America’s Dairy State may not be on everyone’s vacation radar, but the state boasts pristine state parks, iconic architecture and rich culinary traditions supplemented by craft beer and farm-to-table experiences. Also, of course, its residents are famous for their Midwestern hospitability. America’s Dairyland is well worth the trip for weekend getaways or week-long vacations. It’s no exaggeration to claim Wisconsin offers something for every type of traveler – world-class art for culture enthusiasts, metropolitan food tours for foodies, numerous waterparks for families and relaxing scenery for outdoors lovers, including rolling hills, lush farmland, forests and lakes. Read on to explore the top things to do in Wisconsin. (Note: Some tours and excursions may be affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions and parking reservation requirements. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Located on Lake Michigan, the largest lake in the United States, Milwaukee is easy to explore; everything seems to be only a 5-minute drive away. Known as Brew City and home to the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team, no trip to Milwaukee is complete without tasting its beer heritage. With more than 200 breweries, there are brewery tours for every palette, from micro to macro and fruit beers to pale ales. Winters in Milwaukee can be harsh and long, so the most popular time to visit is in the summer months or fall. Summer is high season, with a multitude of neighborhood festivals, outdoor concerts and ethnic celebrations, like German Fest in July, honoring the city’s largest immigrant group. Summer excitement reaches its peak at the end of June with Summerfest, a massive and affordable music festival.
Get cultured at the Milwaukee Museum Campus
Looking for family-friendly activities in Milwaukee? Head toward the city’s lakefront museum campus to Discovery World, Milwaukee’s world-class science museum. If you have littler ones, stroll across the street to the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. Just north of Discovery World is the architecturally impressive Milwaukee Art Museum, a modern masterpiece designed by Santiago Calatrava. Time your visit to witness the spectacle of the building’s wings (large movable sunscreens) opening and closing at 10 a.m., noon or closing time. If you want to feel like you’re actually sleeping in an art museum, book a room at Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel, which is located in the heart of downtown. Guests delight in the art exhibits on display throughout the hotel and applaud the in-room vintage record players. If you enjoy a martini with a view, consider the Blu lounge at the historic Pfister Hotel, offering panoramic views, cocktails and more from the 23rd floor.
(Courtesy of Harley-Davidson Museum)
Milwaukee’s also home to a very different kind of museum. The motorcycle was invented in 1903 by Milwaukee residents William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson. Learn all about the machine that came to symbolize the freedom of America and the open road at the Harley-Davidson Museum. Motorcycle enthusiasts will be in hog heaven when they enter this modern steel-and-glass museum. These hallowed halls house a permanent collection of hundreds of bikes, including the first motorcycles built and Elvis Presley’s custom bike.
Address: 400 W. Canal St., Milwaukee, WI 53201
Visit the University of Wisconsin
Home to the main campus of the University of Wisconsin and its lovable mascot Bucky the Badger, Madison is more than just a cool college town. Activists and incoming college students appreciate that Madison, about 80 miles east of Milwaukee, has been the scene of many a protest, whether against the Vietnam War or in favor of marijuana legalization. What’s more, the University of Wisconsin – Madison Memorial Union on the shores of Lake Mendota is a favorite for students and locals; grab a brat and brew and enjoy the view. The 72-room Graduate Madison is an easy walk to campus, dining, shopping and nightlife. Badger red is the hotel’s unifying color palette, and guests give the hotel high marks for its nostalgic decor and artwork, including collages of political buttons, a nod to the town’s legacy of social activism.
Address: 800 Langdon St., Madison, WI 53703
No trip to Madison is complete without visiting the beautiful, white-domed Wisconsin State Capitol building. Free tours of the building are given daily. What’s more, Madison’s isthmus location on a narrow strip of land between two lakes means waterfront biking and hiking trails abound. It’s one of a handful of U.S. towns to earn a Platinum designation from The League of American Bicyclists as a bicycle-friendly community, so purchasing a $15 24-hour bike-share pass is a great way to explore the city.
Try the cheese
Wisconsinites are lovingly referred to as Cheeseheads. If you’re looking to experience more than just the squeaky cheese curds the state is famous for, visitors recommend stopping by the Fromagination cheese store for its ambiance, multitude of options and generous samples. Billing itself as the capital of cheese, this shop is a must-see for cheese lovers, featuring dozens of one-of-a-kind artisanal Wisconsin varieties. And if you’re in Madison on a Saturday morning between April and November, mosey over to the Capitol building to shop. The Dane County Farmers’ Market is the country’s largest producer-only farmers market, a great way to take yourself on a food tour of the finest Wisconsin farmers have to offer.
Located near the Wisconsin-Illinois border, 7 miles north of the border and about 50 miles southeast of Milwaukee, Lake Geneva is popular for weekend getaways, with visitors describing it as the “Newport of the Midwest” for its opulent lakefront mansions. You can glimpse that luxurious lifestyle while walking the Geneva Lakeshore Path, a 25-mile walkway that circles the lake, bringing you through the backyards of opulent estates. Circling the entire lake would take all day, but you can pick a section and go for a jog or a stroll. Keep in mind that the path is not suited for strollers or bikes. Being home or second home to many of the Midwest’s elite, the town is filled with great restaurants, shops and fun-filled activities throughout the year. Tourists descend on Lake Geneva during the summer season to rent boats, but fall and spring are also magnificent for weekend getaways. A warm-weather visit calls for a stay at The Abbey Resort, the only lodging directly on the shores of Lake Geneva.
