Indiana University’s iconic Sample Gates. — Photo courtesy of Visit Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana, less than a 4-hour drive from Chicago and an hour south of Indianapolis, is a bustling Hoosier town that should be on travelers’ radars as one of the best small-town cultural spots in the states. -United. Expect a wide range of options to explore: an international culinary scene, cultural activities, festivals and outdoor adventures – all with a whole lot of Midwestern warmth.
It’s also home to one of the nation’s top universities, Indiana University, so you can relive some of the intellectual curiosity of your own college years and enjoy a thriving bar scene.
Who would have thought that a city in the middle of the country would be a magnet for global cuisine? Think Turkish, Tibetan, Venezuelan, Burmese, Mediterranean, Thai, Chinese, French and Japanese from over 350 restaurants. One day it’s gourmet hot dogs in an underground bar filled with pinball machines and live music (Salle Orbite) and the next you’re downing traditional momos (dumplings) at Anyetsang’s Little Tibetan restaurant on bustling 4th Street . Ask the owner about his incredible journey on foot from Tibet to India alone at age 12.
The Runcible Spoon has been a favorite nook since 1976 — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Good breakfast bets include the popular Runcible Spoon resembling your old aunt’s house serving large portions at reasonable prices (and breakfast is served all day). Hopscotch Kitchen adjacent to local favorite, Hopscotch Coffee, satisfies vegans and omnivores, and Downtown Café has been a Bloomington landmark since 1976, serving hearty breakfast and Cajun-influenced lunch and dinner .
Two Sticks Bakery owner Amanda Armstrong bakes pies, cakes and pastries from scratch – Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Bakeries, from traditional to vegan, seem to be around every corner. Woman owned and operated Two Stick Bakery does not disappoint with sweets and flavors from scratch. Arrive early as they sell out quickly.
Meanwhile, Small Favor Bar is the model for “good things come in small packages.”
Small Favors owner/chef Nick Deitrich wins the James Beard Award for his cocktails — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
You can see why Small Favors Bar owner/chef Nick Deitrich won the James Beard Award when New Orleans was his haunt. The compact farm-to-fork menu features impressive dishes like grilled oysters; toasted bread coated with aioli and topped with olives and boquerones (sweet, unsalted anchovies); breaded cutlet tostadas; and carrot ice cream. Don’t miss the chef’s creative wine-based cocktails. too.
New to town in 2022, L’orme offers a seasonal New American menu in a spacious, modern restaurant located in a historic residential neighborhood.
Try the handmade pasta at the new Elm Restaurant — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
You must have at least one traditional Indiana breaded pork tenderloin sandwich (the state even has a Tenderloin Trail). Some locals say the kitchen at Le Salon du Bureau, a bar/restaurant/liquor package deal, turns out the crispiest and most appetizing version (it’s easy $6.75 for lunch on Thursdays , otherwise only $7.25 with fries). Others vote for the hole-in-the-wall breaded filet mignon Hoosier Bar & Grill that’s in a strip mall on the outskirts of town.
Don’t leave Bloomington without trying a pork tenderloin sandwich — Photo credited to Jacky Runice
Another regional item to hunt down is a Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie, Indiana’s official state pie. It is a thick, vanilla pastry cream in a flaky crust. Back roads meander where local Amish set up tables with their freshly baked fruit pies and sugar cream pies. On Saturdays, the Bloomington Community Farmers Market sells everything from mushrooms and spices to day lilies and eggs.
Take Home an Indiana Sugar Cream Pie – Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Drinks and nightlife
An award-winning distillery, Esprits Cardinals certainly brews the best cocktails in town, along with their own vodkas, gins, rums and liqueurs. In addition to spirit elixirs, the distillery serves inspired homemade dishes like colorful vegetable terrines and perfectly prepared chunks of halibut. The outdoor patio is right on the B-Line trail. Consider buying some of their canned cocktails – they are outstanding.
