At the confluence of charming and accessible, Indiana’s river towns make great weekend getaways. From whitewater kayaking in South Bend to hydroplane races in Madison, thrill seekers will have no problem getting their feet wet.
Three scenic rivers converge in downtown Fort Wayne, and they drew people here long before Europeans built the log structure that gave the city its name. A replica of the Old Fort occupies a park along the St. Marys today, but everything around it has been modernized in one of Indiana’s most ambitious riverfront development projects.
The best place to start your adventure is Fort Wayne Outfitters. There, just a few feet from the water and greenways, you can rent bikes and kayaks to explore the city’s riverfront. More than 8 miles of trails line both sides of the tributaries, with pedestrian bridges across in multiple places. Colorful kayaks hang from an elevated path across from Promenade Park, which was completed in 2019. At Promenade, terraced concrete steps lead down to the banks, with new playground equipment, pingpong tables, gardens, fountains, an amphitheater, and a cafe attracting big crowds.
Just two blocks away, an arts campus hosts the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and the Louis Kahn–designed Arts United Center, among other venues for concerts, theater, and dance. Science Central, a fine children’s museum, sits on the St. Marys.
When it’s time to unwind, The Bradley, which opened this summer, is the place to stay. The brainchild of Vera Bradley cofounder Barbara Baekgaard, the boutique hotel features a rooftop bistro with an impressive view of the rivers. Nearby, The Landing—a pedestrian-only dining district—is home to such eateries as the Landing Beer Company gastropub and the Asian-fusion joint Nawa. The latter’s Bison Deck, under an enormous mural of Indiana’s state-seal animal, is the perfect place to catch the sunset after a happy day of paddling.
Indiana is home to two St. Joseph rivers, and while the one that winds its way through Fort Wayne is native to our state, the St. Joseph in South Bend, which begins and ends in Michigan, is just visiting. This guest flows north through the city past the University of Notre Dame and has a lot to offer along its shores.
While recent floods damaged several pedestrian trails there, South Bend is in the process of building them back, and much of the construction in the area should be done by next year. Centrally located Howard Park is a great hangout along the water’s edge, offering outdoor yoga, fountains, a summer concert series, and ice skating in the winter months. You can grab a bite in the park itself at the full-service Howard Park Public House or South Bend Chocolate Company’s to-go window. Farther south, the Ironhand Wine Bar serves locally made wine and a rustic menu with a view of the St. Joseph from the patio. Across the river, Crooked Ewe Brewery caters to IPA and wheat beer lovers. The nearby South Bend Farmers Market is open year-round and features more than 50 vendors.
North of Howard Park lies the East Bank Village, home to several cool shops. The cozy Circa Arts Gallery sells pottery and furniture with a focus on locally made, Arts and Crafts–style items. And Inspire Me offers a little bit of everything in women’s fashion inside a huge, yellow Victorian house.
Downtown hosts several other boutiques, as well as the best riverfront hotel: the Hilton DoubleTree. You’ll find several cultural venues close by, including the South Bend Museum of Art and the Morris Performing Arts Center. Follow the kaleidoscope-style tunnel from the hotel’s parking area into Pier Park for excellent views of the city’s public art installation, River Lights. When it’s operational (it’s temporarily down due to construction), towers of colored LEDs on both banks make the St. Joseph glow like Notre Dame’s Golden Dome at night.
Since the 1980s, thrill seekers have been kayaking the manmade whitewater rapids of East Race Waterway through downtown South Bend for a unique adventure.
When a hulu production team came to town in 2016 to film the eight-part series Small Business Revolution, downtown Wabash—with its three-story Victorians and Italianate commercial district—was showing its age. Thanks to the exposure and more than $1 million in façade improvement grants that followed, its status as one of Indiana’s best river towns has been restored.
White Rock Recreation (800 S. Wabash St., 260-563-9060, whiterock.eco) should be your first stop. In a town where some of the riverfront is still occupied by industry, White Rock offers a fun place to grab ice cream or pizza, play pingpong, and, most importantly, rent kayaks and canoes. Once you’ve taken one of their paddling trips, which range from one to six hours, a walk around the historic downtown is in order. A few shops, such as Brimso’s Antiques (116 S. Wabash St., 260-569-1865, brimsos-antiques.business.site) and the expansive Reading Room Books (264 S. Wabash St., 260-563-6421), have been attractions for years. But a new generation of shop owners has opened some cute clothing boutiques, including Bellazo Revived Style (35 W. Market St., 260-225-7271, bellazorevivedstyle .com) and Birdie J’s (79 W. Market St., 260-377-9493, birdiejs.com).
You might expect a town of just 10,000 people to be devoid of entertainment options, but Wabash is home to two great theaters that attract the likes of Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett, and The Beach Boys. The Honeywell Center (275 W. Market St., 260-563-1102, honeywellarts.org) and the Eagles Theatre (106 W. Market St., 260-563-3272, honeywellarts .org) host shows most weekends, including some Broadway productions. A few dining options also reside downtown, the best of which is Market Street Grill (90 W. Market St., 260-563-7799, msgrill .com), operating in what was once a gorgeous 19th-century furniture store.
As for accommodations, there’s no close competition for Charley Creek Inn (111 W. Market St., 260-563-0111, charleycreekinn.com). A boutique hotel built in 1920, it features an old-fashioned candy shop and nine suites worth the additional cost over the standard rooms. Like the Hulu crew, you might find yourself captivated by Wabash’s charm and decide to stay awhile.
In addition to serving some excellent coffee and pastries, Modoc’s Market (205 S. Miami St., 260-569-1281, modocsmarket.com) has a story to tell. It involves the escape of a famous local circus elephant, and it’s worth having breakfast there to hear.
Some say New Harmony is a “vortex” — one of those rare places where extra energy swirls. Others will tell you that it’s a “thin place,” where very little separates the worlds of the living and the dead. Regardless of what you believe, the Southern Indiana village’s Utopian history, along with its serene setting along the Wabash River, makes it a great place to unwind for a weekend.
Begin your visit steps away from the river with a meditative walk through the Cathedral Labyrinth (301 North St.), the Labyrinth State Memorial (1313 Main St.), or the Philip Johnson–designed Roofless Church (420 North St.). The Atheneum Visitors Center (401 Arthur St., 812-682-4474, visitnewharmony.com/location/atheneum-visitors-center) offers guided history tours and golf cart rentals, which are the best way to explore the small town. New Harmony maintains several miles of trails along the river’s edge with an abundance of picturesque spots to picnic near the water. The boat ramp and canoe launch are also located near the visitor’s center for those in the mood to float down to the Old Dam or Harmonie State Park (3451 Harmonie State Park Rd., 812-682-4821, in.gov/dnr/state-parks).
The town, which has long been a mecca for artists and philosophers, boasts several blocks of art galleries, antiques shops, and restaurants. Firehouse Antiques (608 S. Main St., 812-781-1390, firehouse-antiques.com) resides in an old fire station and stocks vintage decorative items. The Hoosier Salon (507 Church St., 812-682-3970, hoosiersalon.org) hangs work by Indiana artists. And craftsmen at the New Harmony Dulcimer Company (310 S. Main St., 812-205-6781, newharmonydulcimers .com) sell their handmade instruments in a showroom that’s worth visiting even if you don’t play. In the center of it all, Sara’s Harmony Way & Wine Bar (500 Church St., 812-682-3611, saras harmonyway.com) is a great spot to treat yourself, morning or night. A coffee shop and cafe sit on one side, and a wine bar and pub occupy the other. After a tranquil day, put your feet up at the New Harmony Inn (504 North St.,812-682-4431, newharmonyinn.com), which offers rooms and private guest houses with historic appeal. Your energy will thank you.
You don’t have to believe in spirits to enjoy one of the Haunted New Harmony Ghost Walks (525 Church St., haunted newharmony.com). Joni Mayhan and her team tell the fascinating history of the town and the people who made it—including the ones who stuck around.
Situated on a horseshoe bend in the Ohio, this “River City” often gets overlooked despite its miles of waterfront. Exploring it by foot is doable but can take all day, so consider borrowing from Upgrade Bike Share (various locations, walkbikeevv.org).
The Pagoda (401 SE Riverside Dr., 812-421-2200, visitevansville.com) has been a popular gathering spot for more than a century and now houses the city’s visitor center. Along the adjoining Pigeon Creek Greenway, you can visit the excellent Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science (411 SE Riverside Dr., 812-425-2406, emuseum.org) or tour the World War II ship USS LST-325 (610 NW Riverside Dr., 812-435-8678, lstmemorial.org).
Nearby, the state’s coolest location of Bru Burger (222 Sycamore St., 812-302-3005, bruburgerbar.com) resides in an Art Deco former Greyhound station. River City Coffee + Goods (223 Main St., 812-550-1695, rivercityevv.com) doubles as an espresso joint and gift shop. And the new Hyatt Place hotel (202 SE 2nd St., 812-777-3203, hyatt.com), Evansville’s best, sits two blocks from the water.
Just outside downtown, impressive 19th-century houses—including the Reitz Home Museum (112 Chestnut St., 812-426-1871, reitzhome.com)—line the streets of the Riverside Historic District.
For more contemporary fun, Haynie’s Corner Arts District (hayniescorner .com) hosts galleries and entertainment venues. First Fridays are a great time to explore the quirky showrooms, such as 22 Jefferson Art Studios and Gallery (22 Jefferson Ave., 812-459-5182). Bokeh Lounge (1007 Parrett St., 812-909-0388, bokehvibes.com) has live bands several nights a week. All of it sits within easy walking distance of the river.
Whether you’re a gambler or not, the piano bar at the Tropicana casino (421 NW Riverside Dr., 812-433-4000, tropevansville.com) is worth a visit for its views of the water.
Against a backdrop of rolling hills, Madison may be Indiana’s quintessential river town. With a couple miles of river frontage and rows of Federal and Greek Revival architecture, the entire downtown is a National Historic District. But the place still knows how to have a good time, hosting festivals throughout the year (visitmadison.org).
An old-fashioned carriage ride (Broomtail Carriage Co., 812-756-4168) provides a good introduction, but be sure to hop off and explore Main Street to get a closer look at the town’s many boutiques. With women’s fashions upstairs and home goods in the basement, Betty Jeffries (129 E. Main St., 812-274-9353, bettyjeffries.com) offers vintage-inspired styles. James Dell Men’s Shop and Barbershop (108 W. Main St., 812-274-9396, jamesdell.shop) sells dress shirts, ties, and a shave under one roof.
Thanks to a steady flow of tourists, Madison supports plenty of great places to eat as well. Crafted Coffee Co. (329 W. Main St., 812-274-0739, craftedcoffee madison.com) serves scratchmade muffins alongside a mean cup of Joe. At Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop (204 W. Main St., 812-265-3919, hinkle burger.com), you can get a perfect smashburger and shake. And Red on Main (122 E. Main St., 812-274-0105, red-on-main.business.site) offers intimate bistro dining inside a shotgun building.
Nature lovers will want to hike the trails and gorges to waterfall views at nearby Clifty Falls State Park (2221 Clifty Dr., 812-273-8885, in.gov/dnr/state-parks). But for those disinclined to get muddy, Madison has a dynamic nightlife scene, with nearly a dozen live-music venues. The Mad Paddle Brewstillery (301 West St., 812-274-0595, mad
paddle.com) and Red Bicycle Hall (125 E. Main St., 812-701-7221, redbicyclehall.com) regularly host local bands.
When the day is done, you can rest your head at one of the many vacation rentals in town or listen to the river from the Fairfield Inn (108 St. Michaels Ave., 812-274-5900, marriott.com). The new hotel, operated by Marriott, opened this summer after a massive renovation of the 19th-century Eagle Cotton Mill.
For a fast-paced river adventure, take a jet boat ride at Rockin’ Thunder River Tours (100 E. Vaughn Dr., 812-701-1155, rockin thunder.com).
With its sweeping views of Louisville, miles of bicycle trails, and nearby Falls of the Ohio State Park (201 W. Riverside Dr., 812-280-9970, fallsof theohio.org), Jeffersonville squeezes a lot of attractions into a compact footprint. Big 4 Station Park (304 Mulberry St., 812-285-6440, jeffparks.org) acts as a hub for much of it. There, you can access the Big 4 Pedestrian Bridge to cross the river, shop the Saturday-morning farmers market, or sip a bubble tea near the foot of the bridge at Fresco Tea Bar (223 Pearl St., frescoteabar.com). Steps away from the park is Union Restaurant and Gameyard (115 W. Chestnut St., 812-590-1285, uniongameyard.com), an eatery and outdoor play space with giant beer pong, fowling, and other goofy sports. On nearby Spring Street, you’ll find additional places to grab a snack including the Red Yeti (256 Spring St., 812-288-5788, redyetijeff.com), Jeff’s original farm-to-table hangout, and Schimpff’s Confectionery (347 Spring St., 812-283-8367, schimpffs.com), the town’s well-known candy store famous for its cinnamon Red Hots.
Historic homes dot the riverfront along the Ohio River Greenway (ohiorivergreenway.org), which also leads to the RiverStage (W. Riverside Dr., 812-319-3280, jeffparks.org/the-riverstage), a floating concert venue during the summer months. Snag a LouVelo bike (502-373-2500, louvelo.com) from one of the several Indiana-side stations and ride a stretch of the trail connecting Jeffersonville to the neighboring towns of Clarksville and New Albany. Along the way, you’ll find charming shops such as Sapphire on Spring (326 Spring St., 812-920-0017, sapphireboutique.com), a ladies’ boutique with trendsetting styles, including an impressive collection of Derby hats.
As for accommodations, it’s tough to beat the Market Street Inn (330 W. Market St., 812-285-1877, innonmarket.com), with its rooftop patio lounge, luxury bathrooms, and three-course chef’s breakfast. The place is only big enough to house seven suites, but like Jeffersonville itself, there’s a lot to like there.
Walking or cycling the mile-long Big 4 Pedestrian Bridge, accessible from Big 4 Station Park (see p. 58), into Louisville is fun any time of day—sunrise views over the Ohio River are worth waking up for, and after dark, the bridge lights up in a variety of colors.