Travel photographer, journalist and marketer Megan Zink shares three drivable Indiana destinations you may not have heard of for your next marvelous Midwest road trip.
When you hear ‘road trip’ you may think of the great American west – wide open skies, red Mars-like terrain, the ocean calling as a final stop. But the Midwest has some road trip tricks up its sleeve too – specifically these three drivable Indiana destinations that are close enough to each other that you could hit them all in a long weekend and get very distinct experiences.
Collectively, they’re only a hop, skip and a jump away from many major metropolitan areas, such as Chicago, Louisville, St. Louis, Cincinnati, or even Nashville. Buckle up and bookmark this site for three Indiana destinations you do NOT want to miss!
You may know Bloomington because it’s the home of the Indiana University, but we promise you, there is a LOT more happening in B-Town than tailgates and test-taking. Bloomington is also home to a vibrant events and culture scene, tons of gorgeous public art, a true farm-to-table movement and focus on the sustainable, a huge variety of global cuisine, outdoor recreation… we could go on! Some of our favorite highlights:
Where to Stay and Eat in Bloomington
Bloomington has a great selection of lodging options – charming B&Bs and inns, and of course the Biddle Hotel at the IU Memorial Union – but our favorite by far is the Graduate Hotel Bloomington. The company is most known for lodging offerings in major college towns and goes through great lengths to research and tell the stories of the legacies of the communities they reside within.
Case in point: in the Graduate Bloomington, you’ll find keycards made out of old student IDs, a lobby that looks like you’re sitting at half court and about to witness a significant 3-pointer, and the pièce de résistance – a chandelier made out of red chairs hanging from the ceiling, a la the famous basketball coach Bobby Knight.
Don’t think you’ll easily find world cuisine amongst these Indiana destinations? Think again! Eating is a global affair in Bloomington. Fun fact – out of all the places in the world, the brother of the Dali Lama decided to settle down in Bloomington with his family after fleeing Tibet in 1950. Though the family’s Snow Lion restaurant has since closed, you can still visit the gorgeous Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center and also revel in the delicious flavors of another Tibetan restaurant at Anyetsang’s Little Tibet.
Some other places you cannot miss:
- Dat’s: Cajun & Creole – don’t skip the Etoufee!
- Anatolia: Turkish fare in a cozy setting – opt to sit cross-legged on floor cushions for a unique experience.
- FARMbloomington – locally-sourced ingredients with global flavors is the name of the game here – be sure to make a reso well in advance, it’s usually hard to get one!
- Laughing Planet Cafe – locally-sourced Mexican fare in a bright and happy environment.
- Soma Coffee – directly below Laughing Planet – come for the coffee but stay for the kitsch.
- Cardinal Spirits – situated directly on the B-Line trail, great for sips, spirits and souvenirs (all the alcohol is distilled with locally-sourced Indiana grains).
- Nick’s English Hut – the pizza is amazing but the atmosphere is even better – especially on a game day!
Where to Get Active in Bloomington
Given the generalization that the Midwest is flat, you may be surprised to find out that these Indiana destinations in the southern part of the state are actually quite varied in elevation, thanks to missing out on the glaciation (being covering by glaciers) that most of the rest of the Midwest received. However, the melt from the glaciers DID make its way down to this area, resulting in many rivers, lakes, valleys and other natural nooks and crannies you can explore. Here are a couple of our favorites:
- B-Line Trail: the B-Line is a repurposed railroad line turned biking, walking and running path that winds its way from one end of Bloomington to the other. Stop for coffee along the way at Hopscotch or something stronger at Cardinal Spirits!
- Lake Monroe: this area is a stop on the Indiana Birding Trail as well as a hot spot for outdoor recreation – hiking, kayaking, biking, stand up paddle boarding, boating – you name it! If you look closely, you might even see John Mellencamp’s lakeside home.
- Griffy Lake: much smaller but MUCH closer to downtown Bloomington and the IU campus, you’ll find Griffy Lake – a great spot for easy and moderate hiking, limestone formations, and breathtaking scenery.
- Brown County and Hoosier National Forest: follow the road that slices through Brown County for one of the most scenic drives you’ll take in the area; this area is a hidden gem of the Midwest – especially in fall, when turning trees rival the foliage of the East Coast. You’ll find tiny towns (Nashville, IN is definitely worth a visit), wineries, breathtaking overlooks and plenty of trails and nature to explore in neighboring Hoosier National Forest.
French Lick & West Baden Springs
Back in the early 1900s, if you were from Europe and were taking a trip to America, there was a good chance you were heading to the Indiana destination French Lick West Baden. Its abundance of natural mineral springs made it a popular place for travelers and wellness advocates.
The name West Baden literally comes from the resort being the western version of Baden-Baden in Germany – the ‘great mineral spa of Europe’. Prior to its heyday, the Mile Lick Inn (as it was previously known) had burned down in 1901 – but Lee W. Sinclair used it as an opportunity to rebuild a hotel like none had ever seen – with a 200-foot diameter free-spanning atrium that was so unlike anything of its time, it became known as the 8th wonder of the world.