Cardinal Spirits lush botanical drinks are not to be missed — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
The Back Door is Bloomington’s LGBTQIA+ bar open seven nights a week and, just downstairs, Blockhouse Bar serves up call & response jazz, honky-tonk and a mix of live bands. The Bluebird Nightclub is Bloomington’s premier live music venue hosting national and local artists, and there are beer halls and gastropubs hosting live music most nights. Play pinball, order a crazy hot dog (like a “Fang Banger” with pickled beets, garlic whipped cheese, and fig aioli), and listen to a girl band play Bowie or The Zombies in the underground room Orbit Room.
Live music, pinball and crazy hot dogs are on the menu at Orbit Room — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Stop by the award-winning Olivier Vineyard, Indiana’s largest and oldest winery, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022. Book a tasting, tour, picnic package, or simply stop to enjoy the views gorgeous and a glass of impressive Midwestern grapes.
Indiana’s largest and oldest winery celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022 — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Explore the country’s only Mongolian Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center with self-guided walking tours, meditation classes, yoga and yurt stays (call for availability for hands-on activities). It was founded by the brother of the 14th Dalai Lama in the 1970s and His Holiness has a private apartment on site.
Explore the only Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist cultural center in the country — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Check out the always free Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University which has one of the most comprehensive college museum collections in the United States. Indiana University’s Lilly Library has fascinating exhibits on subjects such as the films of Orson Welles, extensive collections of American literature by James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and Mark Twain, and historical documents related to the American Revolution, the creation of the American Constitution and the Civil War.
Drive just 18 miles from Bloomington and land in Nashville, Indiana, home to the Brown County Art Colony and the oldest gallery in the Midwest, the Brown County Art Gallery. Artists live and work in the lush, hilly valley and visitors can take a self-guided Brown County Backroads Studio Tour to see the fine arts and crafts of the “Midwest Art Colony.” If you’re drawn to more pastoral accommodations, there are dozens of secluded cabin accommodations that are equidistant between Bloomington and Nashville.
You can look for the prized morel mushroom from late March through May, as Bloomington sits on the elusive “mushroom” belt. You won’t find a guided hunt as the foraging locations are well-kept secrets, but you can get invaluable advice at Indiana Mushrooms. website. If you miss the morel mushroom showcase, know that local restaurants highlight dishes with this delicious mushroom.
Hunt the elusive morel every spring in Bloomington – Photo credited to Bob Adkins
In town, the 3.1-mile Line B trail is a favorite of walkers and joggers and provides a convenient way to traverse downtown without traffic. There are also shops and restaurants along the trail.
Bloomington is home to Lake Monroe, Indiana’s largest land-based body of water, which offers camping, swimming, fishing, hiking, boating (rent a pontoon or kayak) and idleness on the beach.
Spend an afternoon boating or beaching at Paynetown SRA/Monroe Lake – Photo courtesy of Visit Bloomington
One hour from downtown Bloomington is the Hoosier National Forest. Comprised of over 200,000 acres and Indiana’s only wilderness area, the Charles C. Deam Desert offers peaceful respite and nature activities for all seasons. Look for orchids – Indiana has more native wild orchids than Hawaii!
Opt for mid-priced downtown chains, like Hilton Garden Inn and Hyatt Place, so you can walk to restaurants, bars, and shops.
Stay in the ‘Stranger Things’ room at the Graduate Hotel — Photo courtesy of Brett Bulthuis
Near Indiana University’s iconic Sample Gates, as well as the shops and restaurants of historic Courthouse Square, The Graduate Bloomington captures the essence of a college town through design, eccentricity and location free bikes, so you can get around like a student. The hotel features Bloomington’s only outdoor public terrace, the Jack & Diane (a nod to local well-done, John Mellencamp) offering stunning views of B-Town. If you are a fan of the Netflix show “Stranger Things”, book the room that transports you to this strange world. How fun is it?