An inventive summer-long Shakespeare festival stars during weekends in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.
Ewing Mansion Bloomington Normal
Shakespeare Festival
| Credit: Courtesy of Bloomington-Normal Convention and Visitors Bureau

For theater-lovers, summertime means outdoor Shakespeare. But in downstate Illinois, that takes on a fresh new form. Want a comedic tribute to Shakespeare?  A family-friendly Theatre for Young Audiences Play? Or just a performance of Shakespeare's classics? Throughout the summer, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington-Normal (130 miles southwest of Chicago) reveals its ode to the Bard.

Theatergoers can picnic on the grounds of English-style Ewing Mansion, the university's cultural center, or the Illinois State University Quad before the show. Performances are held at both Ewing Theatre and the Center for the Performing Arts. Catch pre- and post-show entertainment, including live music, pre-school talks and mini performances called "Green Shows" before the main show.

Performances anchor weekend getaways. Normal's Uptown neighborhood pulses with funky cafes, pizza joints, and book and record shops. Classic and independent films star at the Art Deco Normal Theater. Bloomington's restored 1800s buildings house farm-to-table restaurants, shops and live-music venues. Inside the three-story courthouse, a museum highlights the area's historical treasures. Overnight guests should try to stay at the luxurious Vrooman Mansion, built in 1869. The antiques-decorated inn serves breakfast in a lavish dining room where Eleanor Roosevelt once dined. Over pumpkin waffles, guests chat about Shakespeare-whichever form they enjoy him in.

Two-day getaway

Day 1

Start in Bloomington, the county seat, at the McLean County Museum of History inside the Renaissance-style courthouse. Exhibits recount settlers' daily lives and politics influenced by area residents Abraham Lincoln, David Davis and Adlai Stevenson.

You'll find unique souvenirs in a handful of downtown Bloomington storefronts: Fair-trade shop Crossroads carries handcrafted gifts from around the world, and The Chocolatier Inc. makes turtles, creams, toffee and Italian ice.

East of downtown, the Beer Nuts Company Store sells flavored, chocolate-covered and mixed nuts and shows videos of the process for making the famous nuts.

Guided tours of the 1872 David Davis Mansion, a restored Victorian-style home and garden built by an influential judge, bring fresh perspective on that era.

Summer Shakespeare in Bloomington Normal Illinois
Summer Shakespeare

Dine on house-made Andouille sausage and seasonal specialties at Epiphany Farms Restaurant, a farm-to-table restaurant in an old firehouse. Or pack a picnic to take to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.   Food trucks and concessions in the Ewing Courtyard offer other options.

Five historically themed guest rooms at Vrooman Mansion feature down pillows and microfiber robes; guests also enjoy gourmet breakfast.

Day 2

Don't head home without checking out Illinois State University and its Uptown neighborhood, where you will find dozens of shops. The Garlic Press combo cafe-kitchenware shop features fun gifts and artsy home decor. Next door, Uptown Gifts and Accessories sells colorful scarves and jewelry.

Uptown has more than two dozen restaurants. The menu at Medici includes upscale pub fare and entrees like salmon over smoked Gouda mac 'n' cheese. For dessert: a warm skillet cookie with chocolate chips and cherries.

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