Booming Bloomington

Start with a tour of Indiana University and graduate to other sights in the city

By Glenda Winders // Photography submitted by Visit Bloomigton

Bloomington and Indiana University have almost become synonymous and with good reason. President James Madison established the original settlement as a site for a seminary in 1816. Two years later Monroe County was created by an act of the state General Assembly and named for then-President James Monroe. Construction began in the middle of a wheat field on a courthouse, and in 1825 the seminary opened its doors to its first students. The town was rough in the beginning, but the school, which eventually became Indiana University, brought with it an air of gentility and sophistication that helped shape the cosmopolitan city that Bloomington is today.

Maybe the reason you’re coming to town is to visit a student, to see the Hoosiers play a basketball or football game, or to attend the Little 500 annual bicycle race. Whatever your motivation, the IU campus is an excellent place to start exploring, and a good place to stay might be the Graduate Bloomington. As you’ll see, there are lots of other accommodation possibilities, but this will put you within walking distance of both the campus and downtown and a short drive from Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall or Indiana University Memorial Stadium if you’re coming for games. If you’re brave enough, arrange to stay in the Graduate’s “Stranger Things” suite, decorated with the strings of Christmas lights and letters on the wall like the TV show set in fictional Hawkins, Indiana.

A simple walk through the wooded campus is worth your time, but then make your way to the Fine Arts Plaza. You’ll know it by its centerpiece, the Showalter Fountain. Designed by Ralph Laurent and brought to the campus in 1958, the piece depicts the “Birth of Venus,” goddess of love and beauty. From here it’s just a few steps to the Eskenazi Museum of Art. Designed by I.M. Pei, the dramatic, light-filled building has few 90-degree angles. The 45,000 pieces in the permanent collection include paintings and sculpture by such masters as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Claude Monet, along with treasures and antiquities from cultures around the world.

Across the plaza is the Lilly Library, a repository of rare books, manuscripts, artwork and other objects, ranging from George Washington’s letter accepting the presidency to John Ford’s Academy Awards and from Robert Burns’ handwritten “Auld Lang Syne” and Shakespeare’s First Folio to the papers of filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. Items such as these are always on display in the lobby, and you can play with a special collection of mechanical puzzles. To delve more deeply into its collections, you’ll need an appointment.

Turn right as you exit the library and you’ll arrive at the Indiana University Auditorium, where you can buy tickets for performances that range from classical music to Broadway-style shows. While you’re in the lobby, enjoy Thomas Hart Benton’s mural, “A Dream Fulfilled,” which recounts state history. Benton only accepted the commission, which was completed in 1933, on the condition that he be given complete artistic freedom, and some panels were controversial because of his treatment of issues such as women’s rights, racial tension and labor unrest.

Walk back downtown along Fourth Street, where you can choose a restaurant for lunch or dinner that reflects Bloomington’s international personality. In this corridor, you’ll find tastes from around the world in restaurants such as Anatolia, Siam House, Anyetsang’s Little Tibet, Best Taste, BTown Gyros, Burma Garden, Do Asian Fusion Cuisine, India Garden and Korea Restaurant.

Beyond this corridor, other eateries will tempt you from other parts of the city, such as Turkish food in a colorful atmosphere at Turkuaz Café, Afghan food at Samira, the Irish Lion for pub grub, The 3 Amigos for Mexican and Osteria Rago for an intimate Italian dinner that features homemade pasta. If your tastes run more toward meat and potatoes, there’s plenty of that on offer, too. Janko’s Little Zagreb is celebrated as one of the best steakhouses in the Midwest, serving steaks and wine in a casual setting. FARM is Bloomington’s farm-to-table restaurant. Here, the chef uses local ingredients and changes the menu depending on what’s fresh. For vegetarians or vegans, check out the comfort food at The Owlery.

If you opt for pizza at Mother Bear’s (one location next to the campus and the other on the west side of town), be sure to bring a Sharpie so that you can leave your signature on the wall alongside those of all the others who have dined here before you. More good pizza is to be found at Café Pizzeria, which opened in 1953 to serve Bloomington its first pizza, and Pizza X, which is open until 4 a.m., is the place for night owls. Whatever you have for dinner, have ice cream for dessert at either Hartzell’s Ice Cream or The Chocolate Moose.

A good way to begin to discover what else Bloomington has on offer is to visit some of the cultural centers, which provide support to the city’s Latino, First Nation, Asian, Jewish and Black communities. Meditate on the 90-acre property at the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center, which was founded by the exiled brother of the Dalai Lama, Thubten Norbu. He introduced Tibetan studies at IU.

Housed in an old Carnegie Library, the County History Center works with the mission to “collect, preserve, research, interpret and present” local history. The staff rotates the 50,000 items in its collection and mounts special exhibits. The gift shop here sells books about the area, locally made items, and toys and games based on history for children. The facility has been named a Level 1 dementia-friendly business, the first in the county.

“Our goal with this programming is to provide a safe space for participants to engage with our collections and exhibits without facing the stigma that is often associated with a dementia diagnosis,” says Andrea Hadsell, education manager. “Being dementia-friendly is being everyone-friendly. Bloomington is a leader in the state of Indiana for active aging and dementia-friendly advocacy.”

From there head to the WonderLab Science Museum, especially if children are along. Here you’ll find exhibits that appeal to learners of all ages, including “How Things Work,” “Wonder Under the Waves Saltwater Aquarium,” “Hidden Life of Deserts” and “The Big Piano.” The museum is located right on the B-Line Trail, a former railway corridor, so after being inside for a while you’ll have the option to take a 3.1-mile walk. You’ll get to the trail by passing through the museum’s Lester P. Bushnell WonderGarden, a natural oasis filled with plants of all kinds, a nesting area for birds, and exhibits about solar power and the science of sound. Once on the trail you’ll enjoy public art, fitness stations, shade structures and drinking fountains. The trail is accessible for wheelchairs and open to bicycles, strollers, roller skates and skateboards.

