Often listed among the best places to live in America, Carmel is a suburban city north of Indianapolis that has grown exponentially since the 1990s.
The story of Carmel goes back to a town called Bethlehem, platted in the 1830s. Today a lot of the city’s commerce, dining and culture is in modern, smartly designed districts that you can get around on foot or by bike.
These are all linked by the Monon Trail, which runs through the city, taking you all the way to Indianapolis proper.
The most striking of the new districts is Carmel City Center, with its monumental spaces and classical-style architecture epitomized by the Palladium, a magnificent Renaissance Revival concert hall.
1. Carmel Arts & Design District
The city has set aside several blocks for small businesses, and this neighborhood has quickly emerged as the Midwest’s premier arts and design destination.
Several of the spots in this article can be found in the Carmel Arts & Design District, alongside studios, art galleries, quirky eateries and stores for antiques, collectibles, homewares, handcrafted gifts and fashion.
There’s a cosmopolitan choice of dining and drinking establishments in the area, and as with Carmel’s other newly laid out neighborhoods, the Monon Trail lets you leave your car at home.
The district is also fun to explore, with its own street signs, and public art by the celebrated Realist, John Seward Johnson II (1930-2020).
2. Carmel City Center
South of the Arts & Design District is Carmel’s central commercial and cultural district, planned to combine the warmth of a local neighborhood with the dynamism and grandeur of downtown.
Carmel City Center is right by the Monon Trail and can be navigated on foot or by bike. The dominating Center for the Performing Arts grabs your attention, but there’s much to discover in the area, at a clutch of boutiques, independent eateries, a brewpub and fitness and yoga studios.
This is also the summer setting for the burgeoning Carmel Farmers’ Market, every Saturday, and there’s always some kind of public event taking place. These gatherings continue through the fall and winter with Oktoberfest and a festive Christkindlmarkt.
3. The Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts
One of three venues that make up the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel City Center is the awe-inspiring Palladium.
Completed in 2011, this landmark is newer than it looks, with its commanding limestone walls and Renaissance Revival design inspired by the Villa La Rotonda (1566) outside Vicenza.
Under that massive dome, the 1,600-seater auditorium has a classic horseshoe configuration, with supreme acoustics enabled by its sound-reflecting wall.
The Palladium is the seat of the Carmel Symphony Orchestra and the Palladium Players theater group. The calendar is crammed with concerts by ensembles and artists from all genres, as well as theater, dance and children’s shows.
There are bi-weekly guided tours if you want to know more about this monument, and you can check out a gallery inside with rotating exhibits charting the history of American popular music.
4. Museum of Miniature Houses and Other Collections
Something special on hand in the Arts & Design District is one of the few museums in the United States dedicated to fine art in miniature, mostly on a 1:12 scale.
The extensive collections include miniature houses, room boxes and individual items with an exceptional level of craftsmanship.
This skill shines through in all of the displays, but you’ll also be impressed by the rich detail and historical accuracy, which are also vital in the world of miniature art.
Set across seven rooms, the exhibits are updated often and can be experienced by self-guided, audio or docent-guided tour.
5. Coxhall Gardens
This stunning park is the former residence of the philanthropist couple, Jesse and Beulah Cox and was donated to the county in 1999.
The first thing to mention at Coxhall Gardens is the Centerpiece, featuring an amphitheater for outdoor concerts in summer, as well as neat formal gardens, fountains, public art and a pair of large symmetrical ponds.
A few steps away is Coxhall Mansion, available for tours and rentals, and next to each pond is an elegant, 90-foot bell tower.
Waterbirds like egrets and herons are regularly sighted at the ponds, while there’s also a wonderful Children’s Garden, with a sundial, village stores, echo wall and much more.
6. Waterpark at the Monon Community Center
Opened in 2007, the Monon Community Center is a high-end recreation facility with a fitness center, indoor pool, KidZone for childcare and a big menu of group fitness classes.
But what puts the center on the map in the summer is the outdoor waterpark, loaded with attractions for fun in the sun.
There’s a large lap/activity pool, a lazy river, a kiddie pool, adventure slides, a plunge slide and a FlowRider for surfing at speeds of 30 mph. One way to make a day of it is to rent one of the park’s cabanas, able to fit up to eight guests.
7. Monon Trail
We’ve already mentioned this walking, jogging and bicycling route a few times, but that’s a testament to how useful the Monon Trail is in Carmel.
More than 20 miles in length, this is a rail trail, on the right-of-way of the Monon Railroad, which started operating in 1847 and ran through Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.
You can take the trail all the way down to the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, passing through Westfield to the north and Broad Ripple to the south of Carmel.
Closer to home it’s an excellent way to get around, serving Carmel’s downtown districts, Central Park and the Center for the Performing Arts.
8. Central Park
The Monon Trail runs right through the middle of this park, home to the Monon Community Center and The Waterpark.
