Looking for fun things to do in Indianapolis? Your favorite Hoosier, Indy local, and dedicated museum-goer walks you through the 8 best museums in Indianapolis!
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Looking for the best museums in Indianapolis?
For a relatively small town, the city of Indianapolis proudly boasts a disproportionate number of truly high-quality museums.
From the world's largest children's museum (you read that correctly), to the historic home of our only Hoosier president, and the race track-side shrine to our Indy500 winners, oh and did I mention our excellent art museum, with its stunning acres of gardens and grounds?
I was a history major in college, and actually worked at one of the museums on the list for nearly a decade, so you're in for your fair share of history museums. And, now that we've added a little one to the family, we are constantly looking for new activities to keep us entertained. I've focused on downtown Indy, as that's naturally where most of our museums are located, but I've included a few of my favorites outside of the mile square as well.
I'm confident that Indianapolis has a museum to entice even the most reticent visitor. So, let's take a quick museum tour of the 'crossroads of America,' and find the perfect museum for the whole family.
Need more trip ideas for your visit to Indianapolis? Check out all of the Indy resources on the blog:
The 8+ Best Museums in Indianapolis
Let's kick things off in the heart of the Indianapolis museum scene, Downtown Indy! We had the pleasure of living downtown for 6 years, the first of which was on the downtown Canal! Moving along the Canal Walk, you'll find most of the main museums on our tour (and maybe walk by our former house!)
NCAA Hall of Champions
At the 'beginning' of the Canal Walk, near the scenic White River State Park (not a museum, but you should visit if you're in the area), is the National Collegiate Athletic Association Hall of Champions.
Indiana has positioned itself for decades as the 'amateur spots capital of the world,' happily hosting a number of NCAA games, tournaments, and championships, in addition to being the headquarters of the NCAA's operations.
The Hall of Champions "boasts two levels of interactive exhibits to engage visitors and create a true-to-life understanding of what it takes to be an NCAA student-athlete." You'll find trivia games, information about team rankings systems, sports simulators (including a ski simulator), a replica, retro gym from the 1930s.
The Hall of Champions is a great way to entertain the sports fan in your life. Non-sports fans might not enjoy, but it's a quick visit. The website says to plan for 90 minutes, which I'd say is generous for more casual visitors.
Extra credit: Indianapolis Zoo and Botanical Garden
There's no better way to spend a summer afternoon than exploring the Indianapolis Zoo!
Just on the other side of the White River from the end of the Canal we've been discussing, the Zoo is walkable across a pedestrian bridge from downtown Indy. Featuring the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, the Zoo has added several exciting exhibits in recent years, including a number of Rides and Attractions, such as the Feed a Giraffe opportunity ($4).
And don't forget to actually explore the White River Gardens, some of which you will see when you enter, including the Hilbert Conservatory. In case you were wondering (you weren't), this is where your esteemed author had her prom approximately 1 million years ago.
The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
Next up is the museum I visited most recently, The Eiteljorg Museum.
Founded by a former Eli Lilly executive with a penchant for Native American cultures, Harrison Eiteljorg's collection began the museum's collection, in a purpose-built museum building overlooking the canal walk, in 1989.
Located in the heart of the family-friendly side of Indianapolis, near the Convention Center, the Indiana State Museum, Victory Field, and the JW Marriott, the Eiteljorg is a must-see for fans of Western American paintings/ Native American art.
The Eiteljorg has an excellent Museum Cafe, featuring Western and Mexican-forward foods, which is absolutely worth a visit. During the holidays, the Eiteljorg's enchanting Jingle Rails exhibit takes visitors on a miniature train's journey through replicas of major American landmarks.
Indiana State Museum
Right next door to The Eiteljorg is the Indiana State Museum, including the IMAX theater. The Indiana State Museum's exhibits range from preserved animals and fossils illustrating Indiana's ancient animal populations of the past to displays about Indiana's population, from prehistoric times to pioneer, through the Civil War, and into more modern history.
Stop by the replica of the L.S. Ayres Tea Room, a must-visit for older members of your party who may remember eating at the famous tea room between the original's opening in 1905 and before it closed in 1990.
During the holiday season, take a ride on the SnowFall Express, a charming, tiny train that take its riders through an indoor tour of animated woodland critters on the upper floor of the museum.
Pro tip: The Eiteljorg and the Indiana State Museum will validate your parking in the White River garage, giving you a significant discount on what I consider pretty steep parking for Indianapolis. So be sure to ask about this at the Front Desk when you buy your ticket!
Indiana Historical Society
Moving along to the final major Canal museum, our last stop is the Indiana Historical Society. The Historical Society is not your average history museum. A friend of my daughter's calls it "the place where the history people talk to me."
The main feature of the Historical Society is a variety of staffed exhibits showcasing employees reenacting various aspects of Indiana history and interacting with guests.
Visit the Cole Porter Room, modeled on the Waldorf-Astoria where you can see performances of Hoosier Cole Porter's classic songs, such as "Night and Day" and "I Get a Kick Out of You."
Or meet Chuck Taylor, at one of the newest exhibits on the Indiana man behind the famous shoe.
