This lively college town shares a sprawling University of Illinois campus with its sister city, Urbana. Champaign and Urbana are contiguous, and together offer a world of history, culture, entertainment and sports action, most of which is connected to the university.
Awaiting you are big-hitting art museums and colossal sports venues, all contrasted by Champaign’s convivial small-town character.Meanwhile Champaign’s young and lively populace means plenty of bars, breweries, on-trend restaurants and coffee shops. In fact this city has won awards for its dining scene, with upwards of 40 locally-owned eateries, many sourcing their ingredients from rural Illinois.
I grew up in Illinois and love exploring the state. I’ve been in Champaign (and Urbana) several times and know exactly what to recommend. Here is my list of the best things to do in Champaign.
1. Downtown Champaign
Cozy and welcoming like a small town, but with sophisticated cultural venues and a bustling events calendar, downtown Champaign is an obvious first port of call in the city. Sidewalk cafes abound here, and in summer there are more than 1,700 al fresco seats on these tree-lined streets.
A cosmopolitan lineup of dining establishments is complemented by independent stores for comic books, antiques, salvaged architectural elements, tea, rare coins, flowers, music and more. This is a pretty place for a stroll, with its profusion of century-old brick buildings, but packs a cultural punch thanks to its five historic theaters and a slew of events and festivals all year. My favorite theater is the Virginia Theatre, be sure to check out their upcoming events before your visit.
2. Krannert Art Museum
One of the best university museums in the country is also Illinois’ second-largest fine art museum, welcoming some 120,000 visitors each year. The Krannert Art Museum has a rich collection from around the world, but specializes in Asian art, African art and Pre-Columbian art, especially works from the Andes.
Browsing the permanent collection you might come across a late Roman funerary stele, a Chinese tea bowl from the 12th century, a Peruvian burial mantle from 100 BCE or an 18th-century print by Koryūsai. There’s also a strong collection of art from the 20th century, as well as constant temporary exhibitions to check out. What I like most is that admission is free so it’s accessible for everyone, check the opening times on their website.
3. Virginia Theatre
This opulent movie house opened in 1921, with an extravagant Renaissance Revival facade and Spanish Revival decor in its lobby and auditorium.
As it did in its early days, the Virginia Theatre doubles as a movie theater and performing arts venue, hosting a diversity of concerts, talks by important cultural figures, dance performances and film screenings.
Born in Urbana in 1942, the beloved film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013) was a regular at the Virginia Theatre and later established an annual film festival here. Ebertfest continues to be a landmark on Champaign’s cultural calendar and there’s a statue on the sidewalk paying tribute to Ebert. A detail to check out in the auditorium is the 1921 Wurlitzer theatre organ, restored to its original splendor in 2010.
4. Spurlock Museum
This extraordinary UoI museum in Urbana is dedicated to ethnography and has an inventory exceeding 50,000 objects. Some of the Spurlock Museum’s most important collections include Amazonian bark cloth, Merovingian bronzes, Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and casts made from the Parthenon frieze.
You can also find Inuit artefacts gathered in the 1910s, as well as wood carvings from the Japanese Edo and Meiji periods, and the Chinese Qing dynasty. Navigating the galleries you’ll make all sorts of compelling discoveries, from a letter handwritten on papyrus 1,900 years ago to rare Medieval coins from the Ottoman Empire. On my recent visit I was impressed by the sculptures in the Ancient Mediterranean exhibition, so be sure to check that out.
5. Hessel Park
A lovely green haven in the center of Champaign, Hessel Park covers just over 22 acres and has belonged to the city since 1918. There are more than 25 tree varieties growing here, and if you’re interested in identifying them you can download a Tree Walk brochure from the parks district website.
In summer a major destination for families is the accessible splash pad, open from 11 am to 7 pm and built with the help of fundraising efforts by the local Ambucs chapter.
And for a carefree picnic there plenty of grassy space, with abundant shade, picnic tables and grills for cookouts.
6. University of Illinois Arboretum
This spectacular living laboratory has gradually been taking shape at the UoI campus over the last 30 years. One feature that has been here since long before is the Japan House, a set of three authentic tea rooms founded in 1976 and accompanied by a Japanese rock garden.
Since 2008 the Japanese house has been joined to the Sen Cherry Tree Alleé, which produced a sublime canopy of white blossom in spring. Elsewhere you’ll find native Illinois prairie plants in the Hosta Garden, borders, vegetables and more in the Idea Garden and an All American Selections trial ground in the sunken Hartley Garden.
7. Champaign County Historical Museum
At 102 E University Ave you’ll find the oldest documented commercial building and the oldest extant structure in Champaign.
The Cattle Bank, completed in 1858, offered financial services to cattlemen who would drive their livestock to Champaign, which was then the southern terminus for the Illinois Central Railroad.
From here they would ship their cattle to the market in Chicago. Since 2001 this Italianate brick building has housed the Champaign County Historical Museum, which displays excellent short-term exhibits drawn from a massive collection, only 1% of which can be shown at one time.
