Friendly, inclusive, and innovative, Fort Wayne is the best town you probably never thought of visiting.
(The next installment in the series,, “The ABCs of Future Travel”, designed to inspire you to start planning your next trip.)
If spending a vacation or weekend getaway in a mid-size city in the Midwest sounds boring, Fort Wayne, Indiana will quickly change your mind. When it comes to outdoor activities, sports, entertainment, and history, this affordable, accessible, family-friendly town has you covered.
Fort Wayne wasn’t exactly a trip we had put on our must-see list. When we received an invitation to meet with representatives from Visit Fort Wayne at IMM (International Media Marketplace), an annual networking event in NYC, we were skeptical. But the more we heard at our meeting, the more excited we became about paying Fort Wayne a visit.
Fort Wayne is a work in progress, and we were fortunate to experience some of the progress already achieved by a lot of hard work. By the time Simon, Splendid and I left this friendly, lively city, we were hooked. And if you spend any amount of time in Fort Wayne, you will be, too.
Fort Wayne Overview
Throughout history, Fort Wayne has been referred to as a crossroads, strategically located where three rivers converge. The city was named for “Mad” Anthony Wayne, a general who, two centuries ago, had the foresight to establish the first American fort where the St. Mary’s, St. Joseph, and Maumee Rivers meet. Fast forward to the present, and Fort Wayne is in the process of making the most of its waterfront assets.
Large companies such as General Electric, Magnavox, and Lincoln National Life Insurance Corporation were once headquartered in Fort Wayne. But the second largest city in Indiana is focussed on moving forward rather than looking back.
Revitalization projects, current and future, abound. Promenade Park, which opened to the public in August, 2019, is a Riverfront gem that has become wildly popular with Fort Wayne’s residents and visitors alike. The park was designed and built for total inclusion., with accessibility for people with disabilities in all public spaces a priority. Other phases of Riverfront repurposing are in the works, but River tours and rentals are already making a splash in bolstering Fort Wayne’s efforts to draw visitors and commerce to the city.
General Electric’s abandoned campus on Broadway will be reincarnated as the Electric Works. This mixed-use complex will feature housing, shops, restaurants, offices, a hotel, and educational facilities. Heading up the project is Cross Street Partners. Some employees of this Baltimore-based company were involved in the successful industrial redevelopment project that brought new life, and revenue, to the tobacco company campus in Durham, North Carolina.
The Landing was once the road where passengers and goods arriving on canal boats would board wagons to transport them farther inland. This historic Columbia Street area has now been transformed into a commercial center, as well as a hub for Fort Wayne’s vibrant nightlife.
We spent the better part of three days in Fort Wayne, and were pleasantly surprised and impressed at every turn.
A Promenade in the Park
Our Fort Wayne adventure began with a tour of Promenade Park. Andie Mosley of AWS Foundation was our gracious guide. AWS provides financial support to nonprofits serving people with disabilities in Northeast Indiana, and participating in the park project was a labor of love for all involved.
We met at the Convergence Sculpture, a white steel modernistic representation of the meeting of Fort Wayne’s afore-mentioned three rivers. From there we explored the park at a leisurely pace with Andie pointing out Promenade Park’s outstanding features.
As we walked, Andie spoke of the day in August, 2019 when Promenade Park opened to the public. “That first day was a portrait of Fort Wayne’s diverseness,” Andie recalled with pride. “Even some monks came down, and I didn’t even know we had monks in Fort Wayne.”
The park featured a tree canopy, two stages, event space, brewery/café, beer garden, water features, a playground, walking paths, benches, picnic areas, birdsong, soft breezes, laughing children, and anything else one would expect to find in a large, well-planned out municipal park. What truly blew us away was the attention shown to insuring that every aspect of Promenade Park was accessible for, and usable by, people with disabilities. “They wanted it to be all inclusive,” Andie explained, “a place where everyone could come.”
