In Northwest Indiana’s Porter County, Valparaiso is a city named for a battle during the War of 1812, fought by naval commander David Porter.
Valpo, for short, is home to the Lutheran Valparaiso University, which was one of the first coeducational colleges in the United States when it was founded in 1859.
Head for the campus to visit the Brauer Museum of Art, which has an outstanding collection, and to take in the stunning Chapel of the Resurrection.
Downtown Valparaiso deserves plenty of your time, especially in the summer when there’s a series of festivals, a twice-weekly farmers’ market and an outdoor concert series at the new Central Park Plaza.
1. Brauer Museum of Art
Valparaiso University has a strong collection of 19th and 20th century American art, adding up to more than 2,700 pieces and built up over more than a 100 years.
This can be seen at the impressive Center for the Arts, housing the Brauer Museum. Some of the famous names represented in this inventory, spanning several movements, include Georgia O’Keeffe, Childe Hassam, Asher B. Durand, Dale Chihuly, Chuck Close, Elaine de Kooning, Robert Reid and John F. Kensett.
The Brauer Museum of Art also has the largest collection of works by the Hudson River School painter Junius R. Sloan (1827-1900).
In addition to that glittering permanent collection, the museum also hosts high-profile temporary exhibitions that have featured pieces by Salvador Dalí and Ansel Adams in recent years.
2. Porter County Museum (PoCo Muse)
Next door to the splendid Memorial Opera House, the Porter County Museum also has a historically significant home, in the Porter County Jail & Sheriff’s Residence, dating to 1871.
Based here since the 1970s, this museum will bring you up to speed on Northern Indiana history better than any attraction, with six permanent exhibits rich with artifacts and historical insights.
Even the smaller items paint a vivid picture of local life, like prescription medicine from 1903, never picked up, and a WWI mortar shell casing from Verdun turned into a decorative vase.
Some of the big-hitting sights here are a mastodon tusk discovered locally in 1949, a trunk belonging to fur trader Joseph Bailly (1774-1835) and a WWII-era wedding dress fashioned from parachute silk.
3. Memorial Opera House
A Grand Army of the Republic memorial hall, this ornate landmark continues to serve as a performing arts venue more than 125 years after it opened.
An eye-catching blend of Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne-style architecture, the Memorial Opera House is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the auditorium kept hold of its orchestra pit and side boxes.
Some of the famous figures to have visited or taken the stage here include the Marx Brothers, Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan.
The building was restored in the 1990s and has an exciting calendar, with five mainstage productions, lunchtime cabarets, a concert series and youth theater program.
4. Central Park Plaza
If there’s something big happening in Valparaiso there’s a good chance that it will take place at this compact public park in the shadow of the Porter County Courthouse.
With lots of grassy space, benches, flowerbeds, newly planted trees and a splash pad, Central Park Plaza is a good place to recharge in the heart of downtown Valparaiso in summer.
At the north end is a statue of famous former resident Orville Redenbacher, while Urschel Pavilion is the setting for Valparaiso’s bustling farmers’ market in the summer.
At the south end is the Porter Health Amphitheater, an anchor for festivals and a concert series in July, August and September.
Then when things turn cold, Urschel Pavilion houses Valparaiso’s outdoor rink, open mid-November through February.
5. Chapel of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University
Also worth your attention at Valparaiso University is the second-largest collegiate chapel in the world.
Consecrated in 1959 to mark the university’s centennial, the Chapel of the Resurrection is a stunning work of Modernist architecture with a capacity for 2,000 worshippers.
The chancel is extraordinary, with a roof shaped like a nine-point star, rising almost 100 feet over the altar table, carved from Italian marble.
Both the altar and the 95-foot stained glass windows were designed by German artist Peter W. Dohmen (1904-1977) who came to the United States to escape persecution by the Nazis.
The chapel is open on weekdays and as well as holding regular church services is a venue for numerous university events thanks to its high capacity.
6. 49er Drive-In Theatre
In the north of Valparaiso is Northwest Indiana’s only drive-in movie theater, often listed among the best in the country.
A summer staple for generations, the 49er opened in 1956 and has remained a single-seater all this time, showing double features.
The screen and projection system have changed to keep up with the times, but almost everything else is frozen in time. It’s a good idea to bring a portable radio, rather than trying to tune in with a modern car radio.
Arrive early to get a good spot, and to beat the queue at the concession stand, which has a big menu, from pizza to Italian beef, to hot dogs.
7. South Shore Brewery Trail
Northwest Indiana has a staggering amount of craft breweries concentrated into a small area. There are so many in fact that a trail has been set up to keep track of the best.
At the most recent count there were 20 breweries on the South Shore Brewery Trail, two of which are located right here in Valparaiso.
These are Ironwood Brewing, established in 2013 in a 1930s brick house, and known for its malt-forward beers that are faithful to their style, with a twist here or there.
The other local spot is Four Fathers Brewing, which opened in 2014 and has an ever-changing lineup at a homey taproom that features repurposed church pews.
