An airport with just one terminal, no tram, zero VIP lounges and woeful public transportation options is the best in North America, according to the Airport Council International. Last week, Indianapolis International Airport beat out every other large facility on the continent for the top Air Service Quality award for 2012. The results are based on passenger satisfaction, and IND won for the second time since opening in 2008.
If you’re scratching your head, that means you’ve never been to IND. The first thing you notice upon landing is that the architects didn’t stop designing at the back of the terminal. Most airports greet arrivals with a cluttered mess. IND makes a striking first impression with a towering, glassed-in terminal overlooking the tarmac.
Inside, the space is contemporary, bright and calm. The layout is so intuitive that you rarely look for signage. You can see outside from every spot except the restrooms. Many of the restaurants are satellites of better local independents. There’s none of that stale, claustrophobic, generic feeling common to airports, nor is the scale so massive that the place feels deserted.
If you’re renting a car, you don’t need to board a van or shuttle – all of the vehicles are parked in the adjacent garage. You get in and out of the airport quickly and see some bold art installations along the way.
But even gorgeous airports never transcend their function. At best, they manage not to ruin a trip. So after landing at the continent’s best airport, then what?
Indy is in the midst of an urban renaissance, and you don’t see it coming. I’m a local, and here’s how I show off my town to guests.
%Gallery-183028%Walk or bike the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a brand-new, $63 million path. While most recreation trails lead out of town, where people can exercise on a stretch unbroken for miles, Indy’s does the opposite – the pretty promenade laces through the heart of downtown, replacing 8 miles of sidewalks. It passes every major attraction and cuts through every neighborhood.
You can rent wheels at the Indy Bike Hub and spend two hours getting an overview of the city from a bike seat. The trail connects to another one that runs along the back wall of the Indianapolis Zoo, and sometimes the animals make themselves heard. Make pit stops at the Central Library for the best view of the city from the sixth floor, and at the NCAA Hall of Champions museum, kicking off the 75th anniversary celebration of March Madness this month.
Ride to Fountain Square, Indy’s hipster core, and find the special stoplight for bike traffic. Stretch your legs by getting lost inside the Murphy Building, a loveable shantytown of small art galleries and studios. Make sure to find People for Urban Progress‘s quarters and buy the best souvenir in town: tote bags, iPad cases and wallets made from either salvaged Super Bowl signs (right) or the fabric roof of the city’s former football stadium.
Have lunch on up-and-coming Virginia Avenue, which connects Fountain Square to downtown. Go locavore gourmet at Bluebeard (below), a hot new restaurant that pays tribute to native son Kurt Vonnegut, or street Mexican at Tortas Guicho Dominguez y El Cubanito.
Next, it’s on to Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500 in May. An influx of European racing teams has added a stylish subculture to the gritty town. At the new Dallara IndyCar Factory, sign up for a ride in a real open-wheel racecar – it costs only $30 for a spin through city streets, which is a bargain compared to the $499 ride on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself.
If there’s no time to tour the state-of-the-art factory and try out the racing simulators, at least get espresso at Lino’s Coffee, an Italian import inside the building. You might find yourself in line behind a former Indy 500 champ.
Not far away is the Indianapolis Museum of Art, one of the 10 largest encyclopedic art museums in the country. In the last few years, the IMA has built a significant contemporary art collection; the curator represented the U.S. at the 2011 Venice Bienniele, a huge honor in the field. A big part of the renaissance is 100 Acres (below), a new contemporary sculpture park on the museum grounds. Here, installations are integrated into woods, meadows, and lake. You’ve never seen a fishing pier like the one here. It’s hard to believe that admission to both the park and museum is free. Like I said, you don’t see it coming.
[Photo credits: Airport exterior, Graeme Sharpe via Flickr; airport window, Askpang via Flickr; bikers, courtesy Indianapolis Cultural Trail; tote bag, courtesy People for Urban Progress; restaurant, courtesy Bluebeard; 100 Acres, from top: courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art; The.Urbanophile via Flickr]