In Bloomington, a diverse music scene provides the soundtrack to a fall weekend of hiking, global eats and, if you choose to accept the challenge, a sweet self-guided bakery tour.

By Kelsey Ogletree
August 20, 2020
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Balla Kouyate and his group from Mali perform at the 2019 Lotus World Music and Arts Festival.
Natalie Speth/Courtesy of Lotus Education and Arts Foundation

When Jeff Wuslich and Adam Quirk co-founded Cardinal Spirits, Bloomington’s first (and, still, only) distillery in 2015 they never anticipated they’d one day be lending a hand during a pandemic. But this spring, the facility switched from making rums, gins and liqueurs to hand sanitizer. Cardinal ultimately supplied 150,000 gallons to schools, hospitals, first responders and businesses. It was Wuslich and Quirk’s way of paying it forward to a community that has embraced them since their first weeks in business—and warmly welcomed them back upon their reopening for carryout this summer.

The patio at the hybrid production facility, tasting room and restaurant is one of Bloomington’s nicest spots to enjoy a cocktail or meal outdoors. Its famous O.M.G. Fries (onion, mustard and garlic—oh yes!) pair well with any drink, and this fall, Cardinal’s popular Tipple and Tune live music series resumes. With past performers such as local harpist Caroline Robinson and R&B neo-soul vocalist Pearl Scott, there’s a vibe here—and across Bloomington—that all jams have a place.

Exhibit B: Lotus World Music and Arts Festival, held each September since 1994. The event typically draws more than 12,000 for international-focused programming, indoor and outdoor concerts, and interactive visual arts. This year’s fest will be streamlined to a single spacious venue, September 24–27 at the city’s new Switchyard Park. And organizers have kept the volume cranked throughout the pandemic; the sponsoring Lotus Education and Arts Foundation has been streaming musical performances online. “We know that experiences that bring music and art into our lives are extremely important to nurturing our souls and keeping hope alive,” says Executive Director Tamara Loewenthal.

In ways, Lotus feels like a distillation of all that makes Bloomington tick. With a notably global dining lineup and freewheeling college-town politics, the community exudes curiosity and acceptance. Indiana University attracts a large international student and faculty population, and its century-old Jacobs School of Music hosts more than 1,000 large and intimate performances annually. As a music-hungry visitor, you can hit a student recital on campus—then head out to a Bloomington Symphony Orchestra performance or a punk-rock show by a burgeoning band in a random basement. Anything goes, and everyone’s welcome.

“Sometimes in conversation, our differences seem significant,” Loewenthal says, “but when we can speak to each other through the universal language of music, we discover how much we have in common.” Whether on-screen or in person (at a safe distance, of course), that’s a catchy tune.

Lotus World Music and Arts Festival
Courtesy of Lotus Education and Arts Foundation

Explore

In a typical year, you can hit some kind of show—always affordable and often free—at the Jacobs School Of Music almost every week. Off campus, several favorite venues have stayed shuttered, but The Bluebird is back, and Orbit Room, a vegan spot with great hot dogs (!), has live tunes again. For more arts and culture, don’t miss Indiana University’s free Sidney And Lois Eskenazi Museum Of Art, which reopened in November 2019 after a three-year, $30 million renovation. Designed by I.M. Pei, the museum features seven galleries of contemporary and traditional art, and its collection is one of the largest of any American university art museum.

Eskenazi Museum of Art
Brad Feinknopf/Otto
Indiana University and Kirkwood Avenue
Greg Whitaker

Stay

When it opened in 2018. Graduate Bloomington instantly changed the town’s lodging game. The 150 guest rooms are cozy and rich with funky patterns. Local touches in the lobby include basketball-hoop lighting and IU bleachers, plus you’ll find a stellar board game collection. If you’d prefer a little more room to relax or be outdoors, hundreds of rental cabins hide east of town. (Brown County, a popular hiking area, neighbors Bloomington.) A few appealing options: Back To Nature Cabins, near Lake Monroe; Red Rabbit Inn, an Airbnb on a wooded pond; or Antler Log Cabins, where four of the nine rentals have private lake access—so you can nearly fish from the front porch.

Graduate Bloomington Lobby
Courtesy of Graduate Bloomington

Eat

Bloomington’s ’round- the-world food scene is almost unparalleled for a town its size. Sample garlicky hummus at Afghan Samira, Korean-Japanese dishes at Do Asian Fusion, the famed kham amdo thukpa stew at Anyetsang’s Little Tibet, or Turkish shish kebabs at Turkuaz Cafe. Meat-free options abound too. The Owlery nails vegetarian, and The Laughing Planet Cafe can make any burger or burrito vegan (and has a nice outdoor dining option on the deck). Feast Market And Cellar features local ingredients and serves amazing tamales, with a wine list of more than 400 selections.

And sugar-lovers, this town has you covered. Here’s our carb bucket list: cinnamon rolls smothered in cream cheese icing at Two Sticks Bakery; a flaky house-made Pop Tart at The Inkwell; Fudge O’Bits at mother-daughter-owned DK Sweets; colorful vegan donuts at Rainbow Bakery; and as a take-home souvenir, fudgy Luckyguy Bakery brownies, sold pre-packed at Bloomingfoods (and available for mail-order).

Cardinal Spirits
Courtesy of Cardinal Spirits

Fresh Air

Building outdoor time into a vacation has never been more important. The area around Bloomington makes it easy.

Indiana University The campus is gorgeous and wooded in parts, with a stream cutting through. Take a peaceful stroll at the arboretum.

Brown County State Park Dubbed the L’il Smokies, this popular park sprawls over hills cut by glacial meltwater. Hike, saddle up for a trail ride, or drink in the fall color with your windows down along 20 miles of winding roads.

Charles C. Deam Wilderness Part of the 204,000-acre Hoosier National Forest, this preserve offers breathtaking fall foliage along 36 miles of trails. Scale the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower for treetop views.

Monroe Lake Just outside town, Indiana’s largest inland lake is a prime spot for finding geodes and bird-watching. If you’re anxious about a hotel or cabin, there are several campgrounds here.

Brown County State Park
Bob Stefko