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Champaign-Urbana – A Boutique Gem in Illinois

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Located along Highway 72 about 100 miles east of Springfield, Illinois, Champaign County actually encompasses both the city of Champaign and its adjacent neighbor Urbana, which most people refer to by both names—Champaign-Urbana. With a population of just over 203,000 people, the county is a beautiful little slice of Illinois and the proud home of the University of Illinois (located in Urbana).

The university is a great place to start your exploration of the area, as it is here that you will find the Lincoln Hall, where legend has it that if a student rubs the nose of the bust of the nation’s 16th president on the way to an exam, good favor will fall upon the test results!

The university is also home to some of the area’s most impressive cultural entities, including the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the home of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony that features a wide array of music, dance, opera and theater performances, as well as the Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion. Recognized as the second largest fine arts museum in the state, the museum’s collection of Asian, African, European and American art number more than 10,000 pieces, while 6,000 years of world culture is the focus of the comprehensive fine art collection in the pavilion.

The Spurlock Museum here is also a big draw for its close to 45,000 artifacts, designed to share and celebrate our shared humanity “by collecting, preserving, documenting, exhibiting and studying objects of cultural heritage.”

The life and times of Lincoln are well represented in Urbana. One of the most famous statues of him in the country, named “Lincoln the Lawyer” by Lorado Taft, is located in the city’s Carle Park, where it has stood since the early 1920s. At the Champaign County Courthouse, you will find a 1850s courtroom and exhibits close to where Lincoln began his legal career.

And if you’d prefer to walk in the same steps that our president once strode, there’s the “In Lincoln’s Shadow Pastcast Tour,” on-demand, self-guided, downloadable, audio and video walking tours where visitors can “see images and hear sounds from the past on the actual spot where history was made.”

A little bit of bubbly indeed

Sure, this is a play on words of the name “Champaign,” but I think it’s an accurate description of the sparkling, youthful yet sophisticated energy that palpably influences not only the ambience, but the arts and culture scene here as well.

Downtown Champaign is a very welcoming, eclectic area chock full of art galleries, expressive outdoor works of art, unique boutique shops, specialty stores, restaurants, bars and the like. And because the downtown area is only a few square blocks, it’s easy to get around on foot.

I was only in town for the day, so I did most of my exploring as a window shopper. However, I did spend some time checking out some of the city’s great eats. For breakfast, I stopped into Café Kopi, a popular, laid-back boutique coffeehouse serving fresh pastries, salads, paninis, sandwiches (with a lot of vegetarian and vegan options), plus delicious hot teas and specialty drinks.

My favorite meal (and one I have been dreaming about since I got home!) was at Big Grove Tavern. The décor here is absolutely mesmerizing and soothing, with dark hardwoods, lofty ceilings, floor-ceiling windows and beautiful artwork, true to its vision to envelop diners in an inviting, tavern feel.

The menu here focuses on using local and farm- fresh ingredients and introduces unexpected twists to some American classics as well as comfort foods. Props go out to their savory deviled eggs (which change daily), the Local Cheese & Beer Tasting Plate (delightful!) and the Tavern Burger—a beef, bison and pork burger topped with red onion marmalade, cornichon aioli, Amish white cheddar cheese and a farm-fresh fried egg, and served with house-cut fries. It was simply amazing!

Still lookin’ for Lincoln

About 10 minutes west and a little north to the town of Mahomet is the Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve, set on 900 acres of breathtaking rolling expanses of wide-open spaces and copious groves of trees with a lake, boathouse, golf course and an awe-inspiring, crimson-red, classic covered wooden bridge built in 1965 spanning the Sangamon River. Together, it all puts you completely at ease and one with nature.

The preserve is also home to the Mabery-Glevin Botanical Garden, a lovely setting dotted with inviting sitting areas, a crimson, Japanese-themed bridge over a lily pad-covered pond, a waterfall, sculptures and scores of native and exotic plants and flowers.

And Lincoln is well represented at the Museum of the Grand Prairie with several impressive exhibits detailing where he lived, his friends and family, his work, his stand on and involvement in the abolishment of slavery, and the impact that he made as a politician in this country back in the day.

The museum also delves into a great deal of the area’s early African-American history, as well as its founders, early industries and more. You could easily spend a few hours in the museum alone.

They say it’s the little unexpected things along the way that make life worth the journey. And this is definitely an apt description of what you’ll find in Champaign-Urbana, a Boutique Gem in Illinois.

Written by Lysa Allman-Baldwin

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