Sometimes the best part of attending a business meeting or conference in a new city is the chance to explore a place you might not otherwise have on your radar. Predominantly known as a college town as the home of the University of Illinois, Champaign and its surrounding communities are teeming with lively venues and eateries. When you’re not in meetings, get out and about in Champaign County and find out what so many people already know: This is an Outside of Ordinary destination. Here are the top things to do if you’re in town for a conference or meeting in Champaign County, Illinois.
Top Places to Eat With a Group
Champaign County is home to a number of award-winning restaurants that are perfect for larger groups looking for an off-site lunch spot or dinner and drinks after a long day of meetings. Consider Big Grove Tavern, where diners can sample farm-to-table dishes and group-sharing appetizers like hummus and pretzel braids. Other menu items include burgers, steak frites and grilled fish. The tavern has three private dining rooms, allowing groups to reserve the rooms in advance if they need the space. Another popular spot is Jupiter’s Pizzeria at the Crossing, a laidback eatery with tons of gourmet toppings to create your own pizza. It has an arcade and billiard room where you can play a game of pool with friends.
Papa Del’s was recently awarded with an “Enjoy Illinois: Delicious Destination” Award, thanks to its authentic deep-dish pizzas and perfect cheesy garlic bread. For groups that aren’t from the region, this is a fantastic way to get a slice of true “Chicago” flavors. Not to mention, the restaurant has plenty of long tables, making it easy for large groups to dine together. For a cozier spot to enjoy hearty burgers and a pint, consider JT Walker’s Restaurant & Brewery. Inside is a vintage vibe with brick walls, exposed beams and distressed farm tables. Order onion rings, chicken wraps and Italian beef sandwiches from its large menu. The restaurant also has its own brewery, and you can order its varieties and other commercial craft beers.
Top Spots to Grab a Drink
Sometimes, grabbing a drink or two is the best way to unwind after a long day of meetings. Get to know your conference counterparts better at Blind Pig Brewery, which is Champaign’s first all-grain brewery since prohibition. The brewery has a unique “prohibition vibe” with a vintage saloon-like bar, wrought iron chandeliers and leather-clad seats. On warmer days, sit outside under twinkling patio lights next to a vine-covered building for happy hour drinks. Blind Pig is always serving at least four of its own brews on tap along with commercial craft beers. Triptych Brewing is another great spot to sample craft beers in Champaign County. Triptych has brewed more than 100 different varieties of beer in the past, and there are always rotating options to try. Tiptych doesn’t serve food, but encourages visitors to bring their own snacks, creating a cool picnic-like atmosphere.
If your group is in the Urbana area, head over to Rigg’s Beer Company—known for its spacious dining area (can sit up to 200 people). Groups can take up a spot indoors or in its outdoor beer garden filled with covered picnic tables. The beer menu rotates seasonally, allowing guests to try out new flavors each visit. Whiskey lovers, on the other hand, should check out Barrelhouse 34, a hip hangout for spirit drinkers. The indoor vibe is sort of barn-like—in a good way. Think saddles, recycled woods and clockwork art pieces on the walls. The bar has a large menu of whiskey, beer and cocktails. You can also try Seven Saints, a gothic spot with arched entryways, Medieval chandeliers and velvet red drapes. Bring your appetite with you; the bar doubles as a restaurant serving delicious salads, soups and other entrees. Hang out by the bar, where hundreds of spirits bottles are on display, or lounge on the comfy booths before ordering drinks.
Wine drinkers, head over to Radio Maria, a restaurant and tapas bar sporting funky neon colors, authentic Spanish cuisine, and an impressive wine menu with hundreds of wine varieties from every corner of the world. Share a bottle over tapas in this elegant spot to end the night. V. Picasso is another original restaurant you won’t find anywhere else; every plate you order is a work of art itself. Foodies can sample gourmet plates like beef tartare and roasted bone marrow to pair with imported wines. Most of the ingredients used in the dishes are brought in from Willow Creek Farm, located only 7.5 miles away.
