In Central Illinois, Bloomington is a city of 80,000 but with a metropolitan population more than double thanks to the presence of the town of Normal, directly next door. Feted for its hospitality and quality of life, this is a charming place to spend some time, endowed with great amenities, a lot of history and super visitor attractions,
For anyone fascinated by Abraham Lincoln’s career, Bloomington was home to two of his champions, the businessman Jesse W. Fell and the judge David Davis. You can tour the magnificent Victorian home of David Davis, while the historic McLean County Courthouse is now a history museum with an exhibit about Lincoln’s Bloomington connections.
I grew up in Illinois and have had a love for travel for as long as I can remember. I visited Bloomington several times. Here is my list on the best things to do in Bloomington.
1. David Davis Mansion State Historic Site
A Supreme Court Justice from 1862 to 1877, David Davis played a considerable role in 19th-century American history.
In 1860 he served as Abraham Lincoln’s campaign manager and helped orchestrate his nomination for president at the Republican National Convention.
Davis (1815-1886) had become a friend and mentor to Lincoln in the decades before, presiding over the Illinois Eight Circuit, in which Lincoln practiced.
Later, after the president’s assassination he became the administrator of his estate. The palatial Davis Mansion (1870-1872) is designed as an Italianate villa, with 36 rooms and several outbuildings and a gorgeous restored flower garden on the grounds.
I recommend going on the available tour on which you’ll see 20 rooms, many embellished with American Renaissance furniture purchased by Sarah Davis, his wife of 40+ years.
The property also hosts a variety of events throughout the year, like a garden festival in June and special gaslight tours at Christmas.
2. McLean County Museum of History
This museum for local history has a very grand location at McClean County Courthouse and Square, surrounded by historic buildings. One of the exhibits I liked most was the Abraham Lincoln exhibit. It explores Lincoln’s work as an attorney in McLean County, his role in the anti-slavery movement and in the formation of the new Republican party in this state.
Noted for its towering dome, the Classical Revival courthouse is the third on this site, raised in 1868 and then extensively rebuilt after a fire in 1900.
All four stories are taken up by the museum with excellent, in-depth galleries looking into McLean County’s rich political and military history, immigration and Native American heritage, commercial and industrial history, as well as the intrinsic connection between the county and agriculture.
Related reading: 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in Illinois
3. Miller Park Zoo
Bloomington’s Miller Park has had a menagerie of some sort since 1891, and this became a full-fledged zoo in 1900. In the 1990s and 2000s a host of new exhibits were added, more than doubling the zoos area.
For a brief summary you’ve got indoor spaces like ZooLab, with its exotic insects, meerkats and parrots, and the historic Katthoefer Animal Building, holding snow leopards, tamarins, snakes and Sumatran tigers.
Outside you’ll encounter wallabies, red pandas (one of my favorite animals), Galapagos tortoises, otters, alligators, Pallas’ cats and a wealth of birds, from eagles, to hawks, greater flamingos and hooded cranes. The wider park has no shortage of facilities, especially in summer when there’s a splash pad, mini golf course and a lake with paddle boats.
4. Constitution Trail
Bloomington and Normal teamed up to create this 37-mile trail system that passes through both communities. Opened in 1989, the route follows the former Illinois Central Gulf railroad, from Kerrick Road in Normal to Grove street in Bloomington.
There are 32 trailheads and seven different branches, including one for US Route 66. Constitution Trail is loved by walkers, joggers, bikers and many more, and has restrooms, shelters, benches, water fountains and trash receptacles along the way.
There’s also no lack of history, in the form of old wooden bridges, like Normal’s Camelback Bridge (1862), on the National Register of Historic Places.
5. Children’s Discovery Museum
In uptown Normal, this superb interactive museum is in a three-story building next to Bloomington-Normal Station. The exhibits at the Children’s Discovery Museum are carefully designed to offer rewarding, open-ended and multilayered learning experiences for kids.
So this means that they can learn about healthy food choices at a market, drive a combine in the largest children’s museum agriculture exhibit in the country, scale the two-story Luckey Climber and let their creativity run free in the Art Studio.
The museum runs all sorts of early childhood programs, and also features the Innovation Station, where kids and families can encounter STEAM concepts through building, collaboration, experiments and plenty of fun. I recommend spending a few hours here.
6. Funk Prairie Home Museum
There’s a fascinating piece of 19th-century Illinois life just southwest of Bloomington in Shirley. Now a private historic house museum, the Funk Prairie home was built in 1864 by one Lafayette Funk as a wedding gift to his bride Elizabeth.
Remarkably the interior has retained many of the furnishings and decoration from the decade it was built and is brimming with interesting Funk family curios.
Lafayette Funk had a passion for natural history, and across 30 years he amassed an amazing collection of fossils, minerals and gems, and these are presented alongside corals, sea shells, Chinese soapstone carvings and Native American artifacts from Central Illinois.
