12 Top-Rated Things to Do in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

Written by Brad Lane
Updated Dec 23, 2023
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Author Brad Lane visited Champaign-Urbana on a reporting trip throughout Illinois.

The Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area stands out from its agricultural surroundings in central Illinois. This sprawling community is roughly 130 miles from both Chicago and Indianapolis and is defined much in part by the campus of the University of Illinois, home of the Fighting Illini.

Foellinger Auditorium at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana
Foellinger Auditorium at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana

Along with the academic pursuits and historic architecture found on campus, the university adds an array of tourist attractions and things to do. A few of the community additions sponsored by the university include art and cultural museums, a stunning arboretum, and spirited sporting events throughout the year.

It's not just the campus that attracts attention to Champaign-Urbana. Tourists often frequent the area for the downtown street festivals and bountiful natural spaces. Urbana's Market at the Square on Saturday mornings is something to mark on the calendar, with several other family-friendly attractions to check out the rest of the week.

Plan your sightseeing with our list of things to do and places to visit in Champaign-Urbana.

1. University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana

McFarland Carillon, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana
McFarland Carillon, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Founded in 1867, the University of Champaign-Urbana has helped define the city for over 150 years. The institution currently educates more than 40,000 students each semester. The top-tier degrees and programs offered at this Big 10 public university attract a large enrollment, and the sprawling campus and academic spirit make many proud to be Fighting Illini.

Fighting Illini sporting events are a longstanding tradition throughout the state, including Saturday football at Memorial Stadium and basketball at the State Farm Center. For public pursuits of further education, both the Krannert Art Museum and Spurlock Museum offer displays of cultural works on campus with free admission.

Impressive pieces of architecture and historical landmarks dot the entire campus. With plenty of pedestrian pathways supporting foot traffic, simply walking the grounds can make for a fun visit or break between classes. The outdoor classroom and UI Arboretum display the richest natural attractions on campus.

Champaign-Urbana is part of the larger University of Illinois System, including campuses in Springfield and Chicago. The campus in Champaign is well integrated into the city. Alongside cultural attraction and entertainment, youthful energy stems from campus and throughout the streets of the city.

Read More: Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Illinois

2. Downtown Champaign

Downtown Champaign
Downtown Champaign | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Local shops and restaurants line downtown Champaign, just a few miles northwest of Campustown and the university. Breakfast is a popular option at the locally owned Sam's Cafe, and places like Seven Saints feature American cuisine and outdoor seating. During the summer months, Al fresco dining is abundant throughout downtown.

For bibliophiles and casual readers, Jane Addams Bookshop is a locally owned favorite. The local branch of Caffe Bene is one of the most popular coffee shops in town, often bustling with students and community members. Downtown is also bustling at night, with several late-night establishments catering to the younger crowd.

Among the many events and concerts that take place downtown throughout the year, the two separate Fridays of StreetFest in the summer is where you'll find the best lineup of live music and dancing in the street. And the Champaign Farmers Market takes place downtown every Tuesday afternoon.

Read More: Top-Rated Midwest Vacations

3. Urbana's Market at the Square

Urbana's Market at the Square
Urbana's Market at the Square | Leigh Trail / Shutterstock.com

Urbana's Market at the Square takes place every Saturday morning from 7:00 am to noon, May through October. This popular farmers' market is an open space selling venue featuring fresh produce, prepared foods, plants, clothing, and a wide variety of locally made goods.

Market at the Square operates rain or shine in downtown Urbana and can attract quite a large crowd throughout the summer. Special programs are also held here, and between chef demonstrations and the child-orientated "Sprouts at the Market," entertainment is found for the whole family.

Made-to-eat hot food items give a rich aroma to the air at Urbana's Market at the Square. Each week also features different local performers and musicians sharing their skills and providing a great soundtrack to this community event.

Address: 401 South Vine Street, Urbana, Illinois

4. Krannert Art Museum

Krannert Art Museum
Krannert Art Museum | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Krannert Art Museum hosts two floors and several distinct galleries of fine art, just a few blocks from Memorial Stadium on the University of Illinois campus. The art collection spans millennia and from across the globe, including ancient Andean artworks, West African headwear, and American and European paintings from the previous two centuries.

