A few weeks ago, while I was in New York, I mentioned to a gaggle of friends-of-a-friend that I live in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. "I feel so sorry for you," one of them said. "And why's that?" I asked. "It's a wasteland," she said. "There's no culture there." 

Au contraire. 

C-U's culture scene is so vast and so varied that it's hard to pick out just a few highlights from the past year that have stood out from everything else. And yet, try we must. Here's our shot at summing up what's been not only great, but the best in terms of C-U's culture. — Rebecah Pulsifer

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BEST athletic team

Wheelchair Basketball (Men's and Women's Teams) 

A number of U of I athletic teams that shall remained unnamed had rough seasons this past academic year. Not so for the men's and women's wheelchair basketball teams, both of which not only had great seasons, but are also thrilling to watch. If you catch a game at the ARC, you'll be in the midst of the action, just a few feet from where players are navigating around a standard-size court and shooting into regulation-height hoops. U of I has an excellent wheelchair athletics program all around and the oldest wheelchair basketball program in the country. It's definitely one of best parts of our community. (RP)

BEST place on campus

Krannert Art Museum's Palette Cafe 

One of the joys of C-U in the summer is being able to move comfortably through Campustown, which is typically crowded as all get out. But even at the busiest of times, the Krannert Art Museum's Palette Cafe is worth it. It's one of those corners of campus that perfectly balances a calm atmosphere with a friendly buzz, and it's the best place to go for an hour of focused writing on campus before jumping back into the fray. (RP)

BEST place for quelling laptop panic 

FYXIT

Realizing that a laptop has died or may be in danger of dying is one of the worst feelings of all time, particularly when large swaths of data are at risk of permanent demise. In situations like these, the folks at FYXIT have the best bedside manner in town. When I brought my laptop there a few months ago, they even offered to email me specific documents so I could work on them from another device as they completed the repairs. Did I mention they're fast and affordable too? (RP)

BEST garden supply 

Farmtown 

There are several awesome places to get garden supplies in town, so you really can't go wrong, but one that's often overlooked and the best, in my opinion, is Farmtown on University. Their plants are always incredibly healthy looking, there is tons of variety in terms of seeds and starts, and most items are priced fairly. They pack a lot in small space, so it's not overwhelming to browse and discover a few new things to put in the ground. (RP)

BEST store redesign

Le Shoppe

A few months ago, Le Shoppe quietly closed its doors for a few weeks and reopened with even more merchandise, including a significantly expanded furniture and housewares section. I am honestly amazed this place could get any better, but it did. The new Le Shoppe has so many great finds crammed inside — everything from suede dress suits to classic record players to vintage plaids to pyrex from the 70s — that it would take hours to sift through. (RP)

BEST way to spend a Tuesday afternoon

Land Connection Farmers' Market

I've always loved bragging to out-of-towners about how great the Urbana Farmers' Market is, and having two farmers' markets is just that much better. Being able to peruse fresh food just hours before cooking it, especially on a weekday afternoon, is pretty much the best thing ever. (RP)

BEST politician to make small talk with

Scott Bennett

I've had the chance to talk to quite a few elected officials over the past couple years through Smile Politely, but none have been as personable to chat with as Scott Bennett, our state senator. He stopped by Smile Politely's radio show a couple months ago, and we had just as much fun off air as on. He is frequently out and about in the community, so when you run into him, ask both about his politics and his thoughts on living in C-U — his answers to both questions are worth hearing. (RP)

BEST underrated festival

Insect Fear Film Festival

There are lots of great festivals in town, but one that gets less buzz than most is the Insect Fear Film Festival, which is put on every year by the Entymology Graduate Student Association. The concept is screening films that feature insects, which is already possibly the best idea of all time. Each year's festival features more than one screening, a bug petting zoo, and activities for kids. Insect Fear usually takes place in late February — don't miss it when it comes around again. (RP)

 

BEST radio beats

Hip Hop Xpress

Will Patterson, a professor of African American Studies at U of I, puts on Hip Hop Xpress every Friday from 6-8 p.m. on WEFT 90.1 (conveniently, HHX starts right after Smile Politely Radio). Every show approaches hip hop in a new way, and it's consistently one of the greatest bits of community radio here in C-U. (RP)

