In his essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” moral philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) muses that beauty is not a quality that things innately possess, but rather something that “exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” In other words, he acknowledges that aesthetic taste is subjective since everyone has a different perception of loveliness.
So keep that concept in mind when I award the title for the most stunning campus in Indiana to Indiana University, Bloomington (IU). This was not an easy decision to make considering that the magnificent University of Notre Dame – located approximately 200 miles away – is also a serious contender. In fact, in 2017, Conde Nast Traveler ranked both of these universities as number 7 and number 8 on their list of the most beautiful campuses, placing Notre Dame a single notch above IU. With two such striking universities so close together – not to mention quaint Depauw University in Greencastle and charming Purdue University in West Lafayette (both just around the proverbial corner) – the Hoosier State is truly educationally and architecturally blessed.
For these reasons, arguing in favor of IU as Indiana’s most gorgeous academic setting is going to require some serious justification. Are you ready to go on a journey?
Let’s find out what makes IU the most beautiful college campus in Indiana….
Academic Excellence in a Mesmerizing Setting
Established in 1820 – and proud home of the Hoosiers – IU is a distinguished public research institution. Its unparalleled scholarship, resources, and sports are esteemed across the globe. Home to the illustrious Kinsey Institute, the highly acclaimed Jacobs School of Music, the largest and one of the most prestigious schools of medicine in the country, and the top-rated Kelley School of Business, IU is a powerhouse of intellectual and cultural excellence.
Moreover, IU’s world-renowned libraries are off the charts. The Lilly Library, for instance, encompasses an astonishing collection of rare books, archives, and manuscripts. Some of its jewels include the first printed copy of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Thomas Jefferson’s very own copy of the Bill of Rights, and a first folio of William Shakespeare’s works. Impressive, right?
To share even more accolades, IU is considered one of the most prestigious colleges in the nation. Ranked 13th best institution in the entire U.S., it takes ninth place among public institutions and has earned 49th place in world rankings for arts and humanities. With exceptional programs, superior faculty, and an outstanding graduate and undergraduate student body, IU is a shining academic star.
Plus, anyone who knows anything about basketball already understands that the Hoosiers are consistently a formidable presence at the Big Ten Conference – clinching victory after victory. Having won 22 of these tournaments, they are second only to Purdue, who has secured 25. Such successes exemplify IU’s strong athletic legacy – one that ties together players, fans, and the broader community in a deep appreciation for collegiate basketball. IU supports a wider sports culture, too – including its football, soccer, baseball, softball, swimming, track and field teams.
All of this on one of the most beautiful campuses on earth. But what makes it so ravishing?
It is impossible to describe all of the magnificent buildings and structures that grace the campus, but there are a few worth luxuriating over….
Let’s start with one of IU’s most prominent visual markers: the iconic Sample Gates. Proudly serving as the welcoming entrance to the eastern side, these parallel giants stand tall at the intersection of Kirkwood Ave and Indiana Ave – clearly demarcating where the city ends and the university begins. Even for those who might not know about their fascinating history, their preeminence, elegance, and importance speak for themselves.
The Old Crescent – a historic area in the southwest corner of campus encircling the Dunn Woods – is also worth mentioning. This section of campus showcases a row of impeccably maintained buildings from the university’s early days with edifices flaunting both Neoclassical and Romanesque architectural styles. Of particular note is the beloved Rose Well House, the oldest remaining structure at IU and perhaps its most romantic. Constructed in 1908 above a cistern that provided water to the campus, this regal, open-air structure once served as a reservoir for the community. Today, it has become a hot spot for proposals and weddings, particularly because legend touts that couples who kiss there at the stroke of midnight are destined to be together for life.
Last but not least is the stunning Showalter Fountain – the defining element of the Fine Arts Plaza. Replete with bronze castings of a 15-foot Venus reclining in a clamshell along with five fish, the fountain is the vision of Fine Arts Professor Robert Laurent. Nicci Foundry created the bronze casts for the sculpture in Rome in 1958. Unfortunately, its fish are frequent targets for theft, spurring their own folklore.
Lavish Limestone and Luscious Grounds
Lingering for a moment over the local limestone that comprises the facades of many of the buildings at IU, we begin to understand how the university manages to feel cohesive despite the diversity of architectural styles and designs. Often referred to as “Bedford limestone” since it is quarried from the nearby town of the same name – this captivating sedimentary rock visually unifies the entire campus. Durable, versatile, and aesthetically-pleasing, limestone acts as the optical glue, uniting IU’s Romanesque, Gothic, Collegiate Gothic, Art Deco, Modern, and postmodern architectural styles. The distinctive golden hue of Indiana limestone – especially prominent at dusk and dawn – reflects the region’s geological heritage while simultaneously giving everything on campus a warm and wondrous glow.
The limestone perfectly complements IU’s lush and spiritied landscape. With its array of stately mature trees, vibrant flowers, verdant gardens, and flourishing foliage, the IU campus mesmerizes all year round. From the blooming rush of spring, to the intoxicating floral aromas of summer evenings, to the crisp air and radiant pops of amber and crimson in the fall, to the snow-covered wonderland of winter, IU is breathtaking in every season.
