
That vision of bringing sports to downtown Indianapolis has been an unmitigated success, enough to merit investments in significant upgrades, namely the Pacers’ new downtown home, Bankers Life Fieldhouse — consistently rated among the NBA’s best arenas — and the aforementioned Lucas Oil Stadium. And Victory Field (rated the best minor-league stadium in America by Sports Illustrated) is a charming, throwback ballpark near Lucas Oil Stadium that keeps the sporting calendar full all summer. Now, on nearly any given night of the year, Indy’s tidy downtown sidewalks teem with sportsgoers, and the place bustles even after the office stiffs have driven home for dinner.
But the city has also given people plenty of reasons other than sports to come downtown. In 1995, Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, the biggest mall builder in the country, opened Circle Centre — nearly 800,000 square feet of indoor retail space now anchored by Carson Pirie Scott and crowded with boutiques, gift shops, restaurants and a multiplex theater. (At $1.50 for three hours, its parking is also some of the cheapest in any sizable city.) White River State Park, on the western edge of downtown, is a campus of cultural attractions, arrayed around grassy open spaces, attractive landscaping and a canal walk that ties into an extensive network of art-lined urban trails that crisscross the inner city. It features an outdoor concert venue, a fine zoo and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art (touted as one of the best collections of Western and Native American art in the United States). Through May 6, another of the park’s offerings, the Indiana State Museum, is exhibiting Colts owner Jim Irsay’s remarkably diverse collection of cultural ephemera, from the original, 120-foot-long scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s beat classic On the Road, to Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards’ first ax, to, naturally, Peyton Manning’s game jersey from Super Bowl XLI. Every venue and attraction mentioned above — and many more that aren’t — is located an easily walkable distance from the city’s iconic and photo-friendly center point, Monument Circle, where the historic, towering Soldiers and Sailors Monument gives tourists spectacular views of Indy’s compact but attractive skyline and cityscape.
As you would expect, dining and nightlife have come along to cash in on the sight-seeing, event-going crowds. You can’t toss a football in downtown Indianapolis without hitting a restaurant or bar, and popular high-end chains, brewpubs and unique, locally owned independents are all represented in good measure. One recently opened indie spot, the Libertine, oozes the kind of cool you’d find in more urbane cities. Here, hipsters sip vintage cocktails like old-fashioneds while foodies nibble on deviled eggs with smoked fish and caviar.