15 Best Things to Do in Urbana-Champaign, IL

Things to Do in Urbana-Champaign, IL
Leigh Trail / shutterstock.com

Urbana-Champaign is the heart and soul of Illinois, where the cornfields meet cutting-edge technology and rich academic history.

Having spent much of my life here, I've had the privilege to savor every bit of this vibrant twin city.

From quiet, leafy neighborhoods to bustling downtown streets, these cities bristle with hidden gems that make them more than your average college town.

You don't need to be a student or a scholar to appreciate Urbana-Champaign.

As someone soaking in the culture, food, arts, and the outdoors, I believe there's something for everyone in this slice of Midwest heaven.

Join me as I take you through my journey and share the best things to do in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, from a local's perspective, offering unique experiences you won't find in your typical travel guide.

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About this article: This article was written by a local contributor based on their own experiences and those around them. While this list showcases some remarkable places, it's important to note that this is an opinion piece, and there are many other exceptional places to visit that are not featured here.
Our aim is not just to guide you to popular places but to encourage you to venture out and experience the city for yourself.

Step Back in Time at the Champaign County History Museum

Exterior of Champaign County History Museum
Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There's something extraordinary about the Champaign County History Museum.

Nestled inside the historic Cattle Bank, a beautifully restored tower dating back to 1857, it's an enclave of local history tucked away in the heart of our bustling city.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon, I decided to visit the museum, a decision I didn't regret.

It's a small establishment, but its charm lies in its size.

Despite its modest proportions, the museum tells a grand story of Champaign County's rich and diverse past.

Artifacts neatly displayed, each one narrating a different tale, welcomed me as I stepped through the door.

The rotating exhibits are particularly insightful, offering a fresh perspective on local history with each visit.

What struck me was the information the museum offered and the passionate people behind it.

Yet, the most delightful surprise lay in the museum's bookstore.

An assortment of books, each one a treasure trove of information, lined the shelves.

It's a paradise for history buffs and casual readers alike.

A trip to the Champaign County History Museum isn't just about sightseeing. It's like traveling through time.

Whether you're a history enthusiast or simply looking to spend a couple of hours in an enriching environment, this little museum is worth discovering.

Enjoy a Night of Intrigue at Champaign-Urbana Adventures in Time and Space

I still recall the thrill of stepping into the "Calling All Villains" room at CU Adventures.

A grand room filled with mind-bending puzzles beckoned us into a world of mystery and excitement.

Our merry band of family and friends dove right in, our minds buzzing as we pieced together the intricate clues.

We needed only a single hint to aid us in our quest, leaving us with ample time to take a stab at the bonus puzzle.

For me, it was a milestone - my 50th escape room.

Yet, the enchantment was as potent as my first escape room experience.

On another occasion, we ventured into the "Game Night" room, a whimsical journey chosen as the celebration venue for my twin sons' birthday.

The game was a riot, surpassing our expectations by far, and left us eagerly planning our next visit.

Once, we were the last group of the evening - yet there was no rush in their service.

We felt each detail and technical element of the room was meticulously crafted, a testament to their dedication.

The "Revenge of the Cabin" room was particularly impressive, filling our hearts with such joy that we couldn't resist snagging a tee shirt as a souvenir from CU Adventures.

Indeed, Champaign-Urbana Adventures in Time and Space offered more than just a night of fun; it was an immersive experience that left you yearning for more.

For anyone who loves a good thrill, I highly recommend this adventure.

It's a memory you won't soon forget.

Discover the Beauty of Meadowbrook Park

Every morning, before the city fully awakens, I lace up my running shoes and head to one of the hidden gems in our town, the enchanting Meadowbrook Park.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a place more teeming with nature's splendor, yet it never feels crowded.

One of my favorite features of the park has to be the prairie restoration project.

Acres upon acres of native plants sway in the breeze, creating a panorama of breathtaking beauty.

The shimmering dew on the tall grass gives a glimmer in the early morning sun.

