French Lick is one of those weird and wonderful towns that you only learn about by peeling back its layers. You can do this by checking out all the amazing things to do in French Lick, Indiana: like exploring their historic resorts from the early 1900s, wandering the grounds of sulfurous mineral springs people used to drink from for health, and seeing the image of a sinister-looking horned red man everywhere. No, I am not making this up.
Sometimes it only takes 48-hours to fall in love with a place so luxurious, so historical, so strange. It leaves an impression on you, making you want to know how — and why — a place like this ever came to exist. Let’s jump into its fascinating history and check out all the best things to do in French Lick, Indiana.
Check out a few of these other posts:
- 17 Romantic Getaways In Kentucky: Where To Eat, Drink, Play & Stay
- 12 Cozy Things To Do In Indiana In Winter
- 15 Gorgeous Red River Gorge Cabins (with Hot Tubs!)
Things to do in French Lick, indiana
Pulling into the town of French Lick really feels like driving back in time, where you cannot separate the fascinating history from the essence of the place, like a forgotten dream.
Highways and gas stations give way to two huge historic hotels, both colored pale yellow against the blue sky, with verandas and rocking chairs and round columned structures in formal gardens. These hotels are separated by only a mile (and owned by the same family today), and are connected by walking paths and a 1930s railroad trolley car.
But once upon a time, over a hundred years ago, these hotels were a place for people to come and relax, and drink lots and lots of laxative mineral water.
Learn your history at the Museum
In the middle of town stands a colorful museum in a little shopping center. As you walk up to the French Lick West Baden Museum, you see a 7-foot-tall golden statue of what seems to be the devil in the window, and you know, yes, this is going to be weird.
The museum details the entire history of the area, from when the Miami, Piankashaw, and Shawnee Tribes followed the Buffalo Trace, AKA the bison migration from Vincennes, Indiana to Clarksville, Indiana. Once the French colonizers came through, they made the discovery that these bison were “licking” the minerals left from the Ice Age.
Eventually, the town was founded by Dr. William Augustus Bowles, a politician, physician and businessman turned grave robber (for science, of course), traitor, and eventual hotel builder – building the first French Lick Springs Hotel in the 1840s. In 1901 a man named Tom Taggart bought the French Lick Springs Hotel and started bottling the local mineral laxative water, eventually naming it “Pluto Water” after the Roman God of the Underworld.
In the museum, there are also displays featuring famous French Lick basketball player Larry Bird; gambling; the Monon Railroad connecting Chicago, Louisville, and French Lick; and their biggest exhibit – the World’s Largest Circus Diorama.
What does the world’s largest circus diorama entail? Well, a lot. The display is over 1100 Square Feet and depicts the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus (a contemporary of the Ringling Brothers) with over 150,000 pieces, big top, circus performers, sideshow, and all. It’s easy to get lost in this display, picking out all the tiny, hand-painted details that took a man named Peter Gorman over forty years to complete.
Explore the West Baden Springs Hotel
The West Baden Springs Hotel still looks as impressive as it must have looked in 1902 – driving through the giant arches at the entrance down the manicured driveway past gardens, and of course, the large, domed hotel itself. West Baden wasn’t called “The Eighth Wonder of the World” for nothing.
Inside the yellow facade gives way to golds, tans, and greens in the outer hallways, until you step through the double doors into the natural light of the atrium. The 110 feet tall and 200 feet across atrium is adorned with Greek statues, gold-leafed columns that reach the ceiling, and plenty of places to sit and enjoy the ambiance of such a stunning piece of architecture.
Besides checking out the finely crafted ornamentation of the actual hotel, which you can easily spend hours doing, they have their own gift shops, cafes, spa, and museum, where you can dig even deeper into the history of the hotel itself (more on that below).
If you’re a guest of the West Baden Springs Hotel, be sure to check out their beautiful lap pool and hot tub, with more columns, natural light, and a checkered floor. It’s not your average hotel pool – it’s a luxurious experience. And it stays open until midnight – hotel pools are never open late enough, are they?
Wander Around The gardens
If you step outside the doors of either the West Baden Springs Hotel or the neighboring French Lick Springs Hotel you will find gardens. A normal visitor may not notice the old wells outside – all capped, some demolished for good. But the ones that are left clue us in to a very, let’s say, cleansing part of French Lick’s history.
