Two Utopian Societies with two different labyrinths. A roofless church with gilded gates. One strange place.
Situated along the Wabash River about 35 minutes outside of Evansville, Indiana, the town of New Harmony, Indiana seems like any other well-manicured midwestern town. But its spic and span look is not just community pride – but hearkens back to when it was a real-life utopian society. Well, actually, two of them.
All over town lush flowers are planted against the wooden homes of the former Utopia members, with a modern labyrinth near the middle of town. And right outside the city center stands a second historic box-hedge labyrinth with a hut standing in the middle. It’s no surprise that artists still flock here to seek inspiration today in this weird and wonderful town.
Luckily our Editor-in-Chief Richie Goff spent a weekend here to tell you all about the best things to do in New Harmony, Indiana. Take it away, Richie!
Psst: looking for more weekend trips near Indiana, Kentucky, or Tennessee? Check out our other posts:
What’s the history of New Harmony, Indiana?
Indiana was originally inhabited by prehistoric mound builders, and later by the Piankeshaw Tribe long before it was ever a Utopian society, but with the Treaty of 1818, these Indigenous People were forced from their land and out of Indiana. While there is no evidence that people lived exactly where New Harmony stands today, it seems likely that Native People once passed through these parts.
What we do know is that in 1814 the town of New Harmony, Indiana was formed by Father Johann George Rapp. Father Rapp was a charismatic leader who originally lead his congregation of Lutheran separatists from Germany to their first utopian settlement in Harmony, Pennsylvania in 1804. They stayed until 1814 when he then moved the group again to Indiana believing that the weather would be more temperate to grow grapes, and “New Harmony” was born.
Father Rapp and his congregation of “Harmonists” or “Rappites” believed that the second coming of Jesus was imminent, and worked hard for ten years building their model community to achieve the Christian ideology of perfectionism. However, everything wasn’t perfect.
While the 850 Harmonists were entirely self-sufficient and produced a wide variety of goods, like textiles, spirits, horticultural products, and leather goods that were recognized worldwide for their fine quality, they started to realize that Indiana was a bit more remote than Pennsylvania as far as trade and industry went. Also, malaria carried by mosquitos living by the swampy river killed about 200 members, so that wasn’t good either.
So despite creating a large, orderly, and high-functioning society, they moved back to Pennsylvania in 1824 to start a new utopian city, “Economy.” This move was to be closer to other German Americans and the eastern market, and because of an interpretation of the bible where the “Sunwoman” fled into the wilderness multiple times, which they identified with since Economy was literally their third commune.
Father Rapp also had another vision of the second coming of Christ, which he believed would happen September 15th, 1829, so I guess they thought the third utopia would be the charm…
The very next year, a Welsch social reformist named Robert Owen moved to America and just happened to be in the market for a utopian community. What luck! He and his business partner William Maclure purchased New Harmony to start their own utopian social experiment, though secular as opposed to religious.
Owen believed that the best way to change the world was through education, and brought with him teachers and scientists to teach both boys and girls about the world through hands-on learning (which was pretty revolutionary at the time). He also started the US’s first kindergarten and women could wear pants (yay pockets!).
Unfortunately, this utopian experiment fizzled out after only two years, as they had trouble establishing how the community would actually run, had trouble securing donations, and generally had more “thinkers and scientists” than workers.
In only 13 years, two utopian societies had failed to launch.
When’s the Best Time to Visit New Harmony, Indiana?
First and foremost, your best bet is to arrive on a Friday and stay through early Sunday, or visit on one of these days. Since so many of the tours, shops, and restaurants are only open on the weekend for tourists, it’s very important that you come on those days and not during the week.
As far as time of the year goes, Spring and Fall will be the most temperate, but fall is even better if you plan to take a ghost tour while you’re here. Utopian vibes blending with changing foliage and cooler temperatures will make the experience even more strange and unusual.
How Do I Get to New Harmony, Indiana?
New Harmony, Indiana is located about 35 minutes outside of Evansville, Indiana, two hours from St. Louis, Missouri in the west, and two hours from Louisville in the East. It’s a super easy drive there from any of these locations.
