12 Reasons to Drive to Bloomington, Indiana

Get to know the Hoosier’s State’s top restaurants, outdoor adventures, live music, and more.

Indiana University Sample Gates
IU Sample Gates | Visit Bloomington
IU Sample Gates | Visit Bloomington

Hoosier / hoo-zher / n.
1. a native or resident of Indiana.
2. a student, alumni, or fan of Indiana University.
3. you, after one visit to Bloomington, Indiana.

No one knows where the term “Hoosier” originated, but everyone who’s ever spent time in the great state of Indiana knows one when they see one, that’s for sure. Indianapolis gets all the big city attention, Indiana Dunes National Park and nearby Michigan City have welcomed generations of vacationing Chicagoans, the Fighting Irish and Mayor Pete put South Bend on the map, but Bloomington, that’s Hoosier country—in the best way possible, of course. The idyllic little pocket of southwestern Indiana blends postcard-worthy college town charm with international influences, outdoorsy ambitions, and an unsquashable creative streak, making it the perfect weekend refuge when Windy City life grows a bit too blustery. Here are 12 reasons to buckle up, throw John Mellencamp on shuffle, and book it down to Bloomington, Indiana.

Bloomington Community Farmers' Market
Bloomington Community Farmers' Market | Photo courtesy of Visit Bloomington

Eat your weight in farm-to-table greatness

One of the best things about visiting Indiana? The sheer number of local farms, poised and ready to provide local restaurants with a bounty of fresher-than-fresh produce, meats, and dairy. In Bloomington, that translates to a host of innovative and homespun eats from longtime standbys like the ever-eclectic Runcible Spoon, set in a colorful residential home-turned-coffee roastery, the cozy, plant-powered Owlery, award-winning chef Daniel Orr’s FARMbloomington on Kirkwood, and Upland Brewing Company’s sundrenched original brewpub to cutting edge newcomers like Small Favors Bar, with its strict 50-mile radius policy for sourcing ingredients. And that’s not all. From April through November, the Bloomington Community Farmers' Market sets up its celebrated shop at Showers Common. It’s home to countless stands hawking everything from honey, vegetables, and Amish eggs to tasty prepared foods, while several smaller farmers markets and organic groceries like the standout People’s Coop fill in the gaps year-round.

The Bluebird
The Bluebird

Catch an A-list indie band in a tiny venue

B-Town’s thriving live music scene might just be the Midwest’s best kept secret. Between the plethora of bars, theaters, and DIY venues and the impact of local powerhouses like the illustrious IU Jacobs School of Music and major indie labels Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and the late-great Plan-It-X Records (RIP), the opportunity to see a headlining act in an intimate, low-key setting abound. And we haven’t even mentioned Bloomington’s serendipitous proximity to touring hubs like Louisville, Chicago, Columbus, and St. Louis.

While in town, pop by the Bishop for excellent craft beer and even better tunes before swinging by Blockhouse Bar, stashed beneath beloved queer danceclub the Back Door, for Honky Tonk Tuesday or to hear one of the regular guest acts rolling through town. The Bluebird attracts slightly bigger names and slightly bigger crowds, while the gorgeously restored Buskirk-Chumley Theater (aka the Bus-Chum) draws head-turning national acts including Bloomington’s very own John Mellencamp.

Upland Brewing Company
Upland Brewing Company

Soak it all in at local breweries, distilleries, and wineries

College town = beer town, now that’s a no-brainer. But Bloomington doesn’t stop at simple suds, bringing a lineup of craft distilleries and even wineries to the table alongside its broad and widely respected craft brewing fleet. Kick off your crawl at the aforementioned Upland Brewing Company brewpub on 11th before ducking into the brand’s 37,000-square-foot production facility and tasting room or, for true beer nerds, the Wood Shop, a state-of-the-art barrel-aged sour ale mecca occupying a cool 6,000-square-feet space next door to the pub. Other hop-crazed must-hits include Switchyard on Walnut, Function Brewing, the Tap, and old-school pioneer, Bloomington Brewing Company.

Oliver Winery
Oliver Winery

Interested in something a little higher grade? Get a boozier bang for your buck at Cardinal Spirits, a welcoming, hipster-chic tasting room and full-service kitchen specializing in everything from crowd-pleasers like whiskey, vodka, rum, and gin to more esoteric options like amaro, blackberry bramble, and liqueurs, all made with locally sourced ingredients. And if wine is more your speed, don’t miss the chance to check out Indiana’s humble yet robust wine country with scenic stop-offs at Butler Winery & Vineyard out on East Robinson Road (or their downtown tasting room) and Oliver Winery off Interstate 69, one of the country’s largest wineries with distribution in 40 different states.

Little 500
Little 500 | Flickr/Indiana Public Media

Take in the spectacle of America’s largest collegiate bike race

If you’ve ever seen the Academy Award-winning 1979 blockbuster film Breaking Away, you’re definitely familiar with the Little 500, Indiana University’s premiere cycling competition and the largest collegiate bike race in the US. (And if you haven’t seen Breaking Away, stop what you’re doing right now and cue it up.) “The World’s Greatest College Weekend” has been attracting upwards of 25,000 spectators each year since its 1951 founding, with past attendees spanning the likes of Lance Armstrong and President Barack Obama. This year, the cutthroat heat goes down on April 22 and 23, and regardless of who pulls in first, you better believe the entire town shows up to party.

Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center
Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center | Photo courtesy of Visit Bloomington

Immerse yourself in Buddhist culture (no, really)

Indiana probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when naming stateside Buddhist enclaves, but that sure didn’t stop the country’s only Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center from laying down roots in Bloomington back in 1979. IU Professor Emeritus Thubten J. Norbu was behind the center’s inception, built in an effort to educate locals and students about the history of Tibet while also serving as a community meeting place for Buddhists worldwide. Workshops, ceremonies, retreats, guided meditations, and seminars keep folks coming back for more while the 90-acre expanse is littered with delicate butter sculptures, brilliant sand mandalas, and other eye-catching works of art. Curious visitors can even book an overnight stay in an onsite yurt for the full mind-body experience.

Griffy Lake
Griffy Lake | Photo courtesy of Visit Bloomington

Channel your inner country bumpkin on a scenic hike, elevated jog or ride, or freshwater swim

No Midwestern getaway would be complete without dipping your toes into the great outdoors. And Bloomington, a college town with a hippie heart and a penchant for exercise, is no stranger when it comes to open-air activities.

Water enthusiasts flock to nearby Monroe Lake, where 11,000-surface-acres and sandy shores foster a healthy mix of fishing, boating, swimming, beach sports, and birding (more on that later). Closer to town, 109-acre Griffy Lake and its encompassing 1,200-acre nature preserve is almost always picnic-ready. The Hoosier National Forest, stationed just 30 minutes from downtown, is paradise for hikers, campers, trail-runners, rock climbers, horseback riders, and more, while Dunn Woods, with its 20-acres of tree-lined paths and secluded feel, brings a breath of fresh air right to IU’s sprawling campus. Wapehani Mountain Bike Park, spanning 46-acres and covering five miles of multi-level trails, continues to crush it as Indiana’s first dedicated mountain bike park. And if you’d rather not shred it up, peddle over to the B-Line Trail, Bloomington Rail Trail, and Limestone Greenway, a 6.8-mile network of connected groomed and/or paved pathways that guide joggers, walkers, and cyclists through the city from tip to tip.

Anyetsang's Little Tibet
Anyetsang's Little Tibet | Photo courtesy of Visit Bloomington

Sample global cuisine without leaving the Midwest

Sure, you’ve got your late-night party pizza, your giant pork tenderloin sandwiches, your parent-approved steakhouses, and your hangover-busting greasy spoons (aka Mother Bear’s, Nick’s English Hut, Janko's Little Zagreb, and the Village Deli, respectively), but what kind of college town could manage without a staple Turkish joint, a lauded Tibetan outpost, or one of the best Burmese kitchens in the region? The question goes unanswered in Bloomington, where the university’s melting pot effect trickles deliciously down into the town’s global culinary offerings. Load up on steamy momos and top-notch curries at Anyetsang’s Little Tibet Restaurant, pop into Burma Garden for imported Tea Leaf Salad and hearty Nga Chout Tamin Jo, or hit up Samira for irresistible Afghani comforts like Sabzi Tchallao (tender lamb and spinach over rice) and potato- and leek-stuffed Bolani. Intrigued? Browse Bloomington’s international landscape right here.

