Indiana treasures imagination.
Everywhere you go in Indiana, you see signs of the state’s creativity, with art havens in Brown County, a famous art museum in Indianapolis and quilt gardens in Elkhart County.
The state’s creativity isn’t limited to art but is also put to use rethinking ways to connect with travelers. Groups can enjoy take-home crafts in Dearborn County or eat dinner with an Amish family in Elkhart County.
Indiana’s hospitality and authentic charm can prove enticing for groups eager to start traveling again. Group leaders can create a well-rounded tour mixing urban and rural attractions that will delight travelers in the Hoosier State.
Groups leave Dearborn County with fond memories and several new skills. In southeast Indiana, this destination’s attractions offer plenty of interactive opportunities that often result in self-made souvenirs.
Participants can learn how to paint a silk scarf at SIAG Gallery and Studios. The gallery not only showcases local fine art, photography and sculptures from local artists but also invites groups to tap into their own creativity with several projects, ranging from finger painting to decorating a gourd birdhouse.
Fudge and flowers go together at McCabe’s Greenhouse and Floral. The family-owned garden center invites guests to sample its homemade gourmet fudge while shopping for flowers. Groups can also participate in the center’s many hands-on floral classes, such as Plant a Hanging Door Basket, Create a Japanese Kokedama and Plant a Pollinator Pot.
“Our small-town communities offer many special off-the-beaten-path experiences,” said Sally McWilliams, group sales for the Dearborn County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s always fun to welcome a new group and hear their reactions. Group tour passengers are typically well-traveled, and they’re often surprised to have their expectations exceeded in an unfamiliar area.”
The Hillforest Victorian House Museum welcomes groups with costumed docents. The 1855 Italian Renaissance mansion shows off industrialist Thomas Gaff’s family home, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Groups can book exclusive teas or the Twilight Tour Progressive Mansions Dinner. The event includes dinner and a tour at Hillforest, followed by a curator’s tour and dessert at the Veraestau Historic Site.
Groups can feed some cuddly alpacas at the Mount Tabor Alpaca Farm. The farm gives behind-the-scenes tours to teach visitors about the cuddly animals. The farm’s shop shows off alpaca’s soft fiber with yarn, gloves, scarfs and socks for sale.
With the friendliness of a small town and the attractions of a major city, Indianapolis is a vibrant place to explore. The central Indiana city boasts a thriving food scene, with several James Beard-recognized chefs. Artists, brewers and locally owned shops also breathe fresh life into the city.
Artistic expression abounds at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the surrounding Newfields campus. The museum displays an extensive collection of American impressionist paintings, ancient Greek pottery and works by Rembrandt, El Greco and Caravaggio. Towering interactive sculptures stand right outside in the adjoining 100-acre Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park. Newfields also contains the original Robert Indiana “LOVE” sculpture for an iconic Indianapolis photo op.
Groups can picture themselves taking the lead in the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The famous racetrack hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world. When racing isn’t in session, groups can take a ride around the track, visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum or play 18 holes at the Brickyard Crossing.
Italian-imported gondolas might not seem typical of Indiana, but they glide down the city’s White River every summer. Old World Gondoliers’ staff serenade passengers for a little Italian romance during their tour. Groups can also rent paddleboats and kayaks at the White River State Park, a 25-acre site in the center of Indianapolis.
Another unexpected gem in Indianapolis is The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art , one of only two museums east of the Mississippi River that showcase both Native American and Western art. The museum highlights visual arts, paintings and sculptures collected by businessman and philanthropist Harrison Eiteljorg.
When American impressionist painter T.C. Steele and his wife, Selma, discovered Brown County in south-central Indiana in the early 1900s, he called it a “village in amber.” The area’s hills were bare due to clear-cutting, and the roads were treacherous from erosion.
The scene didn’t seem a recipe for artistic success. But Selma’s knack for gardening and Steele’s plein air paintings attracted a community of other artists to the area.
