116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Indiana’s Rising Star
Fort Wayne blossoms into a top destination
Jun. 6, 2022 6:00 am
I came to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to solve a family mystery — and left the city delighted to have discovered a vibrant Midwestern destination that’s well worth a return visit.
Fort Wayne drew me because of its Allen County Public Library, which has the second-largest genealogy collection in the country (only the Family History Library in Salt Lake City is larger). Its free resources include 1.1 million physical items as well as access to nearly 40 billion more items through online databases. Thanks to its librarians, I found the answer to a puzzle involving my great-great-grandfather — a question that was just one of hundreds of research questions the center’s staff responds to each day.
“Six decades ago our library started a genealogy collection, and with the community’s generous support it’s grown to become a resource accessed by thousands of people in person and online each year,” said Curt Witcher, director of special collections at the Allen County Public Library. “Our goal is to help patrons have fun and be successful in their search for roots.”
The library includes another treasure: the Rolland Center for Lincoln Research, which has one of the world’s largest collections of items relating to the 16th president. Interactive digital exhibits make it easy to explore thousands of photographs, letters and documents, while display cases hold memorabilia ranging from books underlined by Lincoln to tickets to his funeral in Springfield, Illinois.
Fort Wayne’s remarkable library was just one of many impressive attractions I visited during my visit to the city, which sits at the confluence of the St. Mary’s, St. Joseph and Maumee rivers in northeast Indiana. As the second-largest city in Indiana, Fort Wayne is the fastest-growing metro area in the Great Lakes Region, with $1 billion in recent redevelopment in its downtown. The crown jewel of this revitalization is Promenade Park, a $20 million project on its waterfront. With a pavilion, restaurants and a Treetop Canopy Trail that winds high above the water, the park has become a magnet for visitors and locals alike. From the park you can take a river cruise, rent kayaks to paddle eight miles of water trails, or hop on bikes to explore Fort Wayne’s 120 miles of trails.
From the riverfront, I headed to the city’s urban center to see some of the colorful murals that adorn its streets and alleyways, from a fanciful image of Walt Whitman with flowers tumbling out of his head to a huge bison that fills the entire side of a multistory building. More than 150 public works of art can be found throughout Fort Wayne.
The city’s commitment to the arts also nurtures professional orchestra, ballet and theater companies as well as its three-building Arts Campus, which includes the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. This summer, the museum will open a new wing for its 300-piece glass sculpture collection. Another landmark is the Embassy Theatre, an ornately decorated showplace built in 1928 that hosts touring Broadway productions, concerts, films and educational programming for all ages.
The city’s lively cultural scene is also enhanced by Sweetwater, the nation’s largest online retailer of music instruments and audio equipment. The company’s hipster campus on the outskirts of Fort Wayne features the country’s largest music store, where visitors can try out hundreds of instruments as well as shop for the latest high-tech sound and performance equipment.
“We’re a musician’s playground,” said Alyssa Nobel, campus events manager at Sweetwater. “We host concerts, offer lessons, and give advice to everybody from beginners to experienced musicians. We’re a popular stop for the country’s top performers, so you never know who you’re going to run into here.”
Another national brand based in Fort Wayne is Vera Bradley, best known for its colorful handbags, travel items and accessories. The annual Vera Bradley Outlet Sale in May attracts thousands of bargain hunters from around the country, but at any time of year you can shop at its retail outlet at Jefferson Pointe Shopping Center.
A highlight of my visit to the city was a visit to the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, which is nearly as much fun for adults as it is for kids. Ranked as one of the top children’s zoos in the country, its 40 acres include beautifully landscaped gardens as well as rides and hands-on experiences ranging from hand-feeding giraffes to petting stingrays. I especially enjoyed learning about the zoo’s participation in the Species Survival Plan, a program that coordinates the breeding of rare and endangered species in zoos across the nation, as well as a ride on the Crocodile Creek Adventure, a boat tour that winds through its Australia exhibit.
All of my touring generated a hearty appetite, which I indulged in multiple sites in Fort Wayne. One of my first stops was the YLNI Farmers Market, where merchants sell baked goods, handmade soaps, artisan crafts and ethnic foods. On Saturday mornings during the summer and fall, their number swells to more than 100 vendors as the market takes over three blocks of the downtown.
Another foodie hot spot is The Landing, a historic neighborhood near the riverfront that’s been refurbished into a dining and entertainment district. One of its top restaurants is Nawa, which serves Asian fusion cuisine. Other popular eateries in the city include BakerStreet, best known for its steaks, and Alto Grado’s wood-fired pizza.
One of my favorite meals in Fort Wayne was at Proximo, a downtown restaurant specializing in Latin-infused cuisine. Owner James Khan is an enthusiastic cheerleader for his hometown.
“It’s wonderful to see all the new things that are happening in Fort Wayne,” he said. “One of the main reasons for the city’s vitality is its incredible sense of community. I think visitors can see that we love our city and love welcoming visitors.”
If you go
What: Fort Wayne, Indiana
Where: Fort Wayne is located about three hours east of Chicago
Where to stay: The Bradley, 204 W. Main St., Fort Wayne, Indiana; 1-(877) 628-4408; provenancehotels.com/the-bradley. The Bradley is a new downtown boutique hotel affiliated with the co-founder of the Vera Bradley Co. Rooms start at $135 a night.
For more information: visitfortwayne.com or (260) 424-3700
Upcoming special events
BBQ Ribfest — June 16 to 19
Greekfest — June 23 to 26
Three Rivers Festival — July 8-16
Dragon Boat Races — Aug. 6