BEST public relations move

Illinois Marathon after 2015 rainout

Perhaps you were one of the runners who participated in this year’s installment of the Illinois Marathon, the biggest tourism attraction in Champaign-Urbana throughout the year. People come from all over the country to participate, and it has grown and grown over the course of a handful of years that it has existed here. Anyone that produces an event — let alone one that takes place entirely outdoors — understands the gamble with the one and only Mother Nature. Well, Illinois Marathon was faced with that this year, as many runners were forced off the course due to storms throughout the race. Bummer, right? Yeah, I’m sure plenty of runners were upset approaching mile 18 (or wherever he/she was) and being told to stop. That totally sucks. I mean, I’m no marathon runner, but if I was out there I’d have some words to say about it.

Somewhere out there in the world of fist shakers at the organizers for making such a call, the phrase “this is the last time I’m running in this race!” was probably uttered. The folks at Illinois Marathon tackled that pretty, pretty well — offering to comp their entry for the 2016 race. They might lose some dough in 2016 by comping those entires, but it was honestly a genius public relations save, and one that will likely retain those runners. Smart move. (PS)

BEST streak

Illinois Baseball winning 27 games in a row

There haven’t been many bright spots in Illinois Athletics as of late (just hit The Pauly Report for a bit of that). Frankly, there’s been a big ass dark cloud hanging over, which I’m not going to get into much here. You can do that on your own. Luckily, we may be witnessing the development of a National Champion in NCAA baseball this year: Fighting Illini Baseball. As I’m writing this, the team just won their first ever regional, and are moving on to the Super Regional. Though it came to an end at the end of last month, the team won 27 games in a row. That’s bananas. Most teams don’t even win that many in the entire season, let alone not lose any in as many games. Sure, you might’ve been hoping that there was a hilarious streaking event at one of the games, but no — this is about the team and that accomplishment. (PS)

BEST shirts

Jan and her husband at Urbana's Market at the Square

Urbana's Market at the Square has hundreds and hundreds of visitors each Saturday while it is in session — mega popular and awesome. Great events and attractions attract awesome people. They attract people that aren't so awesome sometimes as well, but it is what it is. This, dear readers, is the definition of awesome. Jan and her husband sported these shirts: "I Am Jan" and "If Lost Return To Jan", which went straight up viral on the internet. Once something hits reddit, you never know what might happen. There are a couple of Instagram accounts that I follow that have upwards of five million followers that posted this photo. So yeah, nice work, you adorable elderly couple, you. (PS)

BEST summer skills 

3D printing workshops at the Illinois MakerLab

Summer's the perfect time to make something awesome at the famed Illinois MakerLab. The MakerLab provides a series of summer workshops on 3D printing, modeling, and robotics that last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Participants ages 15 and up are welcome at most of the workshops, and prices range from a very reasonable $15 for, say, the 1.5 hour workshop on 3D printing to the still reasonable $260 for the 3-day workshop on Robotics & 3D printing (you do awesome things with robots--you know that's worth $260). Multi-day workshops are geared toward high schoolers and college students, so if you want your kid out of the house for a while this summer, act quick as space is limited. Champaign-Urbana, you so skilled. (AH)

BEST free reading material 

Pre-loaded Kindles from Champaign Public Library

You don't have to lay down a few hundred bucks for a fancy-schmancy e-reader to get the convenience of one AND find some new favorite books at the same time. Champaign Publlic Library lets patrons borrow pre-loaded Kindles for up to two weeks for absolutely free. What kind of content is on these Kindles? They're organized by genre--for instance, if you like 50 Shades (don't judge, we all do what we can to get through the long, cold nights) and want to learn more about romance as a genre, request a Kindle loaded with a ton of romance titles. Others lean toward sci-fi & fantasy (I count myself among these good people), and while we know what we like overall, we may just want larger exposure to the genre. The sci-fi & fantasy pre-loaded Kindle comes with heavy-hitters like Patrick Rothfuss and Anne Rice, but also a few newer or underrated titles you're bound to be pleasantly surprised by. Thirteen subject areas to choose from so you'll be able to expand your mind while staying comfortably local in C-U. (AH) 

Contributors to this article include Rebecah Pulsifer, Patrick Singer, and Ashley Hetrick.