Evansville provides welcome distractions close to home
By Glenda Winders
If you’re like most people, your post-pandemic getaway requirements might seem almost impossible to fulfill. The place you’re dreaming about needs to be close enough that you don’t have to get on an airplane, offer lots of ways to spend time outdoors and provide fun activities for children as well as sophisticated museums, shopping and restaurants for the adults. Does such a place even exist?
Lucky for you it does, and it offers even more than you thought to put on your checklist. All you need to do is gas up the car and head for Evansville.
Indiana’s third most populous city after Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Evansville is also the cultural and economic hub of the Kentucky-Illinois-Indiana tri-state area. Sometimes called “River City” because of its location on the Ohio River, Evansville was founded in 1812. But indigenous people have lived here for at least 10,000 years, leaving behind signs of their lives that you’ll be able to see. Today the vibrant population of 118,588 supports just about any activity you’d care to pursue.
“The E in Evansville stands for ‘everyone,’” says Hailey Reynolds, marketing manager for Visit Evansville. “With all the amenities of a big city, Evansville offers a unique blend of Hoosier hospitality and Southern charm.”
The best place to delve into Evansville’s rich history is at Angel Mounds State Historic Site. Here you’ll want to start out at the interpretive center to get your bearings, then stroll around the 600-acre park to see the mounds built by the Middle Mississippian Society for residential and ceremonial purposes some 1,000 years ago. A 4-mile hiking loop will lead you to discover even more archaeological surprises.
To further acquaint yourself with this diverse area, head to the Evansville African American Museum. Galleries here depict life for African Americans as it would have been around 1938. The building itself is historic — the last one remaining of Lincoln Gardens. One of President Franklin Roosevelt’s federal housing projects, it was dedicated by his wife, Eleanor.
The Reitz Home Museum was the Victorian-era residence of John Augustus Reitz, a lumber baron whose mill produced more feet of hardwood lumber than any other mill in the country. The home, said to be one of the finest examples of Second Empire architecture in the United States, is outfitted as if the family still lived there, complete with period pieces, many of them original.
The Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science examines the city through the lenses of these three disciplines. Exhibits on display until the end of the year include a celebration of women in art and the Evansville Shipyard in photographs. At the Koch Immersive Theater take in a movie about nature or a planetarium view of the skies over the area. The Evansville Wartime Museum has as its centerpiece a P-47 fighter plane that was built locally in 1945, and at the waterfront you can tour an LST-325, the only D-Day landing craft in the United States.
If children are with you, they might be getting restless, so now could be the time to surprise them with the Children’s Museum of Evansville, a colorful, busy place unlike any they’ve seen so far. The Artmaker Studio is a science lab, wood shop and art studio where they can do projects. In other galleries they will discover international cultures, splash in water, put on plays, learn how things work and find out how to live a healthy life.
More fun and fresh air can be found directly across the river in Henderson, Kentucky, at the John James Audubon State Park. Make a stop at the museum to learn about the famous birdwatcher and see some of his original artwork. Catch a program on art or the environment at the nature center in the same building, then head outdoors to walk on paths, hike on trails or take the boardwalk through the wetlands to get close-up views of the animals and birds just as Audubon might have. Fishing and golf are available, too, so you might want to book one of the cabins here and stay on for a few days.
Speaking of education and nature, make sure to plan for some time at Wesselman Woods, the largest old-growth urban forest in the United States. The mission here is to create experiences that connect people with nature, motivate them to lead sustainable lives and take action to protect wildlife and wild places.
“You’re transporting yourself to a time before colonial settlement,” says Zach Garcia, associate executive director. “This is what the forest looked like when indigenous people were living here.”
Forest bathing — the practice of consciously and contemplatively immersing yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of the woods — is at its best here, with Garcia leading a class titled “Finding the Forest Within Yourself.” At the adjacent 3-acre Nature Playscape children are encouraged to run off-trail, climb trees, splash in a waterfall and look under rocks and decomposing logs. Or they can discover a fort, a log crossing and a teepee as they learn about land stewardship and the people who lived here before recorded history.
More outdoor enjoyment can be found at Burdette Park and Aquatic Center, one of the largest aquatic centers in the Midwest. Swimmers will love the Olympic-size pool with two diving boards, the family pool with its dramatic water slides, a carefully guarded children’s pool and an interactive toddler spray park. Or stroll, jog, skate, ride your bike or walk your dog on the Pigeon Creek Greenway Passage that runs right through town.
