Sitting in the rolling hills of south central Indiana, Bloomington is a welcoming college town, home to Indiana University’s (IU) flagship campus.
Announced by a grand gateway at the end of a wide avenue, the stately IU campus borders downtown and will draw you in for big-time concerts and comedy shows, Big Ten sporting action and exhibitions at a world-class art museum.
A Gold-level “Bicycle Friendly Community”, downtown Bloomington is a joy, with flourishing local businesses, joyous community events, an exciting arts scene, pulsating nightlife and all the youthful energy of a college community.
1. Indiana University
Right on the eastern edge of downtown Bloomington, the Indiana University campus has a kind of symbiotic relationship with the rest of the city.
At almost 2,000 acres, this fine enclave has beautiful old monuments constructed from local limestone and embedded in ample greenery.
A good first stop is the Visitor Information Center, where you can grab a campus map or sign up for a guided tour, taking place on Sundays.
Give yourself plenty of time to appreciate the Old Crescent, a national historic district in its own right, with most of the oldest buildings on the campus.
Dating from the 1880s to the 1900s, these are in the Gothic Revival and Richardsonian Romanesque styles.
2. Eskenazi Museum of Art
A priority at the IU Bloomington campus has to be this phenomenal museum with works by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso in its collections.
The Eskenazi Museum of Art dates back to the early 1940s, but the evergreen building standing today is by feted architect I. M. Pei (1917-2019) and opened in 1981. Counting more than 45,000 objects, the museums’ collections span the history of art, and come from all ends of the earth.
In a single visit you might happen upon a Cycladic figurine, ancient Chinese porcelain, an Etruscan vase, a Roman bust and a 1,800-year-old Buddha from Afghanistan.
Among the museum’s strong points are German and Austrian Expressionism (Kirchner, Nolde, Macke and more), ancient jewelry, Old Masters paintings and works on paper, with major pieces by Dürer, Rembrandt and Goya, to name just three.
3. Downtown Bloomington
Arty, independent and historic, Bloomington has the sort of central commercial district that you might expect from a much larger city.
Along those lines, the long and broad Kirkwood Avenue has a monumental feel to it, leading you eastwards up the slope to the IU campus.
There you’ll be met by the Gothic Revival Sample Gates, heralding your arrival to the Old Crescent.
Around the solemn Monroe County Courthouse (1908) is the Square, the site of more than 30 independent businesses, including galleries, fashion boutiques, bookstores, restaurants and cafes.
Many of these spots have been a favorite of IU students for decades. Making your way around downtown Bloomington you’ll notice just how walkable this area is, helped even more by the B-Line Trail and its connecting plazas.
The nightlife is buzzing too, with a young population bolstering a whole raft of bars and live music venues.
4. Indiana University Auditorium
Yet another upside of having a flagship campus in Bloomington is this 3,200-seat performing arts venue, right in the middle of the city.
The origins of this building are interesting too, as it was a Depression-era Federal Works Agency project, begun in 1939 and inaugurated in 1941.
This is the region’s main stage for touring Broadway musicals, classical ensembles and soloists, renowned recording artists, live comedy and talks by famous personalities.
An awesome array of performers and important figures have taken the stage at the IU Auditorium, from Yo-Yo Ma to Mikhail Gorbachev.
Don’t miss the Hall of Murals, home to 16 of the 22 panels painted by Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
This multi award-winning science museum found a permanent home in downtown Bloomington in 2003.
Wonderlab was originally a traveling outreach program, run by volunteers and is now the mainstay for the Bloomington Entertainment and Arts District.
This is a place for children and grownups to encounter scientific concepts in fun ways. Bubble Flow for example tackles topics like density, light, matter and evaporation, all in the process of making bubbles.
The Fitzgerald Hall of Natural Science has a host of reptiles, amphibians and insects in large terrariums, and the hands-on How Things Work reveals the role of electricity, magnetism, gravity and other forces behind everyday items.
Between the museum building and the B-Line Trail is the Lester P. Bushnell Garden, planted with herbs, vegetables and native woodland plants, and featuring exhibits about the science of sound and solar energy.
6. Hoosier National Forest
Bloomington is just northwest of the only national forest in Indiana. This is over an immense area, at 200,000 acres, but some of the most inviting portions of the Hoosier National Forest are little more than ten miles from downtown.
One is the 13,000-acre Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area, the last remaining wilderness in the state, preserving untouched karst topography, with a sublime display of wildflowers in spring.
Make sure to climb the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower here for a view that may leave you speechless.
The wilderness is on the south shore of Lake Monroe, the largest lake entirely within Indiana’s boundaries, which we’ll talk about next.
7. Lake Monroe
That huge body of water just outside Bloomington is a reservoir on Salt Creek, dammed in the early 1960s and filled by 1965. Lake Monroe weaves through the wooded river valley, with a surface area totaling more than 10,000 acres.
This all becomes a haven for water activities in summer, with three public beaches, nine launch ramps and three boat rental facilities.
There you can get hold of a range of pontoons, speed boats, fishing boats, jet-skis, canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and all kinds of boating accessories.
