Most people know Champaign as the home of The University of Illinois Fighting Illini, and it’s true — the city does house the largest university in the state, as well as the smaller Parkland college. But in recent years Champaign has also become well known as a tech hub, a critical part of what’s being called The Silicon Prairie.
Though it is only the eighth-largest city in Illinois, Champaign’s emphasis on the twin industries of education and tech give it a buzzing economy and cosmopolitan spirit far outstripping its modest population of around 83,000. It’s a vibrant community of students, thinkers, and entrepreneurs — a metropolitan oasis in the prairie.
Life in Champaign
Champaign’s bus system is among the best in the country. It’s quick and easy to use, and if you’re a student, you’re in luck: Rides are free to anyone enrolled at U of I. (They’re quite cheap for everyone else, too.) Traveling by car, on the other hand, can be an exercise in frustration, especially if you’re anywhere near the university. Parking is in short supply.
Where to play
Campustown, located just steps from the University, is home to the collegiate (and post-collegiate) party crowd, and features many bars open to ages 19 and over. That means that college kids, even if they’re under 21, can enter — although they’re not allowed to drink.
For the post-college — or just generally more chill — crowd, downtown offers a number of sophisticated, quieter venues, including some of the region’s best restaurants.
Kids and families love Prairie Farms, a re-creation of a 100-year-old farmhouse, with exhibits on local history and agriculture, as well as a petting zoo. Similarly family friendly is The Orpheum Children’s Museum, which offers science-centric, hands-on exhibits and installations in a kid-friendly setting, and the Sholem Aquatic Center. It’s not all strollers and diaper bags, though: the Orpheum is open to all, and college kids have been known take advantage of Sholem’s pools and water slides in the hotter months, too.
On Campustown’s Green Street, collegiate staples reign supreme: casual chains, late-night pizzerias (Azzip Pizza is particularly beloved) and cheap, no-frills restaurants geared toward undergrad budgets. A few gems, like Indian stalwart Bombay, stand out from the crowd, offering affordable, high quality meals in family-owned businesses.
Downtown is a better bet for fine dining. Craft breweries, cocktail bars, and Chicago-level cuisine — Miga and Bacaro are particularly popular — attract an older, more sophisticated crowd.
If you feel like getting rowdy, Campustown is your best bet. Iconic U of I bars like Kam’s, the High Dive, and Legends dominate the neighborhood just northwest of campus, and the scene on weekend nights can get pretty rowdy. Think DJ sets, jello shots, and bouncers.
Want a slightly more sophisticated vibe? Head north, into downtown for a slightly less undergraduate atmosphere. Two brewpubs are especially notable: The Blind Pig, a local brewery and pub, offers craft beers in a comfortable setting, and Destihl serves its own beers alongside classic cocktails and elevated gastropub fare.
Much of Champaign’s cultural life is centered on the university. On campus, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts hosts concerts, dance performances, and theater, much of the programming — though not all — put on by U of I students. The university’s art museum, also named after the Krannert family, houses an enormous, wide-ranging collection in 48,000 square feet of space.
Off-campus, downtown Champaign offers three unique, restored movie theaters, each of which has a different cultural offering. The employee-owned cooperative Art shows art-house and European films, while 1,525-seat Virginia plays host to musical, theatrical, and dance performances. And the Orpheum’s neon sign now advertises not films, but the Children’s Science Museum, which calls the former theater home.
In 1999, influential film critic (and U of I alum) Roger Ebert started an annual film festival dedicated to underappreciated movies from the previous year. Every April, Ebertfest takes over The Virginia Theater, bringing together producers, actors, directors, and critics for unique panels and Q&A sessions about the craft of film.
Recently, The Pygmalion Festival has emerged as an annual, SXSW-style gathering for enthusiasts of the arts, culture, tech, and food. The weeklong festival in July features discussions, lectures, exposition booths, panels, and concerts. Recent performers have included Vince Staples, Car Seat Headrest, and Future Islands, among dozens of others.
Campustown offers a full range of collegetown shopping options — chain retail, a few thrift stores — conveniently arrayed on or near Green Street. Downtown has quirkier shops, many of them locally owned, like Circles Boutique, a local favorite for upscale women’s fashion. For one-stop shopping, check out The Marketplace Shopping Center mall on Neil Street.
The U of I Fighting Illini absolutely dominate the local sports scene. Big 10 football and basketball are king here, though the school also excels at several other sports: gymnastics, tennis, baseball, soccer, and especially track and field. You can catch a game (or match, or meet) at the State Farm Center, Memorial Stadium, Illinois Field, and Huff Hall.
Champaign maintains 60 parks, with a total of 654 acres of green space within city limits. Dodd Park, which is near Parkland College and is dedicated to the many Olympic athletes to have come from Champaign, is the largest in the city, housing over 100 acres of lighted athletic fields and picnic areas. Centennial Park, which contains both the Sholem Aquatic Center and Prairie Farms, is a hotspot for winter sledding. Westside Park, in downtown Champaign, was once a commons, where locals could graze their cows for a small fee. It’s now home to the more standard park benches and bandstands.