I’ve always felt a gravitational pull to mid-sized college towns; it’s their charm, their unbridled energy, their grit and an overall lack of pretension. Many, too, have seen revitalizations of their downtown squares, which only adds to their draw. For the same reason I love Knoxville, I also became smitten with Lexington and Auburn and other similar-sized cities. And most recently, Bloomington became the object of my affection after learning just how much Indiana’s most beloved city has to offer.
SVV and I rolled into town late afternoon after a couple wrong turns and a few stops for photos. Who knew Nashville was less than five hours from Bloomington (plus a time zone change)? Had I realized this sooner, I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken me 35 years to make it to Btown.
We checked into Grant Street Inn, and from the moment we wheeled our bags into our cottage, we noticed the pulse emanating through downtown. It was Little 500 weekend, and we were right in the middle of the action.
But it wouldn’t be a weekend away for the two of us if it didn’t start with a beer. We didn’t so much as pause to change clothes before we found ourselves at Upland Brewing Co. where Bloomington travel blogger Emily Hines quickly tracked us down.
We had other plans for the evening, such as happy hour at the Roost, but I’ll be honest: The weather was perfect for patio-sitting, the company was stellar, and the Upland brews were some of the best I’d had in a long time. What I’m saying is that we didn’t move for hours, and when we finally did, it was just to go next door to the Wood Shop (more on that in my next post).
When we finally had to peel ourselves away from the taproom because our stomachs were grumbling for something other than beer, we took our server’s recommendation and went to Red for authentic Chinese. I know it sounds weird, but you can’t come to Bloomington without diving into the international cuisine—from Tibetan to Burmese to Indian, there’s a little bit of everything, and we plan to take full advantage of that upon our next return. We get very little authentic international cuisine in Tennessee, so we were more than happy to chow down on dumplings, egg fried rice and Kung Pao chicken before calling it a night and returning to Grant Street Inn.
We’ve been on an early-morning kick since the time changed, so we got up at 6am and headed down to Memorial Stadium to take photos before students invaded the campus. On our way back to the hotel, we made one very important stop: to the darling Rainbow Bakery, a place I had seen widely shared via Instagram. And while plenty of their doughnuts are gluten free, let’s just say that we full-on indulged.
On my first day in any city, I always set out by foot and see what I can find as a way to get the lay of the land. I loved being based at Grant Street Inn, as we could pretty much walk anywhere in town, and we rarely needed our car throughout the week. The hotel is located just a third of a mile from the town square, and as lovers of old architecture and historic preservation, we kept finding ourselves coming back to the courthouse time and time again throughout the weekend.
One thing we learned while in Bloomington is that the area is rife in limestone quarries, and you see it in so many of the century-old buildings around campus and the better preserved parts of the town. The Beaux Arts-style Monroe County Courthouse is a real looker and, unlike other towns who have let their squares waste away, this structure was saved from demolition nearly 35 years ago and, as a result, the streets surrounding it are just booming with restaurants, bars and retail spaces.
Emily told us that, hands down, King Dough is the spot she visits the most in town, and upon ordering our food, I immediately saw why: The pizza is some of the tastiest I’ve had ever in my long life (if the gorgonzola, grape and rosemary pie is on the menu when you go, that’s what you’re having, FYI). The local and regional beer selection and very knowledgeable and friendly service just pushed the experience over the edge. I had to stop myself from coming back here for every meal throughout the weekend as my dining list was so long and our time there so short.
To walk off the pizza, we meandered down the B-Line, a lovely, multi-use paved trail that runs three miles through the heart of town. Much to my delight, like every other town we’ve fallen in love with, Bloomington has its own mural scene, and I even matched a few of them.
While down along the B-Line, we stumbled upon Jeff’s Warehouse, midcentury modern Mecca for design lovers and fans of home decor. We poked around the multiple levels and mentally bookmarked things we’ll come back for on our next visit, truck in tow.
We looped back to the square for a couple beers at Function Brewing before it was time to head back to the inn for a wardrobe change. One of the biggest reasons I’ve been wanting to go to Bloomington for the past three years was the opening of Cardinal Spirits. I’ve known and followed fashion-turned-lifestyles blogger Jessica Quirk for a decade now, and her husband is one of the partners behind the venture.
