Free and cheap things to do in Champaign-Urbana

By Philip Brewer on 25 August 2008 12 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

Here's a sampling of free and cheap things to do where I live--Champaign-Urbana, Illinois--offered up for my neighbors (who may not know all these places), for visitors (who may not have time to hunt up all the cool things to do), as a source of inspiration for people who live elsewhere, and just to let folks from away know that CU is a happenin' place, with lots to do.

This post is a response to Wise Bread's open blog call for posts on things to do for under $5.  It's organized by kind of activity, because I thought that would be the most useful for someone looking for something to do.  The same six or seven sponsors do show up over and over again, because they sponsor so much free and cheap stuff to do in CU.  That makes for a certain amount of repetition--which I didn't see any way to avoid, except organizing the post by sponsor, which didn't seem as useful.


There are tons of events with free music in CU.  Some are annual events:

Bluestem String Band playing at Strawberry JamStrawberry Jam which this year was mostly bluegrass, roots, and folk music--and which was not only free, but gave out free strawberries and ice cream.

Champaign's Downtown Festival of the Arts this year had two stages with everything from celtic to jazz to african drums to belly dancers.

Taste of Champaign has three stages and all kinds of music--cajun, big band, rockabilly, funk, reggae, irish, blues, hip hop....

Meadowbrook Park Jazz Walk has something like a dozen local musicians performing in the sculpture garden.  Instead of a series of acts on one stage, they're all performing at once.  Strolling from band to band, from sculpture to sculpture, is a great way to spend an evening.

There are also recurring events:

Bach's Lunch--classical, jazz, and world music in the lobby of the Springer Cultural Center.

Krannert Uncorked--a wine (and other beverage) tasting, with cheese and crackers, happens in the lobby of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts almost every Thursday.  There's free music a couple of times a month.

There is also lots of music played at bars, coffee shops, bookstores, and other venues--far more than I can possibly link to.  Except for the bars, there's usually no cover charge.  Even the bars often don't have a cover charge, and when they do it's often $5 or less.


There's some cheap theater-going possible in CU, but mostly it costs more then the $5.  One place to consider is the Parkland College Theater, which offers half-price tickets for the first performance of new shows.

The Arts

I've already mention the Champaign Downtown Festival of the Arts for the music, but of course it is mainly an art sale, with dozens of booths showing paintings, photographs, sculpture, etc.  There was quite a bit of textile art this summer.

Although it's mainly a food event, the Taste of Champaign also has art and craft booths.

If crafts are your thing, the Craft League of Champaign-Urbana has an annual Art Fair that always includes lots of ceramics, baskets, jewelry, woodworking, and so on.

The Champaign-Urbana Spinners and Weavers Guild has an annual show and sale with all sorts of handspun, handknit, handwoven goods--everything from scarves, hats, and mittens to some truly spectacular wearable art.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that my wife is a member of the guild and has items for sale most years.)

Statue of ape carrying off a womanThe Krannert Art Museum has an impressive permanent collection and a steady stream of exhibitions that often feature student and faculty work, but also show work brought in from all over the world.

Much smaller, but especially wonderful, is the Parkland College Art Gallery.  It's a particular favorite of ours for various reasons--one of which is that for an annual donation of $50 you can be a "patron" of the Gallery.  (It takes a much larger donation to be a patron at Krannert.  I'm not sure $50 even makes you a "friend."  I think at that level you're considered a "passing acquaintance.")

There are plenty of commercial galleries in CU.  Urbana in particular is pushing to create a downtown gallery district, with a package of tax subsidies.  The Cinema Gallery and the Heartland Gallery are both great places to enjoy some art.


Classes are a great, cheap form of entertainment.  You can study anything--painting, pottery, dance, martial arts, yoga, cooking, bridge, computers, photography, swimming, sports, knitting, starting your own small business....  They're not free, but the per-class cost is often down in the $5 range.  There are so many places to take classes of one sort or another, it's hard to list them all.  Here are a few of the important ones.