8. Chicago Street Theatre
Taking the name of its venue in downtown Valparaiso, this award-winning community theater company has been flourishing for almost 70 years.
Founded in 1955 and based at the Memorial Opera House for decades, the Chicago Street Theatre moved into its current 130-seat home in 1997 and gave it a modern renovation in 2008.
A cultural mainstay for Northwest Indiana, the company serves up an innovative season of musicals, drama-comedy and Shakespeare productions every year.
The One Night Jam concert series is an excellent showcase for singer-songwriters, and Shakespeare at the Park at Central Park Plaza has been a summer highlight since 2012.
9. Zao Island
Barely five minutes from Central Park Plaza, this family entertainment center is the top attraction of its kind in Porter County.
Always adding new games and activities, Zao Island offers two adventure themed miniature golf courses, a high-speed karting circuit, batting cages, laser tag, an arcade with more than 65 games and a giant slide.
Something out of the ordinary here is a free alligator exhibit with 45 American alligators brought up from Florida each summer. You can refuel at the Zao Pizza Bar, for handmade pizza, grinders and wings.
10. Gabis Arboretum at Purdue Northwest
Just west of Valparaiso, Purdue University Northwest took over this wonderful 330-acre arboretum in 2018.
At Gabis Arboretum you’ll encounter oak woodlands, display gardens, wetlands and prairies on miles of trails.
The beautiful aesthetic gardens here include the Railway Garden with a g-gauge model railroad trailing through a landscape of dwarf and miniature plants, the Native Plant Garden for plants from Northwest Indiana, the Rose Garden, with more than 70 varieties, and the sumptuous Meyer Pavilion Garden, a beloved wedding venue.
The arboretum is a haven for wildlife, with more than 80 bird species spotted here, and special parcels established for ring-necked pheasants and American woodcocks.
11. Hoosier Bat Company
Something that flies under the radar in Valparaiso is the third-largest manufacturer of regulation quality baseball bats in the world.
The Hoosier Bat Company was founded in 1990 and has produced bats for the likes of Prince Fielder, Sammy Sosa, Josh Hamilton and Frank Thomas.
There are two Hoosier Bat Company bats at the Baseball Hall of Fame, one for Sammy Sosa, commemorating his famous run chase with McGwire in 1998, and another for Lance Johnson, remembering his feat of most hits in back to back seasons in two different leagues (1995-1996).
Each season some 40 major league sluggers use Hoosier Bat Company bats, which are crafted from North American ash, birch and special wood combinations.
You can visit the shop, open during normal business hours, to browse the range and order your own custom-made bat.
12. The Course at Aberdeen
In the idyllic, rolling countryside just west of Valparaiso, this highly-rated public course opened in 1997 and offers one of the best rounds in Northwest Indiana.
Each hole has four sets of tees, accommodating players of all standards, and there’s a fast pace of play to reduce waiting times in busy periods.
The course has a traditional layout, with tree-edged fairways, and also incorporates natural wetlands, creating some tricky blind approaches on a couple of holes.
The practice facilities are also great, with a two-tiered driving range and sizable putting and chipping greens.
13. Valparaiso Popcorn Festival
Safe to say that popcorn wouldn’t be what it is today without the input of Orville Redenbacher (1907-1995) who spent years developing hybrid popcorn strains with Charlie Bowman, before launching their famous brand in Valparaiso in 1970.
Redenbacher is remembered with a statue on the north side of Central Park Plaza, and his contribution to Valparaiso is marked with a one-day popcorn festival every September.
Attended by as many as 50,000 people, this iconic event kicks off with the Popcorn Panic, a 5k and 5-mile walk/run.
There’s a Popcorn Parade, a play zone for kids, a beer garden, two stages for live entertainment and more than 40 food vendors.
14. Valparaiso Market
As a community hub, it’s no surprise that Central Park Plaza should be the venue for a prospering farmers’ market.
The Valparaiso Market takes place on Saturday mornings and Tuesday afternoons, June through October at the William E. Urschel Pavilion. As this is a producers’ market, the selection is as fresh as it gets and changes through the season.
That means in early summer there’s a fantastic choice of plants and flowers, and as the summer progresses you can buy a changing variety of fruits and vegetables, with sweet corn becoming available from July.
This is accompanied by locally-raised meat, honey, pastries, artisanal coffee, popcorn, dairy products and handicrafts. You can usually count on a few food trucks being here, as well as activities to keep kids entertained.
15. Summer Concert Series
Valparaiso lays on a feast of live music throughout the summer at the Porter Health Amphitheater on Central Park Plaza.
With downtown’s brick buildings as a picturesque backdrop, the Summer Concert series runs from mid-July to the end of August.
The lineup is eclectic, including soul, country and tribute acts to classic rock bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, so there’s something for most tastes.
The concerts are free, and you can bring a picnic and a lawn chair or blanket for some evening entertainment as the sun goes down.
Keep an eye on the calendar for an annual performance by the NWI Symphony orchestra, which tours the region during the summer.