Also on the tour is a barn packed with forgotten 19th-century agricultural tools from a time when mules and horses provided the power. Reservations are required.
7. Grossinger Motors Arena
Unveiled in 2006, this cavernous multi-use facility is on a scale that you might expect to find in a larger city than Bloomington.
The Grossinger Motors Arena can hold 8,000 people for concerts and 5,500 for sports events, and has welcomed more than 3,000,000 people in the 15+ years since it opened.
I suggest to check the calendar for a packed lineup of trade shows, concerts, motor sports, family entertainment, hockey games and caravans for the St. Louis Carnivals and Chicago Cubs.
Read also: 22 Amazing Hidden Gems in Illinois
8. Bloomington Ice Center
Run by the Bloomington Parks & Recreation Department and open all year, this public ice rink is attached to Grossinger Motors Arena but is managed as a separate entity.
The Bloomington Ice Center has a full-size sheet of ice (200 ft by 85 ft), and offers open skate sessions, freestyle sessions, stick and puck, pick-up hockey, skating lessons for all ages, hockey classes and competitive hockey leagues.
There’s a snack bar and skate rental, while you can also get hold of skating and hockey accessories, from gloves to tape, socks, laces and mouth guards.
9. Evergreen Memorial Cemetery
Now close to 200 years old, Evergreen Memorial Cemetery goes way back to the earliest days of Euro-American settlement in this part of Illinois.
Spread across 87 acres and sprinkled with mature trees, the cemetery is an active burial ground with rambling avenues and many beautiful monuments.
It represents a broad cross-section of Bloomington society, and is the resting place of numerous important figures like David Davis and numerous cabinet members, senators, representatives, a Civil War general and sports stars like the early baseball hero Charles Radbourn.
The public is welcome to tour the grounds and learn a little more about Bloomington’s history.
10. Prairie Aviation Museum
Based in hangars and an outdoor air park here is a small but compelling fleet of aircraft, mostly from the second half of the 20th century.
Some of the standouts are a Bell Sea Cobra, an F-14 Tomcat, an A-4 Skyhawk and a UH-1H Iroquois. Check the website for details about Open Cockpit Days, when you can get behind the controls and test your skills on a Delta 880 simulator.
11. 3rd Sunday Market
From May to October, hundreds of antiques, collectibles and arts and crafts vendors show up to Bloomington for one of the biggest monthly markets of its kind in the Midwest.
Taking place at the Interstate Center on the third Sunday of the month of course, the 3rd Sunday Market brings more than 450 dealers from 17 states.
From 8 am to 4 pm you could spend hours digging around for furniture, vintage advertising signs, ceramics, lighting, historic home appliances, baseball cards, stamps, coins, political badges, toys as well as contemporary crafts and garden items.
Related: Best Weekend Getaways in Illinois
12. Downtown Bloomington Farmers’ Market
In a charming location right on the Historic Museum Square, there’s an always bustling producer-only market open on Saturday mornings from May to November.
You can shop for farm-fresh fruit, vegetables, poultry, meat, eggs, cheeses, flowers, herbs, plants, sauces, condiments and a lot more.
You will also have the perfect opportunity to meet and chat with the people who grow, raise and make these products.
From November the market moves indoors at the Grossinger Motors Arena, and switches to the third Saturday of the month until April.
13. Grady’s Family Fun Park
Mixing a bit of everything, this family activity center in southeast Bloomington is like a small amusement park. There’s a handful of carnival rides here, mostly aimed at the youngest visitors, as well as go karts, bumper boats, an arcade and batting cages.
The high point though is definitely the mini golf course, which has been creatively designed, with interesting challenges and lots of little handmade details, not least a Statue of Liberty replica. Grady’s Family Fun Park is famed for its pizza, which has a signature sweet tomato sauce. In my opinion a great activity with kids!
14. Tipton Park
This 50-acre neighborhood park on the east side of Bloomington combines a variety of facilities with large parcels of native Illinois prairie.
You can enjoy this on a two-mile asphalt path, taking you past exercise stations, a windmill and a picnic shelter designed like a traditional barn.
In summer, something that attracts families to Tipton Park is the spray park, open mid-May through mid-September. Among the other facilities available are a basketball court, children’s playground, soccer field and softball diamond.
15. Illinois Shakespeare Festival
From the end of June to mid-August Bloomington and Normal play host to a major cultural festival performing the works of William Shakespeare. The Illinois Shakespeare Festival takes place at Bloomington’s outdoor Ewing Theatre, as well as Illinois State University’s Center for Performing Arts. The former is in a beautiful spot, on an estate laid out by the Prairie Style landscape architect, Jens Jensen.
The festival has been going since 1978, and is produced by ISU’s College of Fine Arts and the School of Theatre and dance. In a revolving rep there are usually three plays during the season, two by Shakespeare, and one by a modern playwright but in a period setting. So, as well as Henry V, Winter’s Tale, Measure for Measure, Hamlet and Twelfth Night, recent seasons have featured an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth Rex.