While you could fly into Evansville Regional Airport, visiting New Harmony is probably best paired with a trip to Louisville or stopping by while checking out some other Weekend Getaways in Indiana. New Harmony is great for a weekend getaway and could easily check out some neighboring small towns.
How Do I Get around New Harmony, Indiana?
The town of New Harmony is entirely walkable, as it’s under a square mile in size! Park your car in the downtown area and you’ll be able to easily get around the adorable community and see all the things to do in New Harmony, Indiana.
You can also rent a golf cart from New Harmony Inn Resort & Conference Center to get around the entire town in a flash. If you stay at the resort, you can also borrow a bike for free!
Things to do in New Harmony, Indiana
New Harmony is small with only 753 residents, and the main draw is tourism between the old Harmonist Village and shops they have in town. It’s hard to resist the town’s charm and draw — you can very much see the remnants of when hope for Utopia still existed. Many of the original Harmonist buildings still stand with beautifully manicured gardens, and today it attracts all kinds of artists, from writers to potters.
Take a Tour of the Town
An excellent first stop in New Harmony is the very odd-looking Atheneum Visitors Center, named after the goddess Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. The stark white, boxy building was completed in 1979, standing out against the backdrop of wooden Harmonist homes like a modernist iceberg.
Inside you’ll find miniature replicas of the town and pop art prints of Robert Owen’s face, but this is also the meeting place for the tour of New Harmony. Your guide will first take you around the small museum and show the miniature-scale model of the town, explaining how the town was laid out in a symmetrical fashion, and how they built over 180 log frame and brick structures in their settlement on 20,000 acres.
Also in the Atheneum, you’ll be shown a short film explaining the history of New Harmony, before you board a tram outside which will take you to different parts of the town. Along the way, you’ll stop at wooden cabins to see how the Harmonists lived, with their simple furnishings and splendid gardens (which are still maintained to this day).
As a Harmonist, no one was allowed to own personal property except for basic necessities, but working for the community meant you were taken care of for life. If you ever decided to leave the community, you would be returned the property you put in and given a lump sum to start your new life.
The Harmonists believed in celibacy in order to be “pure” for the coming of Christ, and marriages and having children were discouraged, though eight babies were born in the course of their ten-year stay. Families lived in their own separate houses (which you will visit on the tour), though they were also expected to be celibate, and their marriages were dissolved by the community.
You’ll also make a stop at one of the community houses. The community houses were an interesting feature of the town, as they were built for single members of society and housed both men and women in a communal environment.
When you visit the community house, you’ll also make a stop up in the attic where the second utopian leader, Robert Owen, started his utopian paper called “The Disseminator of Useful Knowledge,” the motto of which was “Ignorance is the fruitful cause of human misery.” Basically, Robert Owen believed that education would set everyone free.
He believed this so much that his business partner, William Maclure, rounded up internationally known educators and natural scientists, put them on a boat called the Philanthropist, and shipped them to New Harmony. Owen dubbed this his “Boatload of Knowledge,” boasting “no boat ever carried so much knowledge”.
One of the weirdest, and most wonderful, stops on the tour is the brick home of Salomon Wolf, who was the town shepherd. My travel buddy said, “He was a shepherd and his name was Wolf?” which our tour guide thought was hysterical but had never thought of himself. I bet he uses that on his tours now!
Anyway, on the inside, it’s been converted into a 360-degree theatre of a diorama of New Harmony and the surrounding land, in the style of a Disney-esque land-of-tomorrow show with spotlights and dramatic voiceover. At one point the entire model even lowers so you can see the community from above. It’s very informative, engaging, and very, very kitschy.
The tour is quite long, so be ready to spend at least two hours exploring the town with your guide. Bring an umbrella if it looks like rain, something we definitely regretted on the open-air tram!
Visit a Labyrinth (or Two)
Probably one of the coolest, and most mysterious, things to do in New Harmony, Indiana is visiting its labyrinths. Yes, labyrinths, they have two! The original Harmonists Labyrinth is a large box-hedge labyrinth built by the Harmonists in 1815, while the newer Catherdral Labyrinth was built in 1998 by Jane Blaffer Owen, whose husband was of Robert Owen’s descendants. So in the end, both utopias got their very own labyrinth!
