Out of Town - Bloomington, Indiana

Bloomington, a charming and historic city of about 70,000 and home to the main branch of Indiana University (IU), ranks among the most gay-friendly getaways in the Midwest – it’s a hilly, green, and rather idyllic community, and it’s within an afternoon’s drive of Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Cincinnati, and just an hour south of Indianapolis. This is the quintessential all-American college town yet with some big-city cultural attributes, from high-caliber theaters, galleries, museums, and live-music clubs to a nice selection of cafes and restaurants - there’s even a popular gay bar.

Largely because of the major university presence, the city is quite progressive and possesses a visible lesbian and gay community. In late January, the city hosts a Pride Film Festival, and the local tourism office – the Bloomington/Monroe County CVB – has become a leader among small U.S. cities in actively courting GLBT visitors. It produces an annual gay guide to the city as well as the helpful website, www.visitgaybloomington.com.

IU figures significantly in the city’s openness toward gays and lesbians, as it was here that Dr. Alfred Kinsey established the Kinsey Institute, whose studies of human sexuality helped greatly to increase the acceptance of homosexuality. His fascinating and complicated life was explored in the exceptional biographical movie, Kinsey, in 2004. IU has an active lesbian/gay political and social organization, and just about anywhere you walk around town you’re likely to bump into family.

Like many Midwestern county seats, downtown Bloomington is set around a glorious courthouse square, over which looms the magnificent classical revival copper-dome 1902 Monroe County Courthouse, from which emanate streets of engaging shops, music clubs, and eateries. Tall, three-story turreted Victorians are set throughout the residential neighborhoods, plus very good examples of the Craftsman style and other regional American architecture from the past century. This is a highly pedestrian-friendly community, and one that really bears exploring. If you’re interested in early architecture and IU history, drop by the Wylie House museum, the 1835 period-furnished home of the university’s first president.

Shoppers should check out Caveat Emptor, a great used bookstore with a decent selection of lesbian and gay titles. Gay-owned and with a rainbow-flag insignia above the door, the Inner Chef is a fine little shop for kitchen wizards - inside you’ll find a great selection of cooking supplies. On Saturday mornings from May through November, check out the fresh produce and edibles at the fabulous Bloomington Farmers Market.

The IU campus comprises nearly 1,900 acres and is notable for its grand, locally quarried limestone buildings designed in traditional collegiate Gothic. The Musical Arts Center has one of the top opera programs in the nation, and the IU Auditorium presents outstanding performing arts throughout the school year, from pop concerts to ballet to Broadway shows. There’s also the excellent I.M. Pei-designed IU Art Museum, whose 35,000 works include Picassos and Monets, and the Lilly Library, both in the Fine Arts Plaza.

The must-see for GLBT visitors, however, is the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. You can drop by without an appointment on weekdays between 2 and 4 in the afternoon - just pick up a self-tour map from the receptionist. But the best way to explore this esteemed facility is to take a guided tour - these are free and given on Fridays, roughly every other week, and reservations are required. The institute contains an art gallery with rotating exhibits; a library with an incredibly vast trove of erotic videos, photographs, periodicals, and books (ranging from clinical to pornographic); and research rooms in which interviews are still conducted on a variety of topics related to human sexuality.

Bloomington is also the home of the Tibetan Cultural Center, which includes the nation’s only Tibetan monastery. The Tibetans operate three restaurants in town, the Snow Lion, which serves outstanding Tibetan and pan-Asian cuisine; Cafe Django, which serves light fare and often has live music; and Little Tibet, which also presents authentic Tibetan fare. Ethnic food is a specialty in this city, and you’ll find a concentration of especially noteworthy options along the 400 block of East 4th Street, just west of campus. Little Tibet is along this block, as are eateries serving Indian, Thai, Turkish, Italian, and Chinese food.

Bloomington’s most esteemed restaurant is Farm, a fancifully decorated spot downtown filled with vintage-farmhouse accessories but serving quite modern food – you might start with Anguillian-style tuna ceviche with coconut water and white-balsamic vinegar, followed by coffee-rubbed bison rib-eye with truffle-mushroom grits. Save room for a slice of red-velvet cake with blood-orange sorbet.

Another fine option is the Limestone Grille, which is notable for its art-filled dining room and a huge mural carved of limestone - this elegant spot serves upscale American cuisine, from hefty steaks to grilled lamb chops with olive oil, rosemary, and Israeli couscous. As much fun for sipping stouts and ales as for digging in to platters of hearty oysters, clams, stews, steaks, and burgers, the Irish Lion ranks among the area’s favorite restaurants.

Bloomington Bagel Co. has some of the best bagels around; try the asiago with olive cream cheese spread and you’ll understand the appeal. For the city’s juiciest and sloppiest burgers, head to Opie Taylor’s. Trojan Horse is a highly regarded Greek/American restaurant that students have been frequenting for years. And Laughing Planet presents a delectable assortment of tasty world-beat foods, from hefty Cal-style burritos to veggie burgers.

