Central Illinois is characterized by small towns and cities, each with its own charms. It is a region where community bonds are strong with friendly people, bustling farmers’ markets and lively local festivals. Based on our six years of living in the Champaign-Urbana area, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of fun things to do in Central Illinois and its vicinity that cater to a variety of interests.
Though this area of Illinois may not be known as a popular travel destination, it has quite diverse attractions. The region boasts a vibrant community life and expansive natural beauty with serene lakes, verdant parks and picturesque trails. Here are the top things we love to do when living here. You can also check out this list of easy Illinois road trips and weekend getaways for more ideas.
1. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL
When you are in the Land of Lincoln, don’t miss the opportunity to learn about his life and legacy at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. Walking through the exhibits made me feel like going back in time. The museum consists of two main exhibitions: “Journey One” covers Lincoln’s early years in Indiana and Illinois, while “Journey Two” delves into his presidential years, notably the Civil War era. His tragic assassination is also depicted.
The combined use of artifacts and interactive displays ensures an immersive and memorable experience to visitors of all ages. This museum is among the best Central Illinois attractions for history enthusiasts, museum lovers and families. It is one of the museums that make us feel quite emotional after visiting.
2. Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, IL
Take a step back in time at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, which is within walking distance from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. This house is where Lincoln’s family lived before his presidency. A guided tour provides insights into the man who would go on to become one of the nation’s greatest leader.
You may also want to visit the Lincoln Tomb at the Oak Ridge Cemetery, which is the resting place of Lincoln and his family.
3. Urbana’s Market at the Square in Urbana, IL
Urbana’s Market at the Square in downtown Urbana is the farmers’ market that takes place every Saturday from 7 am – 12 pm from May until October. The market is at the corner of Illinois and Vine streets, right across from the City of Urbana building.
It’s a place where the community gathers to support local farmers and artisans, promoting sustainability and local economy. We enjoyed coming here to buy high quality eggs, chicken and beef. Come early for a more lively atmosphere and more available options.
4. Lake of the Woods in Mahomet, IL
Lake of the Woods is a beautiful park in Mahomet offering fun activities for every season, including boating, fishing, biking, hiking, and golfing. It is a fun weekend destination for Champaign County residents. Some notable attractions here include the Museum of the Grand Prairie, the Botanical Garden and the Covered Bridge.
5. University of Illinois Arboretum and Japan House
Come to the University of Illinois Arboretum in Urbana for a chill and scenic day. A highlight at the Arboretum is the Japan House which provides an opportunity to appreciate traditional Japanese culture and aesthetics. The place features a tea garden, dry garden, classes and workshops.
It is during spring that the Japan House truly becomes a sight to behold when fifty cherry blossom trees burst into bloom. This annual spectacle creates a landscape reminiscent of Japan and has become one of the most anticipated events for students and locals in the Champaign-Urbana area when spring comes. We felt lucky that we could do cherry blossom viewing right in Central Illinois, instead of having to fly to Washington D.C. or Japan.
6. Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Krannert Center is located on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). It is a premier venue for music, theatre, dance, and more.
The Foellinger Hall is the largest of the venues with over 2,000 seats. During our time in Urbana, some noteworthy orchestras and artists have had performances here such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lang Lang. Again, we felt fortunate to have such a world-class facility in Central Illinois.
7. Allerton Park and Retreat Center in Monticello, IL
This Monticello gem offers a variety of experiences in one location. Allerton Park is home to a mansion, gardens, and natural areas. Visitors can enjoy viewing beautiful sculptures and exploring a number of hiking trails. This is one of our favorite local parks for fall colors in Illinois.
8. Homer Lake Forest Preserve in Homer, IL
Homer Lake Forest Preserve is where visitors can enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the Midwest’s nature. There are well-maintained hiking trails that go through the park, offering stunning views of the lake and surrounding landscapes. It is also our favorite local place for fall colors.
9. Meadowbrook Park and Crystal Lake Park in Urbana, IL
These public parks in Urbana offer a variety of fun outdoor activities, from hiking trails to picnic spots. Meadowbrook Park features a sculpture garden, children playground and trails. There’s also Meadowbrook organic garden program that allows people to rent a plot of land in the community gardens to grow what they want. When we first came to live in Urbana, we found the program quite fascinating.
Crystal Lake Park is a local favorite with its aquatic center and as a great spot for outdoor BBQ. We enjoyed driving through the park in summer.