Talks, Demonstrations, etc.

There are always free talks you can attend, sponsored by the University, the libraries, the museums, and other organizations.  

One that I've attended is the Center for Advanced Studies MillerComm Lecture Series.  Talks on everything from prairie restoration to children's books to the Cuban revolution.

Backstrap Loom demonstration at Spurlock MuseumThe others aren't so handily organized into series--you have to find the sponsoring organization and see what's going on.  For example, I attended a demonstration of weaving with a backstrap loom that was held at the Spurlock Museum.

The Champaign Public Library sponsors events of all sorts, and their website is helpfully color-coded so that you can spot the preschool events, kids events, teen events, and adult events.

The Urbana Free Library has an events page as well, of course.  (Things seem to have been kind of sparse over the summer, but coming up are book readings and signings, classes, book clubs, etc.)


There is both a Champaign Park District and an Urbana Park District, with numerous parks.  Among our favorites are Urbana's Meadowbrook Park, which has a handsome herb garden, a sculpture garden, and a reconstructed prairie, and Kaufman Lake, which just a short walk from our apartment.

Just twenty minutes outside of town is Allerton Park.  The Allerton mansion has been turned into a convention and meeting site, but the grounds are open to the public, including sculpture, formal gardens, and hiking trails in the woods.  There's an annual Allerton Park Trail Race that costs more than $5, but that leaves 364 days a year that you can run on the trails for free.

There are also some gardens associated with the University.  The Arboretum is 160 acres just a few blocks from the center of campus with formal gardens, demonstration gardens, and a Japanese garden.


In addition to the Krannert Art Museum mentioned above, don't miss the Spurlock Mesuem.  (I'm especially fond of the Spurlock, which has copies of some of the most famous sculptures in the world--busts of Julius Caeser, Brutus, Nero, the Venus de Milo, etc.  To my mind, it's what a museum ought to be--given that the originals can only be in one place at a time.

There are plenty of other small museums.  Two nice ones are the Early American Museum at Lake of the Woods Park in Mahomet, Illinois (about 20 minutes away) and the Orpheum Children's Science Museum in a former movie theater in downtown Champaign.

More information

Most of the stuff I've listed is free.  Of the things that do have an admission charge, I don't think any of them charge more than $5.  Some have a "suggested donation"--but around here it really is a suggestion, and nobody will give you a hard time if you just go in.

One of the best places to find out what's going on in and around Champaign is 40 North | 88 West, a website that lists events with a focus on the arts.

All of the organizations listed above (both park districts, the university, the community college, the museums) all have their own web pages with lists of events, exhibitions, classes, demonstrations, talks, and so on.

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Free and cheap things to do in Champaign-Urbana

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Guest's picture

Good to see another blogger from Chambana ...

For people interested in Champaign Urbana area, or new to the region, I've collected various tips in my blog . This includes the following:

* Urbana is originally named after Queen Anne! (though via the names of two other towns)

* It is illegal for Monsters to enter the City of Urbana without a permit! :)

The other tips are not so wacky, so enjoy the info ...

Guest's picture

I'm surprised you didn't mention the outstanding free opportunity to study Esperanto afforded by the presence of EKOCI in Champaign. :-) I suppose when writing an article of this sort, it's hard to pick and choose among the dazzling array of possibilities.

Philip Brewer's picture

I just spent an hour meeting with a young woman who is planning to create an Esperanto student organization at the University, so soon there'll be two free options for people to learn and practice their Esperanto in CU.

And the student organization will even have a small budget from the University--what could be more frugal than that?

Guest's picture

How could you leave out La Bamba's?!? Everytime I drive through Champana I have to stop for a burrito the size of my head! So tasty.

Myscha Theriault's picture

They all sound fun, but the jazz / sculpture garden walk and the Strawberry Jam sound beyond cool.

