Urbana’s history hinges on the arrival of an agricultural school that opened in 1868 and would eventually evolve into the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
Physically, and in terms of the city’s culture, entertainment, demographics and economy, the U of I is a dominant part of life in Urbana, and deserves a visit for its architecture and various sports and cultural attractions.
Urbana also has a historic downtown with a long-running farmers’ market and impressive landmarks that can be tracked down on a walking tour.
Extraordinarily green, with more than 100,000 trees, Urbana offers over 600 acres of parks and natural spaces, and is noted for being walkable and bicycle friendly.
1. Spurlock Museum
For visitors the prime attraction on the Urbana side of the U of I campus is this ethnographic museum, with more than 50,000 artifacts in its collections.
The Spurlock Museum was founded in 1911 and is a regional center for cultural and archaeological collections covering the history of humanity and from all parts of the world.
These collections are particularly strong for Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as Mesopotamia, modern Africa and the cultures of East Asia, the Americas and the Arctic.
There are nine permanent exhibits, organized by region, accompanied by five exhibits that delve into specific themes.
As you go you’ll come across Ancient Greek papyrus, Sumerian clay tablets, textiles from Indonesia, Inuit whaling tools, Japanese wood carvings and much more.
2. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Tour
If you’re into historic architecture and public art you could pass a very agreeable hour or two touring the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, straddling the boundary between Urbana and Champaign.
A fine place to begin is the elegant landscaping and wide open space of the Main Quad, with its tree-line avenues and the grand architecture of the Liberal Arts and Sciences buildings.
Looking south from here you’ll see the magnificent Beaux-Arts Foellinger Auditorium (1907). Close to this is the Astronomical Observatory (1896), where key advances in photoelectric photometry under Joel Stebbins between 1907 and 1922.
One enduring campus landmark is the Romanesque Revival Altgeld Hall, completed in 1897 and then extended throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Also make time for the Natural History Building (1892), Smith Hall (1897), Harker Hall (1878), Lincoln Hall (1911) and the dignified Alma Mater sculpture (1929).
3. Crystal Lake Park
The oldest park in the Urbana Park District was laid out as long ago as 1907. This was the site of the first Euro-American settlement in the area, and later in the 19th century became the privately owned Union Park.
The ornamental lake was created in the 1880s by damming the west branch of the Salt Fork Vermilion River.
Fronted by a lake house, this serpentine body of water is a magnet for boating, fishing and waterside walks in the summer.
Elsewhere you’ll come across a surfeit of amenities, like the expansive Family Aquatic Center, a labyrinth and the Anita Purves Nature Center, hosting environmental exhibits and educational programs.
4. Historic Urbana Self-Guided Tour
Downtown Urbana also has its fair share of intriguing sights and you can download an itinerary from the city website outlining the main landmarks and filling you in on Urbana’s origins and development.
Much of the downtown area, originally composed of wooden buildings, needed to be reconstructed in brick and stone following the Urbana Fire of 1871, and in the space of a few blocks there are some fascinating things to see.
The facade may be Art Deco from 1934, but the core of the Busey’s Hall/Princess Theatre at 120-124 West Main Street actually predates the fire and goes back to 1870.
Some other key stops include the Champaign County Courthouse (1901), the Tiernan’s Block (1871), the Cohen Building (1907), the Post Office (1915), the Lincoln Hotel (1924), the Urbana Free Library (1917) and the Courier Building (1916).
5. University of Illinois Arboretum
Fifty-seven acres on the southeast side of the University of Illinois campus is being transformed into a living laboratory supporting a number of teaching, research and public research programs.
The University of Illinois Arboretum has had a number of locations around the campus and was planted at this site, formerly farmland in the 1980s and 90s.
You’ll find collections of native prairie plants, vegetables, ornamentals, annuals and perennials. Being a young botanical attraction, it’s fascinating to see the arboretum taking shape with each visit.
As well as the Japan House, which we’ll come to later, there’s a mosaic of sub-gardens to explore, among them the Idea Garden, Noel Welcome Garden, Oak Grove, American Hosta Society National Display Garden, Kari Walkway and the sunken Miles C. Hartley Selections Garden.
6. Market at the Square
Saturday mornings in Urbana wouldn’t be the same without this bustling farmers’ market. May through October, Market at the Square has been a mainstay for well over forty years and there’s no better way to sample the exceptional produce in fertile central Illinois.
On an average Saturday you’ll come across 150 vendors selling fruit and vegetables, eggs, meat, cheeses, honey, plants, flowers and all manner of baked goods.
Also on hand are local arts and crafts and a slew of food trucks so you’re certain to find something you like. The market also offers free programming, with arts performances, children’s activities and various workshops.
7. Japan House
A lovely little enclave at the University of Illinois Arboretum, Japan House belongs to U of I’s College of Fine and Applied Arts and was founded by the professor Shozo Sato in 1976.
The facility offers classes in Japanese Aesthetics, Ikebana and Japanese tea ceremony, both for U of I students and the public.
