Now that college football is back, we are itching to plan a trip to Notre Dame. This happens every year; you can’t beat Fall in South Bend, especially a football weekend! All the trees start changing, the air is crisp, and everyone is rooting for the Irish.
Now I’ll be honest: South Bend isn’t the sexiest of cities. Before we moved to South Bend (we lived there one year while Matt was in the MBA program), we heard about the crime, the poverty, the lack of upscale restaurants, no shopping, etc etc etc. *but* we were pleasantly surprised!
Would I want to live there forever? No. But it was a great little city with a lot to offer if you were willing to look. And I’m about to let you in on ALL the hidden gems…
Where to Eat
JJ Fish and Chicken – The hidden gem of all hidden gems. We overheard one of the football players raving about this place so we obviously had to check it out. We were hooked after the first bite. Fried chicken wings liberally dusted with lemon pepper? YES. PLEASE. Let’s get something out of the way: this place is kinda sketchy. Also, there is only one table inside because you’re meant to take it to-go; you probably wouldn’t want to linger anyways. The solution: call in your order and swing by to pick up. Make sure to specify that you want your wings with the lemon pepper – that’s the secret!
Rocco’s – If it’s good enough for Taylor Swift, it’s good enough for me! Casual pizza in a homey atmosphere, but there is often a wait so be aware of that. Fun fact: the restaurant closes for part of the Summer because the family that owns it goes back to Italy for a whole month!
Bruno’s – Another pizza joint, this one has photos all around of famous individuals who have dined over the years. Not my personal favorite, but it’s a good option and a South Bend classic. There is a location downtown, but I’ve only been to the one north of campus.
Cafe Navarre – An upscale restaurant housed in an old bank, this place is great if you’re looking for somewhere nicer to celebrate.
Cambodian Thai – Matt still talks about the Tom Yum soup with chicken, it’s so good! Perfect on a chilly day. There is absolutely zero ambiance here but you won’t even care after your first piping hot spoonful of that soup.
Blaze Pizza – I know this place is a chain, but I can’t help it, I love it. The simple pie with pesto will only put you back $5, which explains why we ended up here at least once a week #gradschoolbudget
Ichiban Golden Dragon – A hole in the wall sushi restaurant right by where we lived, we would also go here at least once a week. They had a student deal: $25 for a boat with a California Roll, a roll of your choice, 5 pieces of sushi, and an appetizer. Not sure if they still offer this deal, but it’s certainly worth checking!
JW Chen’s – Another hole in the wall near where we lived, this Chinese restaurant was recommended to us by a friend who attended Notre Dame. His advice: “Mrs. Chen’s typical practice is to pull a chair right up to your table and ask if you want her to “surprise you.” The answer to that question is yes. She’ll ask about favorite meats, favorite vegetables, and allergies.” And that’s exactly what happened.
Tapastrie – A cute tapas restaurant located downtown.
Tippacanoe – I never ate here but Matt did and said it was great.
Girasol – Authentic El Salvadorian pupusas hand made to order by the little old lady that owns the place, this spot is the real deal. Be warned: it’s cash only and the hours are finicky so prepare accordingly.
La Esperanza – To be completely honest, the only thing I can recommend is the carne asada. But it’s dirt cheap and really good, and paired with some really good chips and salsa – you can’t ask for much more.
Fiesta Tapatia – Similar to the above, I can’t say that everything on the menu is amazing, but the fajitas are really good! And again, dirt cheap. Are you eating in what clearly used to be a Wendy’s? Yes. But it adds to the charm. Welcome to South Bend.
Where to Drink
The Linebacker – The most infamous of Notre Dame undergrad bars. Hot tip: just refer to it as “The Backer” so you sound like you belong. Another hot tip: wear shoes you don’t mind ruining. You will get stepped on a thousand times and your feet will stick to the ground from all the spilled beer. But then they’ll play “All I Want for Christmas is You” (every. single. night. doesn’t matter the time of year) and you’ll sing along, forgetting that you’re trapped in a sweaty mosh pit.
Corby’s – Another great college bar, this one works for the young crowd just as well as the older. No frills, but gets the job done, isn’t as crowded, and has an outdoor patio for when the weather is nice.
The Exchange – Easily the nicest bar in town, this place has a speakeasy feel to it as there is no notable signage so you’ve got to be “in the know”. If you’re a whiskey drinker then you’re in luck as they have over 300 to choose from. If, like me, you’re not, you’re also in luck because they have a great cocktail menu.
Fiddler’s Hearth – With live music most nights, this pub is a great place to get in the Irish spirit.
What to Do
Attend a football game. Let’s be real, if you’re paying a visit to South Bend, you’re likely there for a football game! For the full experience, head to the Golden Dome at 12 midnight the night before the game for to see the drumline hold their traditional Midnight Drummers’ Circle. Then come back to the same spot the next day to watch the cheerleaders and marching band march out to the stadium. Tip: You’ll want to stand on the east side of the walkway, just outside of the LaFortune Student Center so that as soon as they march past, you can run to the stadium to see them again before heading in to the game.
During the game, be sure to watch as the students lift each other up to do push-ups after every touchdown, keep an eye on the senior section during the last home game as they toss marshmallows, listen up for former Indiana State Police Sgt. Tim McCarthy’s dry, witty, safety message from the vaults at the end of the third quarter and be sure to stay for the singing of the Alma Mater at the conclusion of the game.
Attend an Irish hockey game. The Compton Family Ice Arena is next level. If you’re a student, get there a little early so you can sit right on the glass! Watching hockey will never be the same.
Really, attend any Notre Dame sporting game you can.
White water raft through downtown South Bend via the East River Waterway. The first artificial white water course in North America, its rapids rival those of the Colorado River. I can attest that it is intense – I may or may not have cried – but it’s a blast and a really unique SB experience! Note: it is only open during the Summer months.
Bike around the Notre Dame campus. If you’re able to get your hands on a bike, the best way to see campus is by riding through it. I miss our daily evening rides so much!
Cheer on the South Bend Cubs, the city’s minor league baseball team. The atmosphere at the stadium is really fun and you might just see some of the players playing for the Chicago Cubs later on down the road.
Check out the schedule at the Morris Performing Arts Center to see what’s in town. From Broadway shows to concerts and symphonies, this landmark theater hosts some incredible live entertainment that will make you feel like you’re in a big city.
Things of Note on Campus
Touchdown Jesus – Did you even visit Notre Dame if you don’t get this classic photo?!
Notre Dame Stadium – Tours are offered, check availability before your visit.
Basilica of the Sacred Heart – This beautiful church serves as the mother church of the Congregation of Holy Cross in the United States. Take a guided tour, attend Mass or Vespers, or stop in for Reconciliation.
The Golden Dome – Easily the most recognizable landmark on the Notre Dame campus, the golden dome sits atop the Main Building. Rumor has it, the dome’s re-gilding is subsidized by the regional airport as the dome is used by pilots as a visual ground reference! Not sure if that’s true, but it’s a fun fact if it is!
The lakes – Located on the northwest corner of campus are the St. Mary’s Lake and the St. Joseph’s Lake, with a walking path around both. My favorite was the St. Joseph’s lake, not just because he’s my favorite, but also it feels slightly more “hidden” with all the tree coverage.
The grotto – A replica of the famed shrine in Lourdes, the Marian grotto is a quiet place for reflection. Light a candle and say a prayer or come by at 6:45 PM for the rosary, prayed every evening rain or shine. Be sure to notice the small piece of stone located on the right-hand side of the shrine directly below the statue of Mary – it’s from the original grotto in France!
How to Get to South Bend
South Bend Airport (SBN) – A regional airport located mere mintues from downtown, this is the easiest way to arrive. With only a handful of gates, it is extremely quick to get through security but do beware, delays are aplenty when flying out.
Chicago Airports (ORD and MDW) – A two hour drive from South Bend, the Chicago airports are probably the most frequently used method of getting to South Bend. There are also bus options or two train options: the South Shore Line (departs from Millenium Station and arrives at the South Bend Airport) and the Amtrak (departs from Union Station and arrives at South Bend Station (SOB), 7 minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from campus). *I used to take the trains into the city for work each week and can vouch that both are reliable options, just be sure you know which line you’re taking so you go to the right station. If you ride the Amtrak, you’ll want to buy your ticket ahead of time, but if you ride the South Shore Line, you can pay with cash on the train when the attendant comes around.*
Grand Rapids Airport (GRR) – The best kept secret! No one seems to realize that the Grand Rapids airport is the same distance as the Chicago airport at around a 2 hour drive. To my knowledge there are not bus or train options, but the airport is significantly easier to navigate than either of the Chicago airports, making it much quicker to get in and out and there are plenty of car rental companies.