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How to entertain out-of-town visitors to Bloomington-Normal during the holidays

For Bloomington-Normal’s many new residents, this year may be their first time hosting out-of-town visitors for the holidays. And yes, the weather may be frigid, but there’s still plenty of ways to show off your hometown – no matter how long you’ve lived here.

WGLT checked in with local experts to build some sample itineraries below. You should double-check that each place is open when you want to visit, as some places may have special holiday hours.

For more ideas, check out the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website.

Have young kids

Start with Uptown Normal. The trees are lit and shops are decorated for the holidays.

While there, “you have to pit stop at the Children’s Discovery Museum. That’s the go-to place for kids to have fun – and to wear them out,” said Melissa Alcorn, who runs Macaroni Kid of Bloomington-Normal, which offers a popular calendar filled with family-friendly events. And if your guests are here on Dec. 31, the Children’s Discovery Museum hosts a great Noon Year’s Eve event complete with a countdown, confetti blast, face painting and noisemakers.

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ImagineAir is one of the newer exhibits at the Children's Discovery Museum in Uptown Normal.

After that, stop by Theo’s Microcreamery (just a few steps from the museum), which has a bunch of December ice cream flavors (Christmas Cookie! Cookie Peppermint Stick!) and dairy-free options. Then, walk across Uptown Circle and visit the Garlic Press, where kids will get a kick out of shopping for fudge, candy, and choosing their own flavor of popcorn mix.

Bonus: If it’s not too cold, you should visit Bloomington’s Miller Park Zoo, which is open year-round (except for Christmas Day). There are several indoor areas of the zoo (like the Zoo Lab and balmy Tropical Rainforest Exhibit), so plenty of chances to warm up if need be. “The animals act differently in the winter,” Alcorn said in recommending a winter zoo visit. “How often have you seen how their habitats look and what kind of enrichment activities they have with the snow?”

Miller Park Zoo
There are several indoor areas of the Miller Park Zoo (like the Zoo Lab and balmy Tropical Rainforest Exhibit, seen above), so plenty of chances to warm up if need be.

Afterwards, you could make a pit stop in nearby downtown Bloomington and a grab a sweet treat at either Sugar Mama Bakery (killer cupcakes) or Ivy Lane Bakery (awesome cookies).

Have tweens / teenagers

Sonja Reece of Normal is a grandmother who knows this town just about better than anyone. So when a 14-year-old relative from St. Louis recently came to visit for the weekend, she built an entire menu of options that a teenager would like – and then let him and his dad choose their itinerary.

“I wanted to give them a chance to talk about it, think about it, and maybe even go online and see what those places looked like, so they could make a good decision on how they wanted to spend their time,” Reece said.

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Sonja Reece of Normal, who recently served as a concierge for some out-of-town visitors from St. Louis.

Mass VR is a virtual reality complex in south Bloomington, with a bunch of different rooms and spaces that can accommodate your desired price point. The older kids will like the free-roaming VR arena; the younger kids will like the VR Simulator room, which includes a roller coaster and flight simulator. (Bonus: Mass VR shares a building with Pizza Payaa, whose artisan pan pizzas are among the best in Bloomington-Normal.)

Altitude Trampoline Park in east Bloomington can entertain kids at just about every age level. It includes a dodgeball court and a spinning foam challenge called Wipeout. A little pricey, but you’ll leave with a car full of exhausted kids. Adults can jump too – or just hang out in the observation perch to keep an eye on everyone.

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Altitude Trampoline Park
Altitude Trampoline Park is located at 1702 General Electric Road, Bloomington.

Sledding! We’re expecting some chilly weather in the coming weeks, so if we see any precipitation, we’ll likely be ready for some sledding. Two of the best sledding spots in town are Jersey Hill (Ewing Park III, on Jersey Avenue just east of Linden Street), which has a long, slow decline; and Gregory Hill (on Gregory Street near Cottage Avenue), which is a smaller hill but tends to be less crowded. “That age group – keep em moving, that’s what you gotta do,” says Melissa Alcorn, who runs Macaroni Kid of Bloomington-Normal, which offers a popular online calendar filled with family-friendly events.