Everyday visitors can come just to wander the gardens, taking time to appreciate the naturalistic landscaping and the interplay of plants, water and stone.
The grounds are nothing short of stunning in spring when the cherry trees are in flower. There are regular guided tours of the garden and you can also attend a traditional tea ceremony at Japan House’s tearoom, learning more about the intricacies of this ritual.
8. Urbana Free Library
One building sure to capture your attention downtown is the Urbana Free Library, built in a Classical Revival style in 1918.
As an institution, the library goes back to 1874 making it one of the first public libraries in the state.
For Urbana residents this is an amazing resource with vast collections of books, music, audiobooks, movies, video games, toys, board games, craft equipment and even specialized gadgets like a GoPro camera.
The breadth of public programs is astonishing too, from reading activities for kids to concerts and a diversity of workshops.
You can also come just to work or read in peace, with free Wi-Fi on hand. And both the grounds and interior brim with interesting works of art gifted by prominent residents over the last 150 years.
9. Busey Woods
This 59-acre parcel of nature is contiguous with Crystal Lake Park, and reachable via a walking trail that sets off just west of the Anita Purves Nature Center.
Busey Woods is made up of tranquil bottomland oak-hickory forest and is a wonderful place for quiet walks, particularly in spring when the wildflowers are spectacular.
The walk takes you through a wetland area, traversed by a section of boardwalk a third of a mile long.
Look out for deer and a multitude of bird species, from northern cardinals to blue jays, goldfinches, nuthatches and woodpeckers and warblers.
10. Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (KCPA)
Between the Main Quad and the Spurlock Museum is the university’s gigantic performing arts complex, with a combined seating capacity of 4,000 across its various venues.
The KCPA opened in 1969 and has some interesting characteristics, with the Great Hall (2,078 seats), Festival Theatre (974 seats) and Playhouse (674 seats), physically separate from the main structure for acoustic reasons. The cavernous lobby is composed of teak imported from Thailand and Italian Carrara marble.
The roll-call of important artists and ensembles to have performed at the KCPA is long, and includes the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Symphony Orchestra, Pavarotti, Lang Lang, Chick Corea, Sonny Rollins and Joshua Bell.
11. University of Illinois Memorial Stadium
An unmissable landmark on the southwest side of the U of I campus is the 60,670-capacity stadium, mainly used for Illinois Fighting Illini football.
Opened in 1923, Memorial Stadium is dedicated to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students who died in World War I. The iconic pillars on the facade are engraved with their names.
The Illinois Fighting Illini are a founding member of the Big Ten Conference and play in the West Division, having taken 15 Big Ten Championships and five national championships.
Across the street from Memorial Stadium is the distinctive saucer-like silhouette of the State Farm Center, home court for the university’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, and a concert venue that has hosted the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Rolling Stones.
12. Meadowbrook Park
This 130-acre park borders the countryside in the very south of Urbana and has been purchased in stages by the city since 1967.
On what used to be farmland, much of Meadowbrook Park is taken up by recreated tallgrass prairie, and this is laced with trails and accompanied by the Wandell Sculpture Garden, organic garden plots, an ornamental tree grove, a sensory garden herb garden and the scenic Freyfogle Overlook.
The Historic McCullough Farmstead is another feature, with the farmhouse used as a staff residence and the restored barn hosting an interpretive center. Finally, for kids Meadowbrook Park has Urbana’s largest play structure at PrairiePlay.
13. Candlestick Lane
Part of a Christmas tradition that has been observed since the mid-1960s, a string of houses puts on a beautiful display during the holiday season in a residential area southeast of downtown.
Now extending to more than 50 homes around the neighborhood, Candlestick Lane started out at the north end of Grant Place when a row of homes won a decorating contest organized by the Illinois Power Company.
On the second Saturday in December there’s an official lighting ceremony, in which the streets are closed to traffic and lamplighters go from house to house. The lights will come on every evening from then until December 26.
14. Urbana-Lincoln Hotel and Lincoln Square Mall
One eye-catching sight in the heart of Urbana is a complex combining a historic hotel on the National Register of Historic Places with a mall.
With its romantic half-timbering, the Urbana-Lincoln Hotel (1923) is in the Tudor Revival style. The hotel has a checkered past, closing several times down the years and being passed from owner to owner since the 1990s.
At the time of writing, another sale and the promise of millions of dollars of investment indicated a brighter future.
Also interesting is the mall complex attached to the hotel. Dating to 1964, this was one of the first enclosed malls in the entire United States, and today is home to an array of small retailers and services.
15. Sweetcorn Festival
At the time of writing, the future of this long-running festival, a highlight of the summer in Urbana, was unclear.
In late August and attended by upwards of 50,000 people, the Sweetcorn Festival was organized by the Urbana Business Association, which recently folded.
There was doubt about whether the city, in partnership with private organizations, would pick up the mantle.
Assuming it continues to go ahead, the festival celebrates the local corn harvest with food trucks, craft vendors, live music and lots of entertainment for children.