Philip Brewer's picture

The Jazz Walk was new last year, I think, and was great fun.  With the crowd spread out, the individual performances are really quite intimate--you might be one of just a dozen people listening to a particular performer at any one time.  It's coming right up, and we'll be sure to go.

I'd just gotten a new camera the day before this year's Strawberry Jam, so that was fun, too--I got some great pictures.  Plus, totally unbeknowst to me, one of my former coworkers happened to be the bass player in one of the bands, so that was extra cool.  (And, I like ice cream.)

As I said at the top, Champaign-Urbana is a happenin' place.

Guest's picture

where I can find any pottery class?

Philip Brewer's picture

 There are a lot of options for pottery classes.  The Champaign Park district (mentioned above) has pottery classes, as does Boneyard Pottery in Urbana.  I wouldn't be surprised if one or another of the school districts offered classes as well.

I didn't see any options for particularly cheap classes, though.

Guest's picture

there is nothing to do in champaign.... so boring

Philip Brewer's picture

Well, if you don't like music or theater or parks or museums or the arts, you may be right.

Guest's picture

Sally, you just don't know what you are talking about. People that say Champaign is "the place where hope goes to die" just need to get out more. Philip is right, we have all of this:

We have all sorts of music played by a bunch of old people that no one wants to listen to but themselves. We have an annual music festival that gets a good band once a year. How can you say that it's boring here?

I'm sure that the first performance of a community college theater is superb. There is a reason these people are performing at a community college--they are the best of the 35-year-olds that couldn't get into a real school. Be sure to not miss "Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical!" it is sure to be a fine piece of Tony-bait.

Parks (and More)
Our single man-made hill is a stunning sight of what determined people without topographic diversity can achieve. Our amazingly high ratio of park land to developed land is great, yet I have trouble playing ball in our many park district Flower Islands*. Mini Park II, IV, and VIII are all great abandoned lots to score some meth. Crystal Lake Park’s lagoon is a water sport lover’s dream--just avoid the bodies.

Boneyard Creek is a lovely scenic waterway--much more so now that it is no longer an open sewage system. Some communities do rubber duck races ( ), I preferred betting on which floater in the Boneyard would first reach the collected dam of flushed used condoms. Just a short drive away, Clinton Lake has lovely views of the nuke plant and let us not forget the strip mine that is Kickapoo State Park.

The many "copies of some of the most famous sculptures in the world" at the Spurlock Museum are amazing. It’s just like being at Pier 1 Imports! Anyone saying that seeing an Elvis impersonator is not the same as seeing Elvis, just hasn’t seen a good impersonation. Uh huh.

Don’t forget that the Taste of Champaign is coming up soon. This is a great time to pick up all sorts of tchotchkes. I missed out on this item last year and have been regretting it ever since.

*Flower Island: n. a flowerpot outside of private businesses that is maintained by the park district. These parks usually have few flowers, and many cigarette butts.

Guest's picture

Sally is right & Jeff is spot on!

The people who say Champaign/Urbana has a 'music scene' are the type of people who likes discovering co-workers in the band. I like places with bands I've heard of before that are worth paying to see. Or better yet cities that pay to bring headliners in for FREE.

If replica art is your thing that’s cool however I don’t like seeing the same thing twice! I prefer one of a kind pieces of art found in museums that are worth paying a little more for because you feel enlightened seeing something spectacular.

As far as the cuisine, if a burrito the size of your head is enough to make some people stop in this University town, good for them. The only place I'm still genuinely excited to eat at is DESTIHL & that is due to the fact that they opened a year & a half ago.

I miss living somewhere that has: arts, culture, cuisine, a legit music scene, stores worth shopping at, huge parks & zoo’s. A city near water & great hiking trails. I’m longing to move back to a place with options every night of the week to choose from.

Well my time here is coming to a close; brought here by my husband getting his Masters at the U o f I. In closing the only reason the live in CU is if you’re attending the U of I or if you’re a professor at the U of I, otherwise this is a desolate cornfield of a place. There isn't even truly beautiful scenery!