Grab a bite to eat at the delicious Stardust Terrace Cafe (named for Hoosier Hoagy Carmichael's, a graduate of my law school, famous song) while you watch people stroll down the Canal.
Considering a weekend getaway? 20+ Easy Family Road Trips Within 5 Hours of Indianapolis
Extra Credit: Soldiers and Sailors Monument
In the heart of Downtown Indianapolis, Monument Circle, you'll find...you guessed it...our beloved Soldiers and Sailors Monument! Standing nearly 300 feet tall, the Monument features a number of sculptures depicting major figures and moments of Hoosier history. Looking for great views of Indy? You can climb the Monument for free, or ride in a small elevator (and then climb a few steps), for a small fee.
Just outside of Downtown...
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
Continuing west from downtown, let's head out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame at the Speedway!
2024 NOTE: The museum has been closed for renovations. Be sure to check their website for updates].
There's no more quintessentially Indiana event than the Indianapolis 500, the largest single-day sporting event in the world and the 'greatest spectacle in racing!'
Learn the Hoosier history of racing, interesting information about the origins of the Indy 500, and about the drivers and events who have made the Indy500 the spectacle it is today!
Consider a Track Tour to see the Track when it's not filled with 300,000 fans! They offer a variety of different tours and encourage you to book in advance.
Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site
American history buffs rejoice! Did you know the Hoosier state proudly boasts just one president?
Venture to the Old Northside historic district (about a 4 minute drive north of Monument Circle) to visit the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. The incredibly well-preserved Victorian home was home to Harrison after he returned from the Civil War before the White House, and after he returned to Indy before his death at the home in 1901.
The only option for visiting is to explore the historic home through a guided tour with a knowledgeable volunteer (I was of their ranks, pre-pandemic!)
North Side of Indianapolis
Newfields, including the Indianapolis Museum of Art
If you've been following the blog for a while, you'll know that we are long-standing members of Indianapolis's lovely art museum, Newfields. Newfields considers itself a 'campus,' with multiple outposts, including the Indianapolis Museum of Art, featuring traditional and contemporary fine art, Cafe, and the gift shop; the Lilly House at Newfields ("Oldfields" - hence the name of the museum these days) resorted to its 1930s appearance when it was home to the Lilly family of Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fame; the Garden Terrace (brand new beer garden- my favorite spot!). While you're at Newfields, weather permitting, don't forget to take time to stroll the perfectly manicured Gardens, which are often ornamented for the seasons (read: pumpkins galore in Fall).
Though the glory days of free admission are long gone, Newfields does offer ample free parking on site.
In addition to its everyday offerings, Newfields has tons of great special events. A few of our favorite season events are Winterlights and Harvest Nights, and, of course, Summer Nights Film Series during the summer (outdoor movies in their grass amphitheater).
The Children's Museum of Indianapolis
One of Indy's many claims to fame is as home to the largest children's museum in the United States.
The Children's Museum of Indianapolis features an impressive array of interactive exhibits, from helping kids learn all about dinosaurs (and dinosaur bones) in the Dinosphere, to recreating modern Greece (sidewalks cafes and all) in the "Take Me There" display.
Ride the historic carousel, marvel at the 43-foot Dale Chihuly glass sculpture in the entrance, and don't forget to stop by the new, outdoor (not open in winter) Sports Legends Experience, featuring miniature, child-accessible version of some of this sports-obsessed city's greatest athletic attractions. At Halloween, stop by for one of Indy's favorite kiddo attractions for spook season, The Children's Museum Haunted House.
For our final Indianapolis museum, we're heading out to the northern Indianapolis suburbs, to the best museum on the list, for my money, and my former employer, Conner Prairie. Conner Prairie's main attraction is 1836 Prairie Town, a mid-19th century village staffed by costumed, in-person interpreters who immerse you in history from the minute you step onto the grounds. Visit the general store, the doctor's house, the school, and the Inn. Talk to residents as they go about their daily lives, play games with the kids, and watch the oxen at work.
Take a deeper dive into the history of Indiana at 1816 Lenape Indian Camp and about Hoosiers' role in the Civil War at 1863 Civil War Journey. Discovery Station and the Splash Pad offer play areas to keep little ones engaged throughout your visit.
Feeling adventurous? Take a ride on Conner Prairie's 1859 Balloon Voyage. Operating since 2009, nearly 200,000 people, including myself, have ridden the balloon. An additional ticket is required, beyond your admission ticket. Note: the balloon is often grounded do to weather issues, even when it 'seems' like a 'nice' day. So don't get your heart too set on riding the balloon on any particular visit. But, if you get the chance, I highly recommend it!
Insider tip: If you have the option, visit Conner Prairie later in the day. It's a common destination for field trips from schools all around Indiana, but they tend to leave right after lunch to get back to school.
Interested in a new history podcast? Check out This is Problematic!, podcast from Conner Prairie, reexamining tricky aspects of American history.
Thanks for Stopping By!
I hope I gave you some inspiration to discover all of the wonderful museums Indianapolis has to offer. Please feel free to let me know your favorite Indianapolis museum, in the comment section below. And don't forget to check out all of my other Indianapolis resources, if you're planning a visit or looking for things to do in our fair city!
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