Given its size and ecological diversity, it is really not surprising that the campus boasts a network of scenic walking trails that wind past classrooms, through wooded areas, and across open spaces. Biking enthusiasts can likewise take advantage of many designated lanes and paths, like the B-Line Trail, a multi-use path that enables bikers to experience the scenic beauty of IU and the surrounding areas. It’s easy to explore here. And the terrain certainly encourages adventures.
A River (and a Cemetery) Run Through it
It is fairly rare for any university to be graced with a river or a graveyard. But IU boasts both. The enchanting Jordan River – glorious in all seasons – shapes and beautifies the landscape. Meandering through woods and meadows, its carefully constructed pathways cut across and connect the entire campus. Not only does the Jordan River please the human eye, but it provides a home for a wide range of wildlife. Various bird species, including waterfowl and songbirds, thrive along its lavish banks. Amphibians, like frogs and salamanders, and reptiles such as turtles, also inhabit its waters. Raccoons, squirrels, and other smaller mammals likewise claim shelter in the surrounding habitats. The robust aquatic and riparian ecosystems here – a microcosm of Indiana as a whole – lend an extra layer of magic to an already-bewitching space.
Similarly, the Dunn Cemetery surprises as it is unexpected. This hauntingly beautiful resting place adds both flare and a gothic edge to IU. Nestled between the teeny-tiny Beck Chapel and the Indiana Memorial Building, the cemetery is a gem of historical significance. Graves of early settlers, university benefactors, and other notable figures serve as powerful testaments to the past. The oldest headstone, for instance, honors three sisters who were heroines of the Revolutionary War. Serene and peaceful, the Dunn Cemetery is a beloved space that inspires existential contemplation. And while it delights year-round, blankets of snow or autumn leaves highlight its ethereal qualities.
The river and the cemetery combine to greatly enhance IU’s sublime appeal.
Kirkwood Avenue and the City
Part of the splendor of IU comes from its intimate relationship to the picturesque town it reigns over. With a population of approximately 80,000, Bloomington flourishes as an intimate and welcoming city. Known for its international influence and love for the arts, this small Midwest town packs a real cultural punch. As the ravishing centerpiece of the city, IU resides on the east end of Kirkwood Ave – an iconic, pedestrian-friendly street that runs from the campus to the city square and beyond. Lined with an eclectic mix of shops, boutiques, cafes, and entertainment venues – Kirkwood Avenue is a bustling destination for shopping, dining, and socializing. Particularly lively during sports events, festivals, and weekends, this strip is always the place to be during holidays and celebrations.
On top of its outstanding academics, IU has quite a reputation for revelry. Not only do Hoosiers go wild when Bloomington hosts the acclaimed Little 500 (Little Five) bicycle race and during the Big Ten conference (particularly when IU is playing) – but they are infamous for cultural customs that promote playful antics, even on an ordinary day. The legendary Nick’s English Hut on Kirkwood, as a case in point, boasts a drinking game called “Sink the Biz.” Participants place a floating cup of beer in a larger tin bucket – that is also filled with beer – and take turns pouring small amounts of their personal beer into the floating “bizmark.” Eventually, the cup becomes heavy and sinks, leaving the person who sent the floating cup plummeting to the bottom to consume its contents. It has become a customary way of celebrating birthdays, graduations, or just introducing visitors to Indiana culture.
As I mentioned, there are plenty of opportunities to revel in nature and get invigorating exercise without ever leaving IU. However, there are a plethora of nearby lakes, forests, and cities to explore as well. And they are worth the little bit of effort it takes to get there.
For instance, Lake Monroe, the largest reservoir in Indiana, lies about 10 miles southeast of IU. A prime destination for boating, fishing, swimming, and hiking, the lake sits on 10,000 acres and contains more than 100 miles of shoreline. Beaches, hiking trails, and wildlife add to its charm, making it a convenient and scenic weekend or afternoon getaway for IU students and Bloomington residents.
Brown County State Park – covering 15,000 acres of forests, rolling hills, and scenic vistas – is also a relatively short drive. As is the quaint town of Nashville, renowned for its vibrant arts scene and crafts created by local artists.
Finally, the Oliver Winery – an oenological dream for wine aficionados – beckons to entertain. Located approximately 15-20 minutes from campus, it is a lovely place to spend the afternoon. The cozy tasting room shares samples of their many impressive wines made from local grapes. Plus, if you’re a fan of impromptu picnics, they sell an assortment of fresh cheeses, jams, and crackers to accompany the wine. You can enjoy these outside by a gorgeous pond filled with colorful koi fish. Finally, for big-city adventures, the capital city of Indianapolis is only about an hour away.
A Destination Vacation
In terms of its location, layout, academics, landscape, school spirit. and architecture, IU is hard to beat. You don’t need to be a student to want to see it for yourself. In fact, Bloomington is a must-visit town if you’re passing through the Midwest. And is more than worthy of a destination getaway. With plenty of posh B&Bs, incredible cuisine on every corner, museums, art centers, and nearby outdoor adventures, Bloomington has so much to offer. Come see for yourself why IU is the most beautiful campus in Indiana. And take in everything this little town has to give. You won’t regret it.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Nicholas Klein/ via Getty Images
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