LT Paddle Sports is also based on these shores, offering lessons in activities like paddleboarding, kayaking and windsurfing.
You can cast your line for a host of fish species at this well-stocked lake, from bluegill to walleye to bass, catfish and crappie.
On the shore you can take on a series of light and intermediate hiking trails, while there are hundreds of campsites, as well as cabins and villas at the various campgrounds and villages near the water.
8. Monroe County History Center
This worthwhile local history museum is in Bloomington’s former Carnegie Library, which opened in 1917.
Among the permanent exhibits, the Cook Gallery tells the county’s modern story from a few angles, exploring industrial advancements, education and changing lifestyles.
Here you can find out about famous local athletes, and visit a 1800s one-room school and a log cabin from the pioneer days.
There are also permanent displays dealing with transportation and natural history, displaying local limestone samples and “Monroe”, a brown bear shot on Kodiak Island, Alaska, in 1949.
You’ve always got interesting things to see in the rotating galleries, including traveling displays from major institutions in the region, like the Evansville Museum of Art, History and Science.
9. B-Line Trail
A wonderful asset for Bloomington, this 3.1-mile multi-use trail runs along the west side of downtown. The B-Line Trail is on the roadbed of a former CSX railroad, belonging to a line for more than 100 years.
The route is paved with asphalt, 12 feet wide, and smartly connects a series of modern plazas downtown for shopping, culture and government services.
These spaces can be found by City Hall where the farmers’ market takes place, at the WonderLab Museum, to the rear of the Convention Center and by Seminary Square shopping center.
The B-Line Trail is illuminated with energy-efficient LED lamps, and has lots of public art and seating.
10. Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market
With its long canopies, Showers Common on the B-Line Trail sets the scene for Bloomington’s weekly farmers’ market.
This get-together takes place every Saturday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., April through November (in fall the market starts an hour later).
The market is wildly successful, with a slew of farmers, growers and makers from south central Indiana and beyond.
It’s a fine way to get hold of seasonal fruit and vegetables, flowers, houseplants, meats, dairy products, baked goods, unique crafts, honey, salsas, jams and jellies and much more.
You can combine a visit with breakfast or lunch as there’s also plenty of delicious prepared food.
11. Oliver Winery
Starting out in the 1960s as a hobby for a University of Indiana law professor, Oliver Winery is now one of the largest in the United States, and rated among the best outside California.
Found in the lovely countryside north of Bloomington, the winery has made a reputation for its fruit-forward flavors, and runs the gamut from classic dry reds to sweet Moscatos.
Oliver wines are available in more than 40 states, and you can head for the source, which welcomes walk-ins, although reservations are recommended on busy weekend afternoons.
To taste more of the range you can order a flight, and while away a sunny day on the patio surrounded by stunning gardens. Purchases are available by the bottle or case, while the winery’s store also stocks unique gifts and enticing specialty food items.
12. Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall
Home court for IU’s men’s and women’s basketball teams looks like no arena you’ve ever seen.
Opened in 1971 and with a capacity of 17,222, the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall has two large and remarkably steep stands along the sidelines, helping to generate a lot of noise and contributing to the venue’s reputation as one of the loudest in college basketball.
The Hoosiers have a home court advantage like almost no other in NCAA competition. The men’s team has taken five championships, and their squad in 1976 is still the most recent to go the entire season undefeated.
The arena has been renovated several times, and outside of game days you can take a self-guided tour, visit the varsity store in the west lobby and check out the interesting displays in the north and south lobbies.
13. Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center
This cultural center just southeast of Bloomington was established in 1979 by Indiana University Professor Emeritus Thubten J. Norbu to encourage awareness of the history and culture of Tibet.
The center is on 90 beautiful acres, home to the only two Tibetan chortens (stupas) in the United States.
You can come to attend worship rituals and ceremonies, as well as recitations, yoga sessions, lectures, retreats and meditation sessions. You can also come to admire the temple, grounds, Tibetan butter sculptures and sand mandala on a guided tour.
14. Indiana Memorial Stadium
During the college football season in fall you could plan a fun family day out at Indiana Memorial Stadium.
For kids, Knothole Park at Sample Terrace has a variety of activities including a mini-quarterback throwing game and face painting.
For parents, the Hoosier Village Tailgate offers great food from local eateries. The stadium, opened in 1960 and last updated in 2009, has a capacity of more than 52,600 and is nicknamed The Rock.
In their long history, the Hoosiers have claimed two conference titles, in 1945 and 1967 and at the time of writing had more than ten alumni currently playing in the NFL.
15. Downtown Gallery Walk
The ideal time to experience Bloomington’s vibrant arts scene is on the first Friday of the month when ten galleries downtown stay open into the evening.
The Downtown Gallery Walk has a website where you can find out about the participating galleries, as well as other local businesses supporting the event.
The event is concentrated mostly along 6th St, Kirkwood Ave and 4th St, and continues east on to the IU campus at the Gayle Karch Cook Center for Public Arts and Humanities.
On your self-guided journey you can check out and purchase work by local, regional and international artists in a wealth of media, from painting to weaving pottery, glasswork, jewelry, sculpture and more.