The iconic Sample Gates of Indiana University. — Photo courtesy of Visit Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana, less than a 4-hour drive from Chicago and an hour south of Indianapolis, is a vibrant Hoosier city that should be on travelers’ radars as one of the best small town cultural spots in the United States. Expect a wide range of options to explore: an international culinary scene, cultural activities, festivals and outdoor adventures – all with a heap of Midwestern warmth.
It’s also home to one of the country’s top universities, Indiana University, so you can relive some of the intellectual curiosity of your own college years as well as enjoy a booming bar scene.
Traditional Tibetan momos at Anyetsang's Little Tibet — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Who would have thought that a town smack dab in the middle of the country would be a magnet for global cuisine? Think Turkish, Tibetan, Venezuelan, Burmese, Mediterranean, Thai, Chinese, French and Japanese among the 350-plus restaurants. One day it’s gourmet hot dogs in an underground dive bar filled with pinball machines and live music (Orbit Room) and the next you’re gulping traditional momos (dumplings) at Tibetan restaurant Anyetsang’s Little Tibet on lively 4th Street. Ask the owner to tell you about his incredible journey walking from Tibet to India, alone, at age 12.
The Runcible Spoon has been a favorite breakfast nook since 1976 — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Good bets for breakfast include the popular Runcible Spoon resembling your old auntie’s house serving large portions at reasonable prices (and breakfast is served all day). Hopscotch Kitchen, adjacent to local fave, Hopscotch Coffee, satisfies vegans and omnivores, and Uptown Cafe has been a Bloomington landmark since 1976, serving hearty breakfast and Cajun-influenced lunch and dinner.
Two Sticks Bakery owner, Amanda Armstrong, is whipping up from-scratch pies, cakes and pastries — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Bakeries, from traditional to all-vegan seem to be around every corner. Woman-owned-and-operated Two Sticks Bakery does not disappoint with from-scratch sweets and savories. Just get there early because they sell out fast.
Meanwhile, Small Favors Bar is the model of "good things come in small packages."
Small Favors' owner/chef Nick Deitrich is a James Beard Award winner for his cocktails — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
You can taste why Small Favors Bar owner/chef Nick Deitrich was a James Beard Award winner when New Orleans was his haunt. The compact farm-to-fork menu has impressive dishes like broiled oysters; toast smeared with aioli and topped with olives and boquerones (mild, unsalted anchovies); schnitzel tostada; and carrot ice cream. Don’t miss the chef's creative wine-based cocktails. too.
New to town in 2022, The Elm offers a seasonal New American menu in spacious, modern digs located in a residential historic neighborhood.
Try the handmade pastas 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 that the kitchen at The Office Lounge, a bar/restaurant/package liquor store, turns out the crispiest, craveable version (it’s an easy $6.75 for lunch on Thursdays, otherwise just $7.25 with fries). Others vote for the breaded tenderloin at hole-in-wall Hoosier Bar & Grill that’s in a strip mall on the edge of town.
Don't leave Bloomington without trying a pork tenderloin sandwich — Photo courtesy of Jacky Runice
Another regional item to hunt down is a Hoosier sugar cream pie, the official Indiana state pie. It’s a thick, vanilla-kissed custard in a flaky crust. Meander backroads 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 lillies and eggs.
Take home an Indiana sugar cream pie — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Drinks and nightlife
An award-winning distillery, Cardinal Spirits certainly shakes the best cocktails in town, with their own vodkas, gins, rums and liqueurs. In addition to spirit elixirs, the distillery serves inspired scratch-made dishes like colorful vegetable terrines and perfectly prepared hunks of halibut. The outdoor patio is right on the B-Line Trail. Consider purchasing some of their canned cocktails – they're exceptional.
The lush botanical drinks at Cardinal Spirits 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 bands playing live. The Bluebird Nightclub is Bloomington's premier music venue hosting national and local artists, and there are breweries and gastropubs hosting live music most nights. Play pinball, order an insane hot dog (like a "Fang Banger" with pickled beets, garlic whipped cheese and fig aioli), and listen to an all-gal band play Bowie or The Zombies at the subterranean Orbit Room.
Live music, pinball and crazy hot dogs are on the menu at the Orbit Room — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Stop at the award-winning Oliver Winery, Indiana’s largest and oldest winery, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022. Reserve a tasting, tour, picnic package or just stop by to indulge in gorgeous views 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 Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center with self-guided walking tours, meditation classes, yoga and yurt stays (call about the availability of participatory activities). It was founded by the 14th Dalai Lama's brother in the 1970s and His Holiness has a private apartment on-site.
Explore the country's only Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Peek into the always-free Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University that has one of the most comprehensive university museum collections in the United States. The Lilly Library at Indiana University has fascinating exhibits on topics such as Orson Welles’ films, extensive collections of American literature from James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and Mark Twain, and historic documents related to the American Revolution, creation of the U.S. Constitution and the Civil War.
Drive just 18 miles from Bloomington and land in Nashville, Indiana, home of the Brown County Art Colony and the oldest gallery in Midwest, Brown County Art Gallery. Artists live and work in the lush, hilly valley and visitors can take a self-guided Brown County Back Roads Studio Tour to see fine art and handcrafted goods of the “Art Colony of the Midwest.” If you’re attracted to more pastoral accommodations, there are dozens of secluded cabins that are equal distance between Bloomington and Nashville.
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You can forage for the prized morel mushroom from late March to May because Bloomington is on the belt of the elusive 'shroom. You won’t find a guided hunt because foraging locations are closely guarded secrets, but you can get priceless tips at the Indiana Mushrooms website. If you miss the morel window, know that local restaurants highlight dishes with this delicious fungus.
Hunt for the elusive morel mushroom every spring in Bloomington — Photo courtesy of Bob Adkins
In town, the 3.1-mile B-Line Trail is a favorite of walkers and joggers and is a convenient way to cut through downtown minus traffic. There are shops and restaurants tucked along the trail, too.
Bloomington is home to Monroe Lake, Indiana’s largest land-bound body of water, which offers camping, swimming, fishing, hiking, boating (rent a pontoon or kayak) and lolling on the beach.
Spend an afternoon boating or beaching at Paynetown SRA / Monroe Lake — Photo courtesy of Visit Bloomington
An hour from downtown Bloomington resides Hoosier National Forest. Comprised of over 200,000 acres and Indiana’s only wilderness area, the Charles C. Deam Wilderness, offers a peaceful respite and nature activities to enjoy during any season. Look for orchids – Indiana has more native wild orchids than Hawaii!
Opt for mid-priced chains downtown, 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 the iconic Sample Gates of Indiana University, as well as shopping and restaurants on historic Courthouse Square, The Graduate Bloomington captures the essence of a college town through design, quirkiness and complimentary bike rentals, so you can get around like a student. The hotel boasts Bloomington’s only outdoor public terrace, the Jack & Diane (a nod to local-done-good, John Mellencamp) offering cool B-Town views. If you’re a fan of the Netflix show “Stranger Things,” book the room that transports you to that weird world. How fun is that?