Today, Brown County is known as an art and nature haven. Brown County State Park draws the most visitors each autumn to see the park’s rolling hills of fall foliage. The largest park in the state, Brown County State Park protects nearly 16,000 acres of densely wooded acres. Groups can opt for scenic drives, guided hikes or horseback rides to soak up the beauty.
The park’s lodge offers 88 rooms and an on-site restaurant.
The nearby town of Nashville supports an art community with locally owned shops and artists’ studios. The walkable village includes the 1926 Brown County Art Gallery, the Brown County Art Guild and the Brown County Craft Gallery, a co-op that shows and sells work from about 40 area artisans.
Groups can also visit the T.C. Steele State Historic Site to see the garden designs that inspired the artist. Guests can set up their own easels and attempt a plein air painting of the re-created gardens themselves. The site offers a new visitors center and tours of the home and studio.
For evening entertainment, visitors can watch a performance at the Brown County Playhouse. The 425-seat theater produces a diverse lineup of live theater, concerts, movies and special events.
Elkhart County/Indiana Dunes National Park
Close to the northwestern corner of Indiana, groups can try new ways to connect with a historic culture. Elkhart County’s sizable Amish population welcomes travelers eager to know more about Amish heritage, crafts and cuisine.
“We have a number of Amish-themed activities for groups,” said Terry Mark, director of communications and public relations for the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You can take a buggy ride through the countryside or visit with Amish families in their homes. You can watch an Amish food or craft demonstration. You can meet with Amish people who are making everything from wooden baskets to rugs. You can really immerse yourself in the Amish lifestyle.”
These authentic experiences allow groups to feel personally connected to the Elkhart County Amish. One experience, called Asking Amish, allows visitors to visit an Amish home, have a cup of coffee and ask questions about the Amish lifestyle.
The county also offers popular Amish attractions, such as Das Dutchman Essenhaus; Indiana’s largest restaurant, it serves Amish-style cuisine, such as roast beef, ham noodles and other home-cooked specialties. Groups can also ride buggies, shop for handcrafted items, stay overnight and watch a theatrical performance at the site.
The Barns at Nappanee, formerly called Amish Acres, reopened in May as a farm-to-table restaurant. The attraction still holds tours at the historic Amish property of a blacksmith shop and a one-room schoolhouse.
Groups also love the annual Quilt Garden displays that run in the summer through September 15. Participants treat the quilt-patterned gardens as a scavenger hunt.
Traveling an hour west of Elkhart County brings groups to one of the America’s newest parks: Indiana Dunes National Park. The 15,000-acre park preserves stunning landscapes of lakeshore dunes, forests, marshes and wetlands. Visitors can relax by the wild beaches with views of the nearby massive sand mounds that reach nearly 200 feet high.
When planning a trip to Fort Wayne, groups often like to time their visits with the annual Vera Bradley Outlet Sale in April. An hour and a half southeast of Elkhart County, Fort Wayne initially attracts guests with the sale’s 40-60%-off deals, then keeps them coming back for its variety of entertainment opportunities.
“The annual Vera Bradley Outlet Sale is consistently the top group tour attraction in Fort Wayne,” said Brittany Stephenson, group sales coordinator for Visit Fort Wayne. “The outlet sale offers a Charter Club experience to bus tours that enables them to enjoy VIP treatment, special waiting rooms and free gifts.”
Fort Wayne’s first boutique hotel, designed by the Vera Bradley co-founder, is set to open in 2021. The downtown hotel will feature 124 rooms, a rooftop bar and a marquee restaurant.
Groups enjoy the city’s walkable downtown that allows tours to pack several sites into one day. Known as the City of Restaurants, Fort Wayne offers delicious cuisine around every corner. Public art, river views and local shops give the city a lively vibe.
The Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory treats the eyes to colorful blooms year-round in three glass-enclosed gardens. The site’s showcase garden changes quarterly, with a butterfly exhibit in the spring. Groups can also wander through a desert garden and a tropical garden with a two-story waterfall.
Regional works from Indiana artists, as well as a wide range of other American art, line the walls of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. After exploring inside, groups can enjoy the outdoor sculpture garden, dine at the cafe or try a hands-on craft.