Where to play and what to do in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Visitors to the Illinois twin cities of Champaign and Urbana, home of the Fighting Illini, invariably ask, "Is it Champaign-Urbana or Urbana-Champaign?"

The answer is not straightforward. If you're talking about the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the smaller of the two cities comes first. If you're talking about the area in general, the larger city comes first.

Either way, like several Big Ten cities, Champaign-Urbana has a bit of a reputation for being stuck out in the middle of farm fields. But while there is indeed no shortage of corn and soybeans in east central Illinois, the past 10 years have witnessed a boom in quality restaurants, brewpubs and entertainment venues.

There's also a decent selection of sporty, fun, accessible and affordable golf courses in the area. So if you're heading to an Illini game or to visit your kid at the U of I, pack up your clubs and plan to hit a few of the local hotspots.

Around town in Champaign

Downtown Champaign has experienced a renaissance over the past decade. New restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and bars have filled empty shop fronts, and new residential and commercial buildings have sprung up, including a soon-to-be-completed Hyatt Place Hotel. Although you may want to check out the Campustown mainstays of Murphy's or Legends, most adults will want to have some space between them and the campus scene.

For European-style pastries as well as unique sandwiches and crepes, head to Pekara Bakery and Bistro (116 N. Neil St.). Locals will fight over the best cup of coffee in town to go with Pekara's baked goods, so check out Aroma Cafe (next to Pekara) or Cafe Kopi around the block (109 N. Walnut St.).

Two new brewpubs in downtown Champaign, Blind Pig Brewery (two doors north from Pekara) and Destihl Restaurant and Brew Works (301 N. Neil St.) offer many craft brews on tap, and Destihl's menu is a nice crossover between pub fare (deep-fried bacon!) and fine dining. Across the street from Destihl you can find sushi and California fusion dishes at Kofusion, and, right next door, the best farm-to-table menu in town at Big Grove Tavern. The Wedge Tequila Bar & Grill (415 N. Neil St.) offers a literally mind-numbing selection of tequilas, along with authentic Mexican comidas.

For entertainment, check out live music in the city that spawned REO Speedwagon and Alison Krauss at Mike & Molly's, The Cowboy Monkey or The Highdive. Take in a film that will make you feel smarter at The Art Theater or a movie that will just give you a rush at one of two new IMAX theaters (Savoy 16, Beverly Cinema).

For golf, you'll need to head south on Neil Street toward the Champaign "suburb" of Savoy. If you are hungry you can stop at Meatheads Burgers and Fries (1305 S. Neil St.) for arguably the best burgers in the area. Take Neil Street all the way south to the turn for Willard Airport, which is also the turn for the University of Illinois golf courses. The Orange Course is the longer and harder of the two 18s here, but the Blue Course is also a sporty test. In both cases, the green complexes are the main defense. Miss the green in the wrong spot on many holes and you'll be happy to get bogey.

After your round, be sure to swing into the newest microbrewery in the area: Tryptich Brewing (1703 Woodfield Dr.). This hip yet Spartan little taproom is a beer connoisseur's dream, with offerings like rye ales, Scotch ales, blueberry and apple ales, and plenty of lip-smacking IPAs for hop-heads.

Around town in Urbana

Urbana is the little sibling city, with maybe a touch of the feeling that it has something to prove. The star of the Urbana culinary scene is another newcomer: Black Dog Smoke & Ale House (201 N. Broadway Ave.). Earlier this year, Maxim magazine ranked Black Dog as the second-best BBQ joint in America -- and heads exploded all throughout the South. Black Dog's burnt ends are to die for (and sell out fast), and all their sandwiches and other offerings are full of smoked meats. The original cocktails and wide beer selection also deserve praise.

If you don't do meat -- or prefer all-organic fare -- Urbana boasts two excellent organic groceries with their own delis: Strawberry Fields (306 W. Springfield Ave.) and Common Ground Food Co-Op (Lincoln Square Mall).

For entertainment, The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the UIUC campus offers a world-class schedule of music, dance, opera and other performances. The Iron Post is a great bar for local bands of all types. The Canopy Club, one block south of the Krannert Center, is an amazing music club that attracts national acts such as Umphrey's McGee, Sara Bareilles and Snoop Dogg.

Golf in Urbana is all about Stone Creek Golf Club. Stone Creek sets the bar for high-end, daily-fee golf in Champaign-Urbana: conditions are superb, the wind and contouring provide constant challenge, and the green fees are still less than half of comparable courses in the Chicago area.

Around town in Mahomet

About 15 minutes east of the UIUC campus is the town of Mahomet. The population of Mahomet has grown by 50 percent over the past 10 years, and the business district is getting more interesting, too, thanks in part to the repeal of alcohol prohibition about five years ago. Now that the town isn't dry anymore, you can stop in for a drink and a hefty burger at The Wingery (101 N. Lombard St.) or a hearty meal at JT Walker's (401 E. Main St.). The newest excitement to hit the still-sleepy Mahomet downtown is a microbrewery across the street from JT Walker's. (Call JT Walker's to check on hours, etc.)

Mahomet is also home to Lake of the Woods Golf Course. Dollar for dollar, Lake of the Woods is probably the best bargain in the Champaign-Urbana area. Just 6,578 yards from the tips, its main defenses are the dense, mature trees lining every hole, several ponds and some of the toughest-to-read greens you will find anywhere. (I misread a 2-footer last week, and I've played the course 300 times.)

Around town in Gibson City

If you think Mahomet is sleepy, you may need a Red Bull if you drive the 20 miles north to Gibson City. Nevertheless, there are some fun things to do here, along with a very enjoyable golf course. You can partake in excellent German food and ambience at Bayern Stube Restaurant (209 N Sangamon Ave.), and then, weather permitting, take in a movie at Harvest Moon Drive-In (1175 S. Sangamon Ave.).

Railside Golf Club is a relatively wide-open track with tricky greens and ever-present wind. It's always in good shape, and on certain days, you can play all day for $30. Railside is open year-round, weather permitting. There are rumors, however, that a local farmer might buy it for farmland. This would be a terrible shame, but get there soon, just in case.

Around town in Rantoul

If you're an airplane buff, the Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul (1011 Pacesetter Dr.) is worth a visit. Then tee it up on one -- or both -- of the courses in town, Brookhill Golf Course and Willow Pond Golf Course.

Around town in Tuscola

About 30 minutes south of Champaign, just off I-57, you'll enter a small island of Amish Country. The Amishland Red Barn Buffet in Tuscola offers a whole mess of down-home goodness practically next door to the Tanger Outlet Mall. You can drop the non-golfers at the mall and head over for another windswept, long and watery 18 at the Ironhorse Golf Club.

Between Champaign and Indianapolis

As a special added bonus, if you're coming to Champaign-Urbana from Indianapolis or West Lafayette, jog a few miles out of the way to Attica, Ind., and treat yourself to an inspiring round at the 1924-vintage Golden Age gem of Harrison Hills Golf and Country Club. William Langford designed the original nine holes, and Ted Liddy expanded the course to 18 holes in 1996, when it was opened to public play. Liddy remained faithful to the classic, brilliant strategic angles and greens that were the hallmark of Langford's design. There are many holes here that you will probably never forget.

Now that you have your trip to Champaign-Urbana mapped out, let's all say it together: I-L-L! I-N-I!

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.
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Where to play and what to do in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois