I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
August 12, 2019
Home to Indiana University, Bloomington is a lively town that combines a progressive spirit with classic Midwestern charm. There’s no lack of things to do in Bloomington, from shopping to hiking to enjoying the town’s breweries, bars, and surprisingly sophisticated restaurant scene.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a big fan of Indiana. The state is an easy drive from Nashville and I think of it as a sort of geographical hidden gem filled with incredibly friendly people, gorgeous natural features, and cities and towns oozing with history and culture.
So when my husband and I got the opportunity to spend a weekend in Bloomington recently, we jumped on it — and not surprisingly, we had a blast! I love the energy, enthusiasm, and affordability of college towns and Bloomington satisfied on all counts. Here are our recommendations on where to eat, shop, play, and stay during a Bloomington vacation.
Honestly, I feel like we just scratched the surface Bloomington’s restaurant scene — This is definitely a town for foodies. Bloomington is known for its ethnic restaurants in particular and I’d love to devote an entire trip just to trying B-town’s Tibetan, Afghan, Burmese, Venezuelan, and Turkish restaurants. The food possibilities here are a little overwhelming! That said, we had some amazing meals here and it’s one of the few times I can honestly say not a single meal during out trip was mediocre. Here are some of the best restaurants Bloomington has to offer.
This cozy French cafe is tops on our list for its welcoming atmosphere and delicious croissants, shipped direct from Paris each week by an artisan baker. Specializing in simple, authentic French dishes, everything from quiches to macarons is baked fresh daily by owner Stephanie Laparre, the wife of an Indiana University professor who moved here from France in 2016. We were lucky enough to arrive just as a batch of chocolate croissants were coming out of the oven — They were heavenly! You’ll find La Vie en Rose on 6th Street in downtown Bloomington.
Open since 1976, the Uptown Cafe is tops with local Bloomingtonians and when you have a meal here, you’ll understand why. Our server heartily recommended the restaurant’s famous crab cake and it was truly outstanding — I could have had it every night of our vacation and been completely happy. We also enjoyed the spaghetti Agliata, which featured basil pesto, Gorgonzola and Romano cheeses, and aged balsamic vinegar. Uptown Cafe also has breakfast, weekend brunch, and lunch and by all accounts, you can’t go wrong with anything you order here. Love this place.
Billed as ‘comfort food with international flair,’ Hive serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner made with thoughtfully sourced ingredients. We had Sunday brunch here during our stay and it was absolutely wonderful. Our avocado toast was topped with perfectly ripe avocado, sliced radish, microgreens, and an egg and it was delicious, but the showstopper was the Cuban breakfast bowl. Featuring black beans and rice, Cotija cheese, pico, avocado salsa, cilantro, and two fried eggs, it was outrageously good.
This hopping modern Mexican restaurant in downtown Bloomington is known for its great tacos and a busy bar with more than 100 bottles of Tequila and Mezcal. We thought the drinks at Social Cantina were very good, but the tacos — especially the fried avocado taco– were out of this world. I have tried many tacos across the country and been left disappointed; I think I like the idea of the tacos I read about on menus better than the execution. I was pleasantly shocked by how good Social Cantina’s tacos were. I won’t visit Bloomington again without stopping here for lunch or dinner.
Whether you’re stopping in for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or weekend brunch or you just want to enjoy a drink at the bar, FARMBloomington is a popular option for locals. I loved this eclectic, light-filled space in downtown Bloomington (and it was clear by the crowd here even at a dead time of day that I’m not alone) and I can highly recommend their famous garlic fries, which come in a huge basket and were more than enough for two. I will definitely be back the next time I visit Bloomington!
Before you take a stroll through Indiana University’s gorgeous campus, stop for a frozen treat at Hartzell’s. Featuring yummy homemade ice cream, soft serve ice cream, fat free frozen yogurt, shakes, floats, spinners, sundaes, and Slush Puppies, there’s truly something here for everyone.
You know a college town is going to have a rocking bar scene and Bloomington is no exception! Whether you’re looking for a rousing game of Pac-Man, a laidback brewery, a hipster hangout, or a place to dance the night away, you can find it all here. Check out some of our favorite bars below.
I felt like I was back in the ’80s at The Cade, a bustling downtown arcade bar with 18 stand-up arcade games and 6 consoles available to patrons for free after you pay an inexpensive cover charge that varies depending on the day. You’ll have to pay extra for the pinball machines. We happened to visit The Cade on Stranger Things night and loved hearing the show’s soundtrack as we played games like Pac-Man, X-Men, and Donkey Kong. By the time the waffle-eating contest rolled around, we were sold on this place.
