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Champaign County: Not just for students

See artifacts that date back centuries at the Krannert Museum on the University of Illinois campus.
See artifacts that date back centuries at the Krannert Museum on the University of Illinois campus.
Connie Reed

What do reindeer, apples, military aircraft and paintings by famous artists have in common? They are all things you’ll find in Champaign County. Although best known as home of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, you don’t have to be a student to enjoy all that the area has to offer.

Museums
The Krannert Art Museum and the Spurlock Museum, on the U of I campus, are both worth a visit. The second largest fine art museum in Illinois, the Krannert Art Museum is home to European paintings, many dating back centuries, early 20th century sculptures, and ancient Greek and Egyptian artifacts. The Spurlock Museum’s 45,000 artifact collection showcases items from cultures ranging from Mediterranean to American Indian.

At the Chanute Air Museum, on the former Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, see historic military aircraft and replicas of early planes like the Wright 1903 Flyer and Octave Chanute 1896 Glider. The Chanute Air Force Base was the original home of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the all-black squadron that became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. See the exhibit about their story and other exhibits on life at the former air force base.

One of the permanent exhibits in the Museum of the Grand Prairie in Mahomet tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s visits to Champaign County while traveling the 8th Judicial District during his law practice days. In addition, see a partially reconstructed blacksmith shop and other exhibits about life on the prairie in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

What to do in the evening
Being a college town, you’ll find plenty of nightlife in Champaign and Urbana. Or perhaps you’d like to go out for a nice dinner. Try Big Grove Tavern in downtown Champaign for farm-to-table fine dining. If you’re looking for just a quick bite to eat, nothing fancy, you’ll have lots of options, like Q Smokehouse for simple but delicious barbecue sandwiches and house-cut fries.

For something different to do, plan ahead and reserve a spot at The Art Party Studio in Champaign. Bring your own bottle of wine, or your beverage of choice, and paint a picture in just a couple of hours. No art experience is necessary. The Art Party Studio provides all the supplies for the painting.

Seasonal
From August to December, Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch in Rantoul gives you an opportunity to visit with Santa’s drivers. These reindeer really have flown—in crates aboard a jet when they were being shipped from their original home in Alaska to Rantoul. Learn all about them during a reindeer tour.

Curtis Orchard opens toward the end of July and remains open until a few days before Christmas. Pick your own apples or purchase them already picked. Enjoy live entertainment on September and October weekends, browse the Country Store, and be sure to try an apple cider doughnut while you’re there. Chances are you’ll end up taking some home with you, too.

Where to stay
There are plenty of full-service hotels and B&Bs in Champaign County. If you’d like to stay on the U of I campus, try the I Hotel, a luxury boutique accommodation within walking distance of Memorial Stadium, especially convenient if you’re attending a Illini football game.

It may be some years since you hung out on a college campus, but with all there is to do at the University of Illinois and in the surrounding area, a visit to Champaign County makes a great getaway.

To learn more about things to do in Champaign County, go to the Visit Champaign County website.

Disclosure: The author’s stay at the I Hotel and visits to the Art Party Studio and Big Grove Tavern were hosted by the Champaign County CVB, but any opinions expressed in this article are her own.

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Visit the author’s Midwest Wanderer blog to learn about attractions, restaurants, accommodations and events all over the Midwest.