The mission at the Mesker Park Zoo and Botanical Garden is to connect people with wildlife from all over the planet. Its more than 700 animals come from Africa, Asia, the Amazon and North America, and at the Children’s Enchanted Forest kids can interact with some of the more playful ones. The vibrant botanical gardens change throughout the year, and at their center is Lake Victoria, where you can take a relaxing paddleboat ride.
Golfers in your party will have their pick of courses. Several of the 11 possibilities are public or municipal, and others are destinations in themselves. Sports-lovers will also want to take in a game at Bosse Field Baseball Park, home of the Evansville Otters. Dating to 1915, this historic park was the first municipally owned stadium in the United States, and it remains the third largest in the country after Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago. Another part of its claim to fame is that several scenes from “A League of Their Own” were filmed here. Ford Center Arena is home to the Evansville Thunderbolts hockey team and the University of Evansville basketball team as well as a performance venue.
Perhaps the best way to get to know Evansville’s unique personality is to wander through its neighborhoods, 13 of which qualify as historic. Haynie’s Corner Arts District, for example, is a creative community of four neighborhoods (Riverside, Culver, Goosetown and Blackford’s Grove) adjacent to the Ohio River and converging at the corner where George Haynie built his drugstore in 1888. Today it’s filled with unusual shops, art galleries and clubs as well as restaurants and B&B inns (more about some of those later).
First Fridays here are a celebration of music, art and food. West Franklin Street is the place to be for festivals and bazaars that range from Mardi Gras in the spring to holiday events in December. Then there’s downtown, the University of Evansville area and more.
But back to those good places to eat in the arts district. Plan to start your day at Penny Lane Coffeehouse, where former President Bill Clinton and NBA basketball star Derek Anderson have both stopped in for cups of Joe. Madeleine’s Fusion Restaurant is the first and only fusion restaurant in the tri-state area, featuring a creative menu that changes to incorporate high-quality ingredients and spotlight the cuisines of various regions. The elegant surroundings feature a “show kitchen” and a wine cellar.
Also in the arts district is Bokeh Lounge. The daily menu here includes the candied bacon burger and blue cheeseburger, and on Saturdays and Sundays it adds a brunch that invites you to pair your eggs, waffles and burritos with a mimosa or bloody Mary. The big draw here, however, is live music and dancing.
Evansville isn’t short on ethnic dining, either. Arazu on Main serves up mainly Middle Eastern treats such as kebabs, baba ganoush, onion bhajis, falafel and Moroccan lentil soup but also adds Thai-style fresh wild salmon, gyros and Polynesian chicken. The vast and tempting menu at Yak and Yeti’s Himalayan Cuisine includes curries and goat, lamb and seafood, dumplings and noodles among standard favorites. Or make a meal out of grazing on appetizers such as Everest Samosa Chat (chopped samosas covered in chickpeas with yogurt and chutneys) or Alu Chop (potatoes mixed with eggs, onions and cilantro).
The food at Gerst Haus is about as European as it gets, ranging from German sauerbraten and wiener schnitzel to Hungarian goulash and Polish kielbasa. If what sounds good is a burger, though, head for Bru Burger Bar, where you’ll lunch or dine on classics in a refurbished Greyhound bus station.
When you’ve exhausted the day and are ready to turn in, you’ll have plenty of choices, depending on what kind of experience you want to have. If gaming is your thing, you might enjoy staying at the Tropicana Evansville Hotel, home of the state’s first casino. Le Merigot Hotel also has a riverside casino along with a nightclub and fitness center.
Romantics will opt for the Cool Breeze Bed and Breakfast, which has been operated by Katelin and David Hills for the past 27 years. The historic home was built in 1902, and now the Hills invite you to stay in one of their three large bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms. The inn takes its name from a one-bedroom school in West Virginia where Katelin’s grandfather once taught.
“The rooms are all named for writers,” she says. “The McGuffy Room (from the McGuffy Reader) was the master, and the Wordsworth Room was the children’s and nanny’s room. In the Margaret Mitchell room, I have a small collection of figures and books from ‘Gone with the Wind’ and an oil painting of Scarlett O’Hara.”
Or cross back over to Henderson, Kentucky, to check in at the L&N Bed and Breakfast, where another historic home overlooks what’s happening on Main Street. The owners forewarn that the 1895 house is next to a railroad track, but that is part of its charm. After the local railroad bridge was completed in 1932 an employee of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad operated it as a rooming house, as did its subsequent occupants.
While the DoubleTree by Hilton might not be as intimate and cozy or as historic and interesting as an inn, its location makes just about everything you want to see and do within walking distance.
Or maybe you did decide to stay in a cabin at the Audubon park, and after a day of hiking, fishing and golf you’re already tucked in for the night. You couldn’t do better for a peaceful night’s sleep.