You feel like you've stepped back in time, experiencing the landscape as it was before urbanization claimed most of it.

Meadowbrook is not just a park; it’s also an open-air gallery.

The array of unique and captivating sculptures dotted around the park adds dimensions of culture and creativity to my daily runs.

Each installation has its own story, and I find myself drawn to different ones at different times, depending on my mood or thoughts.

The trails here are beautifully paved, perfect for walking, jogging, or biking.

I have walked the 1.55-mile trail almost daily, a routine that has become more of a ritual.

Although the park starts getting busy later in the day, at 7 am, it is a haven of peace.

The sight of deer occasionally punctuates the serenity.

Seeing them emerge from the tall prairie grass, looking like they've stepped out of a painting, is quite a sight.

Meadowbrook Park is more than just a recreational area; it's my sanctuary, where I can reconnect with nature, unwind, and start my day positively.

It's a reminder that amidst the hustle and bustle of city life, pockets of serene beauty endure.

Take a Stroll through The Heart of UIUC - The Main Quad

The grounds of The Main Quad
Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com

The Main Quad is quite a sight to behold and has been a significant part of my life.

Nestled in the center of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this grassy open space has always been a source of solace amid busy days.

Nothing beats the lively atmosphere that flows through the Main Quad during the summer and fall.

With something always happening, from the Quad cinema series to random picnics and dog meetups, the Main Quad is never short of excitement.

Every Thursday at 9 pm, as if by magic, it transforms into an outdoor movie theater.

And seeing several adorable dogs frolicking around fills my heart with joy.

Trail at The Main Quad
EA Given / Shutterstock.com

But the Main Quad isn't all about the hustle and bustle.

There's a different charm to it when it's not too busy.

When things are a tad quieter in the summer, it becomes my favorite place to unwind.

You see, the sheer expanse of this place and its captivating view are enough to help me forget about my work or study pressures.

Whether catching up on reading under the shade of a tree or savoring my lunch while people-watching, the Main Quad is my go-to spot for relaxation.

It's truly the heart of UIUC, and I couldn't imagine my life without it.

Discover History at Cattle Bank

I've lived in Champaign all my life, and I've always been curious about the history of my town.

Recently, I decided to visit the Cattle Bank museum, a historical treasure trove nestled in a quaint 19th-century building.

It's incredible how such a small place can hold so much history!

After reopening after a major renovation, I was one of the first locals to witness the transformation.

The museum now boasts some truly captivating exhibits and artifacts that trace back our county's past.

Moreover, the photographs and stories attached to each exhibit are a unique blend of exciting and beautiful.

One of the current exhibits that caught my eye was the evolution of dorm rooms over the past 150 years at the University of Illinois.

As a university alumna, this exhibit held a special place in my heart.

It was a nostalgic walk down memory lane, seeing the transformation of the dorms over the centuries.

And let's not forget about the fantastic, friendly and knowledgeable staff.

I can't wait to revisit and uncover more hidden gems of our town's history.

Have a Stroll Through The Idea Garden

Now and then, I enjoy leisurely walking through The Idea Garden.

It's like embarking on a journey of sensory delights, watching the garden meander through different stages of growth.

There's something incredibly soothing about seeing a myriad of flowers, trees, and plants that eases the stress of the day.

One of the aspects I appreciate most about the garden is its clever variety and design.

It can feel like I'm stepping into various worlds, each with its unique theme and mood.

The color schemes range from vibrant reds to soothing greens, and the shapes and sizes of the plants and flowers are nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Perhaps one of the most cherished aspects of the Idea Garden is the delightful children's garden.

Seeing the little ones' faces light up as they explore the different plants, some even getting their hands dirty with curiosity, is a joyful sight.

It truly is a place where both young and old can find something to appreciate.

However, what I find truly extraordinary about the Idea Garden is not just the beauty but the effort that goes into creating the displays.

