Champaign, Ill - Midwest Travel Expert Marcia Frost shares tips on places to visit and dine in Indianapolis, Indiana and St. Charles, Missouri.
One of the best things about the holiday season is the opportunity to enjoy displays, activities, and decorations beyond your own home. Two towns only a few hours away offer some amazing holiday activities for the whole family to experience.
Indianapolis, Indiana, always has plenty for the family to do and the holiday season is no exception. I took along my friends Kelli and Betty and quickly checked into the Marriott Keystone, just a few minutes from the city. It’s a great property for the family with an indoor pool.
Our first stop was at Public Greens. It should be on everyone’s restaurant list when going to Indianapolis. Not only do they have great food, but they make and give out 450 meals a week to children in the area who need it.
Next, we were off to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which is also the location of Oldfields, the Lily House and Gardens. I love this museum any time of year, but for the holidays, it’s beautifully decorated and the Lily House Christmas decorations are just stunning. All the holiday plants are live, and grown right there in the greenhouse.
We had a lot to do at night so we headed for an early dinner at Cooper’s Hawk. I had heard a lot about this unusual concept from friends as they also have locations in Chicagoland and St. Louis. It’s both a winery and restaurant and they have a great wine club which is a good value and allows you to collect points toward food and more wine.
We tasted some of their wines with James, who made the experience lots of fun as he helped us pick ones we really enjoyed, such as the Cooper’s Hawk White and the Cabernet Zinfandel. The Indianapolis location is decked out for the holidays and have a popular fine dining menu so make sure you get reservations in advance. And, don’t forget to order dessert.
This year Indianapolis has a brand-new holiday attraction. Lights at the Brickyard allows you to drive through 400 light displays that includes a lap around the actual racetrack used for the Indy 500. The displays are spectacular and all ages will love it. The wait is pretty long on weekend nights, so go during the week or spend the extra $20 (per carload) to get the speed pass. We had one and there was no line at all.
The kid in me loved Christmas at the Zoo, as did every other child (and adult) we saw there. The Indy Zoo was the first in the country to create a holiday lights exhibit so they know how to do it right. Some of the animals were out and there were family activities, including carolers by the fire and art projects in the Dolphin Exhibit.
You can head to Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis anytime at night to see the Circle of Lights, which Travelocity called one of the top five must-see trees in the nation. Around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument you can see 5,000 streaming lights. It’s also a great stop to catch a carriage ride. Stop into Rocket Fizz before you leave to check out some nostalgia, including many candies you thought were gone.
In the morning, we checked out Jingle Rails at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. This museum is really decked out for the holidays and the kids will love the miniature train sets traveling through the displays.
Before heading home, we had brunch at an Indianapolis landmark, Harry and Izzy’s. I can’t say enough about the food, service, and holiday experience here. It would take all day to go over everything we loved, but the steaks are perfectly cut and cooked and you can get the Spicy Shrimp Cocktail here, which made their sister restaurant, St. Elmo Steak House, famous. Also, try out one of their bourbon cocktails – and leave room for dessert.
I got to rest up for a week before heading to my next holiday destination. It was my first trip to St. Charles, Missouri, and I brought along Brittany to explore their 42nd Christmas Traditions festival.
St. Charles is just about three hours from Champaign, just outside of St. Louis. We met up with some friends and Elizabeth from the St. Charles Visitors and Convention Bureau at Bella Vino, a Tapas restaurant downtown. We ordered quite a sampling and loved every single dish. While there, Elizabeth told us about the town and all of the special activities they do for Christmas.
Over the next two days, we got to experience nearly all of it and I must say this town knows how to do the holidays like no other! To start with there are 80 characters, including Santa, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and seven different caroling groups. As you walk through the streets, you’ll see them talking, singing, and reading. They all great you and hand out cards with pictures of their characters. Everyone tries to collect all 89.
In addition, there are marshmallow roasts, warm cookies and hot chocolate sold in the streets, Christmas parades, Sleigh Bell Singers, carriage rides, and more.
You’ll also find plenty of unique small town shopping in St. Charles, as well as some other eateries you must stop at: the Bikestop Café, for specialty coffees, soups and sandwiches (and bike rentals in warmer months); Grandma’s Cookies; Hendrick’s BBQ, for the Whole Shebang, delicious sides and pies; Little O's Old Time Soda Fountain, where the milk shakes are hand dipped and they make root beer floats at the counter; and Picasso’s Coffee House, a favorite among locals.
The Christmas Traditions in St. Charles continues through December 24th. The town has many bed & breakfasts that do book up, but we stayed at the end of main street at the Country Inn & Suites and it was very nice. The rooms have refrigerators and microwaves, and they serve a hot breakfast every morning.