Bloomington has one gay bar, Uncle Elizabeth’s, which moved into a newer and more pleasant space in 2008. It’s your typical college-town hangout, drawing a mix of students and locals. Another good bet for socializing is Rachael’s Cafe, a cheery coffeehouse that’s very popular with the GLBT set and is open until 9 p.m. most nights. The Friday open-mike gatherings are especially popular.

You can choose from a number of chain motels and hotels in Bloomington, plus a couple of stand-out B&Bs. Bear in mind that securing a room is tough on fall and winter weekends, when college football and basketball are in full swing. For its central location, attractive lobby lounge, and well-equipped, contemporary rooms, the Hilton Garden Inn makes an excellent choice. Courthouse Square is just a couple of blocks away from the Hilton, whose amenities include a pool, fitness center, and business center. A particularly good but highly sought-after option is the Indiana Memorial Union – the nation’s largest student union contains an upscale 187-room hotel with attractive rooms. An added bonus, the huge IU Bookstore is just downstairs in case you need a little reading material before bed, and there are numerous restaurants to choose from.

The romantic, 24-room Grant Street Inn dates to the 1880s and is filled with period antiques; some suites have whirlpool tubs and fireplaces. It’s just four blocks from Courthouse Square. Another very charming, gay-friendly option is the Scholars Inn, a stately 19th-century brick mansion whose six romantic rooms are done with vintage furnishings and have TVs and VCRs, and comfy king-size beds. A lavish full breakfast is included. The same owners run a couple of restaurants in town, including the Bakehouse, which serves tasty American fare - including exceptional brunches on weekends – and has outdoor seating overlooking Courthouse Square.

If you have time or you’re a serious fan of architecture, consider the short but highly rewarding excursion east to the architecturally prominent town of Columbus. You’ll find a number of spots for biking, boating, and hiking along the way. The drive east on Rte. 46 passes through beautiful countryside that’s hilly and lushly forested, with several state parks. This is the sort of terrain that country drives seem made for, where you’ll find the occasional ice cream shop or farm stand to break up the drive, and little else.

It takes just under an hour to reach Columbus, one of the most architecturally ambitious towns in America (in 1991 the American Institute of Architects ranked this small city the 6th most important U.S. city in terms of architectural quality and innovation, following only Chicago, New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Boston). Downtown is dotted with provocative structures, some successful, some not - it’s remarkable to walk it and observe the contrasts of historic and contemporary buildings.

It all started in 1942 when a local business leader commissioned Eliel Saarinen to build the First Christian Church. Since then the likes of Richard Meier, I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Robert Venturi, and many more luminaries have added their own buildings. And don’t overlook the countless beautifully preserved historic buildings, many dating back to the mid-19th century. Two-hour guided tours leave from the visitor center daily (twice on Sat.). Columbus also has a substantial number of outlet shops, antiques and crafts boutiques, and other retail diversions.

If you’re interested in spending the night, consider hip Hotel Indigo Columbus Architectural Center, a new outpost of the moderately priced, design-driven brand that’s been steadily developing a strong following among GLBT travelers. The sleek mid-rise hotel is right downtown, close to many of the town’s significant buildings. Rooms are bright and airy and have such creature comforts as CD players, DVD players, and free Wi-Fi. On the ground level, you can finish off a day of exploring with a meal at the hotel’s whimsically decorated Phi Bar and Restaurant, which serves superb American fare.

The Little Black Book:
Scholars Inn Bakehouse 812-331-6029
Bloomington Bagel Co. 812-333-4653 • bbcbagel.com
Bloomington Farmers Market 812-349-3700 • bloomington.in.gov
Bloomington/Monroe County Convention & Visitors Bureau 866-333-0088 visitbloomington.com
gay/lesbian travel site visitgaybloomington.com
Cafe Django 812-335-1297
Caveat Emptor 812-332-9995
Columbus Visitor Center 812-378-2622/800-468-6564 • columbus.in.us
Farm 812-323-0002 • farm-bloomington.com
Grant Street Inn 812-334-2353/800-328-4350 • grantstinn.com
Hilton Garden Inn 812-331-1335 • hiltongardeninn.com
Hotel Indigo Columbus Architectural Center 877-270-1392
Indiana Memorial Union Hotel 812-856-6381/800-209-8145
Irish Lion 812-336-9076 • irishlion.com
Laughing Planet Cafe 812-323-2233
Limestone Grille 812-335-8110 • limestonegrille.com
Little Tibet 812-331-0122 • anyetsangs.com
Opie Taylor’s 812-333-7287
Rachael’s Cafe 812-330-1882
Scholars Inn 812-332-1892/800-765-3466
Snow Lion 812-336-0835
Trojan Horse 812-332-1101 • thetrojanhorse.com
Uncle Elizabeth’s 812-331-0060

Andrew Collins is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA and eight additional travel guides. He can be reached at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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