Plan to be in town for a First Friday Gallery Walk through 10 art galleries between 5 and 8 p.m. They are open at other times, of course, but be sure to check their hours since they differ. While you’re downtown, walk around the courthouse square to visit locally owned shops and pick up useful mementoes of your trip.

Time for some wine-tasting? This year Oliver Winery, Indiana’s first and largest, celebrates its 50th year of operation. It was founded by professor William Oliver, who was also instrumental in getting legislation passed that allowed small wineries to operate in the state.

“What has mattered most to us — from our first to our 50th year — is welcoming every style of wine drinker to the table,” says Julie Adams, CEO. “We do that with a smile and with respect for all styles of wine, from dry to sweet. To be a part of celebrations, memories, family dinners, friendships and more means so much to everyone who works at Oliver.”

Save plenty of time to tour the facility and sip its vintages. Book a guided wine-flight tasting or buy a bottle and savor it with a picnic basket packed for you. It will even reserve a table for you outside in the gardens. For a more intimate experience, visit Butler Winery, located adjacent to its 7-acre vineyard. It, too, offers wines that range from dry to sweet, and while you’re here try a wine slushie.

If beer is more your style, try one of Bloomington’s several breweries. At the Switchyard Brewing Co. enjoy a pizza with your suds. Function Brewing takes pride in concocting unusual beers. Sample its tart cherry-lime golden ale, chipotle stout, Szechuan peppercorn pale and many others, served with savory snacks, salads and soups. One of the state’s first craft breweries, Bloomington Brewing Co. produces its beers with quality ingredients and attention to detail. With that in mind it makes fine ales and specialty beers such as Kirkwood Cream, Ruby Bloom Amber, Quarryman Pale and many more.

Bloomington’s first distillery, Cardinal Spirits, makes vodkas, gins, rums, liqueurs and canned cocktails using botanicals, fruits and spices for flavor and local grains, honey and walnuts whenever it can. It will give you a tour and then whip up a signature cocktail such as Coming up Roses, Love Club or Ruby Slippers. It also has a restaurant that serves made-from-scratch meals Wednesday to Saturday and Sunday brunch that you can eat on the patio overlooking the B-Line Trail.

When evening comes, entertainment abounds. You already know about the IU Auditorium, but you can also catch a play at Cardinal Stage or Bloomington Playwrights Project or comics at the Comedy Attic. The Bluebird Club and Bar offers live rock ’n’ roll music. Bloomington also hosts several festivals throughout the year, from the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival to the Kiwanis Balloon Fest.

So far, you’ve spent a large part of your time inside, so perhaps you’re longing for some fresh air and sunshine. Lake Monroe is the largest lake entirely within Indiana at 11,000 surface acres, so there’s plenty of room to boat, fish, swim and hike. For family fun nothing beats renting a pontoon boat, taking a picnic and making a day of it. Stay here at the Four Winds Lakeside Inn and Marina or Scenic View Lodge, both of which have restaurants, so you don’t have to leave to eat. Hardin Ridge Campground, Paynetown Campground and Yogi Bear’s Lake Monroe Jellystone Park are campgrounds with amenities, and Lake Monroe Village has campsites and cabin rentals.

Lake Lemon is perhaps best known for its Little Africa Wildlife Viewing Area, but you can also fish and hike trails through some of the state’s finest hardwood. Griffy Lake Nature Preserve is the smallest but also the most serene. It’s a good place to kayak, canoe or paddleboard because no motorized boats are allowed. Leonard Springs Nature Park is great for hiking.

About those other places where you might choose to stay: Downtown and still a short walk to the campus is the Showers Inn bed-and-breakfast, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was once the home of furniture magnate William Edward Showers and at that time the most expensive in the city. Today it’s an elegant place for an overnight stay with a hot breakfast to follow in the morning.

On the west side of town is The Beaumont House Bed and Breakfast, a Victorian farmhouse whose suites have been restored to their original glory. During the week it serves a continental breakfast, and on weekends it sends its guests to the Southern Stone restaurant for brunch.

The Wampler House is a gracious older home updated with amenities such as Jacuzzi tubs and fireplaces in some of the rooms. The home is owned by a husband-and-wife team who have worked in the hospitality industry their entire careers, with Donna as the host-concierge and Zack as the chef whipping up scrumptious things for you to eat.

Grant Street Inn is a boutique hotel made up of five homes that were rescued from the wrecking ball and renovated. Now the rooms are decorated in the style of various eras so that you can decide not only where you’d like to stay but during what period. Or maybe you’ll choose the room where Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stayed when she was here. The eco-friendly complex is the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified business in Bloomington and offers a Tesla charging station.

Wherever you stay, the next morning, consider having breakfast at the Runcible Spoon, named for a line in Edward Lear’s poem “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Erin White, director of leisure marketing and media at Visit Bloomington, says the vibe here is “professor’s house meets eclectic bookstore.” It serves lunch and dinner, too, but the intriguing breakfast menu ranges from the chef’s choice omelet (corned beef, provolone, onions, mushrooms) to pancakes, French toast and eggs Benedict the standard way or with fresh tomatoes and asparagus instead of meat. This will fuel you up, whether you’re embarking on another day of Bloomington adventures or climbing into your car for the drive home.