Off the Monon Trail here are some six miles of paths taking you through native prairie, woodlands and wetlands.
At times, especially in the east woods, you’ll find it hard to believe you’re still in the city. In the park’s western portion is Westermeier Commons, with an accessible, state-of-the-art playground that has more than 25,000 square feet of play space.
Next to this is a splash pad, with water features inspired by the surrounding nature. A few other amenities at Central Park are a skate park, dog park, picnic shelters and boardwalk.
9. Indiana Design Center
In the heart of the Arts & Design District, the Indiana Design Center offers endless resources and interior design inspiration for professionals and the public.
Inside are over 15 showrooms and 45 kitchen displays, as well as a wealth of merchandise relating to home décor, furnishings and building products.
Members of the public can shop in all of the retail showrooms on the first floor, ranging from drapery and hearths to luxury electronics and biophilic design.
Upstairs are the to-the-trade showrooms, and these can be visited in the company of your own interior design professional, or with one of the “Featured Designers” listed on the center’s website.
10. Carmel Farmers’ Markets
You can buy local produce, ingredients and other food products year round in Carmel, as the local farmers’ market has summer and winter seasons.
Saturday mornings, May through September, there are upwards of 60 vendors at 510 3rd Avenue SW, and come October they relocate close by to the Wire Factory, one of the last remaining old industrial buildings in the city.
For a sense of what you’ll find, there’s seasonal fruit, vegetables and herbs, from tomatoes to corn to garlic, as well a host of other products such as eggs, meat, poultry, baked goods, sauces, jams and jellies.
Dining is also part of the fun, with options like waffles, breakfast burritos, ribs, egg rolls and smoothies, while there’s live entertainment most weeks.
11. Flowing Well Park
The Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation Department maintains this unique park on the city’s east side. Densely wooded, Flowing Well Park is on the banks of Cool Creek and stands out for its artesian well.
This was discovered in 1904, purely by accident when drillers were searching for natural gas. A little later, the landowner donated the well for public use, but it wasn’t until 1994 that this spot opened as Carmel’s first public park.
Artesian Wells have to be tested quarterly for bacteria, but the CCPR does a check every month.
So you can feel confident bringing your own bottle to fill up, although it’s recommended that you boil the water before consuming it. From the well you can venture into the woods along a trail, and take a break at one of the benches by the creek.
12. Midtown Plaza
Tying together the Arts & Design District and Carmel City Center is a fun development in the city’s old industrial area.
Home to several major local employers, Midtown Plaza has been conceived as a daytime and evening hangout, with sociable green spaces, benches and community tables.
Bars and restaurants invite you to mingle, and there’s lots of outdoor entertainment in summer, from movies to live music to broadcasts of sporting events.
Also at Midtown Plaza is an interactive play area, with a spray park for kids, as well as ping-pong tables, cornhole boards, bocce courts, all enriched by public art.
13. Peace Water Winery
With a stylish tasting room in keeping with Carmel’s Arts & Design District, this locally-owned company brings handcrafted Napa Valley wine to Indiana.
Something remarkable about Peace Water Winery is that 50% of its profits are donated to eight different charities (local and international), one chosen by each of their owners’ eight children.
You can visit the tasting room in Carmel without a reservation, to try Peace Water’s wines by the glass or flight.
The friendly and informative hosts will tell all you could want to know about the winemaking process and the profile of each wine, so you can choose the one that’s right for you. There’s also a cozy back patio here, with regular live music.
14. Conner Prairie
Just across the White River from Carmel is a remarkable Living History Museum recalling life along the river in the 19th century.
The property belonged to the famed fur trader and politician, William Conner (1777-1855), who built his Federal-style brick house here in 1823.
Conner Prairie was founded as an attraction in the mid-1930s when it was purchased by the Indiana pharmaceutical industrialist Eli Lilly (1885-1977).
For a small taste of the permanent attractions here, you can tour the William Conner House, restored to its 1820s appearance, tour a Lenape Native American camp and watch craft demonstrations at the Makesmith Workshop.
There are domestic animals and animal husbandry activities at Animal Encounters, displays about the history of Hoosier entrepreneurship at Create Connect, and a recreated 1836 pioneer community called Prairietown.
If you’re into golf you’ve come to the right place, because there are no fewer than eight courses in Carmel.
Three of these are public and were designed by the likes of Pete Dye, who resided in Carmel for a time, and Robert Trent Jones, Jr..
Brookshire Golf Club, moments east of Carmel City Center is on the picturesque banks of Cool Creek, which repeatedly comes into play.
Further east, near the White River is the Dye-designed Plum Creek Golf Club, with its abundant water, and greens ringed by trees.
Finally, Prairie View Golf Club faces Conner Prairie across the White River, and is in a landscape of rolling natural grassland and wetlands, interrupted by beautiful stands of mature oak and sycamore.