Function Brewing is the coolest little bar and restaurant downtown with owners who’ve made it their goal to consistently create new and interesting varieties of beer. You’ll always find 12 made in-house beers on tap with flavors ranging from Tart Cherry Lime Golden Ale to Orange-Chocolate Stout to Szechaun Peppercorn Pale. We loved trying a flight of beer here — but I have to admit, the real reason I loved this place was for its incredible and creative sandwiches. We had a Mysterious Stranger — roast beef, roasted eggplant, chimichurri and blue cheese — and a Jean Elizabeth — aged cheddar, smoked gouda, fig onion jam, and arugula — and both were SPECTACULAR. Go here for lunch or dinner and I promise you’ll want to thank me for the recommendation afterward!
Are you artsy and eclectic and in search of a bar that can offer something different from the usual craft beers and Vineyard Vines-clad cretins? Head down to The Atlas Ballroom and find your townie tribe, along with heady classic cocktails, quirky decor that includes a glass case filled with two and three-headed stuffed mice in costumes, and FREE SKEE-BALL. Personally, I like my bars weird and bartenders friendly and this place hit the spot.
Once you’ve savored the eccentricities of The Atlas, head around the building to The Back Door, a dive-y little dance club serving Bloomington’s LGBTQIA+ community — and anyone else who wants to have a drink and a good time. We stopped by on an evening when a group called Cookie Tongue was playing, and I have to say it was one of the more memorable shows of my life. The Back Door also has a sizable deck outside, as well as a Golden Girls mural that’s definitely worth seeing in person.
Switchyard Brewing Company strikes me as the perfect place to meet up with friends and knock back some beers. This all-ages brewery has a large taproom where pets are welcome (which means there’s no kitchen, but the night we went, there was a food truck outside) and features live music performances. My husband and I each had flights of beer here and we both loved them. Beer lovers will definitely approve.
I’m always in search of a good local coffeeshop when I visit a town and in Bloomington, Hopscotch Coffee is the place to go. Located just off the B-Line walking and biking trail in downtown Bloomington, Hopscotch is the sweet spot for fresh roasted coffee drinks and fresh baked goods. And while the coffee tastes great, I think my favorite thing about Hopscotch is its commitment to community outreach — Monthly events hosted here include movie making workshops, science salons, game nights, and a book club.
Many of Bloomington’s best shops are centrally located in its very walkable downtown, which makes an afternoon (or two) of shopping a worthwhile addition to your itinerary. And while shops generally tend to come and go, a surprising number of Bloomington stores we visited have been around for decades, so they must be doing something right! Here are a few you shouldn’t miss while you’re visiting the area.
When a kitchen goods store has been open for more than 45 years, you know they’re up to something good… er, goods in this case. Goods for Cooks is a wonderland of kitchen gadgets, table linens, pots and pans, specialty foods, and everything else you didn’t know you needed in your kitchen but now have to have. You’ll find something for every budget here — I left with an ingenious little ceramic disc that keeps rice and pasta from boiling over and it totally works– but what really makes this place special is its employees. They are so passionate about the merchandise and so interested in everyone who comes in the store that it’s worth stopping by to see them, even if you don’t enjoy cooking!
To know me is to know I can’t resist a good bookstore, and Caveat Emptor definitely fits the bill! This carefully curated used bookstore has been open for 45 years and built a reputation for stocking rare books, hard to find scholarly titles, books in other languages, and all-around great reads. I thought the prices were on point, as well. I suppose it makes sense that a used bookstore in a college town is going to be worth visiting — Caveat Emptor is no exception.
A couple of doors down, the Book Corner is like the yin to Caveat Emptor’s yang. Here, you’ll find a wonderful selection of new books as well as jigsaw puzzles, toys, games, exquisitely beautiful journals, tote bags, and other delightfully bookish finds. The Book Corner has my other favorite Btown shops beat in the age department — It’s been open for 60 years and is still going strong! Don’t miss it when you’re out and about downtown.
Who doesn’t love a good game? You’re sure to find it at The Game Preserve, where you’ll find every kind of party game, card game, and board game you can think of, whether you’re looking for your kids or for yourself. The Game Preserve also has the best selection of jigsaw puzzles I have ever seen– I left with a great one filled with Life Magazine covers, which I can’t wait to put together. Come to browse or to meet other gamers and chances are good you’ll leave happy.
I think Gather was my favorite store in downtown Bloomington — It’s definitely a great place to find an unforgettable souvenir. Featuring handmade work from more than 250 local and regional artisans, you’ll find a whimsical selection of high quality t-shirts, jewelry, art, stickers, coffee cups, home goods, toys, and more here, and I think you’ll have trouble leaving without buying something.
Downtown Bloomington has plenty to do, but it’s worth taking a drive to check out some of its natural and cultural features. Here are a few of our favorites.
