So many holiday activities going on around Indy, so many fun attractions to visit with our kids... how can we best savor the season? Well, everyone has a different idea. I decided to put together a list of our family's favorite things to do in downtown Indy around the holidays, focusing on lesser-known favorites. I'm guessing everyone already knows about Christmas at the Zoo and Jolly Days at the Children's Museum. Here are some additional options to enjoy around downtown Indianapolis.
"Celebration Crossing" at the Indiana State Museum Nov. 24 - Jan. 7
This exhibit is the home of the traditional L. S. Ayres & Co. Christmas celebration, which has been thoughtfully preserved by the Indiana State Museum. In past generations, the place to celebrate the holidays in Indianapolis was at the downtown L. S. Ayres department store, which drew crowds every year with its magnificent animated window displays, a miniature train for kids to ride and Santa's workshop in Toyland, where children could tell Santa their wishes and watch animated gnomes making toys. Read more about the history of Ayres' Christmases here. After L. S. Ayres & Co. closed in 1992, these elements became part of the annual "Celebration Crossing" exhibit at the State Museum. The Santa Claus Express train is located on the third floor. On the second floor is a display that showcases a vintage Christmas scene at the L. S. Ayres & Co. downtown storefront, with animated figures and charming details, as well as a play area called "Santa's Playground." The L. S. Ayres Tea Room has also been re-created at the Indiana State Museum, complete with beloved menu items like chicken velvet soup, so you can enjoy lunch during your visit -- but it might be wise to make a reservation during the holiday season. My kids love the train ride and the animated window display, and Santa's house was just adorable last year. The exhibit also includes a room with holiday crafts, activities and games for children.
Jingle Rails at the Eiteljorg Museum Nov. 18 - Jan. 15
"Jingle Rails: The Great Western Adventure" is probably my favorite holiday museum exhibit. We have not missed this annual event since we discovered it, maybe 7 years ago. Model trains run through a network of bridges, tunnels and trestles among detailed scenes from national parks, downtown Indianapolis, and the state fairgrounds. All the scenery and miniature buildings are created by a nationally-recognized artist from natural materials, like bark, twigs, nuts and moss, so it's a roomful of fascinating works of art as well as an entertaining exhibit. Jingle Rails is popular with grown-ups and children alike, and there are also western-themed kids' activities and play spaces (including a life-size stagecoach to climb inside) on the lower level of the museum. Parking is free in the underground garage, and you can print a coupon for discounted admission here.
"Conservatory Crossing" at Garfield Park Conservatory Nov. 24 - Dec. 31
Really fun for kids who love trains and/or scavenger hunts, Garfield Park's "Conservatory Crossing" showcases a miniature village and countryside with model trains running through them. Kids can participate in the optional scavenger hunt to search for specific objects or miniature figures in the scenery (very exciting!). In the main hall of the conservatory is a "winter wonderland" poinsettia display. This exhibit is on the cheaper end of the spectrum at $4 per person or $10 per family.
'Twas the Night Before... Candlelight Theatre Event at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, Dec. 15 - 17
This unique event is perfect for history lovers and is best for adults and older children (probably 1st or 2nd grade and up). It's an evening tour of the historic home-turned-museum, with theatre performances in each room of the Presidential home, beautifully decorated for the holidays in an authentic Victorian style. The event website describes it as "a heartwarming interactive theatre experience for all ages in the historic Harrison mansion. Sip on hot cider, enjoy complimentary treats, and be delighted by holiday figures from tradition and folklore, as well as new jolly friends. Make your reservations early for this festive holiday performance! (Performances will sell out; reservations strongly suggested)." If you're wondering what to expect from this, think Conner Prairie meets Downton Abbey :). You can get tickets or find about more about the event here.
Peewinkle's Puppet Studio Christmas Show Dec. 2 - 28
This family-run business has been presenting workshops, puppet shows, birthday parties and educational programs for three generations. The theatre has moved to a new location inside the Indiana State Musuem, on the 2nd floor. The marionettes used in the puppet shows are handcrafted and half-life-size. Peewinkle's Christmas variety show includes lots of singing and dancing marionettes and is entertaining for all ages. Admission to the puppet studio is separate from museum admission, although if you want to visit both in the same day, there is a $2 discount. All tickets are $12 for the price of the show and popcorn; children under 2 are free.
Winterlights at the IMA/Newfields, Nov. 19 - Jan. 7
The Indianapolis Museum of Art has recently rebranded and renamed itself "Newfields," and it's also debuting a new winter holiday event outdoors in the gardens with light displays. Garden walk start times are 5 pm and 7 pm every evening except Mondays, when the museum is closed. Our family hasn't personally checked out this event yet, but maybe we will in the future. We have heard it described as "magical." Unfortunately, the magic isn't free: compared with events at this location in past years, Winterlights is quite pricey, ranging from $10-25 per person.
If you have older kids, you might be interested in the following holiday performances:
The Nutcracker, performed by the Indianapolis School of Ballet and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at the Murat Theatre, December 21st - 23rd.
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens' classic play performed every year during the holiday season at the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre.
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's holiday seasonal concerts, including over 30 performances of its annual Yuletide Celebration, and a few performances of Handel's Messiah.