10. Local Summer Festivals and Parades
The region comes alive during warmer months, as residents and visitors gather to celebrate cultural events, festivals and parades. For example, the annual Champaign County Fourth of July Parade and Fireworks is a staple of the local community. This festive event begins with a morning parade, then at night, spectators gather for a grand fireworks display which both children and adults enjoy.
11. Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, IL
Situated on the UIUC campus, the Krannert Art Museum has a permanent collection of over 10,000 works of art. It is a cultural destination in Central Illinois with art pieces from different continents. The museum’s collection includes holdings of ancient and modern art. Visiting the Krannert Art Museum is an enriching experience that complements the diversity of Central Illinois.
12. University of Illinois Memorial Stadium
For sports enthusiasts, a visit to the University of Illinois Memorial Stadium in Champaign is a must. Home to the Fighting Illini football team, this venue offers an electrifying atmosphere on game days.
The excitement begins even before the kickoff. Tailgating at Memorial Stadium is a time-honored tradition and an essential part of the game day experience. Dedicated fans decked out in orange and blue arrive hours before the game to set up their grills, coolers, and Illini-themed decorations. Tailgating is a community gathering that embodies the spirit of college football.
13. State Farm Center in Champaign, IL
The State Farm Center located on the UIUC campus is another sports and entertainment venues in Central Illinois. The venue is the home of the Fighting Illini men’s and women’s basketball teams. It also hosts a wide variety of events and concerts.
14. The Illinois Marathon
The Illinois Marathon is a thrilling highlight on Central Illinois’ calendar. It is held annually in Champaign-Urbana at the end of April. It offers several race options to accommodate various levels of fitness and ambition, including a full marathon, half marathon, 10K, 5K, and a youth run.
The course takes runners through the streets of Champaign and Urbana, past local landmarks, and finishes at the Memorial Stadium. The cheering crowds along the course and the community support make it an exhilarating and festive event. We also loved showing our support when runners ran past our house.
15. Effingham TREC trail
Outdoor enthusiasts may want to check out the Effingham TREC trail, a paved trail perfect for walking, jogging, and cycling. The path offers stunning views of Illinois countryside and a peaceful environment for exercise and relaxation. We recommend coming here in fall for stunning photo opportunities of fall foliage.
16. Starved Rock State Park
Though technically a little north of Central Illinois, Starved Rock State Park deserves a special mention. With its majestic canyons, beautiful waterfalls, and miles of trails, this park is a paradise for outdoor lovers. Each season at Starved Rock offers a unique beauty – from vibrant wildflowers in spring to beautiful fall colors. We high recommend visiting it in fall.
17. Turkey Run State Park
Just a short drive from Central Illinois, Turkey Run State Park in Indiana features sandstone gorges, scenic hiking trails, and a nature center. There are hiking trails for every level of outdoor enthusiast. The trails wind through fascinating rock formations and lush, fern-filled canyons. Some of the trails are challenging, but the views are well worth the effort.
18. Kickapoo State Park
Located on the Vermilion River near Oakwood, Illinois, Kickapoo State Recreation Area offers a variety of outdoor activities. Fun things to do here include boating, fishing and hiking. With 22 lakes, Kickapoo is an ideal place for those who love boating and canoeing.
19. Explore Large Cities Nearby
One thing we missed when living in Champaign-Urbana was the bustling atmosphere in big cities. Fortunately, the location of Central Illinois is also excellent for exploring some of the Midwest’s most exciting cities. Within a couple of hours’ drive, you can find yourself in the bustling metropolis of Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis.
Chicago, known as the “Windy City”, is renowned for its vibrant arts scene, iconic architecture, food scene, shopping, and Lake Michigan’s stunning shoreline. Our favorite hotel in Chicago is the Sofitel Chicago Magnificent Mile.
In the Southwest of Central Illinois, St. Louis welcomes visitors with its iconic Gateway Arch. The city boasts a wealth of attractions, such as the Missouri Botanical Garden (our favorite), Saint Louis Art Museum (recommended!) and St. Louis Zoo.
On the East side of Central Illinois, Indianapolis features the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the scenic Canal Walk, and the Indianapolis Zoo. Our favorite hotel in Indy is the JW Marriott Indianapolis.
In general, the area of Central Illinois has a diversity of attractions ranging from outdoor recreational areas and historical sites to educational museums and exciting festivals. We hope you find this list of things to do useful, and feel free to comment and share your favorite activities in the area.