Champaign a Cultural Oasis in the Heart of Illinois

Campus has plenty to offer, but downtown Champaign is worth a look too

After a trip down I-57 through miles and miles of farmland and past small towns like Ashkum and Paxton, arriving in Champaign feels like a foreign and unnerving experience.

The reason for that is fairly simple. Whereas most of the towns in this area of the state are smaller and decidedly more rustic in nature, the Champaign-Urbana area is one that is constantly growing and evolving. A trip down Green Street, which cuts through the middle of campus and takes one past some of the University of Illinois’ most notable landmarks, reveals a never-ending sprawl of new student housing that is being built both outward and, notably, upward.

Despite that feeling of everything being new and shiny, there are still plenty of places to go in the area if you’re looking for a more old-time flavor and feel. If you’re on the prowl for a breakfast spot, look no further than Sam’s Café. Dead smack in the middle of downtown Champaign, walking through the door of this restaurant is like walking through a portal into the 1950’s. The ceiling is covered with advertisements for local businesses, the prices are reasonable, and the portions are hearty as you start your day on a positive note.

From Sam’s, there are numerous options to choose from in terms of a next activity. Whether you’re in the mood for some golf (U of I has two excellent golf courses just south of town in Savoy, and Brookhill in Rantoul is a green oasis in the middle of farmland), or if you’re looking to do some shopping (Jane Addams Book Shop is three floors of total bibliophile bliss), there is a ton to do around the area, and the sheer variety of activities means that anyone can find something they love to do.

After a morning of driving around the city and seeing what it has to offer, the options for lunch are plentiful. Ko Fusion is an Asian restaurant in downtown that specializes in wild seafood and sushi, but it has a wide variety of dishes to suit any palette. Dos Reales, located on the north side of Champaign on Prospect Avenue, is an excellent Mexican restaurant, and if Italian is your bag, then Za’s, located on campus near the Illini Union and at another location just north of the Neil Street exit on I-74, is a great place to go for all your pasta cravings.

After a couple of heavy meals and plenty of driving, some relaxation is surely in order for an afternoon in Champaign, and there are plenty of places to do that too. A stroll through the main quad at the university is one way to do that, taking in the sights and sounds of one of the nation’s premier universities. Just south of campus, the Japan House, surrounded by the University’s Arborteum, is a fantastic refuge from the hectic hustle and bustle found in the rest of the city.

For those still willing to do a bit of driving after a busy day, driving north to Rantoul can bring you to the museum at Chanute Air Force Base. Closed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, the base still houses an aerospace museum filled with artifacts and historical information about the United States Air Force.

Upon returning to Champaign in the evening, the question of dinner will surely be on everyone’s mind. Checking out a place like Dos Reales is certainly an option, but there are several other restaurants in the area worth visiting. Papa Del’s, located on Green Street just west of campus, features some of the best pizza around, and the deep dish pizza is positively delicious.

If downtown Champaign is more your speed, then there are two brewpubs and restaurants worth checking out. Desthil is one such place, located just across the street from Ko Fusion and loaded with draft beers and delicious entrees. Just down Neil Street, the Blind Pig is another place with plenty of beer and food that will appeal to a wide variety of tastes.

If you’re somehow still upright after all of that food and drink, there are still more places to visit. If you’re in the mood to dance, High Dive in downtown will fulfill your desires. Live music can be heard at several venues, including the Canopy Club (on campus) and Cowboy Monkey (in downtown). The campus area also has several pubs and bars worth checking out, including Legend’s and Murphy’s Pub, which are both located on Green Street.

With such a wide variety of things to do in the city, Champaign is an exciting and vibrant cultural center in the heart of Illinois, and well worth a trip down from Chicago to check out.

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