Hoosier Country: The Best of Hamilton County, Indiana

By Ron Stern
Ron Stern
Ron Stern
December 21, 2018 Updated: December 21, 2018

Situated north of its big-city neighbor of Indianapolis, Hamilton County, Indiana is loaded with Midwestern charm, one-of-a-kind attractions, innovative art and design, and down-home eateries. With stories inspired by dreams, love, and passion, the locals of this Hoosier state know how to roll out the welcome mat showcasing the best of the American spirit.

The eight towns of Hamilton County, including Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, and Westfield, have their own individual personality, which made exploring them a delightful experience.

Yuletide Fun for Everyone

Carmel’s Christmas market features traditional German handicrafts. (Hamilton County Tourism)

One of the reasons that I enjoy visiting Europe and Germany in particular are the Christmas markets. There is something about the crisp winter air, colorfully lit booths, and traditional foods that I just can’t resist.

In Carmel, an authentic Christkindlmarkt (Christ Child Market) has been recreated right in the center of the city. This second annual event features 47 booths offering traditional German handicrafts such as nutcrackers, glass ornaments, wooden collectibles, and toys. The horseshoe configuration also features an outdoor ice skating rink for kids of all ages.

Ice skaters at the Christmas market in Carmel, Indiana. (Hamilton County Tourism)

The showpiece is a huge 33-foot tall Glühwein Pyramid, the only one like it in the United States. This structure weighs an incredible 10 tons and is topped with rotating fan blades. This was my first stop along my mini-food tour. After having a hot glass of spiced red mulled glühwein, I made my way to the Raclette Chalet. For me, it doesn’t get much better than hot, melted specialty cheese slathered on a crispy baguette: Each bite is pure bliss. Sausages like bratwurst, expertly cooked on an authentic schwenkgrill, completed my final taste-tempting treat.

Cheese lovers should spring for the raclette at the Carmel Christmas market. (Ron Stern)

Combining history, theatrics, and a bit of whimsy, Conner Prairie by Candlelight is a must-see, family-friendly attraction. Located in nearby Fishers, this outdoor living history museum gets transformed into an 1836 prairie town on Christmas Eve, complete with volunteers in period clothing welcoming you into their homes. I found myself caught up in the fun, singing carols and partaking of refreshments as they would have been, back in the 19th century.  

Makers, Shakers, and Entrepreneurs

Seeing how locals create unique products using their imaginations and ingenuity always amazes me. Old Town Carmel’s Arts and Design District is the place to go to find art galleries, specialty boutiques, interior designers, and restaurants.

At Silver in the City gift shop, local artisans offer a variety of handcrafted products made from silver, paper, metal, and textiles. My eye was drawn to a collection of colorfully made bags marked with a PUP logo. Part of the maker movement, the non-profit People for Urban Progress use discarded materials from demolished buildings and old signage to create beautifully repurposed purses, wallets, and cardholders. Local Jill Robisch purchased one of the tote bags with seat belts for handles. “I just love it,” she said. “It’s so durable, and I know that it’s utilizing goods that would normally end up in a landfill.”

On the east side of Hamilton County, Nickel Plate Arts in Noblesville is a community arts organization devoted to reinvigorating the local arts scene. The campus houses artists who offer paintings, ceramics, and even comic book art. Director Aili McGill explained, “We serve everything from fine artists to artisans, makers to craftsmen—anyone who has a creative spirit.”

Nickel Plate Arts in in Noblesville, Indiana, offers arts classes. (Ron Stern)

The organization also offers rotating exhibitions featuring renowned artists such as J. Rodney Reveal and his Hometown Series as well as Santa’s workshops for kids and Elves’ Night Out, where parents can sip wine while strolling through the curated gift shop.

Cooking Up Culinary Delights

I love to eat, especially when someone else is doing the cooking, and do they have that in spades here in Hoosier Country! Let’s start with Tina’s Traditional Tea Room in Carmel. Known as the “Queen of Experiences,” UK transplant Tina Jesson serves an authentic British afternoon tea using recipes passed down from her family for generations.

My wife and I tried the Queen’s Royal High Tea—enough food for a royal wedding! The three-tier stand was filled with finger sandwiches, including Jesson’s signature Coronation Chicken served with chutney, two freshly baked scones and clotted cream, and an assortment of seasonal pastries. Of course, all of this came with pots of flavorful brewed teas.

At No Label at the Table Food Company in the Carmel Arts District, Shelly Henley found herself an unexpected businesswoman. It began when her son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at the age of 3. When he turned 18, and realizing that he had few future prospects following high school, she was motivated to take action. This, along with her son’s interest in becoming a chef, gave birth to Henley’s role as an entrepreneur. The mission of her gluten- and dairy-free food company is to employ people on the autism spectrum at all levels of ability. The results have been a life-changing experience for her family and others in her community, especially those with ASD, an often overlooked segment of the population.

At Rosie’s Place in Noblesville, hungry diners form lines out the door waiting for meals made totally from scratch. There are daily specials but don’t miss their simply fabulous buttermilk pancakes.  

Back in Carmel, former art director and graphic designer Larry Hanes wanted to design a restaurant that truly reflected his personality and made use of his talents and skills. The result was the Eggshell Bistro. Using design elements from concrete, steel, and wood as well as furniture from all over the world, Hanes created his dream.

His globally-inspired cuisine uses flavorful ingredients that are as appealing to the eye as to the palate. I tried his most popular entree, the shakshuka, prepared with Moroccan tomato sauce, hand-ground spices, cilantro, and an Amish hen’s egg served with a grilled baguette. This was honestly the most deliciously different breakfast dish I have ever tasted!

Eggshell Bistro’s famous shakshuka. (Ron Stern)

In the end, I found that Hamilton County was much more than just a great place to explore attractions and the eclectic arts community, or to sample some great food. The real treasure here is its people. Friendly, welcoming and using their own creative vision to serve others is what makes these Hoosiers a part of the American spirit.

The writer was a guest of Hamilton County Tourism.

Photojournalist Ron Stern, aka “The Global Gumshoe,” has covered travel for over 18 years. He is a frequent public speaker and teacher on the subject of travel.

Ron Stern