Travel Illinois: Bloomington

April 2, 2010

By Jessica Mozo

Nestled in the heart of Illinois and the Midwest, Bloomington is known for its wide open spaces and beautiful prairies. But don’t let its peaceful, seemingly subdued nature fool you – there’s more to this city than meets the eye.

downtown Bloomington Illinois

Celebrated for its excellent golfing opportunities, awe-inspiring architecture, rich history and expansive educational opportunities, Bloomington is the county seat of McLean County. It is home to the prestigious Illinois Wesleyan University, and the massive Illinois State University resides in nearby Normal. Easily accessible at the crossroads of Interstates 39, 55 and 74, the area attracts a bundle of visitors each year for cultural attractions, sporting events, museums and more. [Click here to watch a video of Bloomington.]

David Davis Mansion in Bloomington, IL

Only in Bloomington, Illinois

Pack a picnic and marvel at the talent of the actors in the nationally renowned Illinois Shakespeare Festival, held on the grounds of Ewing Manor in July and August. Produced by the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University, the highly anticipated festival began in 1978 and draws crowds of spectators for Shakespeare under the stars. The 2010 festival will feature The Tempest, Merry Wives of Windsor and The Three Musketeers. Arrive early to enjoy the gardens, strolling madrigal singers and people-watching.

Who doesn’t love Steak ‘n’ Shake’s juicy steakburgers and hand-dipped milkshakes? McLean County was home to the very first Steak ‘n’ Shake restaurant, built along the historic Route 66 in 1934 by Gus and Edith Belt. Though the original restaurant was sold to Monical’s Pizza in the 1990s, the Steak ‘n’ Shake chain has grown to include more than 475 restaurants in 22 different states.

Speaking of the “Mother Road,” Route 66 runs right through Bloomington and was established in 1926 as one of the original U.S. highways. Take a leisurely drive down the so-called Main Street of America (known locally as Veterans Parkway) and catch a glimpse of historic sites, such as Cotton’s Village Inn on Main Street.

Admire the stunning architecture of the David Davis Mansion, an 1872 Victorian-style mansion that was the home of David Davis, a friend and campaign manager of Abraham Lincoln. Davis served as a U.S. Supreme Court justice from 1862 to 1877 and as a U.S. senator. Also known as Clover Lawn, the three-story, yellow brick home has 36 rooms and an outdoor garden that was the pride and joy of Davis’ wife, Sarah. Tours are given Wednesday through Sunday and allow visitors to explore themes such as servant life, domestic life and technology at the dawn of the industrial age, family history, and Victorian architecture.

Experience the history of Central Illinois and its people at the McLean County Museum of History, located in the Old McLean County Courthouse building, an American Renaissance style structure completed in 1903. View kitchens of Native Americans, Irish and Germans who settled in McLean County, and take home authentic recipes to try yourself. Meet Abraham Lincoln and David Davis, and step inside the prisoner holding cell to await your courthouse trial.

McLean County Arts Center, Illinois

Bloomington Arts & Culture

Grab a bite to eat or sip a steaming cappuccino in Downtown Bloomington, where you’ll find a tasteful mix of restaurants, coffee shops, art galleries, clothing stores and locally owned shops. Downtown is also a great place to take in Bloomington’s historic architecture, as many turn-of-the-century buildings sit proudly on the courthouse square. Night owls will appreciate downtown for its lively night scene, and the Downtown Bloomington Farmers’ Market is an ideal spot to pick up some fresh produce or homemade breads, pies and other goodies.

Laugh until your sides ache at one of the many productions presented by the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts each season. Considered the centerpiece of the city’s cultural district, the historic theater was formerly a Scottish Rite Temple. It underwent a $15 million renovation and is now a 1,200-seat auditorium and ballroom that is home to more than 20 performing arts ensembles. More than 400 performances take place there every year, including nationally acclaimed touring artists.

Put on your walking shoes and head for the 24-mile linear park known as Constitution Trail. Popular with the locals for walking, jogging, biking and in-line skating, the trail is a former abandoned railroad bed that has been transformed into an outdoor-lover’s paradise. It was named in celebration of the 200th birthday of the United States Constitution in 1987 and opened in 1989. Trail users also enjoy watching deer, falcon, beavers, turkeys, foxes and great blue heron along the path, as well as many private gardens.

Miller Zoo located at Miller Park in Bloomington, Illinois.

Family-Friendly Bloomington

Watch the playful sea lions eat during one of their daily feedings at Miller Park Zoo, a Bloomington landmark since 1891. Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, Miller Park Zoo is home to hundreds of animals, from snakes and wallabies to Sumatran tigers and red pandas. The Tropical America Rainforest is one of the zoo’s newest exhibits and is filled with colorful birds, mammals and tropical flowers native to the rainforests of Central and South America.

Nearby Normal is home to the Children’s Discovery Museum, a hit with the young (and the young at heart). Pack up the kids and let them paint a masterpiece on the Paint Wall, explore the Toddler Backyard and climb the two-story Luckey Climber.

Munch on caramel corn and cotton candy while watching an antique tractor pull at the McLean County Fair, which takes place in late July and early August at the Interstate Center. The classic county fair also includes carnival rides, 4-H exhibits, free concerts, live alligator and monkey shows, animal barns, magicians and clowns, chainsaw carving, and bushels of other fun attractions. It is believed to be the oldest running and largest 4-H fair in the country, with more than 13,000 entries from 1,200 4-H members.

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