French Lick was built upon sulfurous mineral springs that were said to have healing and cleansing properties. The water contained sodium and magnesium sulfate, and people would come here (or purchased the bottled water around the country) to drink this water.
But what did this water do exactly? Well, it was a laxative. People would be directed or prescribed by their doctor to drink up to ten glasses of this water per day, and let the properties flush them with it. It’s no surprise wealthy Chicagoans used to come here after Derby for a little “purge”. It was even prescribed to be taken against the Spanish Flu!
People would be given drinking glasses on sticks to dip directly into the well, then they would drink it and wander around the garden with canes. The canes weren’t used for support, rather, when that water decided to do the trick, they would run into the nearest privy and put the cane on the door to show it was occupied and they were, you know, going.
Around the gardens today you can see some of the remnants from the wells, at the French Lick Spring Hotel you can visit the Pluto Spring Gazebo with the slogan “when nature won’t, PLUTO will” hanging devilishly above the open well. On top of the hotel outside of this well used to stand the Pluto statues that are now in the museum. How’s that for a bathroom audience?
At the West Baden Springs Hotel you can still find two of the wells, named Hygeia and Apollo, in the gardens, and though they have been capped due to the trace amounts of lithium found in the water in 1971, you can take a bridge across the cloudy, sulphury-smelling water nearby. 1971 was also the year the sale of Pluto Water ended (due to lithium becoming a controlled substance), though you can find other ways to drink “Pluto Water”, like this bottle of blue vodka featuring Pluto on it!
Take a History Tour
I know, I know, I’ve already given you so much history, but there is more! And you don’t have to take it from me, there are plenty of ways to learn more about this fascinating place while you visit. Whether you want to chat with a historian, take a walking tour, or even pair history with tea!
- Meet with Resort Historian/Archivist Jeffrey Lane: On Tuesdays & Fridays January-March from 2-3pm you can meet Jeff Lane, the resort historian/archivist. Here in this little museum off the atrium, you can explore the history of the springs and hotels, how they changed ownership, how a movie called So Cold The River was filmed here, and how West Baden Springs Hotel fell into disrepair and almost was lost for good. Jeff Lane will answer all your questions and tell you about other cool gems, like how West Baden had their own mineral water called “Sprudel” (German for mineral water), with a German imp mascot named, what else, Sprudel.
- Take a Guided Tour of French Lick or West Baden: If you want to hear more about these hotels and see what’s being talked about at the same time, both hotels offer a 60-75 minute walking tour. Discover more about how famous Pluto Water was (it was on the cover of National Geographic), learn about the mysterious Angel Room above the atrium, and why this area had so many illegal casinos (French Lick was the OG Las Vegas with over 19 illicit casinos).
- Afternoon Tea & Tour: Learn all about the West Baden Springs Hotel on the 70-minute tour, which ends with tea! You’ll sit in the gorgeous atrium sipping gourmet teas and eating finger sandwiches, petit fours and scones while you marvel at the wonder of this strange place.
- Do a self-guided walking tour: Want to see more of the gardens and dig into the history yourself? Follow this walking tour complete with a map to really get your hands wet. You can explore both hotels, the grounds, and even take the rail trolley between them!
Get Dinner at The French Lick Springs Hotel
Getting Dinner at the French Lick’s 1875: The Steakhouse is the perfect way to enjoy the luxury of the French Lick Springs Hotel. Walking into the lobby ornately decorated with gilded designs, marble columns, Greek gods and goddesses covering the ceiling, and mosaic tiles on the floor will very possibly make your jaw actually drop.
1875: The Steakhouse is a fine dining experience that begins with something unusual – a very small glass of tomato juice is served. What is this? I didn’t order this. French Lick, Indiana has another small and strange claim to fame – tomato juice was invented here.
On a day in 1917, the hotel’s chef Louis Perrin realized he was out of oranges, so he reached for… the next best thing? Tomatoes? Mixing them with a little sugar and his secret sauce, tomato juice was born! I guess he just knew all these people drinking laxative water needed a V8.
Anyway, the steakhouse offers standard cuts of well-prepared meat, and great appetizers like lobster bisque and Caesar salad. The 1875 Chocolate Martini is one of the most gorgeous and decadent drinks I’ve had, and the Banana Foster cannot be missed – it’s a literal show. They flambé bananas in rum and brown sugar in front of you on a little cart and pour it over vanilla ice cream. How could that be bad?
After dinner, wander around the hotel and take in more of the history, with display cases of Pluto Water memorabilia, a miniature of West Baden, photographs of famous people who’ve visited (like, everyone), and even walk through an underground stone tunnel to a bowling alley.
Celebrate Circus Day
Each June French Lick has its circus day, to celebrate the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus that once called French Lick home. The circus itself was a big deal – it was actually the second-largest circus in America after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus!
The circus was actually bought by Ed Ballard in 1913, the owner of the West Baden Springs Hotel, and French Lick, Indiana was the circus’s winter headquarters. In 1929 Ballard sold the circus to the Ringling Brothers – right before the stock market crash.
Circus Day is held in front of the French Lick West Baden Museum, so this is an excellent excuse to look at the World’s Largest Circus Diorama of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and join in some circus-themed fun. There are food trucks, bounce houses, carnival games, and even the largest circus wagon called the Barnum & Bailey Two Hemispheres circus band wagon, which yes, fits an entire band in it.
Circus Day actually began in 2018, on the 100th anniversary of the Hammond Circus Train Wreck which took the lives of 86 performers of the Hagenbeck Wallace Circus when an engineer of another train fell asleep at the controls. The train crashed into the caboose and four sleeping cars of the circus train, causing a fire to break loose due to oil lamps and wooden cars.
While this may have been a tragic event, French Lick honors those performers and pays tribute to its colorful past!
Ride the French Lick Scenic Railway
One train you can feel completely safe on is the French Lick Scenic Railway, an 18-mile round trip that’s like riding back in time. On this 1.75-hour train ride, you will get to ride a historic train while you pass through portions of Hoosier National Forest.
The train also passes through the second longest tunnel in Indiana, the 2200-foot Burton Tunnel, which is almost a half-mile long! You’ll see lush foliage rolling by and impressive limestone cuts from your window seat as you listen to the conductor narrate your journey. There’s also a double-decker train car to check out nature from higher above!
The best time to visit is in the fall, when all the leaves are changing for the ultimate autumnal vibes and the weather is cool (not all train cars are air-conditioned). Spring is also a wonderful time when you can catch a peek at budding trees and wildflowers.
Check out the spas
Lucky for you, both the French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs Hotel each has their own spa, so there’s double the chance of relaxing is what I am hearing!
The spa at West Baden is one of the best ways to luxuriate and really take your visit to the next level. Walking down a long hallway to a building off the main atrium, the Spa at West Baden is located above their Natatorium and is complete with marble inlaid floors, deep chocolate cabinetry and hand-blown glass to create a tranquil environment.
They have plenty of treatments, but their Swedish Massage is a fabulous way to get out those knots and “reset”. They lower the lights, play ambient music and cover you with hot towels as they get those muscles nice and loose. Afterward, relax in the sauna in the dressing room and fully let go!
The Spa at French Lick has a fun treatment that West Baden doesn’t – their Signature Pluto Bath. You know what that means! You get to soak in the historic healing mineral spring waters that guests have enjoyed here since the 1800s. I like to call this immersive history.
Go for a horseback or carriage ride
French Lick Resort has so many things to do (as we’ve established) and you can add horses into the mix! French Lick Resort is home to 27 horses at their stables, specifically, and there are plenty of ways to get to know these adorable equines!
- Go for a carriage ride – What better way to take in the gorgeousness of the campus than by horse-drawn carriage? Take a daytime ride, or even a nighttime ride for more romance, and take in the beauty of the gardens and mineral springs.
- Take a horseback ride – If you need a more hands-on experience, go horseback riding for 45 to 90 minutes, with pony rides for the little ones. On the 8-miles of trails bordering the Hoosier National Forest, you can see red-tail hawks, deer, turkeys and other Indiana wildlife.
- Meet the horses at the stables – Love horses, but would prefer not to ride them? You can meet the horses at the stables and take photos with them, including Pepsi, a full-grown miniature horse who is sure to melt your heart and maybe eat your carrots.
take a wine cruise at patoka lake
Located just 20 minutes from French Lick is Patoka Lake, an 8,800-acre man-made lake that spans over three counties. While you can do all kinds of things here, like swim, hike, waterski, and spend the night in a houseboat, one of the most gorgeous ways to experience the lake is by taking a wine cruise! I mean, does anything pair better than a boat and wine?
