Explore Champaign-Urbana in Summer
While the kids are away
When University of Illinois students head home, Champaign-Urbana goes on vacation, too: open tables, quiet parks, easy parking. Now's the time to check out the cool spots you can't see from I-74. But hurry! Autumn is just around the corner.
Pictured: When the students leave town, the sidewalk tables come out at stylish restaurants like Bacaro in Champaign.
The great outdoors
Even in the "off-season," the University of Illinois anchors Champaign-Urbana, a two-in-one city 150 miles southwest of Chicago. But instead of catching a football game, in summer go for a stroll at the pastoral 57-acre University of Illinois Arboretum, where flower beds form artful geometric patterns. You'll find hundreds of colorful plants in the Miles C Hartley Selections Gardens, a sheltering pergola in the Noel Welcome Garden and traditional tea gardens surrounding Japan House. And check out the Idea Garden, where university scientists working in this living laboratory experiment with its borders, ornamentals and vegetables.
A half-hour west in Monticello, Allerton Park and Retreat Center feels like a long-lost sanctuary amid fields of corn and soybeans. Robert Henry Allerton, an avid art collector, filled the gardens of his estate with more than 100 lovingly placed sculptures. The century-old mansion isn't open for tours, but manicured paths lead to striking European- and Asian-inspired art.
Pictured: You can explore until sunset at the UI Arboretum.
Whet your college-town appetite with a thick, cheesy slice of nostalgia at Papa Del's Pizza. Forget cardboard dorm-room pies. We're talking puffy crust and spicy tomato sauce that long-gone alums swear by.
At Black Dog Smoke and Ale House, choose from the week's selection of microbrews to wash down tender brisket, vinegary red-cabbage slaw and sweet potato fries. For an unusual but tasty side dish, try the smoked green beans.
Radio Maria offers a more artsy experience (tarot cards under the tabletops and ornamental metal coverings on the walls). The eclectic menu lists delicious sangria, Spanish tapas, Korean hot pot, falafel and BLTs. At brunch (offered on weekends), try one of the many varieties of omelets.
Down the street, Bacaro has blossomed from wine bar to upscale restaurant, with swanky decor and dishes like pan-roasted sea bass and braised veal. Attention to detail is evident from the crusty bread until the almond cake topped with sorbet and brittle.
Pictured: Grilled pork with roasted pumpkin at Bacaro.
The open-air Market at the Square hums spring through fall. As live music plays, shoppers browse a colorful array of woodworking, jewelry, pottery and clothing, as well as a bounty of fresh veggies. urbanaillinois.us/market
The Krannert Art Museum, one of the largest in Illinois, houses nearly 10,000 works. Ancient Egyptian sculptures and dreamy photos by Alfred Stieglitz vie for attention. Stop by the Kinkead Pavilion to see renowned U of I grad Lorado Taft's The Blind, a haunting group of eyeless, cloaked figures grasping at the air.
The Cinema Gallery is a classic tale of an old space finding new purpose: The theater, built in 1870 as Busey's Opera Hall, now houses pieces from more than 50 local artists working in ceramics, paint and sculpture. With changing exhibits every six to eight weeks, you'll always find something new—and old, because you can buy vintage movie posters, too.
If you want variety, head to the Spurlock Museum, where the mix of art and anthropological artifacts from around the world feels like a miniature of Chicago's Field Museum. You could spend an hour in this five-gallery museum and feel like you've spanned the globe.
Pictured: The Krannert Art Museum.
Enjoy a sophisticated nightcap at Boltini Lounge. DJs spin funk music, and vintage velvet curtains add nightclub flair to the historic building's tall windows. A dazzling selection of obscure spirits lines the shelves. Choose from a list of nearly 100 martinis, or try a fresh signature cocktail like the Strawberry-Basil Mojito. And this cocktail club serves dishes far removed from traditional bar eats; a healthful Liar's Club sandwich includes rare ahi tuna, avocado and sriracha aioli on tomato focaccia.
Of course, it might feel more appropriate to wrap up a college-town weekend with a frosty beer. The Blind Pig offers two locations, one for a wide selection of beers, one for microbrews. On warm summer nights, pick the big beer garden at The Blind Pig Brewery, which has a bar dating to the 1800s. Four of the 14 taps stock seasonal house brews like the fruity Blue-berry Wheat. And this time around, you'll be thrilled when the bartender cards you.
Pictured: Boltini's classic exterior hides a funky interior.
The hip hangout of Cafe Kopi has a sense of humor, from a Buddha draped with Mardi Gras beads presiding over the teas to a sandwich called the Cool Ham Cuke.
The decor at Kofusion falls somewhere between aquarium and neon-lit nightclub, but the rainbow of sushi rolls will steal your attention. They're a bargain on Sundays and Mondays for $1 each.
Bakers don't use preservatives or artificial flavorings at Pekara Bakery and Bistro; creative gelatos (like Mexican vanilla cafe mocha) tempt as well.
You can't get much closer to the action than Illini Union Hotel, an iconic campus gathering place. The 72 simple guest rooms have free Wi-Fi and reserved parking. The building has a bowling alley, several shops and an art gallery.
Contemporary sculptures (mostly abstract, geometric and metal) jut out of the prairie grass at Wandell Sculpture Garden. urbanaparks.org
For more information or to plan your trip., contact the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau. (217) /351-4133; visitchampaigncounty.org
Pictured: Century-old Allerton Park includes more than 100 sculptures.