The Hoosier Mushroom Society

Roll up your sleeves and forage for mushrooms

Ditch the truffle pig and have a go for it yourself when the Morel mushroom harvest brings the fungi-inclined to Bloomington from late March through May. The town falls squarely into Morel season’s landing zone, and greater Monroe County is simply crawling with the tasty little buggers. Mushrooms are all the rage these days, so do yourself a favor and link up with the Hoosier Mushroom Society if your visit happens to coincide with peak ‘shroom times. They’ve got a whole roster of forage-friendly programming on the docket that you might find appealing, whether you’re a mushroom head from way back or just getting into the world of fungi.

Indiana University
Photo courtesy of Visit Bloomington

Embrace the college town vibes by exploring IU’s hallowed grounds

Indiana University is one of those college campuses that feels like it was plucked straight out of a coming of age movie, where the stately stone Sample Gates give way to precisely manicured lawns, towering trees, and clusters of Victorian, Romanesque, and Gothic buildings. It’s no wonder highschoolers from around the world gravitate to the storybook 2000-acre plot in Southwest Indiana. After taking in the sights, head into Lilly Library, free and open to outsiders, to leaf through prized collection items like a Gutenberg Bible New Testament, the First Folio of Shakespeare's works, the first printed edition of The Canterbury Tales, Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Bill of Rights, and nearly 100 Sylvia Plath originals, plus, you know, over 8.5 million manuscripts, 150,000 pieces of sheet music, 30,000 mechanical puzzles, and 450,000 books. Movie buffs would be remiss not to stop by the Black Film Center/Archive and the Indiana University Cinema, while budding botanists can compare green thumbs at Hilltop Garden and Nature Center or the Biology Greenhouse. And if all that mental stimulation has you itching for a little fresh air, stretch your legs along any one of these self-guided one-mile campus trails.

Indiana University
Indiana University

Cheer on the Hoosiers at a NCAA Big Ten matchup

Win or lose, attending a Cream and Crimson game in person, surrounded by screaming students done up in face paint and clownish red and white striped bib overalls, is a guaranteed good time. IU’s athletic prowess varies from year to year and sport to sport, but they have managed to rack up 24 NCAA National Championships and almost 150 Big Ten Conference titles since joining the dominant Midwestern pack back in December, 1889. Depending on the season, you have your pick of baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, football, men’s and women’s soccer, swimming, diving, cross country running, or wrestling, all staged in top of the line indoor and outdoor facilities.

Indiana University Football Tailgate
Photo courtesy of Visit Bloomington

During football season, tailgating is king, naturally. Secure a parking pass and cruise over to the grass lots south of 17th Street to experience collegiate pregaming (and, most likely, post-gaming) at its absolute finest. Worried about getting caught slack-jawed when everyone launches into a rousing rendition of “Indiana, Our Indiana?” Here’s everything you need to know in preparation for game day.

Hoosier National Forest
Hoosier National Forest | U.S. Forest Service - Hoosier National Forest

See why Bloomington’s for the birds

Attention all birders: Polish up your binoculars and pocket your field guides, Bloomington is prime birdwatching territory. Thanks in part to Monroe Lake, the state’s largest land-bound body of water, along with its dedicated wildlife management zone, the Stillwater-Northfork Waterfowl Resting Area, the diverse habitat is the ideal home for all sorts of avian species. Waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, and wading birds make good use of the marshlands while migrating passerines and Bald Eagles navigate the wooded terrain. On the flipside, Hoosier National Forest, Indiana’s only national forest, sits just 30 minutes from B-Town. There you’ll find 200,000 acres of natural bliss highlighted by the Hardin Ridge Recreation Area, a 1,200-acre complex teeming with spectacular bird-watching opportunities.

The Video Saloon
The Video Saloon

Knock back a cold one at a down and dirty dive

Be it town, gown, or somewhere in between, Bloomington has a watering hole to suit just about any taste—and that goes double if your taste leans toward cheap beer and well shots, chotchkies on the walls, surly barkeeps, and a general sense of well loved dinginess. Dives come in all shapes and sizes here, from notorious holes-in-the-wall reeking of bad choices to sweaty underground dance clubs. The Office, a bar and liquor store on 3rd Street known for late-night karaoke and its suspiciously Pizza Hut-like digs, is a fantastic place to start. Follow it up with a trip to the Video Saloon, better known as the Vid, where pool tables, pop-a-shot machines, and dart boards offset sticky floors and multiple bar areas throughout the winding, windowless space. Alley Bar is a reliable, laid-back option for a draft beer and sports on TV, while the Root Cellar, a cheeky subterranean escape beneath FARMbloomington, throws some of the best parties in town.

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Meredith Heil is a Senior Cities Editor at Thrillist.