Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne’s veteran’s benefits included an assignment at a log fort in the wilds of Indiana. Its restored buildings still stand at the confluence of the three rivers that braid the city of 220,000 which today bears the general’s name: Fort Wayne.
It’s come a long way, baby. Today its citizens march to a different drummer in this vibrant outpost of art. It’s a trailhead for a host of bold murals (100 and counting) livening downtown’s brick facades and alleyways (DIY tour maps available at the Visitors Center).
My favorite: the giant buffalo adorning a two-story wall in The Landing, on the spot where the city first arose, and today a dining/shopping enclave. The Landing also hosts the city’s first boutique hotel, The Bradley, named for the local goddess of entrepreneurship Vera Bradley, creator of quilted, patterned fabric bags and purses. (If you don’t recognize—and worship—her name, just ask your mom or sister.)
The hotel’s rooftop bar showcases a panoramic vista of the city, while its streetside café serves the world’s best avo toast, which became my daily breakfast. The Pearl—designed as an arts enclave, is under construction right next door.
But no need to wait for visual bling: Just head to the nearby Museum of Art to ogle its stunning collection of art glass: upwards of 400 shimmering pieces, including a life-size glass kimono and a masterpiece by glass-master Dale Chihuly. The energy is contagious: “No place in the state has this much art density” is the local boast.
Ogle art of a horticultural nature at the city’s lush Botanical Garden, conveniently located smack in the middle of downtown.
And no place has this much Lincoln, either. Those braggin’ rights belong to the Public Library’s Rolland Center. “We get more eyes on our collection [than in the President’s many other museums]—and it’s a 21st-century experience…. not just gawking,” emphasizes library ringmaster Curt Wichter. Peek at the Lincoln family’s own photo album, for instance. Or young Abe’s scrawled notes in his books.
Then proceed to the building’s famed Genealogy Center, where anyone and everyone can trace one’s ancestry, all—get this!—free of charge. And with expert assistance. “We don’t just point you; we help you,” Curt underscores. The center can even restore faded vintage photos. (geneologycenter.org)
Tracing a building’s genealogy can inspire discoveries, too. The city’s former General Electric complex—once a mini-metropolis of 10,000 workers, which shut its doors in 2015—has been reborn as mixed-use space anchored by Union Street Market, a vibrant food hall luring hungry fans of barbecue, Thai, Mexican, Korean and more.
Tastemakers season life all throughout the metro. At GK Sweets, dynamo baker Grace Kelly fulfils her mission to “bring joy to downtown” with her ethereal croissants, bagels and cookies. So does the Culinary Institute of America-trained couple behind Brooklyn Pints, a pint-sized but potently tasty ice cream shop, where fave flavors include London Fog and Thai Tea.
Some of the city’s best breweries also excel in beyond-pub grub. Hoppy Gnome satisfies foodies with the likes of tuna tartare, carne asada tacos, and churros to pair with its outstanding Blonde Ale, October Festival, Prescription IPA, and best-selling Amber.
So does Junk Ditch. Get over the brewery’s location-based name and enjoy its Midwest Nice, a cold IPA, paired with feta-laced fried Brussels sprouts; Dachville, its German-style Pilsner partnered with salmon, faro, black rice, cashew cream and chili oil; and a seductively spicy Rye Porter aside sweet-potato cheesecake topped with apple sorbet.
Those whose hearts beat faster at the words “smoked Bourbon” know to demand the cocktail menu at Copper Spoon, where I paired the smooth sipper with scallops the size of tennis balls atop Parmesan risotto. Bonus: the café’s cushy booths overlook the town’s ballpark.
Despite the name, beverages are not the forte at Sweetwater: Music is. Launched in the ’70s by Chuck Surak as a mobile recording studio out of his VW bus, the mesmerizing operation has ballooned into the top online retailer, of all breeds, In. The. Country. While guitars of every stripe and price point are its best-sellers, virtually every instrument is represented on the show floor for customers to try before they buy, along with sound and recording equipment—everything but your lead singer. Performances, lessons and even a convenient cafeteria are part of the Sweetwater experience.
But boys just wanna have fun, right? At least, after dark. The city’s primo gay bar Babylon (including its Bears’ Den) covers all bases from dance floor to live entertainment (Della Licious, anyone?) and theme parties.
For more info, see www.VisitFortWayne.com.
Then venture out into the surrounding countryside. The town of Warsaw’s showpiece is Warsaw Cut Company, a family enterprise etching goblets and more since 1911. Whetstone Woodenware, in nearby Silver Lake, turns maple hardwood into kitchenware—everything from spoons to cutting boards; demos, too. Annie Oakley Perfumery, in Ligonier, offers visitors scents to mix and match to create one’s own personal perfume (men’s scents like Stampede, Caballero and Wild West, too).
Winona on the Lake—Indiana’s answer to Florida’s Seaside enclave—unreels sweet canal-hugging homes facing a similar row of indie retailers—apparel to edibles and more, culminating in Cerulean, with its stylish bento-box menu.
Which calls for wine. Visit Two EE’s in Huntington for a classy (yet low-key) tasting experience and tour led by EE’s Emily and Eric. Then head to Country Heritage Winery—Indiana’s Winery of the Year in 2017—for a side of pizza with the vino of your choice. Your purchase begs for beef, right? Find primo Wagyu at The Emporium, along Roanoke’s quaint Main Street. For more info, see www.visitindiana.com