Each time I visit, I'm astounded by the meticulous care, dedication, and time taken to create this, turning it into a magnificent tapestry of nature.

Whether you're looking for inspiration for your garden or just a serene spot to unwind, the Idea Garden is the place to be.

It's more than just a garden; it's a medley of nature's wonders and a testament to the beauty that can come from a seed and a little love.

Explore the University of Illinois Arboretum

Bright flowers at University of Illinois Arboretum
Ken Schulze / Shutterstock.com

I wake up every morning to see cherry trees from my window. But the real joy in my life is the University of Illinois Arboretum.

Visiting this botanical garden is a habit I've grown to cherish.

Every week, no matter the season, there are always new blooms to discover.

It's such a diverse collection of flora that it's impossible not to stumble upon a new species every time.

And the beauty is not just in the flowers. There are also charming subsections like a vegetable garden, fruit trees, and even a fairy garden.

One of the things I love most about the Arboretum is that despite its size, it's constantly evolving and growing.

It's aptly named the "idea garden."

The plants and flowers of the beautiful University of Illinois Arboretum
Dori, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Every visit feels like stepping into a living work of art, an ongoing project of nature's beauty.

But what truly sets this place apart from other parks is its role as a wedding venue.

Amidst the flowering plants and under the lush cherry trees, countless couples have exchanged their vows.

It's an incredible sight, the blossoming love amidst the blossoming flowers; it truly adds a magical touch to the whole place.

Moreover, the Japanese house is just a stone's throw away, another sight you wouldn't want to miss when visiting the Arboretum.

So, if you need a peaceful place to read, relax, or take in the beauty of nature, don't forget to check out the University of Illinois Arboretum.

It's a little piece of paradise right here in our town.

Wooden benches at University of Illinois Arboretum
Dori, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Visit Anita Purves Nature Center

It is no wonder I find myself repeatedly returning to the Anita Purves Nature Center – it's a small slice of heaven in Urbana!

What I love most about this place is the opportunity for some hands-on learning.

Children are fascinated by the various activities available to them.

One day they could be in a classroom gazing at owls and turtles. On another day, they could be up close and personal with snakes and other reptiles.

The center may be small, but it sure does pack a punch!

The gift shop is another of my favorite spots at the center.

It's filled with unique items; no visit is complete without buying something new.

My favorite purchase so far?

A pair of opossum earrings.

They're quirky, fun, and perfect conversation starters!

Now, if you're a fan of outdoor activities, you'd be well-pleased here.

I often take a leisurely hike around the grounds, and it's always a refreshing experience.

And, of course, what better way to cap off a day of hiking than with a cozy picnic in the shaded picnic area?

But perhaps the most charming aspect of Anita Purves is the children's park on the premises.

It's a hit among the local school kids, offering a delightful place to play and connect with nature.

So, if you're ever in Urbana and looking for a perfect blend of nature and learning, the Anita Purves Nature Center is a spot to check out.

Explore Urbana's Market at the Square

There's something inherently comforting about the familiar sight of Urbana's Market at the Square, an indoor farmers' market that fills the local mall during the winter.

Its size may be reduced during the colder months, but the market stalls remain abundant and inviting.

You'll find a delightful assortment of food offerings, including freshly baked bread, locally sourced meats, homemade jams, and even mushrooms.

Are you interested in more than just food?

Well, you're in luck! Most of the booths are also filled with an array of handmade art items - a perfect destination for anyone seeking a unique gift.

Indeed, every visit to the farmer's market feels like a mini-adventure, and it's a ritual I look forward to each time I visit my family.

On my last visit, I picked up some excellent herbs to plant, adding a touch of freshness and flavor to my home cooking.

But that's not all. The market also serves as a one-stop shop for all your plant needs.

Whether for your garden or indoor decor, you'll find a few green gems here.

I've found some truly unique plants at the market, which have become a charming addition to my home.

