Thinking about a family getaway this holiday season? Check out what Indianapolis has to offer — the city comes alive during the holidays. At just two hours from Champaign-Urbana, Indianapolis is very accessible via car — and we even find the traffic to be much more manageable than Chicago.
From lights to markets to Santa sightings to holiday train scenes, there’s something for everyone at the holidays in Indy.
We’ve listed some of our favorite attractions, many of which have special events during the holiday season. As always, visit the individual websites for current details and admission information before leaving home.
(We wish there was access from Champaign-Urbana to Indianapolis via bus or train, but hey, nothing’s perfect).
Circle of Lights, downtown Indianapolis — One of the few free attractions on this list, the Christmas Tree at Monument Circle is a great Indianapolis tradition — each year the Soldiers & Sailors monument is decorated like a Christmas tree to celebrate the holiday season. A lighting ceremony happens annually the Friday after Thanksgiving, but you can see the lights until New Year’s Eve. Travelocity named the Circle of Lights one of the top five “must-see Christmas trees” in the nation. USA Today also listed the Circle of Lights as one of the “10 Best Holiday Attractions.”
Christkindlmarkt, Carmel — The Carmel Christkindlmarkt is an open-air Christmas market in traditional German style. Here you will find a blend of traditional German foods and gifts being sold from small wooden huts; the market surrounds an outdoor ice skating rink (be sure to reserve your skate time in advance). Look at the calendar for special events such as a menorah lighting, a celebration of Sankt Nikolaus Day, meet Santa and more. Fun fact: the Carmel market hosts world-renowned German woodworkers, who share their craft and culture through demonstrations. The Market is open on select days from Nov. 18 – Dec. 24 and entrance to the Market is free (there is a fee for skating and skate rental).
Celebration Crossing, Indiana State Museum, downtown Indianapolis — On the Friday after Thanksgiving Santa arrives by helicopter on the museum’s front lawn, lights a tree, and kicks off Celebration Crossing. Visit Santa’s Front Yard and Reindeer Barn; ride the ADA-accessible Snowfall Express train. One of the things we love about Celebration Crossing is the VARIETY of Santa experiences – Santa Josiah, Heart 2 Heart Santa, and more. Celebration Crossing runs from Nov. 24 until Dec. 31 and is included in museum admission (events such as photos with Santa may cost extra). Purchase admission online and save.
WinterFaire at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum — After 25 years of Jolly Days, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum is creating WinterFaire, a new indoor winter adventure that will celebrate the excitement, joy, and happiness of spending time together as a family during the winter months. WinterFaire will feature games and activities for all ages — and new characters to meet. WinterFaire will be open Nov. 18-Feb. 11. The WinterSlide will be open Nov. 18-Jan. 7. What more can we say about the ICM? See our review here. Price included with admission.
Jingle Rails at the Eiteljorg Museum, downtown Indianapolis — Jingle Rails is a G-scale model train wonderland containing nine working model trains that wind through a stunning miniature landscape built out of all-natural materials and decorated with holiday lighting. The trains travel around miniaturized Indianapolis landmarks, then west through native villages and landmarks such as the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam. The Eiteljorg Museum, which immerses visitors in the diverse cultures of the West and Native America, has a family-friendly, hands-on exhibit on the ground floor, complete with a few “horses” and a stagecoach you can climb into and take a family pic. Dates for Jingle Rails are from Nov. 18 to Jan. 15, 2024. Regular admission fees apply. A bonus: kids 4 and under are free, and this museum validates parking in the lot underneath it.
Winterlights at Newfields — Newfields is the name of the 152-acre campus that houses the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) as well as historic landscapes, gardens, performance spaces, and outdoor sculptures. Winterlights transforms Newfields into a winter wonderland with over a million and a half lights. Watch for the special “Latkes and Lights” Chanukah takeover (this year on Dec. 10) when the windows of the Lilly House are lit up with Menorahs and Stars of David and special snacks include sufganiyot and latkes. On Dec. 14, Newfields and Arte Mexicano en Indiana team up for the Las Posadas takeover of Winterlights, which will include musical performances and decadent Mexican hot chocolate and delicious churros. Santa and carolers will be at Winterlights on select evenings. The spectacle lasts from Nov. 19 to Jan. 7, 2024, with advance ticket purchase required; prices vary.