Some of the most innovative accessible features we found so exciting included:
- Tactile guidelines along paths for white cane users
- Paths marked out in sections to help visitors with poor depth perception
- An area where wheelchair users can roll up and dip their feet in a waterfall pool
- Bleachers where visitors can relax and watch boat parades, or just watch boats go by. Every row is wheelchair accessible, so no one has to sit in the back unless that’s where they want to be.
- A boat ramp specifically designed so people with mobility challenges can safely get in and out of boats
- Reinforced grassy areas where wheelchairs, high heels, and stroller wheels won’t sink after it rains
- A historic bridge that once served as a railroad bridge made safer for wheelchair and white cane users to cross by the simple insertion of additional wooden slats. Also, railings were strategically positioned so as not to obstruct the river view from a wheelchair. This was all accomplished while maintaining the bridge’s safety and historical integrity
- A playground slide with the top butting up against the path, so a child in a wheelchair can enjoy the thrill the same way all children should. This was a double slide, enabling an adult or another child to share in the fun.
- A musical feature on the playground that is often a source of calm for children with autism
- A restroom with an adult changing table
Input from the disability community was sought and received during every phase of construction. “We are so proud of Fort Wayne, and how far they’ve gone to make everything more inclusive,” Andie said.
Promenade Park is truly a treasure for all to enjoy, and a model for other communities. To no one’s surprise, park planners from other areas come to Fort Wayne in order to learn how to get it right the first time. Andie told us that a frequent saying in her office is, “If you plan for people with disabilities, you plan for everyone.” I speak from experience when I say that Promenade Park is a place where no one is left out.
Genealogy on Steroids
One of Fort Wayne’s most fascinating and addictive resources can be found on the second floor of the Allen County Public Library. This space is home to the largest public genealogy center in the United States. There you will find 42,000 square feet of family histories, public records, newspapers, microfilm, books, periodicals, and at least a dozen other resources, all related to genealogy around the globe. You will also find computers, scanners, and a staff of dedicated, resourceful genealogists whose job it is to help visitors connect with their past.
The Genealogy Center is open to the public, and free to use. When we visited the Center, the library, as well as other similar institutions, were still closed due to Covid19 concerns. We were fortunate to have had the privilege of touring the facility with Genealogy Center Manager, Curt Witcher.
It had never occurred to us, but most libraries have state or local history rooms where individuals can locate information related to area families. “We really collect for the world,” Curt said, bringing home the unique scope of the work done at the Center.
The Genealogy Center houses 1.2 million physical items, 4 million searchable records online, 70,000 family histories, and the collection is ever growing. The Center also provides full access to Ancestry and other genealogy-related databases for public use.
Trying to locate information about family members may seem overwhelming at first. After all, where do you begin? “We want to interact with everyone who comes in,” Curt said reassuringly, “so they’ll have a successful experience.” Staff members greet visitors and find out what their needs are on a one-on-one basis. They guide them to the appropriate area to begin their research, and they are available to answer questions and provide assistance.
Curt walked us through the Center, explaining what to find where, and how to find it. He explained how the movable stacks – one of the largest such installations outside the National Archives – worked. Noting my concern regarding Splendid’s safety as he demonstrated the system, Curt assured me that the stacks were equipped with high-tech sensors that detected warm bodies in the aisles and immediately stopped the movement of the stacks. Nevertheless, I moved Splendid far away from the fascinating, but somewhat ominous system.
A Personal Journey
We could have spent an entire day at the Genealogy center, learning how research and resources enabled visitors to reach back in time and answer many questions, but we had another rapidly approaching appointment. Also, I had been offered the opportunity to learn about my family history during the planning of our itinerary. I provided as much information as I had about my parents prior to our Fort Wayne visit. Both had been Holocaust survivors, and spoke very little about their experiences and lost family members. And now, I was about to find out what genealogists Sara Allen and John Beatty had discovered.