We ate everything on the dinner menu over the course of three hours and could have easily spent another three sipping our way through the cocktail menu, too. In late spring and summer months, the patio is the best spot in town in my opinion, and there were plenty of pups who had accompanied their people for dinner or drinks. I can’t wait to go back for brunch next time I’m there, because yep, they have that, too.
Our weekend in Bloomington was the first sunny one we’d seen all year; it’s been terribly gray in Tennessee, and I’d been longing for spring to arrive. While it was still a titch on the chilly side, the sun was out in full force, and spring is the perfect season in which to acquaint yourselves with this charming college town.
We started our Saturday with brunch at an iconic establishment, the Runcible Spoon, before strolling through the Sample Gates and around the now-deserted campus for the better part of an hour.
Once we reached IU’s frat row, we saw why no one was milling about: They were all preparing (by way of playing beer pong) for the afternoon’s main event, the Little 500. I kind of loved having such a massive campus all to ourselves.
Even after covering ground in Dunn’s Meadow and Dunn Wood, we still had time to kill, so we continued our walk and crossed town to go back to the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market., held every Saturday from April through November.
Then it was time for the show: the Little 500 was about to race off. A Bloomington tradition, this iconic IU race was the star of the movie Breaking Away and takes place every spring in late April on the track inside Bill Armstrong Stadium. More than 25,000 spectators come out to watch the four-person teams race to finish 100 miles.
The women’s race takes place on Friday each year and the men’s on Saturday. We arrived in time for all the opening theatrics, including musical numbers and a man who parachuted out of a plane while waving an American flag. The men’s race comprises 200 laps, and we only stuck around for about half of that, but in that time, we witnessed some epic crashes.
Following our afternoon at the races, Em and Ryan had offered to take us foraging (BY BOAT), and you know that a) I’m not one to turn down an adventure and b) if it involved mushrooms or fermentation or anything scientifically geeky, SVV is all in. If you asked him about his time in Bloomington, I have no doubt he’d tell you that foraging was the highlight. He’s now on a quest for morels here in Tennessee.
We met Em and Ryan out along the Middlefork area where we loaded up the four of us and their two black labs into their boat and motored out to a secret spot that I gave a blood oath I would not reveal. Let’s just say that my first time foraging was a blast thanks to those two, and Emily even has a whole guide to finding morel mushrooms if that’s your kind of thing. The morels were just starting to peek above the ground, and I imagine they’re out in full force by now!
I thought Emily and Ryan would be sick of us by this point, but to my excitement, they wanted to meet us for dinner. We headed to an entirely different part of town, Southeast Bloomington, to check out C3 Bloomington, the fanciest spot we encountered all weekend. On Saturdays, there’s live jazz, so we claimed a booth near the stage, ordered a couple of Old Fashioneds and settled in for a feast of shared plates comprising duck lettuce rolls, seasonal gnocchi, burgers and the best damn butterscotch pudding I’ve ever tasted in my life.
Sunday morning came all too quickly, and I still had a dozen restaurants and bars I had yet to check off (good thing we’ll be back in the fall!). But first things first: coffee, and I knew I wasn’t going to leave without popping into Hopscotch as it’s a local institution.
We accumulated a long list of recommendations from locals we met throughout the weekend, but there was one place that every last person voted on unanimously: Feast. And after our brunch there, it was easy to see why: Feast wasn’t just the best brunch I’ve had all year, but possibly the best brunch I’ve had of all time. And I’ve lived in some food-forward cities, people, including New York and San Francisco. Both the signature tamales and the ricotta pancakes with shaved beets were mind-blowingly good.
Bloomington surprised us in all the best ways, but beyond the culture and the food, the beer and the outdoors, the people were some of the friendliest, kindest, most helpful humans we have encountered in our travels. And really, it’s the people who make the place after all, right?
I could not be more excited for our trip back in the fall—it wasn’t quite warm enough to truly enjoy Monroe Lake, though I was dying to do my first paddle of the season—and we have a long list of places we didn’t have time to make it to on this first visit: among them, the Irish Lion, Crazy Horse, Bear’s Place, Little Tibet, Burma Garden, Taste of India and the Roost.
Bloomington fans, what must we absolutely put on our list for visit number two? And why did you keep your city such a secret from me for so long?
This project is sponsored by Visit Bloomington. All opinions are our own.