It’s good to understand first that the labyrinth is not the same as a maze. While a maze includes dead ends and different paths, a labyrinth is unicursal and only includes one path to the center and back out again. According to The Labyrinth Society (yes that’s a thing), labyrinths are “an ancient archetype dating back 4,000 years or more, used symbolically, as a walking meditation, choreographed dance, or site of rituals and ceremony”.
The original labyrinth of New Harmony was built around 1815, but the one that stands today had to be restored in 1939 since it had gone into disrepair in the years following the Harmonists’ departure. The Harmonists built a labyrinth in each of their three utopian towns, and to them, the labyrinth symbolized their difficult journey to New Harmony (and one’s religious journey in general). It was a place of reflection— a place the Harmonists could go and ponder their journey, life and God.
In the middle of the Harmonist Labyrinth is a grotto, which is a stone hut that doesn’t look like much as you wander through the hedged path. But upon looking through the windows, you see a more elaborate interior, with blue paint and Greek keys on the walls, which symbolizes the heaven within.
Jane Owen commissioned theCatherdral Labyrinth, which duplicates the one at the Chartres Cathedral, built in the 12th century near Paris, France, in the middle of town in 1998, along with the Roofless church and several other spiritual pieces (we’ll get to those). She felt the labyrinth encouraged spiritual awakening and built for meditation and prayer, the same as the Harmonists did.
While the labyrinth in town is much smaller with no central grotto, it’s made with beautiful gray granite with a fountain near the start where you can wash your feet before you walk the path. Traversing the labyrinth barefoot is ideal, and if you can do it by the light of the full moon it’s even more advisable!
Explore the Roofless Church
While the roofless church may sound like a strange sort of place in theory, it’s exactly what it sounds like— an outdoor church without a roof! Commissioned by Jane Owen and built by postmodern architect Philip Johnson, who before becoming an architect, was a journalist during WWII and a Nazi sympathizer, eek. He eventually retracted his views and said to Vanity Fair, “I have no excuse (for) such unbelievable stupidity. … I don’t know how you expiate guilt”.
The Roofless Church was completed in 1960, surrounded by tall brick walls amidst the original Harmonist houses. What catches your eye immediately are the huge, gilded gates, with emblems of angels and a lamb mounted on top. The phrase “pearly gates” definitely comes to mind, and the first time we pulled into New Harmony I said “what’s THAT?” and had to go explore.
Inside the 9,800 square foot rectangle, you can find various gardens, a statue of Jesus, and in the center, an open-air building with a… roof. Underneath this roof, which looks like a cloth draped over a ball, you will find a statue called The descent of the Holy Spirit by Jacques Lipchitz, which as you can surmise by the name, looks like an abstract angel.
Off to one side of the courtyard, you’ll also find an opening in the brick wall which overlooks a very scenic cornfield that is surrounded by forest. I mean, this is Indiana after all.
The Roofless Church really adds to the spiritual quality of New Harmony, and it really feeds into the larger-than-life and utopian vibes of the town, where old and new converge.
Wander around Tillich Park and Our Lord’s Woods
Located right behind the New Harmony Inn Resort & Conference Center and across the road from the Roofless Church, you’ll find Tillich Park, which commemorates Paul Johannes Tillich who was a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and Lutheran Protestant theologian (that’s… quite a title).
Tillich was a good friend of Jane Owen, who was responsible for creating new spiritual areas of New Harmony in the second half of the 20th century, and she dedicated this park to him in 1963.
The looping paths through Norwegian Spruce trees have stones engraved with Tillich’s quotes, such as “Man and nature belong together in their created glory – in their tragedy and in their salvation”. A large bust of Tillich is also located in a clearing by the lake, showing the severe and thoughtful face of the late philosopher.
Also behind the New Harmony Inn, you’ll find Our Lord’s Woods next to Tillich Park, with winding paths over bridges by the lake, with the Chapel of Little Portion standing on the other side of the water.
Even if you aren’t particularly religious, this area is a great place to take a relaxing, meditative walk, and soak in the spiritual essence of New Harmony.