Spend an Artistic Afternoon at Krannert Art Museum

Achilles Displaying the Body of Hector at the Feet of Patroclus painting in Krannert Art Museum
Jean-Joseph Taillasson , CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

You wouldn't believe the artistic journey I embarked on right in the confines of my city.

One day, I decided to spend a leisurely afternoon at the Krannert Art Museum.

It might look small from the outside, but don't let the exterior fool you.

This place is cavernous, each corner holding a unique piece of art.

I entered the museum and was met with an ever-changing artwork landscape, from contemporary international artists to ancient masters.

Each piece is stylishly displayed and inviting closer inspection.

I marveled at the collection's diversity as I meandered through the hallways.

The museum seemed to have a corner for each corner of the world.

It felt like a global art tour without the jetlag.

A sculpture at Krannert Art Museum
University of Illinois Library, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What struck me even more, was the underground level, which combines spaciousness with cultural artifacts, a surprising addition to the museum.

The place's cleanliness was also commendable, making the art shine even brighter.

Finally, the best part of it all was the free admission, making this artistic afternoon both enriching and affordable.

This place was an ideal choice for an afternoon activity, with multiple exhibits that had something for everyone's taste.

So, whether you're an art connoisseur or admirer, the Krannert Art Museum should be on your must-visit list.

Spend the Day at Stanley Illini Grove

Now and then, I find myself craving peace and tranquility amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

And you know what? The Stanley Illini Grove is my refuge, a small slice of serenity in the city's heart.

Nestled between the city's skyscrapers, this place is an oasis of calm and tranquility.

It's where I go when I want to feel one with nature or escape my everyday stress without actually leaving the city.

My favorite part of Stanley Illini Grove is its volleyball court.

It's not just any volleyball court; it's one filled with laughter, camaraderie, and the sweet taste of a well-earned victory.

And when we're done with the game, we don't pack up and go home.

Instead, we use the few grills to cook burgers and hot dogs.

Nothing beats the taste of a meal cooked outdoors after a good game.

But it's not just about the volleyball court or the grills.

Stanley Illini Grove has a small basketball court that brings in a lot of locals looking for a quick game.

There's also a small play area for the kids, so they never feel left out.

Also, the slightly overgrown grass gives it a more natural feel, which adds to the overall charm of the place.

So to anyone looking for a lovely spot to relax, play games or enjoy nature, I highly recommend Stanley Illini Grove.

It's one of those places that makes you forget you're in a city, even for a little while.

Explore Busey Woods

If you've ever wondered if there's an escape from the city hustle within the city itself, let me tell you about this secret sanctuary I've found.

Busey Woods, a 59-acre woodland that's situated right in the heart of Urbana, is the perfect spot to unwind and reconnect with nature.

As I step onto the raised boardwalk, I'm instantly transported to a different world - one where the sounds of the city are drowned out by the chirping of birds and the rustling of leaves.

The forest is a painter's palette of green, with delightful splashes of color provided by the wildflowers that bloom in the summer.

For the keen birdwatcher in me, Busey Woods is a paradise.

With the slightest hint of patience, you'll spot several rare and beautiful bird species flitting from tree to tree.

On a lucky day, you might glimpse a deer or two gracefully meandering through the undergrowth.

One of my favorite things about Busey Woods is the winding trails that meander through the forest.

They can be pretty challenging, especially if you venture off the boardwalk.

But the sense of adventure is part of the charm.

Strap on your hiking boots, pack a snack and get lost in the serenity of this urban oasis.

Remember, though, that this marvelous journey can take up to an hour or more.

So ensure you've used the Anita Purves Nature Center facilities before setting off.

Also, ensure your bug repellent is handy, especially on narrower grass trails.

If you're not in the mood for a walk, the nearby park offers a range of other activities to fill your day with fun.

From paddle boating to swimming, there's something for everyone.

Don't forget to check out the little creek that runs through Busey Woods.

Though it might dry up during a drought, it's a sight to behold when it's full.