The information I had provided consisted of a few sentences. What I received in return was a binder at least an inch thick, filled with information.
Among other fascinating facts, I learned the name of the small town near Warsaw where my father was born, where his mother died from diphtheria, and where his father was shot down in the street by a soulless Nazi monster. Sara and John traced my father’s family back as far as the early 1800s.
I also learned that my father’s only surviving brother had escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto, and how he ended up in Boston. This discovery led to the names of relatives on my father’s side I never knew I had.
My mother’s family was less of a mystery, as most of them survived the holocaust. I knew my maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins as far back as I can remember. But Sara and John did fill in a few blanks for me.
The binder they had assembled contained printed documents, handwritten notations, resources for further research, and more. What they were able to find, and how they found it, was stunning. I am truly indebted to Sara, John, and Curt for opening a window to my family history I believed to be forever closed.
There is much to see and do in Fort Wayne, but if you need only one reason to visit, tracing your family history through the Genealogy Center is definitely it.
Before traveling to Fort Wayne and embarking on a physical search at the Genealogy Center, you might want to first access the Center’s online catalog to give you a head start.
The center only charges for paper copies. If you bring in an external drive or memory card, you can scan the information you uncover and take it with you at no charge.
Allen County Public Library
900 Library Plaza
Fort Wayne, IN 46802
Turnstone Facility and Services
Turnstone isn’t exactly a tourist attraction, but it is one of Fort Wayne’s proudest achievements. This multi-facetted fitness, health and wellness facility has the resources to provide a range of services to someone with a disability from early childhood through his or her entire life. It is also home to the U.S. Paralympic goalball team.
We were privileged to have the opportunity of touring Turnstone with Director of Outreach, Tina Acosta as our guide. Tina showed us around the facility, and by the time we left our heads were spinning from all we had seen and learned.
I began telling the story of our Turnstone experience in this space. But it became clear that in order to do justice to this magnificent entity, I had to give it a space of its own. So, don’t go too far, the post will appear here very soon. Then you’ll find out what goes on behind the doors at Turnstone, and I’ll tell you all about the sport of goalball.
Turnstone Facility and Services
3320 North Clinton Street
Fort Wayne, IN 46805
The Great Canoe Experiment
Since Fort Wayne lays claim to three rivers, engaging in one of several water sports on a sultry June day was a no-brainer. That was how we found ourselves precariously balanced in a canoe, with Splendid somewhat settled in the middle, courtesy of Fort Wayne Outfitters.
Fort Wayne Outfitters and Bike Depot represents everything outdoorsy in Fort Wayne. They carry equipment and gear, offer kayak, canoe, stand up paddle board, and bike rentals, offer river tours, and more. Their employees are also trained in safely assisting people with disabilities in and out of watercraft.
I felt comfortable being helped into my position at the bow of our canoe. Simon settled himself at the stern to steer, and we were off.
Neither of us had paddled a canoe in decades, but we seemed to be getting the hang of it as we glided toward the downtown area. The sun was out, and a gentle breeze kept the temperature pleasant. We were grooving.
That was when Splendid decided to make herself even more comfortable. Although she never sat up, shifting her weight from side to side adversely affected the canoe’s stability. In other words, we thought we would end up in the water at any moment.
Now, we were wearing lifejackets , and we knew how to swim. The problem was – and I hate to say this – the water surrounding us was disgusting. All kinds of nasty debris, including discarded condoms, floated by, and the water itself was mirky. Neither of us was eager to take a cooling dip in that hot mess. Since Splendid didn’t seem to be any closer to finding her sweet spot, we cut our river adventure short and headed back.
I learned two important lessons from our abbreviated river jaunt:
- Every community has work to do in one or more areas. I sincerely hope Fort Wayne has river cleanup near the top of its list for future rehab; and
- Even the most mellow pup has the potential to tip a canoe.