Conner Prairie, Fishers — We raved about Conner Prairie when we went in 2015 — it’s one of the unique destinations for families that truly appeals to all ages. There’s something for everyone, whether it’s engaging with the re-enactors, doing crafts, petting the animals or doing hands-on STEM learning (without realizing it). During “A Merry Prairie Holiday,” families can experience Christmas Eve traditions of the 1800s in Prairietown, watch an old-fashioned crankie show at the Potter Shop Kiln Shed, enjoy the “sock skating rink,” take selfies with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and more. Our favorite might be meeting Trinket Puddingmoon, Santa’s official list keeper; check in and find out what list you made (naughty or nice of course). Select dates between Nov. 24 and Dec. 22, so check the website for dates and admission, including special ASL tours.
Indianapolis Zoo — No it’s not free like St. Louis or Lincoln Park, but we happen to love the Indy Zoo. Did you know that it was the first zoo in the nation to hold a holiday lights event? During Christmas at the Zoo, enjoy the special evening lights display that’s been nominated as one of the best in the United States. Visit a few of Santa’s reindeer in his barn, and look out for a Penguin Encounter when weather permits. In 2023 the lights are on (almost) every night from Nov. 18-Dec. 30, and are included with regular zoo admission.
Shapiro’s Deli, downtown Indianapolis — OK, so this isn’t a holiday attraction, but if you want to get a potato pancake for a nod to Chanukah, this is the place. The best Jewish soul food around for 120 miles (at least). Chicken soup with matzo balls, corned beef on rye, great fried chicken and more. There is a children’s menu with all the favorites, but the cafeteria style atmosphere makes this restaurant pretty kid-friendly regardless. Bring home some rye bread, bagels or other noshes. There’s also a location at the airport, but for the full effect, go downtown. We don’t visit Indy without a stop here.
Christmas Nights of Lights, Indiana State Fairgrounds — This drive-thru holiday light show offers “over 1 million lights synchronized to traditional and newer, rocking Christmas music played through your car stereo.” Tickets must be purchased in advance and are timed for entry during one of two 2-hour time slots; the entire experience lasts around 30 minutes. The show runs from Nov. 10-Dec. 31, regardless of weather. Admission charged per car, at $30 per car (up to eight passengers and must ride together in a single vehicle). Group prices are available.
Festival of Trees, Indiana Historical Society — This year’s winter wonderland features more than 75 elaborately decorated trees representing individuals, families and organizations from around Indiana. Eli Lilly Hall also features a massive, 30-foot centerpiece tree that is viewable throughout most of the building. Holiday-inspired treats and tasty specialty beverages for both children and grown-ups are available for purchase. Other fun includes scavenger hunts, a display from the movie “A Christmas Story,” and more. Buying tickets online in advance is strongly encouraged. The holiday exhibit runs from Nov. 10-Jan. 6, 2024 (closed Mondays and certain holidays), with special evening hours on “Twilight Tuesdays.” Children 5 and under are free; kids 5-17 are $5 each. Adults are $13 each.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
- Dr. Who North America, Camby: If you have any friends or family who are Dr. Who fans, then make a stop at the largest Dr. Who store in North America. They even have a small “museum” area full of 50-plus years of Dr. Who memorabilia and some merchandise that can’t be found anywhere else. And yes, get your pic taken with the TARDIS. Currently closed on Sundays, so make sure to plan your trip accordingly if you go.
- Mayberry Cafe, Danville, Ind.: In this picturesque town west of Indianapolis, there’s a TV-themed attraction you’ve probably never been to: the Mayberry Cafe. Complete with a police car parked out in front. This restaurant boasts of Aunt Bea’s homecooking, and I can personally vouch that you won’t leave here hungry. Make your kids watch a snippet of Andy Griffith on YouTube before you go so they get it. Very family friendly.
More city holiday fun: Chicago Fun for Families during the Holiday Season
Everything Holiday Season In and Around Champaign-Urbana
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