Pity poor Indiana: It has neither the defining natural beauty of its southern neighbors nor any big “C” cities like Ohio and Illinois do. So why bother visiting the Hoosier State? Thriving Bloomington, of course. A college town’s college town, it revolves around Indiana University. Students make up about half of the city’s 80,000 residents, which makes the relatively quiet summer break a good time to visit.
This “haven of blooms” boasts diversity, tolerance and spirit in a cityscape of rolling hills and stately limestone. But Bloomington is still a town of the Lower Midwest. Listen to hometown hero John Mellencamp and sample unrivaled summer sweet corn and beefsteak tomatoes at the Saturday farmers market, and you will know exactly where you are.
What to do
B-ball: Basketball is to Indiana what hockey is to Minnesota. Witness this at the Pfau Shine Legacy Court in IU’s Cook Hall, which chronicles the Hoosiers’ storied history.
Architecture: Limestone from area quarries built the Empire State Building, the Pentagon, much of IU and, indeed, much of Bloomington. To see the prettiest buildings, walk through the Old Crescent, the oldest part of campus, to the Sample Gates at the head of Kirkwood Avenue. The Indiana Memorial Union is the fortresslike Platonic ideal of a student center. South of campus, a walk through Vinegar Hill Historic District is worthwhile for its stylish early-20th-century homes. Tudor, Georgian and Spanish Colonial Revival styles are represented alongside whimsical lawn art — most in exquisite limestone.
Museums: The IU Art Museum hosts a good permanent collection, but the star is the I.M. Pei-designed building itself, which contains no right angles (1-812-855-5445). Stop at IU Auditorium, a WPA relic, to see part of Thomas Hart Benton’s epic social-realist murals from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair (1-812-855-1103). Leave the kids behind when you visit the Kinsey Institute, whose midcentury reports into male and female sexuality gobsmacked Middle America and helped catalyze the sexual revolution. The institute’s galleries display selected erotic artifacts from its archives (1-812-855-7686).
Music: The Jacobs School of Music is the university’s crown jewel. Not many towns Bloomington’s size can boast world-class opera, jazz, musicals and orchestras simultaneously vying for an audience. Many performances are free; visit music.indiana.edu/events for upcoming performances.
Tibet: Bloomington is an unexpected center of Tibetan culture, largely because of IU’s lauded work in Tibetan studies and because the town was the Dalai Lama’s late brother’s residence-in-exile. Fill up on momos (Himalayan dumplings) at Anyetsang Little Tibet (1-812-331-0122) before heading to the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center on the outskirts of town for dharma services and instructed meditation (1-812-336-6807).
Art: Bloomington is a refuge for artistic folks, with a wealth of arts and crafts for sale. Gather, at Fountain Square Mall, stocks a wealth of handmade items (1-812-785-1480). Local video artist Arthur Liou is frequently shown alongside contemporary photography at Pictura Gallery (1-812-336-0000). Relish is noteworthy for its custom furniture and home decor (1-812-333-2773).
Recreation: Bloomington is the only city set within the “knobs,” southern Indiana’s region of steep hills. Visit Deam Wilderness and catch the sunrise from its Hickory Ridge Fire Tower (http://tinyurl.com/hlt9bk8). To the east is Brown County State Park, home to impressive vistas and Indiana’s best hiking and mountain biking (1-812-988-6406).
Where to eat and drink
Bloomington does “greasy” well. Thin and crispy patties are stacked thick at Hinkle’s Hamburgers, open since 1930 and a favorite among townies (1-812-339-3335). Closer to campus, Mother Bear’s Pizza offers the delightfully decadent “Divine Swine” with four types of pork. Your salad will come topped with Goldfish crackers (1-812-332-4495).
Hippies love the vegetarian Owlery (1-812-333-7344) — the Reuben and poutine prove that vegan food can be greasy, too — and the vegan Rainbow Bakery (1-812-822-3741) for great coffee and baked goods. The same crowd, alongside hungover students and visiting parents, also frequents the omnivorous Runcible Spoon (1-812-334-3997) for breakfast in an old repurposed house with a shady, charmingly overgrown garden.
Upscale Louisiana Creole at the Uptown Cafe is requisite: Try crème brûlée French toast and andouille in the morning and a Sazerac with étouffée later in the day (1-812-339-0900). Le Petit Cafe, founded by an expat percussionist, has an unprinted menu du jour. His bubbly wife stands at their to-go window every Saturday morning, hawking goodies to grab en route to the farmers market (1-812-334-9747).
Finch’s Brasserie (1-812-333-2700) has the best wine list. Try the rabbit cacciatore and save room for dessert at the Chocolate Moose (1-812-333-0475). Get the moose chocolate “with eyes” (just do it, trust me).
Bloomington has five craft breweries. Four take part in the Bloomington Ale Trail (visit all four and win a prize; bloomingtonaletrail.com), while the Tap (1-812-287-8579) serves a galaxy of house-made, imported and domestic brews. At Cardinal Spirits, the Bramble Mule is a riff on the Moscow Mule with hibiscus- and local blackberry-infused vodka. It pairs well with the patio (1-812-202-6789).
The premier IU watering hole is Nick’s English Hut (1-812-332-4040), where generations of students have played the Sink the Biz drinking game — and you can, too. Ask a waitress about it, then call a cab. Hipsters and grad students frequent the Atlas Ballroom, where you’ll find steampunk taxidermy, skeeball and shuffleboard (1-812-334-4435). Everybody loves the Backdoor, Bloomington’s cheeky gay-but-not-discriminating bar with the best DJs and dance floor in town. Look for the gender-bending, satanic portrait of Indiana Gov. (and Republican vice presidential candidate) Mike Pence for an insight into the town’s political leanings (1-812-333-3123).
Where to stay
Hyatt Place (1-812-339-5950) is Bloomington’s best hotel, but accommodations with more character include the Biddle Hotel in the Memorial Union (1-812-856-6381) and the Grant Street Inn, a great bed & breakfast (1-812-334-2353).
GO Express shuttles (1-800-589-6004) run between Indianapolis International Airport and several hotels in Bloomington. A rental car is by no means necessary; the city is very walkable, with plenty of cabs, Uber drivers and a decent bus system.
The best way to see the city that hosts the Little 500 bicycle race, featured in the 1979 movie “Breaking Away,” is, no surprise, on a bike. Only a few of Bloomington’s hills are truly steep, and there are many bike lanes and boulevards. Revolution Bike & Bean has rentals (1-812-336-0241). Don’t bother trying to visit the quarries featured in the film: They’re off limits to all except for the craftiest trespassers.