Despite its proximity to the road, the tranquillity offered by Busey Woods is second to none.

So next time you're looking for a peaceful retreat, remember this hidden gem in the city's heart.

It's an experience you won't want to miss!

Revisit History at Spurlock Museum

Exterior of Spurlock Museum
Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

I've always had a soft spot for history, and the Spurlock Museum has got to be my favorite spot in town.

It's got a little bit of everything from all over the world. From ancient Egyptian artifacts to East Asian art, this cozy museum feels like a portal transporting you around the globe.

One thing that stands out at the Spurlock Museum is the exhibit on Japanese alums and their stories.

Somehow, it's like walking through a mural of human resilience and diversity, a beautiful testament to the triumphs and tribulations faced by the AAPI community.

The international exhibits are breathtaking as well.

Not too long ago, I remember stepping into the Egyptian section and feeling an eerie sense of familiarity.

It was like experiencing my recent trip to Egypt all over again, a vivid reminder of the rich history that shaped the world we live in today.

Sculptures inside Spurlock Museum
Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

They also have exhibits from Greece, various African countries, and even Southeast Asia, all carefully curated and wonderfully set up.

One thing that truly warms my heart is that there's no price tag attached to this journey through history.

Entrance is free, although they do encourage donations.

It's a small museum, but oh boy, does it pack a punch!

The statues, in particular, never fail to catch my eye, bringing life and personality to the stories they tell.

I've visited a few times; each visit is a new adventure.

The environment is always welcoming, whether it's a peaceful Saturday morning or a mid-week afternoon.

The Spurlock Museum is, without a doubt, a must-visit for anyone, local or not, with an interest in art and history.

I know I'll be coming back again and again.

Exhibit inside Spurlock Museum
Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Enjoy a Day at the Urbana Dog Park

After a long day indoors, there's nothing quite like a trip to the Urbana Dog Park to let loose.

Nestled on Perkins Road, this sprawling 60-acre park is a haven for dogs and their owners.

When you first step foot in the park, you can't help but notice the difference from other dog parks in the area.

Unlike the Champaign Bark District, this park is generous with its shade, providing a much-needed respite during summer.

And while it does have a smaller area, it's not just for small dogs.

It's designed to help dogs of all sizes learn to socialize, with plenty of room for everyone to spread out and have their own space.

The park itself is members-only, so you need a fob to gain entry, but once you're in, you're treated to a vast, open space where your furry friends can freely run around and explore.

Explore Crystal Lake Park

Lake surrounded with autumn trees at Crystal Lake Park
dfletch000 / Shutterstock.com

The moment you step into Crystal Lake Park, you feel serenity.

The tranquil waterside ambiance is perfect for unwinding from the stresses of daily life.

My buddies and I often gravitate towards this spot for a weekend fishing expedition.

There's nothing quite as thrilling as reeling in a decent-sized bass from the lake's older yet sturdy fishing pier.

For folks with mobility issues, like me, please be cautious.

While there is a specially designed-fishing dock, it doesn't have a guardrail.

You might be in a tug-of-war with the fish if you're lucky enough to snag a whopper.

And let's say there's always the risk of unexpectedly cooling off in the lake!

Crystal Lake Park is not just about fishing, though.

My family loves the picnic spots scattered throughout.

We pack a picnic basket on a calm day and soak in the park's beauty.

And when the sun blazes high, nothing beats a refreshing dip in the spacious pool.

It's ideal for kids and adults with its different sections.

Then there's the kid's play area and the water slides.

My kids can't get enough of them.

And if you're more into a peaceful walk amid nature, there's a fantastic nature center within walking distance.

The park has a little something to offer everyone.

Final Thoughts

Whether you're an art enthusiast, a nature lover, or just looking for a relaxing day in the park with your canine companion, there's something for everyone in this charming city.

Urbana-Champaign is more than just a city. It's a vibrant community filled with adventure and discovery.

I consider myself lucky to call it home.

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