Free Things To Do in Champaign-Urbana
October 25, 2018
by Nicole Lanphier
If you’re like me (and you probably are at least a little bit), you have great travel intentions that are held in check by a very reasonable, modest (read: extremely tight) budget. If you find yourself traversing The United States on a college-town tour, you might find yourself checking out The University of Illinois. Love college towns but hate campus life? Can relate. I’ve lived in this town for four years now, and I LOVE it. I am in love with it. I’d marry it if I could. This just barely scrapes the surface, but here are some free things to do if you have time to kill in Champaign-Urbana that will keep your social media content glam (just look at my v good photos for proof) and your wallet full.
A surprising amount of CU is covered in nature and parks, making it an easy place for nature-lovers to feel at home. In no particular order (other than in descending order from my favorite), here are some to check out:
The UIUC Arboretum and Japan House
Free to peruse at your leisure, this place is absolutely gorgeous. It boasts walking paths, small lakes, meticulously planned and planted gardens, and the Japan House, where you can check out traditional tea ceremonies and other workshops on select weekends. Bonus: the park is dog-friendly if you have a four-legged companion with you!
West Side Park
In Champaign, a 3 minute walk from downtown, West Side Park is exactly what you want a town park to look like. There’s a fountain. There’s a playground. There’s a gazebo. There are statues. There are people who look like zombies playing Pokemon Go. Benches and tables galore offer plenty of rest-stop/picnic areas, and did I mention? IT’S DOG FRIENDLY.
Crystal Lake Park
This park is in Urbana, and has a larger footprint than West Side Park, but many of the same wonderful features. In addition, weather permitting, you can rent paddle boats to tour the lake—I have done this, it is absolutely worth your time. Great place for a barbecue or picnic or solitary walking while you’re trying to work through life’s tough issues. Take a book, take a hoop, take a nap, take some pictures, take your dog—what can’t you do here, really??
Bars aren’t technically free if you order anything while you’re in them, I know. But you can often pair an inexpensive drink with a night of free entertainment if you know where to look! Because of the proximity of the university, great music comes through the town frequently. I’ve rounded up a selection of lesser-known weekly events for you if you aren’t in the mood to spend money on tickets to a bigger show.
The Blind Pig and The Rosebowl got you on Mondays
On Mondays, you have a couple of options in town:
- The Blind Pig on Walnut Street in downtown Champaign hosts an open mic comedy night with acts starting at 10pm, and drink specials to go along with it! You can sign up to perform, or just participate by watching nervously (this is my preferred method).
- The Rose Bowl Tavern offers a weekly Monday Night Hootenanny—this is an open mic bluegrass jam, and features talented local bluegrass musicians. Bring an instrument and join in, or just hang out in this very laid back bar and enjoy the show.
Memphis on Main for a Terrific Tuesday
A day made for alliteration–check out Tuesday Trivia at Memphis on Main in downtown Champaign! Grab a team of friends and sign up to compete, or sit quietly and silently answer questions to yourself if that’s your style!
Back to The Blind Pig, or a New Adventure at Cowboy Monkey for Your Wednesday
Halfway to the weekend–treat yourself!
- If you’re looking for a relaxing night with good music and friends, head over to the aforementioned Blind Pig for the Celtic music jam that happens in the back room every Wednesday starting at 8pm. Local musicians gather to play and sing traditional Celtic tunes for a couple of hours, and it’s well worth your while!
- Looking for something a little more interactive? Look no further than Cowboy Monkey (also in downtown Champaign), which hosts a weekly Latin Dance Night! Beginner lessons at 7pm, Tango from 8-10, and then the party really gets going with Salsa/Bachata until bar close at 2:30pm. No experience necessary! Really, this is true. I went with zero experience, and had so much fun that I went back every Wednesday for a year.
Thursdays are best at Blackbird
On Thursdays, you can’t beat live music at Blackbird in Urbana. Sometimes scheduled shows, sometimes open mic nights, Blackbird always delivers with a cool inside space, and a great beer garden with corn-hole (or bags, if that’s what you call it), a ping-pong table, and darts.
Memphis on Main, Derailed, and Others Help You Boogie Through Your Weekend
The weekend is made for dancing and special events–there are often free and inexpensive shows at all of the music venues in CU, and Memphis on Main, and Derailed turn into pretty busy dance spots later in the evenings–check out Facebook events for the most up-to-date list of current events!
Miscellaneous But Still Must-See
Calling all Book Nerds:
I’m a proud (former) scholar of Library Science, so trust me when I tell you this town was MADE for us.
- There are 3 libraries (Champaign Public, The Douglass Branch of Champaign, and The Urbana Free Library)
- The University has an amazing Rare Book an Manuscript collection that you can visit. FOR FREE. Just check times on their website.
- Three bookstores that deserve mention:
- In Champaign: Jane Addams Bookstore—a great used bookstore with weird nooks and crannies and more than one floor to browse.
- In Urbana: Priceless Books—on the main drag of downtown Urbana, shelves upon shelves of used books on every topic. One of the best smelling places in town, if you’re into that sweet used book smell.
- Orphan’s Treasure Box—tucked out of the way down an assuming Champaign side street, what this book store lacks in pizzazz it makes up for with two things that make it amazing: proceeds go to charity, and paperback books are often 5 for $1. That isn’t a typo.
Saturday Mornings from 8am-1pm, Lincoln Square in Urbana is all hustle and bustle because of the Urbana Farmer’s Market. I’ve been to a lot of farmer’s markets, this one holds up! Several rows of the classics—seasonal vegetables, flowers, local honey, meats, cheeses, and baked goods. There are also stalls with handmade gifts for yourself or people you love just as much, ranging from soaps and lotions to knit items, beautiful woodwork, and jewellery. There are musicians playing around different parts of the market, and the perimeter is populated by a healthy variety of some of the best food trucks the town has to offer. Many vendors accept credit/debit cards, and the nearby Lincoln Square Mall offers an ATM just in case! (Note: the market is NOT dog friendly)
There are so many hidden gems in this Midwest town! For even more ideas, check out the Champaign/Urbana city websites, Facebook events page, and the UIUC calendar of events! Hope to C-U soon around town!