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Indiana is full of surprises—and Bloomington is one of its best-kept.
Depending on where you’re driving from, crossing the city line into Bloomington, Indiana is subtle enough. From the south, rolling hills and windy roads gradually straighten out, and from the north, you know you’re getting close when you pass by Oliver Winery’s tasting room. (First tip: Peel off the highway soon after to catch a glimpse of one of the Buddhist monasteries as you whizz along on your adventure.)
Bloomington's Main Square during the holidays.
And then somehow you are smack dab in the center of, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful college towns in America (it’s the home of Indiana University’s main campus). Autumn is the perfect time to visit this charming, eclectic city just 45 minutes south of Indianapolis, with the buzz of school in full swing and the season’s colors coming into full view. It’s an ideal weekend getaway because it has a little something for everyone—art, music, the outdoors, food, theater, history, and sports. It’s a little weird, a lot granola, and one of the sweetest little places in Indiana. Here’s how to get the Bloomington experience in just a few days:
If you just got to town, fuel up for the weekend:
Left: a latte at Soma Coffeehouse, and right: a sign you know you're in Bloomington (photo via @somacoffeehouse on Instagram).
Your first stop should be Soma, where you’ll find coffee, juices, and treats like extra-large raspberry linzer cookies (I still dream of these cookies), cappuccino chocolate chip cookies, and yogurt bowls. My favorite drink isn’t really on the menu, but take a leap of faith: Order a Swamp Thing—you’ll come out the other side with a mess of iced espresso, mint syrup, and soy milk goodness. Stretch your legs a little and take an early stroll down the B-Line Trail—an alternate transportation option for pedestrians, and a biking path—to Hopscotch Coffee. If you want something chilled, drop into just about anywhere in Bloomington and you can pick up locally-made Uel Zing cold brew in bottles.
Pastry cases more your thing? City Bakery on East 3rd Street will inevitably have a line of students out the door and that’s because they serve things like the Apricotta (apricot and ricotta) croissant, mini-baguettes slathered in pesto and topped with melty cheese, and espresso eggs (scrambled eggs steamed in seconds with an espresso machine’s milk wand).
Vegan baked goods from Rainbow Bakery (photos from @rainbowbakery on Instagram).
If you’re in need of vegan baked goods instead, head to Rainbow Bakery for all the fudgey, cakey yet somehow non-dairy things. For more of a sit-down situation, beat the weekend crowds and eat breakfast at Runcible Spoon on Friday rather than Saturday or Sunday. It’s one of those restaurants in a house, covered in plants and bursting-at-the-seams bookshelves, with big pancakes, a cheap corned beef hash, and bottomless drip coffee. The Spoon’s central location makes it one of the best morning options—be sure to check out the bathtub-turned-fish tank in the upstairs bathroom!
After breakfast, it’s time for a walk:
The IU Arts Plaza, with Showalter Fountain at the center.
Take in the magnificent campus of Indiana University, sprawling and varied in its environment and offerings. Stroll up Kirkwood Avenue and enter through the Sample Gates, wind through the brick walkways near the law school, and see many original buildings from when the college was founded in 1820. You’ll stroll by the student union (one of the largest in the world) and the beautiful Beck Chapel, as well as several key academic buildings.
Walk down more wooded trails, and you’ll find yourself in the arts plaza, where you’ll find the university art museum and auditorium. Admission to the art museum (it’s encyclopedic, with over 40,000 objects) is free, and world-class theater comes to the auditorium regularly (stop in for the Thomas Hart Benton murals alone). You can then take a seat in the campus arboretum, peek your head into the Science department’s greenhouse, or wander past the Jacobs School of Music and the lumbering Alexander Calder sculpture that accompanies it.
IU's Arboretum and wooded walkways.
If you want to visit a few obscure spots with more specific focus, these are my favorites:
The Lilly Library: a rare books and manuscripts library with a collection that includes a Gutenberg Bible, many of Kurt Vonnegut’s papers, a 10,000-piece wooden puzzle collection, and, for some reason, a lock of Sylvia Plath’s hair.
The Kinsey Institute for Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, established by Alfred Kinsey in the mid-20th century. They have regular exhibitions of the institute’s holdings, plus fascinating speakers.
The Mathers Museum of World Cultures has exhibits ranging from Cherokee Indian crafts to Chinese basket-making.
Getting hungry from all the meandering? Lunchtime:
The deck at Laughing Planet Cafe and a Fall Harvest burrito bowl with local vegetables (photos from @thelaughingplanetcafe on Instagram).
Located directly above Soma, The Laughing Planet Cafe serves up California-style burritos, bowls, and salads. Order just about anything on the menu here and you’ll love it, whether you’re craving nachos, a cheese-covered veggie burger, or the burrito of the week (if you time it right, you may get the Thanksgiving or East Indian burrito). Vegetarian food gets cozy at The Owlery, a restaurant located just a few blocks from Bloomington’s main square.
But you might also need something a little more substantial, and well, this is a college town: There is pizza. A lot of pizza.
Pizza at King Dough (photo from @kingdoughpizza on Instagram).
Pass on any delivery spot you see and head to Mother Bear’s—a Bloomington institution, the city’s almighty ruler of pizza. It’s that quintessential college hang-out, but with classic as well as inventive pies that actually tastes good. Lately, though, they're getting a run for their money with the opening of King Dough, the new kid in town.
After lunch, explore a little more of downtown:
From the main square to far down the B-Line Trail, there’s everything from books and records to spirits. Boxcar Books is a non-profit bookstore that sells everything from textbooks to new fiction to zines. Caveat Emptor is on the main square of the city and has shelves up to the ceiling of vintage books, pages upon pages that feel like they're about to topple onto you—but in a good way.
Take a tour of Cardinal Spirits, a craft distillery making a range of spirits from whiskey to rum, and then stay for a drink. Landlocked Music is possibly my favorite record store ever, with a great mix of new and old, and they always have a calendar of who’s playing where in Bloomington. Or try TD’s CDS and LPs for their excellent selection of small, local labels.
Your evening can go a few ways:
For the film nerd, there’s the IU Cinema, one of the Midwest’s premier locations to take in film. Often free of charge and open to the public, the cinema has excellent programming and speakers coming through at all times of the year. Visit the Black Film Center/Archive, where you can even make advance appointments for viewing the collection. See what The Ryder Film Series has brought to town. Browse the movies, separated by director, at Plan Nine Video. All the film, all the time.
The Buskirk Chumley Theater in Downtown Bloomington.
For a night that’s more music-oriented, Bloomington is the place to be. Visit in September and you’re bound to notice the fervor that surrounds the Lotus Music Festival, a annual celebration of world music. The entire city is turned into a stage with performers that travel from all over to participate. Catch a show, or just drink a beer at The Bishop or Bluebird. Or, get tickets for anything at the Buskirk Chumley Theater for bands like Yo La Tengo or The Magnetic Fields or even spoken word by Henry Rollins. End your night dancing at The Back Door.
Don’t go out too late, because in Bloomington, Saturday is for heading outdoors:
Your first stop should be the coffee window for caffeine and pastries at Le Petit Café on your way to the glorious Bloomington Farmer's Market, where you can pick up snacks and produce for the day's adventure. You have lots of options for destinations:
With its rolling hills and spectactular fall foliage, Indiana is cycling country. Lake Lemon is a great biking day trip, as is Griffey Lake Nature Preserve. You can go boating and hiking at both, and canoes and kayaks are availble to rent at Griffey Lake. Pack a picnic and make it a day. More strenuous hiking (and biking, and horesback riding!) awaits you at Hoosier National Forest, a 200,000-acre national forest just outside of the city. Just make sure to stop by Scenic View Restaurant on your way back into town (and get the sweet potato fries!).
Lake Monroe at sunset.
At least once during your stay you'll need to stop by Nick’s English Hut. Sure, it will be overrun with college students, but it’s been around since the 1920s— and Barack Obama even visited when he was campaigning for his first go-around in the Oval Office. You really can’t leave Bloomington without sharing a bucket of Biz Fries while you play Sink the Biz and drink Upland Wheat Ale out of Mason jars. No matter what color you’re wearing, you’re an IU fan when you’re at Nick’s.
After a day in the great outdoors, take it easy—go out for dinner somewhere nice and take in a show:
Restaurant Tallent is regularly nominated for James Beard Awards, with chefs David and Kristen Tallent turning out food with a regional bent. Finch's is another good choice—they cook mostly everything on their menu in a huge wood-fired oven and serve up a strong wine and beer list. There are also several great multicultural restaurants tucked away in houses along darling little streets; the ones I often return to are Esan Thai, Anatolia, and Anyetsang's Little Tibet.
After dinner, head to world-class ballet and opera on IU's campus, or stay downtown for a stage production by Cardinal Stage Company or a show at The Comedy Attic (Tig Notaro and Amy Schumer have graced the stage, among many others).
Sunday morning in Bloomington:
For breakfast, either make your way to the West Side location of Bloomingfoods, a local co-op, or try to squeeze into the bar for a proper eggs-and-all situation at Uptown Cafe (there's no wait for bar seats, as there inevitably will be for the restaurant).
Heavy up on breakfast, because there's no better way to close out a weekend in Bloomington than with a city-wide beer tasting:
Left: a sampler from Upland Brewing Company, and right: a can of their signature Wheat Ale (photo by @uplandbrewco via Instagram).
Start at Upland Brewing Company, one of the original breweries in the area, and after tasting their regular selection, try as many of their wild ales as you can. Then head to The Tap for a wider selection of craft beer, and bring it back at Quaff On!, the Bloomington outpost of Nashville, Indiana's Big Woods Brewing. Next up should be Function Brewing, and then end your weekend with another Bloomington classic (and more pizza) at Bloomington Brewing Company.
Where are your favorite nooks and crannies in Bloomington?
Photos courtesy of Visit Bloomington, unless otherwise noted.