Champaign and its twin city, Urbana, lie 135 mi/215 km south of Chicago and host the main campus of the University of Illinois. They have the state's most active nightlife and widest cultural offerings south of Chicago. There's a good selection of restaurants and bars in "Campustown," and entertainment includes plays, concerts, movies and Big Ten sporting events.

The campus area has the Midwestern-college atmosphere you might expect—frame houses along shady streets and old buildings lining a quadrangle. There are several excellent libraries and a botanical garden. The university's best museum is the Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, which houses works from 4000 BC to the present. Its collection of works by U.S. and European masters and 20th-century art includes pieces by Picasso, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Yves Klein. You may also wish to visit the Museum of Natural History and the World Heritage Museum. Kids will enjoy a tour of the automated dairy at the University of Illinois South Farms.

Plan to spend half a day visiting Allerton Park in Monticello (20 mi/32 km west of Champaign/Urbana). This 1,500-acre/600-hectare park is owned by the University of Illinois, and it has lots of surprises hidden amongst its meadows and forest trails: fish sculptures that once belonged to a Chinese prince, an English-style manor house fronted by a small reflecting lake and formal gardens fashioned after those found in Europe in the 1800s. The park, open 8 am-sunset, was once the playground of wealthy eccentric Robert Allerton, who donated it to the university in 1946. Its trails are largely unmarked, and the sculptures are hidden along them, unidentified, which adds to the sense of adventure. You might want to combine your visit to Allerton Park with a stop at the Early American Museum and Botanical Gardens in Mahomet (15 mi/25 km northwest of Champaign/Urbana), which includes exhibits about pioneer life in addition to its flowers, plants and herbs.

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