Fort Wayne Outfitters and Bike Depot
1004 Cass Street
Fort Wayne, IN 46802
Bike Depot: (260) 420-3962
Downtown Bike Hub: (260) 420-3909
Eat, Drink, and be Joyful
Food, drink, and a unique characteristic, or lack there of, can make or break the tourism potential of a town. In this respect, as well as many others, Fort Wayne has nothing to fear.
Let’s start with the edible side of Fort Wayne. JK O’Donnell’s Irish Pub (121 West Wayne St.), had a an unpretentious, friendly vibe that reminded me of my favorite after-work hang-out in Montreal. Traditional Irish music played at just the right volume, the beer was cold, the corned beef sandwiches and kale Caesars scrumptious, and the service friendly. Had it not been for the presence of kale and the absence of an Irish brogue from our server, I could have easily believed I was back at the Hunter’s Horn on Peel Street.
The patio at Club Soda (235 East Superior St.), was the venue we selected to celebrate our anniversary. The chic but not snobby restaurant specializes in steaks and seafood, but Simon and I both opted for pan seared walleye, a Midwest specialty. The portions were generous without being overpowering. The food was attractively presented, perfectly cooked, and tasty to the last bite. Add chilled wine and excellent service, and we had an evening to remember.
Fort Wayne’s Don Hall’s Family of Restaurants includes the Gas House, the Deck, and Takaoka, all located in the downtown area at 305 East Superior Street. On our last night in the city we found ourselves indulging in some of the best burgers we ever tasted at The Gas House, which occupies a building that originally was one. We would have preferred an outdoor table at The Deck, but the two-hour wait drove us inside. Since the menus were the same, we were able to drown our disappointment in ketchup, mustard, and burger juice. Yah, it was sinfully yummy, and totally worth it.
Before we headed home the following morning, we stopped to check out the YLNI Farmers Market (302 East Berry St.). Under normal circumstances, the entire Saturday market can be found at this location, but thanks to Covid19, half the stalls are currently located several blocks away.
Besides the usual bounty of fresh produce and random items begging to be purchased, we also found food trucks. Since we had a long drive ahead of us, grabbing some lunch seemed like a good idea. As it turned out, it was a great idea. Our last surprise of our Fort Wayne experience was that you can find barbecue that’s almost as good as our Carolina version in a Midwest town.
What little drinking we did during our brief visit to Fort Wayne was accompanied by food. However, the area offers the option to sample a variety of local beers on its Brewery Trail.
Wineries can also be found in the vicinity of Fort Wayne, and if we return, I know my curiosity will get the better of me.
The Painting is on the Wall
Stratford-on-Avon in England has its decorated lamp posts. Rapid City, South Dakota has its presidential sculptures on street corners. Our town of New Bern, North Carolina has its gussied up fiberglass bears scattered everywhere. And Fort Wayne is famous for its colorful murals.
Fort Wayne has become a haven for the artistic, and the goal of a local group of artists called “Art this Way” is to put murals in every alley in the city. An enjoyable activity is to wander the streets looking at the array of public art on display and free for all. You can pick up a map at the Fort Wayne Tourist Office that will show the locations of the murals, many of which have QR Codes linking to more in-depth information. You can even find some with QR codes that let you hear about the mural in the artist’s own voice. And as this isn’t enough, some murals have tactile surfaces. Inclusion, inclusion, inclusion, I love it!
One of our guides told us that during the first weekend of protests following the murder of George Floyd, a few windows were smashed. Some businesses opted to board up their windows, and then some artists came along and started painting murals on them.
And So Much More
If I listed everything there is to do in Fort Wayne, I would be writing until Labor Day. Here is a small sample to whet your appetite to hit the road and pay this sweet surprise of a city a visit.
- Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory isn’t your typical botanical gardens attraction. Yes, you will find flowers, plants, and ferns in this 25,000 square foot indoor showcase of 1,200 unique plants. But you can see and touch them in a desert environment, a jungle setting, and more. You will feel the changes in temperature and humidity as you transition from one environment to the next.