Finally, if you’re hanging out with a competitive set, Crane Alley bar and restaurant is a good option. There, you can play pool while you hang out for happy hour, or you can sit outside in alley-turned-patio with sparking patio lights overhead. Sipyard is another fun spot when the weather is nice with an outdoor patio surrounded by graffiti and murals, giving it an urban look. Sipyard often hosts live music, too.
Cool Places to Get Outside for Some Exercise
Get outside the conference room and head to Meadowbrook Park, which has a paved trail for running, walking or biking. A series of permanent installations that are part of the Wandell Sculpture Garden line the path. The 130-acre park is also home to an organic garden plot and a playground. If your meeting place is near campus, visit the University of Illinois Arboretum, a public garden with various plants from around the world. The idyllic garden changes seasonally, featuring cherry blossoms trees, spring flowers or changing fall leaves depending on what time of year you visit.
Get active by playing a game of footgolf with your meeting mates at Lake of the Woods. The 900-acre park is home to an 18-hole golf course, hiking trails, boat and fishing docks, and cross-country skiing trails. Be the coolest planner in your group by arranging a game of footgolf on-site. The game consists of players kicking soccer balls into oversized golf holes. This unusual activity will give your group something new to talk about. Or stay within the city limits by spending your day outdoors at West Side Park, a small scenic spot with its own monuments, permanent art installations and a posh water fountain. In Monticello, Allerton Park & Retreat Center is the place to go to clear your mind and enjoy being outside. Originally a private residence built in the 1900s, the Georgian manor currently operates as an events venue. However, groups can explore its garden and 14-miles worth of hiking trails on its 1,500-acre property.
Top Places You Can Easily Visit on Foot
Champaign is a big-time college town, and there’s plenty to do within walking distance of the core of the county’s 4,000 total hotel rooms and more than 240,000 square feet of meeting space at various venues.
The biggest attraction worth exploring is easily the University of Illinois campus, recognized for its breathtaking architecture and layout. Take a walk through the campus to see the stunning view of dome-shaped Foellinger Auditorium, cathedral-like buildings, and intricately detailed libraries (think gold-plated arch ceilings).
An extension of University of Illinois is the Spurlock Museum that’s home to thousands of artifacts. Expect to find well-preserved items from the ancient Greek, Egyptian and Eastern Asia eras. The museum will give your group a deeper understanding of many cultures and histories from around the world as you browse through clothing items, pottery, tribal masks and paintings on display. The Krannert Art Museum is also located on campus and showcases historic paintings dating back to the 1700s along with contemporary art pieces brought in from artists from across the globe. There are over 10,000 works to view in the museum. Both museums are free to visit.
Take your group to see something out of the ordinary by heading over to view NCSA Blue Waters Supercomputer on campus. The campus houses one of the largest supercomputers in the world that can perform quadrillions of calculations that even the most brilliant scientists and engineers cannot figure out. The computer is currently being used to research cures for Alzheimer’s disease and to study natural disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes. Schedule a tour where for 45 minutes, your group will learn all about the giant of all computers.
You can also schedule an outing to see a show at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where talented performers take the stage. Famous acts have headlined the stage like Yo-Yo Ma and Buddy Guy, making this a popular spot for concerts. Tickets for your entire group can be purchased in advance online. Similarly, The Virginia Theatre is Champaign’s top auditorium, resembling opera theaters of Europe. Its design is heavily detailed with carvings, ceiling patterns and stained glass windows. It’d be hard to miss this building due to its old-fashioned theater sign with flashing lights. The theater hosts various performances including rock concerts, operas, ballets and the annual Roger Ebert Film Festival, Ebertfest.
Finally, end your trip with a relaxing retreat to Japan House. This garden holds all the true signs of a bona fide Japanese botanical garden. Expect to find rippling creeks, bonsai trees, rock garden and statues of pagodas throughout the park. While there, take the time to learn about Japanese culture by engaging in a tea ceremony.
****This is just a snapshot of the various activities and things to do throughout Champaign County if you’re in town for a conference, meeting or event. Check out more of the best things to do and places to eat on our website and in our visitor guide.