There are two ways to take in the beauty of Patoka Lake – either by taking a Sunset Wine Cruise between June-August or by taking an afternoon Fall Foliage Wine Cruise in September & October. Both cruises feature hors d’oeuvres/desserts paired with 5-7 tastings of wine and 2 full glasses of your favorite wine. You even get a souvenir wine glass!
On the two-hour journey, you may see Patoka’s resident birds of prey like the bald eagle, owls, hawks, as you sail along calm waters. Each cruise features wines from different Indiana wineries, and they have served wine from local wineries like French Lick Winery, Winzerwald Winery , and Turtle Run Winery in the past. If you need a peaceful activity for a resort town, this is sure it!
Sometimes when winter hits the call of the pristine white slopes call to you. Luckily, there is a ski run right by French Lick in the town of Paoli if you’re visiting during the winter!
Spend your day skiing down the wooded hills of Paoli Peaks, located about 15 minutes from French Lick. Paoli Peaks welcomes skiers, snowboarders, and those who enjoy snow tubing. With the beauty of snow-covered trees and views of the valley below to inspire you, choose from 1 of 17 runs to soar down.
Later, you can stop in their cafeteria-style restaurant (with more seating than your average airport) when you need a slice of pizza as big as your head. Click here to check out their First Timer’s Guide.
If you want to stay close to the snow action, check out this private and cozy cottage which is about 4 miles from Paoli Peaks. It’s the perfect place to warm up for the night after a long day on the slopes – you can curl up around the fire pit and enjoy the peaceful quiet of winter with your partner.
visit at Christmas
Each Christmas at the West Baden Springs Hotel and the French Lick Springs Hotel they do 50 Days of Lights at the hotels, an almost 2-month celebration of all things bright and cheery.
At the West Baden Springs Hotel, the atrium is ornamented with a 45-foot Christmas tree and the balcony rooms are decked with garland and bows. You can hear the Dickens Carolers singing certain Saturdays in the atrium as well, where the acoustics are fantastic.
At the French Lick Springs Hotel, there is a whole slew of Christmas activities to keep you busy. You can find an almost-life-sized Christmas Village, meet Santa, watch Christmas movies, and enjoy story time with Mrs. Claus.
At nighttime, go outside to watch the Spa Wing of French Lick Springs Hotel be transformed into a vibrant eight-minute holiday light show while a soundtrack of holiday sounds fills the air as the building seems to magically come to life. At the West Baden Springs Hotel, you can watch as the lights dim in the atrium at 9pm as a relaxing light show with a piano Christmas score plays.
Where to Stay in French Lick, Indiana
With so many things to do in French Lick, Indiana, you’ll probably want to stay a couple days – or more! To be right in the heart of the action, staying at the West Baden Springs Hotel (in an atrium balcony room if you can swing it) or the French Lick Springs Hotel are obvious choices. But if you prefer to just explore the hotels during the day or are on a budget, check out these awesome rentals:
- For a budget option that is right in the heart of town, check out this cozy bungalow. You’ll be less than a mile from the French Lick Resorts and you can have your own little getaway, complete with a covered outdoor picnic bench to enjoy the flower garden.
- This beautifully crafted lodge will have you feeling a million miles away on 9 acres of Hoosier National Forest, but in fact, you’ll only be 5 miles away from French Lick. Take in the stunning scenery of the wooden lodge with a fire pit, rocking chairs, outdoor shower, grill station, and 3 king-sized beds to bring your friends or family along!
- Also located about 5 miles away from French Lick is this little cabin located on 55 acres and is only 427 square feet! Inside you’ll find a little living room, kitchen, bathroom, loft with twin beds, and bedroom with a queen mattress – a great place to try tiny living! Explore the miles of trails and pond on the property and the solitude of nature.
Which of these things to do in French Lick, Indiana do you want to do first? What questions can we answer? Drop us a comment below!
Before you go, be sure to check out these other posts:
- 17 Romantic Getaways In Kentucky: Where To Eat, Drink, Play & Stay
- 12 Cozy Things To Do In Indiana In Winter
- 15 Gorgeous Red River Gorge Cabins (with Hot Tubs!)
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Disclaimer: Our visit to French Lick was sponsored, but all opinions, bad jokes, and asides are my own. Special thanks to historian Jeff Lane and museum director Kenton Allbright for their help and amazing French Lick stories!