Where to Stay & Eat in French Lick West Baden Springs
It goes without saying, you kind of HAVE to stay in the West Baden Springs hotel. Top-notch amenities, great dining and a world-renown spa – where yes, you can get Pluto spring mineral water treatments. There is a well-lit walking path and a cable car that will take you directly to another one of the must-visit Indiana destinations – the sister French Lick resort and casino. Don’t miss the West Baden Springs historical walking tour led by the National Historic Landmark society and runs daily (but call ahead just to be sure!).
As far as dining goes, onsite you’ll find plenty of options, including Xanadu Coffee & Creamery and Sinclair’s, as well as the Vintage Café at the French Lick Winery and Spirits of French Lick Distillery – artisan distillers weren’t actually allowed to distill and sell spirits in Indiana until a change to the laws in 2013 – which is why you’ll see a boom of distilleries in the state. They offer over 11 different types and the tasting is a great activity!
Where to Get Active in French Lick
Seeing as French Lick West Baden is only a little over an hour south of previously mentioned Indiana destination Bloomington, you can expect the same rolling, hilly terrain in the area, which means great opportunities for hiking and outdoor recreation. Below are a few can’t miss stops:
- Rent bikes at West Baden Springs: you can take these for a spin on the grounds through a handful of paths in the area – the grounds between the West Baden Springs hotel and French Lick Resort & Casino are absolutely worth exploring!
- Paoli: depending on when you visit, Paoli Peaks is actually a pretty great skiing and snow sport destination. There are also nearby campgrounds in the area.
- Buffalo Trace trailhead: a moderate just-under-8-mile loop that leaves right from the French Lick Resort parking lot that allows biking and horseback riding in addition to foot traffic.
- Hemlock Cliffs: on the south end of Hoosier National Forest you’ll find Hemlock Cliffs – gorgeous sandstone and limestone cliffs and formations, waterfalls, caves and other natural wonders on this just-over-a-mile loop. Plan to wear weather-appropriate footwear depending on the season, it can get a little wet!
Nestled in the Ohio River Valley and just a short drive from the aforementioned stops, Madison, Indiana (not to be confused with the one in Wisconsin) is a hidden gem Indiana destination you absolutely need to put on your Midwest road trip list.
Once slated to become the capitol of Indiana due to its prime spot on the river at the height of steamboat transportation (which ultimately got disrupted due to the popularity of railroads) the river town is rife with historical architecture, arts and culture and outdoor recreation.
No matter what season you visit in, you’ll find fun festivals, celebrations and things to do in Madison, Indiana (like the famous Regatta hydroplane boat race in summer or the fall Chautauqua arts and artisan festival), historical home walks through one of the country’s largest historic architecture districts, wineries, breweries, a hoppin’ music scene and plenty of reasons to explore the outdoors.
Where to Stay & Eat in Madison, Indiana
One of the most unique places to stay is the Fashion House on Central – an absolutely breathtaking renovated Greek revival-style home smack dab in the heart of downtown (and a hot destination for groups heading to the famous Kentucky Derby – but it books up fast!). The 4-bed, 3-bath home comfortably houses 12 and has a ton of unique bookable amenities like an in-home chef, personal shopping and pampering services at the attached boutique, salon and studio, and more.
As far as food goes, you’ll find a ton of options around the area, and especially downtown.
- Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop: basically the OG sliders – sidle up to the counter for dine-in or grab them to go and don’t skip ordering them with cheese, pickle and onion. Also amazing? The home fries with cheese!
- Attic Coffee Mill & Café: We love this little local coffee shop for coffee (dine in or to go), bites, whole and ground beans, locally-sourced gifts and other goodies.
- Horst’s Little Bakery Haus: choose from two locations – but be warned, if you head to the one downtown on Main Street, you’ll have to get there early because the donuts sell out QUICK!
- The Red Pepperoni: amazing pizza made from scratch in-house every day, plus pasta dishes, salads, craft brews and an outdoor seating area.
- Mad Paddle Brewstillery: a fairly new addition to the downtown area, Mad Paddle Brewery is a nod to the city’s past – Madison is actually famous for its beer brewing and was extremely successful in the industry up until prohibition. Mad Paddle is housed in the state’s oldest standing brewery building!
Get Outside in Madison, Indiana
If you’re picking up a theme here, you’re not wrong – as Madison, Indiana is only about 45 minutes north of Louisville, Kentucky and since it sits fairly south in the state, it has the same hilly terrain as the rest of the destinations on this list which are great for getting out and exploring.
Madison Railroad Incline Cut: the first railroad in the state and historically a bustling link between Madison and eventually Indianapolis, the now out of commission line has been repurposed into the beautiful Heritage Trail, running along fossil-filled limestone walls, creeping vines and old bridges.
Madison Riverfront: one of our favorite spots in the city, the Madison Riverfront offers a paved pathway, tons of areas to sit and take in the river sights, and conveniently connects to the Heritage Trail just before the ‘incline’ starts.
Clifty Falls State Park: similar to the Hemlock Cliffs, Clifty Falls is full of sandstone, waterfalls (hence the name), gorges, bluffs and great scenic overlooks. A few of the trails weave in and out of the creek, so be sure to wear water-resistant footwear if you want to take advantage of the whole area.