Are older

The McLean County Museum of History in downtown Bloomington is a low-cost way to show off your community to out-of-town visitors. The nationally accredited museum has five permanent exhibits, including one focused on Abraham Lincoln’s work in McLean County. “You understand how the county came to be. Its early roots and some of the challenges that we had to work through. It gives people a really good sense of perspective about where they live,” said Norris Porter, the museum’s director of development. There’s also a great Route 66-themed gift shop inside the museum in case your visitors are looking for souvenirs or a last-minute gift.

McHistory Museum
Admission to the McLean County Museum of History is $4 for seniors and $5 for adults. Children and students are always free.

Bloomington-Normal has nine antique shops, including two in/around downtown near the history museum. They are A. Gridley Antique Shop and Alley Kats Arts and Antiques. You can find the other local antique shops on the VisitBN.org website.

Just a few blocks to the east of downtown is the historic David Davis Mansion, which is decorated for the holidays and offers Christmas tours much of the week. The mansion was completed in 1872 combines Italianate and Second Empire architectural features and is a model of mid-Victorian style and taste. Its namesake David Davis was a longtime friend of Abraham Lincoln, and a U.S. senator and U.S. Supreme Court justice.

“You could package a whole day – from the museum, to the David Davis Mansion, to shopping or antiquing, to the (Miller Park) Zoo, and you’d have a very full day,” said Porter.

Are foodies

Downtown Bloomington: “When people ask me where to go for restaurants, downtown Bloomington is the area I recommend,” said Larry Carius, who runs the popular Bloomington-Normal Restaurant Scene Facebook page.

In downtown Bloomington, the nationally known farm-to-table restaurant Epiphany Farms is an impressive thing to show off to out-of-town visitors. Rosie’s Pub, Reality Bites, and new barbecue entry Brass Pig are other good choices. But the spot with the most history is Lucca Grill, which opened in 1936 and is the oldest restaurant in the same location in Bloomington-Normal. Its calling card is the A La Baldini pizza.

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The Lucca Grill in downtown Bloomington was established in 1936 by Fred and John Baldini and was named for their hometown of Lucca, Italy.

If you have vegetarians and vegans coming to visit, there are several good options. Under The Ground BloNo is a full-service vegan and vegetarian restaurant that recently opened in downtown Bloomington. The Coffeehouse in Uptown Normal has a deeper menu than its name suggests, with plenty of vegan and gluten-friendly options. And Nightshop in downtown Bloomington has a lot of good options for vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters alike – plus a killer selection of craft beer and nightly entertainment.

For older visitors, they may get a kick out of the old-style dining experience at Jim’s Steakhouse in Bloomington. Carius notes that the locally owned place has a piano bar – a rarity these days. Generally, live music in the piano bar starts at 6:30 p.m. and usually continues until close.

Like craft beer

Bloomington-Normal’s craft beer scene has grown significantly in the 15 years since Destihl opened its restaurant and brewery space at the Shoppes at College Hills.

“I find it amazing that we have six craft breweries in Bloomington-Normal, and we have one in Lexington, which is just a short hop away,” said Larry Carius, who runs the popular Bloomington-Normal Restaurant Scene Facebook page.

Destihl Brewery and Beer Hall in northeast Normal is the largest local brewery, with national and international distribution. Destihl’s claim to fame is its sour beer, although the menu is much more expansive than that. The brewery offers tours too.

White Oak Brewing has arguably the best craft beer in town, even if the taproom’s location in west Normal (just off White Oak Road on Industrial Park Road) is a little unexpected.

Keg Grove Brewing Co. in Bloomington has a great location, tucked into a residential area near the Illinois Wesleyan University campus and just off Constitution Trail.

Lil Beaver Brewery in south Bloomington has done a lot of renovations recently, so the indoor and outdoor seating areas are great. The jumbo pretzel is the highlight of a solid menu.

The jumbo pretzel with beer cheese at Lil Beaver Brewery in south Bloomington.

Casper Brewing Co. in southeast Bloomington is the second-newest brewery to open. They specialize in Bavarian and other German styles of beer.

Fiala Brothers Brewery and Beer Hall in Uptown Normal is the newest brewery in town. The menu includes a delicious mix of grilled cheeses.

Fiala Brothers Brewery and Beer Hall
Fiala Brothers Brewery and Beer Hall in Uptown Normal is the newest brewery in town.

Analytical Brewing is located in Lexington, about 20 minutes northeast of Bloomington-Normal. It’s a worth a trip, as there are also several other nice shops and restaurants in downtown Lexington.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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