If Indianapolis has never made your list of must-visit places, it's time to rewrite the list. The Indiana state capital has undergone a renaissance with plenty of attractions worth a visit. But this year, there are two new reasons to visit Indy: ancient relics from China and eight charming orangutans.
The Children's Museum of Indianapolis is where you'll find the Chinese Terra Cotta Warriors. The Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center at the Indianapolis Zoo is where you'll find the personable apes.
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Terra Cotta Warriors
Eight of the recently unearthed Terra Cotta Warriors, an archeological wonder that was discovered in 1974 and dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World, are on display at the Children's Museum through Nov. 2 along with 118 other relics. It's the only venue in the United States where you can see the Terra Cotta Warriors this year.
This is the second of The Children's Museum's "Take Me There" series (the first was a virtual trip to Egypt and King Tut). Four years in the making, this exhibit has two main components: the warriors themselves and a hands-on section that lets kids explore Chinese culture.
The 2,200+-year-old warrior statues were created to guard the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin (pronounced Chin) Shi Huangdi. He is credited with uniting seven kingdoms under a single empire that would become known as China.
It is believed that soon after he took control in 246 B.C., the emperor ordered the construction of a huge tomb complex that would serve as his home in the afterlife. That included the creation of 8,000 of life-sized baked clay soldiers, each with a unique face and hands, to be stationed in vast underground pits to protect him in the afterlife.
Only about 2,000 have been unearthed to date and the tomb itself remains buried. Chinese texts tell a story of rivers flowing with mercury, palace replicas and the recreation of Xianyang, the capital when Qin lived.
Archeologists believe the clay statues were originally painted in vibrant colors. As they were exposed to air for the first time in 2 millennia, the paint flaked off. An educational component of the exhibit helps visitors explore the science behind the paint and learn about new technology that will be used to preserve the paint on Terra Cotta Warrior statues unearthed in the future.
When I visited, the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit was a bigger draw for adults than kids. There are a few interactive features such as a life-sized terra cotta warrior model that can be taken apart and rebuilt, costumes and replicas for photo ops, the opportunity to mold and make your own mini terra cotta soldiers, and some very loud ancient musical instruments.
The kids were having more fun across the hall in the "Take Me There: China" section, which will remain open after the warriors are packed up and sent home to China in November. That section lets kids (and adults) explore Chinese culture through the arts, music, language, transportation, housing, food, tea, calligraphy, ancient medicine and cuddly giant pandas.
Take Me There: China is included in the regular museum admission of $14.50 (ages 2-17), $19.50 (ages 18-59) and $18.50 (ages 60+). The Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit requires an additional ticket -- $5 for kids, $10 for adults and $7.50 for seniors.
International Orangutan Center
Don't leave Indianapolis without a stop at the Indianapolis Zoo to say hello to Rocky, the "George Clooney of orangutans" and seven of his pals now living at the Indianapolis Zoo, The International Orangutan Center is part entertainment and part education -- of visitors and apes. (Note there is no "g" on the end of orangutan, just one of the many things you can learn at this new zoo attraction.)
The center's eight orangutans were all raised in captivity in zoos or with private owners. The center is the size of two football fields and decorated in an industrial style with firehoses and scaffolding for the apes to climb. The overhead "Hutan Trail," a network of cables, platforms and bridges as much as 80 feet high, is a favorite of Rocky, who was having a great time swinging from the highest heights while visitors snapped his picture from below. You also can get a sky-high view of the Hutan Trail with a ride on the Skyline tram, which wasn't operating due to rain on the day I visited.
Inside the center, there's an education space. If you get lucky, you can watch as scientists teach the apes to work on computers. It's a relatively small space, so the training schedule won't be posted. Instead, those who happen to be inside the center when training is in session will be invited to pull up a chair and watch.
Even if you miss one of the formal training sessions, you can still be fascinated by these creatures who are just as fascinated by the humans on the other side of the glass. They like shiny objects and spend time in industrious pursuits like making their beds, running the "Beacon of Light" spotlight and posing for selfies with their guests.
The Indianapolis Zoo is the largest privately funded zoo in the country. It's a perfect size, just about midway between Lincoln Park Zoo and Brookfield Zoo. Admission prices vary by day of the week. Expect to pay about $20 per person for admission that includes access to the Orangutan Center.
• Cindy Richards is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist veteran travel writer who serves as editor of TravelingMom.com, an online family travel magazine.