This Queer-Friendly Midwestern City Is Way More than a College Town
Get to know the Hoosier’s State’s top restaurants, outdoor adventures, live music, and more.
It’s not often that wineries and Buddhist temples share a zip code with bald eagles, Afghan restaurants, queer dance clubs, and sexologists—and that’s what makes Bloomington, Indiana the EPCOT of mid-sized American cities. This Hoosier haven, located in southwestern Indiana, is a grab-bag of a city teeming with all the originality you’d expect of a state that simultaneously boasts the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” a sandy national park that looks more Hawaiian than Midwestern, and perhaps most importantly, the mighty meatloaf sandwich. Indiana has always marched to the beat of its own drum, and Bloomington is a town that typifies those tendencies in the funkiest ways possible. Sure, you won’t find mountainous dunes or the Indy 500 here, but what you will find is a quaint, progressive, and surprisingly metropolitan town rich with culture, nature, John Mellencamp ephemera, more booze than an EPCOT bar crawl, and restaurants that run the global gamut. The best part? It’s nary four hours from Chicago, making this unexpected gem of a city an easy getaway for city mice looking for urban vibes at a chiller pace. Here are 15 reasons to drive to Bloomington ASAP.
Eat your weight in farm-to-table greatness
One of the best things about visiting Indiana, a state that runneth over with fertile terrain, is its sheer number of 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 The Elm, where the seasonally driven culinary art mimics the literal art on the walls, captured by multi-talented chef David Moore. 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.
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.
Spend a day at the museum(s)
Culinary art isn’t the only aesthetic wow factor in Bloomington. Art, in numerous other forms and textiles, takes shape throughout the city’s myriad museums, offering something for every culture connoisseur. No matter the fickle Midwestern forecast, Bloomington’s 10-plus museums offer sanctuary, art, escapism, whimsy, and in the case of the Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection, some outfit inspo. One of the most striking spots in town is the Eskenazi Museum of Art, designed by I.M. Pei, aka the architect behind the Louvre Pyramid in Paris—maybe you’ve heard of it. An architectural feat in and of itself, the contemporary museum boasts nearly 50,000 objects and artifacts from around the world, from Grecian pottery to Claude Monet. For the fam, the kid-friendly WonderLab Museum reigns as one of the most adored science museums in the nation, outfitted with all manner of hands-on whimsy and edutainment, from sand boxes and desert animals to giant bubble machines, super-sized pianos, and immersive indoor playgrounds.
Go ahead and get a little gay
Thanks in no small part to the thriving, diverse, and international influx of students at Indiana University, Bloomington routinely earns top marks as one of the most LGBTQIA-friendly cities in the nation—and it’s on quite a spree of perfect scores from Human Rights Commission's Municipal Equality Index. All over Bloomington, Pride is something celebrated and showcased year round. There’s the queer pageantry of PrideFest every August and a wintertime Pride film festival, but LGBTQIA-owned business and queer events are omnipresent. LGBTQIA+ artists and artisans display their wares at Gather, Rainbow Bakery is a queer-owned sweets shop slinging vegan cupcakes and cookies in cheery environs, and Cardinal Spirits has been bottling Pride Vodka ever since June 26, 2015, the date that same-sex marriage became legal on a federal level. If you prefer a little more sexual ambiguity in your cultural experience, you might be surprised to learn that Bloomington is home to the Kinsey Institute, housing archival research and educational programs from famed sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who lived here during his twilight years.
If you possess the same kind of fervor for sedimentary rock as you do for, say, Taylor Swift, then consider Bloomington your Coachella. Limestone is a surprisingly huge part of the culture and geography here, and hard-working Hoosiers treat it with the respect that it deserves, not only milling it to construct buildings and sculptures, but propping it front-and-center for a full-blown month of limestone shenanigans. That’s right: June is officially Limestone Month in Bloomington, and it’s as heartwarming an affair as you’d expect. An annual pastime since 2007, the event allows visitors to get stoned, so to speak, on tours of quarries, cemeteries, and historical buildings and at demonstrations of limestone carving. Check back here for up-to-date calendar and events for all things limestone this year.
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.
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.
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.) Like a quaint Midwestern version of the Tour de France, “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 21 and 22, and regardless of who pulls in first, you better believe the entire town shows up to party.
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 that look far more like southeast Asia than southern Indiana. Curious visitors can even book an overnight stay in an onsite yurt for the full mind-body experience.
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.
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.
Roll up your sleeves and forage for mushrooms and maple
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.
This region of the country is also the furthest west where maple trees can be tapped for syrup, so you’d better believe Bloomington adopts a Buddy the Elf-like appreciation for this sticky-sweet nectar. Around the same time that Morel mayhem ensues, the Hinkle-Garton Farmstead hosts Indiana Maple Syrup Weekend, when guests get to tour the sugaring operations, purchase maple-flavored anything and everything, and even snag a DIY tree-tapping kit to take home (so you can make your very own Elf spaghetti). For more maple goodness, check out the Indiana Maple Syrup Association for updates on events, recipes, and a handy-dandy Syrup Finder.
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.
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.
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.
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. Brown County State Park, meanwhile, is the largest state park in Indiana and one of the largest in the nation—and it’s conveniently also just 30 minutes away.
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.
Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He's the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on Instagram.