Explore Indiana’s Oldest Library (and Museum)
The Working Men’s Institue was founded in 1838 by William Maclure, Robert Owen’s business partner and the man who purchased New Harmony and rounded up the “Boatload of Knowledge”. He believed that having a library for the working class instead of just the wealthy would help society, imagine that. Of the 144 WMIs in Indiana and 16 in Illinois, this is the only remaining one.
Inside you can explore the library of course, but the highlight is the free museum which is decked out with historical artifacts from the time of the Harmonists to the present. Head up to the second floor and see paintings of Father Rapp in his traditional gnome garb; taxidermied animals like angry-looking wolves, peacocks, and crocodiles; snakes in jars; tiny brooms; and even the full skeleton of a war-hero horse (with a photo of the horse next to it no less).
You can also see traditional tools Harmonists used to work the land, and random contraptions like an electrical machine from 1856 used to generate static electricity, for some reason. There are plenty of educational signs showing the prehistoric history of the region and geology, which was a budding field of study and one that Maclure was very interested in.
One room is dedicated to artwork collected by the Owenites, with paintings of goddesses, flowers, still lifes, and people being fancy and making their way in the world. There are also objects owned by the Owenites, like a fire engine from 1814, which looks a lot less like a modern one and a lot more like a metal water barrel on wheels.
This is truly one of the best places in New Harmony to get a more complete picture of what went on here, especially in the Owenite community. So stop by and ponder all the weird sh*t in this building!
Take a Pottery Class
New Harmony keeps the community arts education going with the New Harmony Clay Project, located in a super cute and bright studio right outside the walls of the Roofless Church. On most days you can walk by and see the new pottery sitting outside next to the kiln, colorful designs as whimsical and diverse as New Harmony itself.
If you haven’t taken a pottery class before, New Harmony is the perfect place to take one, since they do date night classes that are one-off classes. There is much to inspire you, from the strange postmodern architecture, utopian ideals, and plenty of nature and flowers. Get weird! Experiment! Heaven knows the two utopian societies did.
From May-August they have their date night classes, where singles, friends, or couples can have their chance to learn the art of throwing pottery. They’ll teach you how to center your clay and throw a piece of your very own creation, and then at the end of the night, they serve wine and light hors d’oeuvres and briefly review the night’s work. I’m in!
If you are enamored with any pieces you make, you can get it trimmed, glazed, and fired for an additional small fee, and a month later you can pick up your immortalized project! This really feeds into the soul of New Harmony, where art and inspiration take flight. So get artsy!
Eat a Good Meal
New Harmony is a small town, with limited dining options. So small in fact, that two of their gas stations are listed under their “food and drink” section on their website.
That’s why it’s very important to visit during the weekend, and not during the week! My husband, who is from Evansville and used to visit the town on school field trips growing up, took me on the way home from visiting his family on a Monday and literally one place was open to eat (besides the gas stations of course). So if you want something that more closely resembles food, come Friday through Sunday!
For lunch, The Yellow Tavern has typical bar food like pizzas, burgers, and sandwiches. The Rueben sandwich and buffalo wings with onion rings were both tasty and totally acceptable! They also have a sandwich listed on the menu that just says “brain”, which I did not try.
For dinner, we ate at The Red Geranium (there seems to be a color theme in this town), which is the town’s most popular restaurant as it is a part of the New Harmony Inn Resort and Conference Center. We had the french onion soup and garden salad (which is fresh from the Harmonist gardens), and for our entrees had a 6 oz bacon-wrapped filet and a rack of lamb. This, along with Mary Scott’s, are probably your best bets for fine dining (or, any dining) in New Harmony!
For brunch, it was back to The Red Geranium, but this time on their beautiful patio overlooking the Roofless Church. Brunch here is really delicious and more affordable, and we loved our Monte Cristo sandwich and our Florentine Benedict. Definitely our favorite meal while we were in town!
While New Harmony is no foodie city, these are good options to fuel up while you’re here!
Grab a Good Cup of Coffee
If you’re like me (or Lia for that matter), you are gonna need to find the closest GOOD coffee. No gas station coffee, none of that cremated crap in your hotel room, but some fancy, obnoxiously brewed fair-trade coffee that tastes wonderful and perks you up.
Luckily, New Harmony has just that in Black Lodge Coffee Roasters. The baristas were super friendly and helpful as soon as we walked through the door, with the smell of Brazilian fair-trade coffee filling the air.
They offered to make us something specific, OR, make us a surprise fancy drink based on what we like. Naturally, we chose a surprise drink, and they made us something with hazelnut syrup that was sweet and delicious.
The most noticeable thing about Black Lodge is that it’s a reference to the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. The walls are painted in reds and blacks, with lots of symbolism and reference to the show. I have never seen Twin Peaks, but my travel buddy has, and she was obsessed with the decor and vibe.
Just another one of those quirky, random things you don’t expect to find in small-town America!
Shop Local & Quirky!
In a small town like New Harmony, there is very little corporate presence and a lot of good, local shopping opportunities!
Being an artist’s residence, you can expect to find a lot of locally crafted items, as well as plenty of antique stores to pique your interest. Some of the best are:
- BackBeats Records and Just Looking Antiques is your one-stop shop for vintage and quirky finds. Their slogan is “A selection of things with a questionable past…”, which is not only hysterical, but true. They have a huge vintage book collection, and plenty of vintage toys, and this is where I bought a Muppets Take Manhattan puzzle. Worth it.
- The Mews is really 11 shops in one, with plenty of cool New Harmony themed merchandise, clothing, and even posters up explaining the history of New Harmony. The store just keeps going – it’s huge! – and they refer to it as their very own New Harmony Labyrinth. I bought a Lacroix puzzle here; I swear I don’t usually buy this many puzzles.
- When you wanna get clean, go to the New Harmony Soap Company! Their soaps are made from organic oil and raw Shea butter, then infused with nutrient-rich botanical formulations that have been optimized for skin absorption. They also make room spray, body wash, bath bombs, roll-ons, lotion, with amazing fragrances like Wabash Woods (Spruce and Fir tree scent), rosemary mint, and grapefruit jasmine.
- New Harmony’s Farmers and Artisans Market generally runs between April and November, and is the best place to get fresh produce and all sorts of handmade goods. You can find things like jewelry, clothing, wooden kitchen items, baskets, and soaps. I even bought a local cookbook from the market!
Visit Harmonie State Park
Harmonie State Park is located 4 miles outside of New Harmony, situated along the pristine and rolling Wabash River. It’s the kind of state park that, much like New Harmony, is quaint and quiet with few crowds and lots of charm. We visited on a Sunday morning and there were few people there.
Like most state parks, there are several hiking trails you can take, averaging about a mile in length, with the longest being 2.5 miles winding through the hilly, forested Indiana hillside. But the real charm is the Wabash River.
The Wabash River is the largest river in Indiana and drains most of the state into the Ohio River. Harmonie State Park features a .25 mile river walk, which follows the Wabash River from the picnic area to the boat ramp.
The entire area is quiet, scenic, and absolutely pristine. As someone who has spent time around the Ohio River, I can tell you this area is trash-free, surrounded by forest, only the sound of nature and wilderness around you.
It’s the perfect place to bring a picnic lunch and sit by the waters, pondering nature and life, in an environment that truly feels one with nature.
Learn to Play the Dulcimer
New Harmony is an artist’s paradise, so it’s no surprise that New Harmony also has a pretty special music scene. This includes being the home of the New Harmony Dulcimer Company, where they make some of the best dulcimers in the world, and even hosting an annual dulcimer festival, Dulcimer Chautauqua on the Wabash.
The dulcimer is a long, fretted instrument, generally with three strings. It’s considered to be one of the only (or the only) true American instruments, developed in Appalachia. What’s more, since the Appalachian dulcimer only has three strings it is simple to play – you can learn a basic song in minutes!
Luckily, when you visit Creation Station chances are shop owner Rick Huffman will be there and he is more than happy to shower you with dulcimer knowledge, and sit you down for a lesson, or three! His enthusiasm is contagious, and you can easily spend an hour there letting him chat your ear off.
He’ll sit you down and get a dulcimer in your lap, explaining the basics of the instrument and showing you how easily you can fret chords. After a few minutes, you’ll be playing folk Appalachian tunes, even if it’s the first time picking up an instrument.
