The most densely populated city in Indiana is dominated in every sense by Purdue University, founded in 1869 and featuring a leafy campus adorned with solemn red brick buildings.
There are around 50,000 students enrolled at Purdue, endowing West Lafayette with a youthful sense of fun, a lot of diversity, cutting-edge culture and lots of university traditions.
Purdue’s varsity teams, the Boilermakers, compete in the Big Ten Conference, and the men’s and women’s basketball teams are especially strong.
On or near the campus are some businesses that have been going strong for more than a century, while Samara House is a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1950s, epitomizing his Usonian style.
1. Downtown Lafayette-West Lafayette
Something special about West Lafayette and its cross-river sister city is the pair are united by a cross-river downtown area.
This has three distinct districts, including Chauncey Village in West Lafayette. This settlement predates Purdue University, and was platted in the mid-1860s by the Chauncey family of Philadelphia, wealthy land speculators.
Chauncey Village has fantastic nightlife, elevated by the university next door, along with restaurants for all tastes. We’ll talk about two venerable establishments, Harry’s Chocolate Shop and Triple XXX, later in the list.
Down the slope, on both banks, is the Wabash Riverfront District, a hub for outdoor events and a fine spot for a wander by the water.
Then across the John T. Myers Pedestrian Bridge is Arts & Market, Lafayette’s culture-rich core, with its unique shops, galleries and museums all commanded by the Tippecanoe County Courthouse (1884).
2. Purdue University
You can’t talk about West Lafayette without devoting a lot of time to the Big Ten university that colors every aspect of life in the city.
Purdue is a prestigious science university, noted for its contribution to math, science and engineering, producing no fewer than 23 NASA astronauts.
Sports are a major part of campus life, with 18 varsity teams (Boilermakers), including flagship programs in men’s and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball and football.
The elegant, brick-built campus warrants a tour, even if you’re not a prospective student, with a ceremonious ensemble on the Memorial Mall, where the founding benefactor, John Purdue, is buried.
Here you can admire University Hall (1877) and the Purdue Memorial Building (1924). Also spare some time for the Armstrong Hall of Engineering, named for Purdue alum, Neil Armstrong, and featuring a mural celebrating Apollo I astronaut Roger Chafee who graduated from Purdue in 1957.
3. Samara House
By the north end of the Purdue, West Lafayette is home to one of the most complete homes by Frank Lloyd Wright in the United States.
One of Wright’s Usonian homes, Samara House was built in the mid-1950s for John and Kay Christian, respectively a pharmaceutical chemistry professor and social director at Purdue.
The design, requiring large spaces for student gatherings, was developed across six years of meetings with Wright, and the house was named after a samara pod that the architect spotted at the site on his first visit.
Still in the care of the Christian Family, the house is carefully maintained according to Wright’s specifications. Unusually for a Wright house, Samara has a bright color scheme, requested by Kay and chosen with help from Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.
April through November you can book a 90-minute tour of the property, picking up thrilling details about Wright’s design and the Christians’ experiences with him.
4. Tapawingo Park
Heralding your arrival from Lafayette is this vibrant riverfront park, full of life when Purdue is in session.
Translated to “Place of Joy”, Tapawingo Park is connected to the grand John T. Myers Pedestrian Bridge, which deposits you at an impressive plaza and fountain on the West Lafayette side.
At the park’s elevated north end, check out the Brown Street Overlook for a satisfying cross-river view, particularly pretty at sunrise for the early birds.
The park is home to the Riverside Skating Center, an outdoor rink measuring 70 feet by 120 feet, used for ice skating in the winter months and then as a setting for gatherings and roller skating for the rest of the year.
5. Triple XXX Family Restaurant
Featured on the Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Indiana’s first and oldest drive-in restaurant awaits in Chauncey Village in West Lafayette.
Triple XXX Family Restaurant has been found here, posted on the State Street slope, a stone’s throw from the Purdue campus, since 1929.
The restaurant’s name comes from the Triple XXX Root Beer brand, which, in the 1920s, operated almost 100 “Thirst Stations”, roadside establishments around the United States-Canada border.
Whatever food you order, be it a signature burger (100% sirloin) or a comforting breakfast special (anytime), you’re almost obliged to pair it with a frosty mug of Triple XXX Root Beer, made with pure cane sugar to an original 1895 recipe.
6. Elliott Hall of Music
One building that demands you attention on the Purdue campus is this vast auditorium. Built in the late 1930s, the Elliott Hall of Music was designed in the Art Deco style by J. André Fouilhoux, who was one of the architects involved in New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
This is one of the largest proscenium theaters in the world, able to seat 6,005 people. The Elliott Hall of Music is the stage for commencement exercises, and is the base for a variety of organizations including the Purdue All-American Marching Band, Purdue Bands and Orchestras, the WBAA radio studio and a production company for the Purdue campus.
Throughout the year, this venue hosts world-renowned ballet companies, big-time concerts, full-scale Broadway shows and talks and debates by renowned figures.
A few of the many artists to have graced this stage are Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga and Bruce Springsteen.
7. Ross-Ade Stadium
At the north end of the Purdue campus is the university’s historic football stadium, full of character and clad with signature red brick.
The Ross-Ade Stadium was inaugurated in 1924, at a time when the Boilermakers were a real force (9 of their 12 conference titles took place before 1950).
Traditionally known as a “Cradle of Quarterbacks”, Purdue is now a “Den of Defensive Ends”, with nine selected in the NFL draft since 1999. With few changes since the 1960s, the Ross-Ade Stadium is a one-of-a-kind place to watch a football game.
There’s a capacity of 57,236 and one new addition is permanent lighting, enabling night games. For tailgating and a classic college football atmosphere you can’t go wrong, with abundant concessions and beer on tap, which is unusual for college athletics.
8. Mackey Arena
Another campus landmark right next door to the Ross-Ade Stadium is the Mackey Arena, home court for Purdue’s highly competitive men’s and women’s basketball teams.
The women’s team won the NCAA National Championship in 1999 and has reached the Final Four three times. The men’s team are also regular contenders, recently making the Sweet Sixteen in three consecutive seasons from 2017 to 2019.
More than 30 Boilermakers have made it to the NBA. The arena, seating 14,804, dates back to 1967 and is known for its raucous atmosphere, created partly by its domed aluminum roof.
Between 2007 and 2012 the complex was the subject of a huge modernization project, including a state-of-the-art sports medicine facility.
9. Fort Ouiatenon
The first European settlement in what is now Indiana sits within West Lafayette’s boundaries, at a spot by the Wabash River. Fort Ouiatenon was a log blockhouse enclosed by a palisade, serving as a French fur trading post from 1717.
Come the mid-18th century the fort was the linchpin for a large settlement, ceded to the British in 1760 and then used by Native American tribes until its destruction by American Militia in the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795).
The site was rediscovered in 1960, and there’s a replica blockhouse from 1930 that opens to the public during the summer.
Fort Ouiatenon comes alive in October during the weekend-long Feast of the Hunters’ Moon, a festival recalling the annual gathering of French and Native Americans which happened at this very place in the mid-18th century.
On an amazing scale, you’ll find military maneuvers, contemporaneous food and music and dance, and a small world of living history.
10. Wabash Heritage Trail
A fine way to see more of the Wabash River and Burnett’s Creek around West Lafayette is to follow this 18-mile scenic trail, beginning in the north at Tippecanoe Battlefield and ending southwest of West Lafayette at Fort Ouiatenon.
You can get onto the The Wabash Heritage Trail at Tapawingo Park, embarking on a little adventure that will take you through stands of buckeye, sycamore and cottonwood, as well as marshy areas.
There’s a great deal of history to uncover as you go, from the Davis Ferry pedestrian bridge, literally named for a ferry crossing at this site in 1823, to the trailhead, where the Battle of Tippecanoe (1811) was fought between American forces and a confederacy of Native American tribes under Tenskwatawa.
11. Harry’s Chocolate Shop
A West Lafayette mainstay since 1919, Harry’s Chocolate Shop is right by the Purdue Campus in the Chauncey Village District.
This is a lively pub, favored by students and serving hunger-stomping bar fare, so the name is a little misleading. That harks back to an ice cream parlor and soda fountain, founded here more than a century ago.
After Prohibition, the owner decided he needed something to help him differentiate from a competitor, so beer replaced ice cream.
Harry’s Chocolate Shop is a place that sparks a lot of nostalgia for many Purdue alumni, serving beer-friendly small bites (wings, nachos, onion rings, egg rolls, quesadillas), as well as subs, burgers, wraps, pizza, soups & salads and more.
One fun touch is the free popcorn that comes with your drink.
12. Celery Bog Nature Area
Behind the Purdue Campus are close to 200 acres of nature, almost half of which is an important wetland site.
The Celery Bog Nature Area is a magnet for birdlife, particularly during the spring and fall migration seasons, and some 260 species have been recorded here.
Conveniently there’s a 1.5-mile unpaved footpath by the wetlands, ideal for birding and complete with interpretive signs and two viewing decks.
In addition to the unpaved trail, you’ve also got a further 4.3 miles of paved footpath along the Cattail Trail.
This trail is 11 miles long and can be joined at the Purdue campus, leading you past savanna and restored prairie on its way through the Celery Bog Nature Area.
13. Lilly Nature Center
If you’d like to know more about the habitats at the Celery Bog Nature Area, make sure to stop by the Lilly Nature Center, open Wednesday to Saturday.
This modern attraction has fascinating, neatly presented and interactive exhibits about the wetlands, prairie, savanna and woodland on the center’s doorstep.
The center is a handy resource to help you identify animal species, and also has its own bird viewing area.
This is also a venue for all kinds of nature-oriented programs, organized by the likes of the Sycamore Audubon Society and the Indiana Native Plant & Wildflower Society.
14. Happy Hollow Park
On the Wabash Heritage Trail, Happy Hollow Park is close to the Wabash riverbank, about a mile upstream from Wabash Landing.
What you’ll find is more than 80 acres dominated by hardwood forest, offering blissful shade in summer, with a series of side-trails leading off into different corners of the park.
Among the park’s amenities there’s a massive open turf area, five shelters and two accessible playgrounds, for children aged 2-5 and 5-12.
These playgrounds are enormous and had recently been fitted with brand new equipment at the time of writing.
15. West Lafayette Farmers’ Market
May to October, Cumberland Park in West Lafayette is the setting for a popular farmers’ market. Held on Wednesdays, 3:30pm to 7pm, the West Lafayette Farmers’ Market usually has more than 50 vendors.
On a normal visit you can expect to find all kinds of fruit and vegetables as they come into season, as well as herbs, pastured beef and chicken, wine, honey, bread, pastries, Bundt cakes, syrups, handmade candy, crafts, candles, pet treats, aromatherapy soaps, clothing and much more than we can list here.
There’s also plenty of food made on the spot, if you’re up for crepes, comforting vegetarian fare, tacos or shaved ice.