I wasn’t sure a 1.1 mile nature trail would be worth the trouble, but I’m so glad we made time for Leonard Springs Nature Park. There’s lots to see on this short trail, including the gorgeous cascading Shirley Springs, two caves, a wetland, and more. You’ll get some great photos here and I definitely recommend it. Also, while we followed the trail closely, we still managed to get lost and our 1.1 mile walk turned into a 4-mile one, so… SCORE.
You can’t overestimate the impact Indiana University has on Bloomington. Each fall, 40,000 students and staff descend upon the town, doubling its population and bringing with them excitement and youthful optimism. Indiana University’s historic campus is at the heart of B-town and it is absolutely gorgeous. Its many intricate limestone buildings and lush forested landscaping remind me of an American version of Hogwarts. You’ll definitely want to make time to walk the campus and stop into some of its public buildings and gardens, including the Eskenazi Museum of Art, the Hilltop Garden and Nature Center, the iconic Sample Gates and Showalter Fountain, and the Lilly Library.
Bloomington’s hopping aboard the outdoor mural trend with gusto and you’ll see evidence of this all over town. Every visitor to B-Town needs to make a stop at the Visit Bloomington mural at People’s Park, located just a block down from Indiana University’s Sample Gates at the corner of Kirkwood Avenue and Dunn Street.
My favorite mural in Bloomington has to be this brand new mural painted by local artist Eva Marie Allen on the side of Mother Bear’s Pizza at the 1428 E 3rd St location. It makes for a fantastic photo opp. You’ll find many more murals by walking the B-Line. What’s the B-Line, you ask?
The popular B-Line Trail is a 3.1 mile paved trail that runs through downtown Bloomington and passes plenty of shops, art galleries, and restaurants. It starts at Adams Street and ends at Country Club Drive, where it connects to the Bloomington Rail Trail so that you can extend your walk or ride to 5.1 miles if you’d like. Bloomington is a very bike-friendly town and there are several places to rent bikes and scooters here if you’d like to try them out on the trail.
One of the most surprising facts about Bloomington is that part of the Dalai Lama’s extended family lives here. Back in 1950, the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother was granted asylum here in the U.S. — He ended up coming to Bloomington to become a professor of Tibetan Studies. In 1979, he established the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington at 3655 S. Snoddy Road and today, it continues to thrive as a place of refuge and spiritual enlightenment. Many of the events here from teachings to yoga to tours of the center are open to the public, but you’ll want to register for the event or tour you wish to attend in advance. Visitors rave about this center and say the guides and monks here are very warm and welcoming.
As farmers’ markets go, the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market is one you definitely won’t want to miss. Open every Saturday April- November from 9am to 1pm, you’ll find more than 100 local vendors here selling only goods that are made or grown in Indiana. Items for sale include fresh produce, meats, dairy products, prepared foods, and non-food items like bees wax and soap. If you’re extra lucky, your visit will coincide with the arts and crafts fair held at the farmers market every second Saturday from May through October. If you’re driving to Bloomington for your vacation, I recommend you bring an ice chest so that you can take some things from the market back home with you!
Before you book a weekend getaway in Bloomington, check the event calendar or contact Bloomington’s Visitors Center to make sure there are no major events going on when you want to visit. This is a college town, after all, and there are definitely weekends when hotels and restaurant reservations are impossible to come by. That said, you have all kinds of different options when it comes to places to stay, from large downtown hotels to bed and breakfasts to a yurt in the woods. Here are a few of my favorite options:
We loved staying at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Bloomington — We were in walking distance from everything downtown, which is a definite plus when you’re visiting. Our room was clean and very comfortable, the staff was extra friendly, and the hotel includes a restaurant, pool, and fitness center. What more could you need?
I was excited to see that Bloomington has a Graduate hotel — These hotels can only be found in college towns and each one is specially designed with that school’s parents and alums in mind. The decor here is 100% Indiana and amenities include a fitness center, outdoor terrace, and cozy coffee shop that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Graduate Bloomington is right by the IU campus and in walking distance from shopping, restaurants, and bars.
If you love bed & breakfasts as much as we do, consider staying at the Grant Street Inn during your visit. This boutique hotel has 5 unique buildings and 40 luxurious rooms filled with antiques, comfortable beds, and large tubs. Guests rave about the friendly staff, one-of-a-kind rooms, and large breakfast that’s included with your stay.
For something truly different, consider reserving a yurt at the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center. Past guests love say these little cottages are clean, comfortable and serene with lovely views of the woods. Call the center at (812) 336-6807 to book a yurt for your Bloomington visit.
Thanks to Visit Bloomington for hosting our trip. As always, all opinions and recommendations are strictly my own.