The galleries at Krannert feature permanent and rotating displays. The high ceilings and well-lit space add to the experience of viewing the art. Krannert is free and open to the public, and various events throughout the year, like Summer Yoga at the Museum, provide even more reasons to visit.

Address: 500 East Peabody Drive, Champaign, Illinois

5. Champaign Public Library

Champaign Public Library
Champaign Public Library | Daniel X. O'Neil / photo modified

The Champaign Public Library, just south of Springfield Avenue from downtown, is a repository for community learning and events. Art and colorful walls adorn this light-filled library with big glass windows, offering a truly inviting place for those that want to spend some time on a computer or reading at a table.

The library also provides an engaging TeenSpace, a coffee bar, and small bookstore, and other amenities like private meeting rooms and free internet access. Several events comprise every week of the Champaign Public Library calendar, including Toddler Tales, book clubs, and several developmental courses. The library is open seven days a week, until 9pm most evenings.

A new maker space and technology lab, known as The Studio, is coming to the Library in the summer of 2023. This 8,000-square-foot addition will mainly be for teens and include technologies like gaming areas and recording studios.

Address: 200 W Green Street, Champaign, Illinois

6. Crystal Lake Park

Crystal Lake Park
Crystal Lake Park

Crystal Lake Park is a crown jewel of the Urbana Park District on the north side of the city. With dense urban forest and scenic surroundings, the park also provides many community attractions.

A Family Aquatic Center on the north end of the park features an overhanging rock wall, a zero-depth entry pool, and three different waterslides. The Anita Purves Nature Center is also on the north side of the park and features educational resources, including classes and animal encounters. The Nature Center also features an interpretive trail through the adjacent Busey Woods natural area.

More fun is found in the south region of Crystal Lake Park. Crystal Lake, itself, is on the south side of the park, including the adjacent Lake House large-group rental facility. All visitors to the park can enjoy the water, and non-motorized boat rentals are available between May and September.

Other popular attractions on the south side of the park include playgrounds, picnic areas, and a unique landscaped brick labyrinth that is a challenge to work your way through. Interpretive information about the surrounding landscapes is scattered throughout the entire park.

Address: 206 West Park Street, Urbana, Illinois

7. University of Illinois Arboretum

Sen Cherry Tree Allée at the UI Arboretum
Sen Cherry Tree Allée at the UI Arboretum | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The University of Illinois Arboretum is a bountiful collection of gardens, habitats, and special features covering 160 acres of the university's south campus. This sprawling public space is an outdoor classroom for students studying plant sciences or landscape design and is also well used as a place to visit to escape into nature.

Different gardens like the Sen Cherry Tree Allée are fun to visit during the spring bloom, and the Idea Garden is known to provide some inspiration throughout the year. Cultural attractions are also within this tree-lined space, including the university's Japan House complete with a Zen and rock garden.

The arboretum is open throughout the year between sunrise and sunset. Admission is free, though visitors should expect to pay for parking if they want to park nearby.

Address: 2001 South Lincoln Avenue, Urbana, Illinois

8. Meadowbrook Park

Meadowbrook Park
Meadowbrook Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

For those that enjoy the outdoors, Meadowbrook Park is a popular place to walk in nature. More than five miles of paved and unpaved trails weave throughout the park. Other popular outlets for enjoyment include a sculpture garden, a historic farmstead, and a 13,000-square-foot playground - the largest in the Urbana Park District.

The numerous gardens and natural spaces of Meadowbrook Park also attract a lot of interest. The park features a unique sensory garden, an 80-acre tallgrass prairie, and an organic community garden where residents can reserve a plot.

Picnic tables and pavilions at the park make this a great place to pack a lunch and enjoy eating outside.

Address: 2808 South Race Street, Urbana, Illinois

9. Spurlock Museum

Spurlock Museum
Spurlock Museum | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Spurlock Museum of World Cultures contains more than 50,000 artifacts from across the globe on the east side of the U of I campus. Its nine galleries and rotating exhibits highlight human beings throughout history from different regions of the world, connected by a "Central Core of Humanity" exhibit.