There are exhibits for Champaign in WWII, the Great Harris Mansion Heist of 1929 and the work of UoI art professor Louise Woodroofe (1892-1996).
8. Memorial Stadium
Built in the wake of World War I as a tribute to the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign students who died, Memorial Stadium is the magnificent home field for the Illinois Fighting Illini. The stadium, renovated a few times over the last century, can hold upwards of 60,000 fans, and was given a giant video board (36 by 96 feet) in 2013.
The names of those who lost their lives in WWI are inscribed on 200 Doric columns along the east and west sides of the stadium. The Fighting Illini are a member of the fabled Big Ten Conference and last claimed a conference championship in 2001. The stadium fills a host of other uses, as the finish line for the Illinois Marathon in April, and the venue for the Illini Marching Band Festival.
9. State Farm Center
Originally known as the Assembly Hall, the majestic arena for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looks like a cross between a scallop shell and a flying saucer.
This Modernist complex was ready in 1963, and in 2013 the naming rights were bought by State Farm in a multimillion-dollar agreement.
The arena can hold more than 15,500 fans for men and women’s Fighting Illini games. The men’s team has a long list of NBA first round draft picks among its alumni, and as of 2018 had the 12th best all-time win percentage.
The State Farm Center is also a major events venue, staging broadway shows, but also famous comedians and touring recording artists, from Dave Chappelle to Prince, Kanye West, Ludacris (a Champaign native) and Kenny Chesney.
Going back much further, Elvis Presley (1976), The Rolling Stones (1969) and Johnny Cash (1969) have all graced this stage.
10. Orpheum Children’s Science Museum
Since the 1990s, a historic landmark downtown has been home to this interactive museum introducing children to all sorts of scientific concepts. Originally a vaudeville stage, the Orpheum Theatre dates back to 1914 and was conceived by Chicago architects Rapp & Rapp as a scale replica of the opera house at Versailles. This is one of the top activities I recommend to do with children.
The building is still coming through a long-term renovation, while the museum inside has imaginative exhibits in which kids can dig for dinosaur fossils, captain the SS Ackermann Tugboat, meet all kinds of live critters, look after pets at the vet clinic and put on an astronaut suit to blast into outer space.
11. Centennial Park
The second-largest park in the Champaign Park District is in the west of the city and completely loaded with amenities.
Maybe the headline is the Sholem Aquatic Center, like a small water park open from Memorial to Labor Day and boasting a resort-style beach entry pool, a 25-yard lap pool, a wading area for little ones, a lazy river and a pair of water slides.
Also at the park are facilities for a wide range of sports, a modern rec center and a replica farm, open all summer and keeping goats, pigs, sheep, horses, chickens and geese.
Also see: 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in Illinois
12. Crystal Lake Park
This sensational park in Urbana is part of a green corridor that leads you right out to the city’s northeastern outskirts. Crystal Lake Park is on the banks of a serpentine lake with a pier, ready for fishing and boating.
To the north is the Anita Purves Nature Center, offering environmental displays and programs, while the park alson features mature urban forest, a labyrinth, a Lake House, pavilions, a children’s playground and all kinds of summer fun at the Crystal Lake Park Family Aquatic Center.
The latter has an eight-lane pool, a beach-entry recreation pool, three slides, a climbing wall and lots of water play equipment for smaller children.
13. Urbana’s Market at the Square
May through November you can make the shore trip across the UoI campus to Urbana for this Saturday morning market.
This has been running since the 1970s and promises farm-fresh seasonal produce, grown and raised in Illinois.
On offer is a selection of fruit and vegetables that changes throughout the summer and into fall, as well as pasture-raised meat, cheese, honey, eggs and a wonderful choice of homemade breads, pastries, sauces, condiments, preserves and much more.
Also on hands at Urbana’s Market at the Square are unique arts and crafts, as well as a choice of food trucks catering to all palates.
14. William M. Staerkel Planetarium
With a 50-foot dome, the second-largest planetarium in the state is ten minutes from downtown Champaign at Parkland College. This opened in 1987, and with a capacity of 144, stages spectacular fulldome public shows on Friday and Saturday evenings.
The Staerkel Planetarium uses a Zeiss Model M1015 star projector, as well as high-tech film and sound systems for an immersive journey into space. The planetarium can project some 7,600 stars down to magnitude 6, as well as the moon, sun, five planets visible to the naked eye and 25 star clusters and nebulae.
There are also small but worthwhile attractions in the lobby, like the solar window, depicting the path of the sun across the sky from June to December and back again, as well as the Cosmic Blink mural, showing the history of mankind’s efforts to comprehend the universe.
15. Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery
In 2004 this dairy, just outside Champaign to the north, became the state’s first farmstead cheesemaking facility, producing chevres, feta, pelota roja and crottin.
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery is very much a working farm, but during open hours in summer you can come and meet the goats, pick fruit when in season and watch cheese being made through a viewing window at the dairy.
If you’re just stopping by, there’s a stand selling all of the farm’s products, including cheeses, jams, a menu of delicious gelato flavors and other dairy products.