One-Day Itinerary In Columbus, Indiana

There's no battle of old vs. new in this south-central Indiana town, where world-class modern architecture marries local quaintness.

A student cranes her neck to take in a building whose architect she's studied in design school while a young family stops at an ice cream parlor and is lured to stay by a giant climbing structure and playful street art.

It's Friday afternoon in Columbus, Indiana, where fans of modern design travel 40 miles south of Indianapolis to see more than 90 buildings created by architects of international renown. What they also find is a community equally proud of its public art and historic downtown.

Beginning in the 1940s, industrialist and philanthropist J. Irwin Miller brought a vision to his hometown, helping fund the building of local civic structures—as long as architects were chosen from a list that reads like the honor roll of contemporary design. The result? Buildings by Eero and Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Deborah Berke, and other celebrated architects.

Plan to carve out an entire afternoon to explore Columbus' downtown of colorful restaurants, shops and an independent bookstore. Swing by the Visitors Center or download a free app for orientation to the architectural sights via foot, bike or car. It's a town that loves modern, so there's always something fresh to do.

Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church and Henry Moore's Large Arch sculpture, Columbus, Indiana
Bob Stefko

9:30 a.m. Coffee and Arch Views

Start at Lucabe Coffee Company for a masala tea or Rosie's Latte to go. While the caffeine kicks in, explore the brick plaza outside the I.M. Pei-designed public library. From here, check out the organic curves of sculptor Henry Moore's 20-foot-tall bronze Large Arch.

10:30 a.m. Amazing Space

Cross the plaza to First Christian Church, where the town's building revolution began in 1942. Designed by Eliel Saarinen, the worship center, sunken gardens and 166-foot-tall bell tower fill a city block.

11 a.m. Walk and Play

Burn off energy with a three-block walk to The Commons, a glass-enclosed community space with a stage, event center and restaurants. Set little ones loose at the free indoor playground and on the 35-foot-tall climbing structure.

Zaharakos Columbus Indiana
Bob Stefko

12 p.m. Taste of Nostalgia

If a sandwich and sundae sound like the perfect lunch combo, slide into a counter seat at Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor, a 122-year-old shop with Victorian vibes. Take a brief stroll around the Bartholomew County Courthouse. With a clock tower topped by delicate ironwork, it strikes quite a contrast from mod neighbors.

Eero Saarinen’s Miller House and Garden
Courtesy of Exhibit Columbus

2 p.m. Design School

At the cozy Sixth Street Arts Alley, you can snap a selfie in front of a colorful mural. Around the corner is the Columbus Visitors Center, where a tour of the Miller House and Garden begins at 2:45. Book advance tickets to visit this midcentury masterpiece. (Other tour times available if those fit better into your day.)

Considered a leading example of modernist architecture, the 1950s Miller House feels like it could be a set for Mad Men; visitors gush over the groundbreaking conversation pit and the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beautifully manicured grounds.

4:30 p.m. Stroll an Artsy Avenue

On Fifth Street, the amount of eye-catching art is so dense it would cause a traffic jam if Hoosiers (and visitors) weren't so darn polite. One example: Dessa Kirk's sculpture of the Greek goddess Eos rises from the street in a gown of vines with lily-shape leaves.

6:30 p.m. Dinner and Lodging

Grab a beer and a bite under the arches of a 1903 pump house at Upland Brewing Co.

Overnight choices include sleek Hotel Indigo and The Inn at Irwin Gardens, a bed-and-breakfast in an early 20th-century Edwardian mansion.

More to Try

During Exhibit Columbus (late August to November in 2023), see more than a dozen temporary installations of public art downtown.

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