Rick is also happy to show you around his store, and give you the history of New Harmony, or let you in that the only true way to walk a labyrinth is barefoot by the light of the full moon. You seriously can ask him anything!
Take a Ghost Tour
In a town as old as 1814, there are bound to be some ghosts, and pair that with its utopian start you get an eerily creepy charm. So if you want one of the scariest things to do in New Harmony, Indiana, look no further…
New Harmony has one ghost tour company called Haunted New Harmony Ghost Walks & Investigations, started by Joni Mahan who has literally written the book on Haunted New Harmony. We were lucky enough to have Joni as our tour guide (which you can see who your guide will be when you book your tour), and much like the daytime tour from the Vistors Center, you’ll be touring most of the town, but in the dark and creepier!
The tour begins at the Opera House, which was originally built as a community house right before the Harmonists left. Robert Owen’s son later turned it into theatre, and today there is said to be a phantom of the opera that still resides there (well, not that phantom, but you get it).
Apparently, the ghost of a woman named Frances Golden of the Golden Theatrical Troupe haunts the theatre, and people have said to hear walking and voices, along with a sweet perfume, by the stage.
Investigators have left a note asking if a ghost resided in the hall, and the next day they found it crumpled up. Creeeeeeepy! There are also other general theatrical ghosts who visit from time to time just to relive good memories. If I know anything about actors, they can never get enough stage time!
The community houses where the Harmosists lived also have their fair share of hauntings. In community house number 2 they have spotted a little girl in white by the fireplace, a mysterious person joined the tour but disappeared halfway through, and a figure was seen on the second floor. It seems like ghosts also enjoy taking ghost tours, who would have thought?
Along your tour, you’ll stop at the Harmonist Cemetery, where around 200 of the 850 Harmonists were buried after an outbreak of malaria. None of the graves are marked as they believed in the equality of all members in both life and death, so the walled-in cemetery looks more just like a grassy field. However, in the cemetery, there are also Native American burial mounds, which date back to the Middle Woodland Period, over two thousand years ago. So there is a lot going on there!
One of the creepier stops along your tour is at the Ribeyre Gymnasium, constructed in 1924. It was only open a year before a class 5 tornado flattened the nearby town of Griffin on March 18th, 1925, killing 52 people, including a school bus full of children. The brand new gym was then employed to house the dead and the injured, some so gruesomely mangled that it was hard to tell who was dead or living.
One paralyzed woman was mistaken for dead and placed down there among the decomposing bodies for three days before she was found blinking. They were able to fix her spinal injury and eventually would walk again, but who can know how many haunting nightmares she had for the rest of her life!
The most common ghost sightings at the gymnasium are of children who never had the chance to grow up, running around in 1920s clothing. During one investigation they rolled a ball into the shadows and it kept rolling back. Creepy ghost child? Or just the wall… I guess you’ll have to visit and find out!
Where to Stay in New Harmony
To stay right in the middle of all the action, I recommend staying at the New Harmony Inn Resort & Conference Center, for many reasons, besides the fact it may be the only place to stay in New Harmony.
You’ll be right in the middle of town, within walking distance of the visitors center, the Cathedral Labyrinth, the Roofless Church, and pretty much everything. They also have free bikes you can borrow and ride around the town, or you can rent golf carts to enjoy the town that way.
The rooms are simple with wooden decor, and many overlook the lake in the back and are just plain serene. Most of the time you can book a package, which gives you a gift certificate to the Red Geranium for dinner and brunch, which is an absolutely stellar deal.
Possibly my favorite feature is the covered and heated pool that sits by the lake, really nothing is more relaxing than getting to sit in the pool or hot tub after a long day of utopian exploring.
If you want something a little more private you can book this “Haven in Harmony” charming blue cottage, with a gorgeous fire pit out back!
About the Author: Richie Goff is a Louisville, Kentucky native with a great love of the outdoors. When he is not growing flowers for fun, he is the Editor-in-Chief of Practical Wanderlust and Let’s Go Louisville. He has been a friend of Lia’s since high school, and they have taken plenty of their own disaster-prone adventures together!
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