- The Fort Wayne Museum of Art is constantly rotating its exhibits, so you never know what you will find. On our visit, we were treated to the works of Salvador Dali, as well as a collection of exquisitely sculpted glass. When Covid19 isn’t around to crash the party, the museum is often the site of community gatherings featuring music and food. The building also houses over 8,000 books and periodicals on art and culture, which are available to the public,
- The African/African American Historical Museum of Allen County was established in 1999. The displays and exhibits pay tribute to the long history of people of African descent in Allen County. The museum is also home to Fort Wayne’s largest public collection of African Art.
- The performing arts are alive and well in Fort Wayne with a philharmonic orchestra, a ballet company, and a robust theater scene.
- Shopaholics can get their fix at the Vera Bradley annual outlet sale, which is held every spring when Covid19 isn’t in the neighborhood. This has become an annual event for groups of friends, mother-daughter weekends, and those who like to stock up on high quality, colorful, handbags, totes, luggage, and accessories.
- Sweetwater Music is one of the largest music stores in the U.S. This colossal music-lovers dream carries a vast assortment of music-related goods, sound systems, and equipment for every level of musical interest and aptitude. The storehouses the largest musical inventory in the U.S.
- Sports enthusiasts can choose from a variety of Minor League Game.. Depending on the time of ear, you can enjoy Hockey, basketball, baseball, or competitions such as a goalball or power soccer game at Turnstone.
- Science Central is an interactive museum offering tours, exhibits, and events that combine curiosity, learning, and fun for the entire family.
- Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is a world-class venue featuring 1000 animals, rides, and a host of exhibits and activities to keep children and adults happy for hours.
- Allen County War Memorial Coliseum was built as a living memorial to U.S. war veterans. The structure is the premier site for large community events, world-class entertainment, such as Paul McCartney and Elton John, athletic competitions, circus performances, political rallies, as well as major educational and business-related events.
Fort Wayne was full of delightful surprises, despite the social distancing, masks, and constant disinfectant wiping. The weather was pleasant, the people exceptionally friendly, and boredom was nonexistent.
How friendly is Fort Wayne? Well, the Fort Wayne International Airport has a tradition going back more than 20 years of greeting every arriving passenger with a locally baked cookie. On Friday, June 26, 2020, the airport and volunteer Hospitality Hosts handed out their three millionth cookie to a passenger arriving from Tampa/St. Petersburg. Now that’s a whole lot of cookies.
Now, I’ve visited many cities that were friendly, and where accessibility and inclusion were obviously important. But I have to say that Fort Wayne, Indiana seems to have thought of everything in both areas, and is home to the most winning combination I’ve ever experienced. Prior to our arrival, Visit Fort Wayne asked me if I needed museum and other information in Braille. I told them that if the information was available online, that would perfectly fine for me. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered a Braille copy of our itinerary in our welcome package. See what I mean?
Before we checked into our room at the Holiday Inn at Purdue, We enjoyed chatting with the hotel’s General Manager, Rob Evans. “Fort Wayne is awesome,” he said in answer to our question on why this Canadian transplant chose to live and work in Fort Wayne. When he explained why he felt that way, we knew we were in for an even better time than we had expected.
Later that afternoon, we heard the same comment and a similar story from Andie. All I can say is that if it’s something in the water, maybe they shouldn’t clean it up after all.
Visit Fort Wayne
927 South Harrison Street
Fort Wayne, Indiana 46802
Holiday Inn at Purdue Fort Wayne
4111 Paul Shaffer Drive
Fort Wayne, IN 46825
Note on Covid19: Travel is beginning to resume, but countries, states, provinces, and municipalities are reopening at different rates. The rules may vary from place to place. Be sure to check the website belonging to venues, restaurants, events, or accommodations you plan to visit before finalizing your plans.