Ancient Mesopotamia, East Asia, and North America are represented among many other cultures in the museum. Each gallery contains eye-catching displays and artifacts including marble sculptures, traditional headwear, and ancient tools. With 55,000 square feet and two floors of displays to discover, an entire day can be devoted to this esteemed cultural museum.

Admission to the museum is free for all community members and visitors, though a suggested donation of $3 goes to help with museum services. The museum is open throughout the year and closed on Mondays.

Address: 600 South Gregory Street, Urbana, Illinois

10. William M. Staerkel Planetarium

William M. Staerkel Planetarium
William M. Staerkel Planetarium | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

On the northwest edge of Champaign, Parkland College provides even more academic interest within the community. While thousands of students take advantage of the various degrees and programs offered by this two-year community college, you don't have to be a student to enjoy the academic offerings.

The William M. Staerkel Planetarium, one of the largest in the state, provides a comfortable seat for anyone interested in catching a show. Popular for field trips and astronomical society meetings, the 50-foot dome screen of the planetarium hosts several public showings.

Most public screenings at the planetarium take place on the weekends and range from Solar Superstorms to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Admission is less than a movie matinee and all screenings are family-friendly. Those apt to motion sickness might want to opt out of the Pink Floyd shows, also including Wish You Were Here.

Address: 2400 West Bradley Avenue, Champaign, Illinois

11. Japan House

Japan House
Japan House | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

This traditional Japanese-style home aims to broaden perspectives and provide a moment of tranquility Within the University of Illinois Arboretum. As part of the College of Fine and Applied Arts, the Japan House offers experiential education through various programs and events, as well as aesthetic pleasure with features like the Japanese tea garden outside.

Students and the public are encouraged to check out the house and grounds from dawn to dusk throughout the spring, summer, and fall. The house offers a wide variety of educational opportunities and cultural demonstrations throughout the year. A few of the programs include traditional tea ceremonies, Zen studies, and annual Gallery Days.

Address: 2000 South Lincoln Avenue, Urbana, Illinois

12. Hessel Park

Hessel Park
Hessel Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Hessel Park has a long history as one of the most popular parks in the city, having celebrated its 100th birthday in 2018. Encompassing nearly 30 acres, the park's central location and sprawling layout contribute to its popularity, but it's the abundance of trees and play spaces that draw a consistent crowd.

Alongside an accessible playground, Hessel Park also has a splash pad that is well-used throughout the summer. A half-mile paved pathway circles the entire park, making for a great way to take in all the shaded surroundings of this public space. During the summer, live and local music takes over the park on the first Saturday of each month.

Address: 1400 Grandview Drive, Champaign, Illinois

Where to Stay in Champaign-Urbana for Sightseeing

Mid-Range and Luxury Hotels:

  • One of the finest places to spend the night in Champaign-Urbana is the I Hotel and Illinois Conference Center. This hotel is located near the IU Arboretum on the south side of the city, and with spa-quality personal care items in each room, this affordable, upscale hotel also provides an attached restaurant, chic décor, and staff members who go the extra mile to facilitate a comfortable experience.
  • For an upscale stay in the heart of downtown, Hyatt Place Champaign is one of the top-rated hotels in the city. Its great reputation and popularity for repeat visits comes much in thanks to its downtown location, which is also reasonably close to campus, but the high ratings derive from the spacious rooms, clean facilities, and attentive front-desk staff.
  • Another quality option close to Interstate 74, Comfort Suites Urbana Champaign, University Area also allows quick access to campus, as well as large suites, comfortable beds, and free breakfast every morning.

Budget Hotels:

  • Many of the best budget hotels in Champaign-Urbana can be found north of Champaign near I-74, and places like Red Roof Inn Champaign offer an affordable rate for a comfortable bed and tidy room.
  • Near the Red Roof Inn, WoodSpring Suites Champaign Urbana is a low-cost extended-stay hotel providing extra space, including a two-burner stove, microwave, and refrigerator.
  • Another extended-stay hotel nearby, Extend Stay America provides similar amenities alongside an outdoor tennis court and a complimentary grab-and-go breakfast with each night's stay.

Map of Things to Do in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois