I moved back to Champaign County in 2020. I say “back” because I attended college at the University of Illinois in the 1990s. For most of my life, St. Louis was my home and Champaign was my “second home.” In 2020, I decided to flip the two.
Champaign County is centered by the twin cities of Champaign and Urbana, home to the University of Illinois. The university itself is split nearly right down the middle by the two cities, with the main quad being in Urbana and most of the residence halls (and athletic facilities) being in Champaign. As a student, I believe I crossed from Champaign into Urbana and back nearly every day.
Any county anchored by a major university will always have a ton to do, especially when the weather begins to warm in the spring. And twin cities with two downtowns will always provide twice the outdoor dining opportunities. With the weather beginning to warm, here are seven events you’ll love this spring.
The Virginia Theatre, Downtown Champaign
Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic with the Chicago Sun Times, was born in Urbana and was a student at the University of Illinois in the 1960s. (Fun fact only for me: I was a member of the same fraternity as Ebert, only 20 years later.) He partnered with Gene Siskel to more or less create the “television movie reviews” genre. Their PBS show Sneak Previews later became Siskel & Ebert and, after gaining national syndication, it became At The Movies.
Roger Ebert began Ebertfest in Champaign back in 1999. After his death in 2013, his widow, Chaz Ebert, took over the festival and continues as festival host to this day. In 2023, the festival will take place from April 19–22.
Roger Ebert’s vision for the festival was to feature overlooked films. He went looking for films which, in his words, “hadn’t received the recognition they deserved during their original runs.” Twelve films are screened across the 4-day festival with follow-up Q&A sessions with filmmakers, critics, and the audience.
And it all takes place at a fantastic venue. The Virginia Theatre is a 1920s theater with 1,500 seats. As you’re walking up to the theater, don’t miss the Roger Ebert statue on the sidewalk outside. He’s depicted in the middle seat of a row of theater chairs, giving a thumbs-up.
2. Japan House
The University Of Illinois Arboretum
The best time to visit the Japan House at the University of Illinois is in the spring when the cherry trees are blooming. It’s also spectacular in the fall when the ginkgo trees leave a carpet of yellow across the streets and sidewalks, but when the cherry trees are blooming, the Japan House cannot be missed. There’s no good way to nail down when the cherry trees will be blooming. Depending on whether the early spring has been warm or cold, the bloom is anywhere between mid-March and mid-April, but the best target date is the first week of April.
There’s much more to the Japan House than just the cherry trees, though. On Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m., they host a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. If that interests you, go to the Japan House website and register for one of the Wednesday tea ceremonies.
Or just stroll the grounds of the Japan House and the surrounding arboretum. While there, look for the azumaya (gazebo) built by Illinois alum and Parks & Recreation star Nick Offerman. As explained in this video, Offerman, a woodworker, offered to design and construct a traditional Japanese azumaya on the grounds of the Japan House to honor one of his professors from when he was a student at Illinois. The azumaya — and the Japan House — are spectacular.
3. Boneyard Arts Festival
Throughout Champaign County
In mid-April — Friday, April 14 through Sunday, April 16 in 2023 — the Champaign County Arts Council puts on the Boneyard Arts Festival. If you’re wondering why the word “Boneyard” is included, that’s the name of the creek that runs right through the middle of the University Of Illinois’s campus.
The Boneyard Arts Festival has been a staple of the community for over 20 years. It takes place in over 100 venues around the region representing over 100 local artists. Many local businesses get into the spirit and offer their buildings as pop-up galleries during the event. Luckily, it’s easy to travel from show to show to enjoy all the diverse artwork. The full list of artists and venues who will be participating in this year’s festival will be available soon.
Pro Tip: Check out BAM! Art Market, one of the many stops, at Lincoln Square in Urbana, which is also home to Urbana’s Market at the Square, taking place every Saturday morning. So if the festival opens up at 10 a.m., maybe arrive a little early (parking is free) and check out the farmers market. Check out the bread booth at the very end after you wind through all the rows. Just trust me.
4. Mabery Gelvin Botanical Garden
Lake Of The Woods Forest Preserve
There are several forest preserves throughout Champaign County, all maintained by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. In Mahomet, you will find the largest of these: Lake of the Woods. You’ll find a golf course, hiking trails, and the Museum of the Grand Prairie.
But in the spring, perhaps the best attraction is the Mabery Gelvin Botanical Garden. Once the flowers are in bloom (again, for Champaign County, that would be the first and second weeks of April), a visit to the botanical garden is a must. The garden is right next to the Museum of the Grand Prairie, so perhaps your trip can be a two-for-one combining the free museum with the botanical garden.
5. World’s Largest Softball Tailgate
Eichelberger Field, University Of Illinois
Every spring since 2004, the University of Illinois softball team has hosted an event they call the “World’s Largest Softball Tailgate.” For one game, they encourage fans to show up early and tailgate like they’re attending a football game in the fall. There are food trucks, inflatables for the kids, and live music. In 2007, the World’s Largest Softball Tailgate was named the best Olympic Sport promotion by the Big Ten Conference.
The date for the World’s Largest Softball Tailgate is usually announced around a month before the game. If it’s a slower warmup to the spring season, it is usually moved to the final home series of the year. If it has been an early spring, the tailgate is held in mid-April. Follow the schedule to see which game is chosen for the tailgate in 2023. My best guess having attended this event last year would be Saturday, May 6.
6. Engineering Open House
Engineering Quad, University Of Illinois
The University Of Illinois is known for its engineering programs. And each spring, the students take part in what is called the Engineering Open House. Held on the Bardeen and engineering quads on campus, this open house allows for students to show off the projects they’ve been working on; and it isn’t like some big science fair. The projects will include robotic arms, solar cars, and many other engineering-based projects.
If you or maybe your child/grandchild are interested in science and engineering, this is a great way to interact with one of the top engineering programs in the country. What’s really possible with things like solar electricity and rocket propulsion in 2023? Come to the engineering campus on March 31 and April 1 to find out.
7. Peony And Annual Gardens
Allerton Park & Retreat Center, Monticello
Although across the county line in Piatt County, Illinois, Allerton Park is the gem of this region. I have always called it “Biltmore Lite” because it’s the same concept as the famous North Carolina estate; the house and grounds of the formerly-private estate are now open to public use. What were once Robert Allerton’s formal gardens are now open daily for the public to stroll. Another fun fact just for me: the Sunken Garden is where my college graduation ceremony was held. So I know this property very well.
Perhaps the best time to visit is when the peony garden is in bloom, typically in mid-to-late May. The Allerton Park website keeps a bloom calendar for all formal gardens and, as you can see from the chart, certain plants in certain gardens are blooming throughout the entire growing season.
The grounds and the gardens, which are maintained in partnership with the university, are exquisite. If you’re up for an adventure, there are numerous hiking trails throughout the vast park. Once the weather is warm enough, my wife and I always set a time to visit Allerton Park in the spring.
Pro Tip: Allerton Park has many sculptures throughout the grounds. Some are placed deep within the woods along the hiking trails. Grab a park map when you arrive and set out to find some of these sculptures. The most famous one is The Sun Singer. From there, see if you can follow the path to The Death of the Last Centaur. It makes for a fun hiking adventure.
To discover even more things to do around Champaign County, check out: