Champaign County, Illinois, is a hotbed for fun, local events you can’t find anywhere else in the region. Thousands of people flock to the tiny town of Homer each year to taste hundreds of different soda flavors, and a tradition of film excellence continues at the Virginia Theatre in honor of the late Illinois alum and film critic Roger Ebert. Check out some of the top events and festivals this year in Champaign County, and start planning a weekend getaway around one or more of these cool area events.
If You Like Arts and Culture…
Then visit for a long weekend in late April, when Champaign County pays tribute to the late legendary film critic Robert Ebert with the annual Ebertfest film festival at Virginia Theatre. Ebert was a University of Illinois graduate of the school of journalism who went on to become one of the country’s most recognized and respected critics. Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz started the festival in 1999, and it continues to thrive even after his death in 2013. The five-day long festival features films that the critic valued as well as new films that meet a criteria Ebert established. Stars like Tilda Swinton and Jason Segel have attended the film festival, which includes screenings, Q&As with filmmakers, critical review discussions and more. Check out a review blog on our website chronicling the who/what/where at Ebertfest 2016.
Also in April, Champaign County celebrates its creative community during the annual Boneyard Arts Festival, where close to 100 different galleries, theaters, working studios and other non-traditional venues open their doors for four days, inviting visitors inside to see the impressive works from local artists. Some of the pieces you might see on this vast art walk include sculptures, textiles, photography, paintings and embroidery, in addition to performances from visual artists in dance, theater, poetry and more. The event is open to everyone—children, adults, locals and visitors—absolutely free of charge. Kids will get to do crafts and watch artists in action, and adults can talk one-on-one with some of Champaign County’s most creative residents. Read more about last year’s event on our blog here.
Also, thousands of people come to downtown Champaign every year during CU Pride Fest, a family-friendly event that includes a parade and Pride Party. The Orpheum Science Museum will host a series of activities and crafts for kids in attendance.
If You Like Food and Drink…
You have to plan a weekend trip to Champaign County in early June for one of the most well-known local festivals: the Homer Soda Festival. Early every summer, people swarm the Village of Homer from around the region to sample somewhere close to 250 flavors of sodas—many with quirky flavor combos like Dang Butterscotch Root Beer, Hosmer Mountain Brown Sugar Root Beer, Jones PB & J, and more. The population of Homer on an average day is about 2,000 residents, but during the festival, that number soars to 10,000. Food vendors cook up hot pizzas and barbecue plates to pair with the wide variety of sodas, and the festival also includes a Classic Car Show. The event’s broad mission is to celebrate home soda brewers and those small outfits that are producing fun, unexpected flavors—and it’s easily one of the most unique summertime family events in the region. Check out how one blogger prepared for last year’s Homer Soda Festival in a blog on our website, and watch the video below for a insider’s look at the event.
Taste of Champaign-Urbana is a cool and casual outdoor event during that takes place on a warm summer weekend each year, featuring selections from some of the area’s restaurants and food trucks (about 25 of them). The festival has a fun atmosphere with live music and lots of local arts and crafts vendors. Don’t miss the Pie Run that takes you on a 3.14 mile long course to earn a free pie from local bakeries.
Other fun foodie events in Champaign County celebrate specific foods. Plan a weekend trip to coincide with the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival in late summer, where up to 30,000 ears of sweetcorn are consumed. The corn is brought in from nearby farms and cooked the old-fashioned away using an antique steam engine. Music, dancing and corn served in a variety of ways are all part of the event. The Strawberry Jam Festival, which takes place in June, combines a love of strawberries with a love music. Lawn chairs and picnic blankets reserve comfy spots on the lawn at Meadowbrook Park for a good view of the stage, and fresh berries served over delicious ice cream is the treat of choice. Finally, the Arthur Amish Country Cheese Festival in September is the best place to sample cheese from dozens of vendors and watch cheese enthusiasts compete against each other in the National Cheese Eating Championships. The three-day festival attracts 30,000 people, and includes a tractor pull, live music and, lots of local jams and goods for sale at the Amish farm shop.
If You Like Music…
Then clear your calendar in September for ELLNORA | The Guitar Festival , a three-day long guitar festival at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana. Previous big-name musicians like Buddy Guy, Bela Fleck, Lucinda Williams and Drive-By Truckers have headlined the event, making this one of the most popular and talked-about guitar festivals in the county. The event is only held every two years, which makes it that much more special.
Champaign-Urbana also hosts Pygmalion every September, one of the best music events in the region to travel for. The festival features a mixture of curated components over the decade plus of its existence: music, literature, tech, crafts, and food. The festival continues to change over the course of time, incorporating more cultural aspects of the Champaign-Urbana community and alongside some of the best and brightest performers and artists from around the world. Previous performers include CHVRCHES, Run the Jewels, Major Lazer, Future Islands, Explosions in the Sky, and hundreds more. Don't forget to pick up some things at the Made Fest — the vintage craft fair component of the festival, where dozens of vendors sell their handmade wears and goods.
Mahomet knows how to have fun too. Visit Champaign County for a weekend in August to attend the Sangamon River Music Festival, which takes place in downtown Mahomet. The streets become jam-packed with entertainment, live music, food vendors, art vendors and the Mahomet Lion’s Club Beer Tent. Kids love this event every year for the carnival rides, and moms and dads like to compete in the cornhole tournament. The weekend-long, family-friendly event also includes a parade down the main street featuring local marching bands.
Finally, you can party with the locals in downtown Champaign during StreetFest in June. Hundreds of spectators gather on the streets of the downtown area to listen to live music from local musicians. Nearby, food and drink vendors are scattered around, and plenty of area restaurants and bars stay open late after the festival.
If You Like History…
Then celebrate Independence Day weekend just outside Champaign County, starting July 1 for the Freedom Fest Celebration. Located in Arthur, the event includes live music, tons of kids activities and delicious food and drink vendors. The event is so popular that 30,000 to 40,000 guests travel to the small town to watch the fireworks show after sunset. Expect to find additional festivities like a parade, military airplane show and skydiving from planes.
Also in July, retrace the steps of the early pioneers at Historic Farm Days in Penfield. Up to 100,000 people gather to celebrate the harvest with square dancing, parades, fireworks and live music. Farmers show off vintage tractors, and volunteers donning period attire demonstrate blacksmithing and other skills used in the early days. This family-friendly event allows everyone to learn a bit more about the history of agriculture in the Champaign County area.
Locals celebrate the history of agriculture during the Half Century of Progressevent in Rantoul every other year. The summertime event includes vintage tractors (dating back to half a century ago) that will kick off the celebration with a field demonstration. Live music playing 50s and 60s tune accompany guests as they check out the vintage tractors or take part in a tractor pull. Other demonstrations include corn husking and corn picking to show guests the behind-the-scenes process of farming.
Finally, step back in the 1920s and 1930s at Monticellobration at the historic courthouse square in the downtown district in September. Guests are encouraged to wear their best flapper dresses and period outfits to look the part of the Golden Era. Over 50 vendors offer delicious meals for guests to snack on before and after dancing to swing music on Charter Street. Love vintage cars? You’re in for a real treat at the event’s classic car show. There’s something in it for the kids too. Kids’ corner includes fun games, dunk tanks, face painting and train rides.
This is just a snapshot of some of the best weekends to visit Champaign County for fun events and festivals. Check our calendar for a list of upcoming things to do, and see our blog for more travel ideas in Champaign County.