As a first-time visitor to Indiana, I didn’t know what to expect when I embarked on a winter trip to Hamilton County and its small-to-mid-sized Indianapolis suburbs.
Certainly, I didn’t expect what I found in Carmel, a city of about 92,000 people located 40 minutes north of Indianapolis.
There, amidst the 128 roundabout intersections (yes, Carmel is known as the Roundabout Capital of the U.S.!), I found a community brimming with businesses owned by dynamic women entrepreneurs, brand-new festivals that are drawing in hundreds of thousands of people, and a lovely city center anchored by a 1,600-seat concert hall.
Intermingled with all of the recent developments are lively and fun spots where visitors can take in everything from a traditional English tea room owned by a knowledgeable U.K. transplant, to a chic chocolate shop selling Austrian-style goods with an Indiana flare, to an elegant cake shop that recently garnered national attention as a 2019 inductee onto Oprah Winfrey’s list of favorite things.
In fact, Carmel and its surrounding towns seem to have all of the bases covered. With the area’s vintage train that features fun seasonal themes, along with the history-come-to-life treasure at Conner Prairie, Hamilton County is a great family destination.
The area also appeals to adults of all ages with its unique wineries (complete with cozy igloos), its beautiful Monon Rail Trail, and plenty of quaint shopping districts..
You would be hard-pressed to get to all of Hamilton County’s attractions in one weekend, but here are a few of the features that are sure to make it a sweet visit.
Women Entrepreneurs Rule
In general, Hamilton County appears to be a great spot for entrepreneurs. But as I toured the area on my recent press trip, I was struck by a recurring theme: Many of the booming businesses were founded and run by women.
First of all, there’s Gwendolyn Rogers, who owns two locations of Cake Bake, an elegant shop serving an enormous array of sweet creations. The Carmel branch, which was decked out in brilliant-white decor for Christmas when I visited, is located right off the bustling Carmel City Center.
Rogers tells the story of starting her business with $100 in seed money that she borrowed from her young son. It didn’t take long for business to boom, though. Cake Bake has become a regional draw, with people putting a visit to the shop on their bucket lists.
Along with the decadent cakes, the shop serves a full menu of chic but homey breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare. I loved the creamy wild mushroom soup-of-the-day, served with toasted French baguette, and others in my group raved about the towering slices of quiche. And we all enjoyed the lavish charcuterie board, piled high with fresh-tasting olives, creamy cheeses, and briny artichoke hearts.
Tina’s Traditional Old English Kitchen
Walk into Tina Jesson’s Traditional Old English Kitchen, and you will be transported to the world of the English royals. Prince Harry beams from a cutout in the corner, vintage photos of Queen Victoria adorn the walls, and the British flag is strung over the entrance.
Tina – a transplant from the U.K. – told our group what we already could guess from the decor. “I’m a royalist,” she said with a smile. Accompanying her devotion to the British royal family is a dedication to authentic English fare. The tearoom offers a variety of loose-leaf tea blends and tea accessories, along with a menu of brunch and lunch items.
Along with filling a local demand for authentic English fare, Tina leads tours of locals back to her native England.
Art and chocolate come together beautifully in Joann Hofer’s downtown-Carmel shop, Xchocol’art.
With a background in painting, Joann incorporates beautiful scenes onto many of her chocolate creations that include the popular whiskey truffles and chocolate covered caramels. She also creates a sea-salt caramel adorned with the likeness of Indiana’s shape on the map.
Xchocol’art is located on a charming alleyway off Main Street in Carmel’s Art and Design District, and makes a great spot to find gifts to take home with you.
Family-oriented Entertainment Abounds
From festive trains to prairie scenes blazing with lights to iceskating on a city-center rink, Carmel excels at its family entertainment. Here are a few of the popular attractions:
Nickel Plate Express
For the past several years, a 1950s-era Santa Fe Railway High-Level passenger train has been offering special-event rides along 12 miles of track between the Hamilton County towns of Atlanta and Cicero. Called the Nickel Plate Express, the historic train offers kid-friendly seasonal themes such as the Wizard Express, the Pumpkin Express, and the Christmas-themed Reindeer Ride Express.
The Reindeer Ride Express, which features a visit by Santa and Mrs. Claus and festive decorations, gets packed with families in the weeks before Christmas.
Located in Hamilton County’s town of Fishers, Conner Prairie has been educating the children of Indiana about 19th-century life along the White River for decades.
During Christmas, Conner Prairie is festooned with lights that depict farm life in Indiana, among other local scenes. The center also takes its “living-history” mission seriously. When my group visited, century-old dramas played out in many of the farm’s historic buildings, with enthusiastic actors taking on the personas of past residents.
Conner Prairie also offers other seasonal programs such as a “headless horseman” ride in the autumn and Civil War reenactments.
Since 2017, the Carmel City Center has taken on the aura of a German Christmas market. The Carmel Christkindlmarkt regularly taps German suppliers and vendors to provide the atmosphere that conjures up the famous Christmas markets of Europe.
After burning off some energy on the large iceskating rink at the center of the market, visitors can indulge in German delicacies such as schnitzel, enormous pretzels, and melted-cheese raclette.
Although it has been in existence for just three years, the Carmel Christkindlmarket has grown tremendously in popularity, attracting 328,000 visitors in 2018.
Wineries, Trails, and Shopping
While Hamilton County’s family-friendly activities will appeal to adults as well as children, the area also has plenty of options for more mature travelers. Think wine tasting, long-distance biking, and shopping.
If you like your wine with a bit of scenery and atmosphere, Urban Vines in Westfield is the perfect choice. With views of a lovely meadow and pond, visitors can gather in heated igloo-shaped tents and be served a wide assortment of wines and charcuterie.
For me, Urban Vines offered a perfect combination of classic Midwestern scenery, fine wines, and tasty appetizers.
The igloos seat eight people each, and are available from November through March.
The 27-mile Monon Trail, a beloved recreational amenity in central Indiana, follows a section of the old Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railway line. It runs through the heart of Hamilton County and connects with Indianapolis to the south.
“On any given day, you’ll see families with strollers, dogs on leashes, hardcore cyclists and runners or people simply strolling,” says the Hamilton County tourism site.
The trail cuts through mid-town Carmel, and connects with the Carmel City Center, where multiple activities are available. Depending on the time of year, trail users could take in a farmers market at the city center, or a concert at the Palladium, a 1,600-seat concert hall. Soon, the trail also will connect with the new music-themed Hotel Carmichael, Autograph Collection. The boutique hotel is set to open in May 2020.
Shopping in Downtown Noblesville
From its grand county courthouse to its row of boutiques and antique shops, Noblesville’s historic town square makes for a great sightseeing and shopping destination.
Located about 20 minutes northeast of Carmel, the Hamilton County Seat also boasts concerts and festivals, hip coffee shops, and artistic experiences.
(Note that this information was gathered during a press trip, but my opinions remain my own.)