Spend a winter weekend at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa
Grand Geneva Resort & Spa is one of the best choices for a winter visit to Lake Geneva, with a bevy of amenities and a modest ski hill. The resort’s hill is decidedly not the Rocky Mountains, but there are three chair lifts, two carpet lifts, 20 runs and a terrain park. After a day on the slopes, skiers like to warm up with a hot toddy around the outdoor fire pit at the resort’s Embers Terrace. Kids can dive into the fun at Grand Geneva’s Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark while the adults chill out in the resort’s world-class spa. Regardless of where you stay, winter in Lake Geneva means it’s time for their annual one-of-a-kind Winterfest, one of the country’s largest ice sculpture festivals.
Address: 7036 Grand Geneva Way, Lake Geneva, WI 53147
With more than 300 miles of shoreline to enjoy, visitors have long flocked to Wisconsin’s peninsula, known as Door County, for weekend getaways. Being a peninsula in the Great Lakes, the area’s 11 lighthouses play a big part in Door County’s history. Visitors recommend Door County Trolley’s lighthouse tour, describing it as entertaining and informative. Stop by the Door County Maritime Museum to dive deeper into lighthouse lore. Nature lovers and culture enthusiasts will also find plenty to keep them busy in Door County’s charming villages. They can visit any of the area’s more than one hundred art galleries and studios, sample the region’s famous cherries and cheese, and explore Door County’s eight wineries. Summer is the busiest season, and events like the annual Door County Plein Air Festival every July, when artists try to capture the summer light on the area’s water and fields, make every stay unique.
Door County fish boil
(Courtesy of Destination Door County)
New Englanders have their clambakes. The closest thing to that in the Midwest is the Door County fish boil, a one-of-a-kind culinary spectacle. It’s one of the top things to do in this peninsula. A Scandinavian tradition, fish boils are a way of cooking fish in a large cooking pot over an open fire. Part of the experience is coming early, sitting around the fire and watching the hour-long cooking process, led by a Boil Master who serves as both chef and entertainer. When the food is almost ready, the Boil Master alerts diners that the “boil-over” is about to begin. Kerosene is then thrown onto the fire, making for a fiery finish. Fish boils traditionally include potatoes, coleslaw and classic Door County cherry pie for dessert. Though restaurants from the southernmost Sturgeon Bay to the north tip of the peninsula offer up these unique dinners, visitors give the White Gull Inn some of the best reviews.
Explore the surrounding state parks
Biking and hiking Whitefish Dunes State Park and Potawatomi State Park are some of the top outdoor activities in Door County. Kayaking the Lake Michigan lakefront, where you can explore the caves and coves and view the shore scenery that can only be seen from the water, is another favorite outdoor activity. Door County Kayak Tours gets high ratings for their friendly, informative guides. When the weather is warm enough, travelers can camp at the area’s state park to save some time and be best prepared to catch a sunrise over Lake Michigan.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin
(Courtesy of Taliesin Preservation)
Architecture buffs will delight in the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center and Taliesin, an 800-acre estate set amidst rolling hills overlooking the Wisconsin River. Wright is widely revered as America’s greatest architect and the founder of the Prairie-style school of architecture. He built Taliesin in 1911. Taliesin is his Prairie-style, minimalist masterpiece, a must-see for architecture and design enthusiasts. Taliesin Preservation manages the grounds and offers six touring options of the estate, along with other arts and cultural programming and special events like a farm dinner series, biking tour and Winter Festival tours.
Address: 5607 County Road C, Spring Green, WI 53588
The House on the Rock
Frank Lloyd Wright is known as the master of minimalism, but Spring Green’s other architectural marvel is definitely not understated. Yet plenty of visitors delight in the one-of-a-kind roadside spectacle known as The House on the Rock. Built in 1960 by Alex Jordan, this massive home now houses his eclectic collection of everything from suits of armor to ivory carvings. It’s also home to the world’s largest indoor carousel. The House on the Rock is not for everyone. Some visitors describe it as a Midwestern jewel and incredible journey, while others find it overstimulating and claustrophobic.
Address: 5754 State Road 23, Spring Green, WI 53588
Explore Spring Green
A Spring Green restaurant well worth visiting for architecture buffs is Last Leaf Public House. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this more than 100-year-old building features painstakingly preserved original light fixtures, doors and other features from when it was the State Bank of Spring Green. You can even reserve a table inside what used to be the bank’s vault. Those who aren’t architecture enthusiasts will still have reason to visit Spring Green. Spring Green’s internationally respected American Players Theatre entices theater lovers with outdoor summer stagings of Shakespeare and other classics. Theatergoers bring their picnic baskets for a theatrical evening under the stars in Spring Green’s massive 1,147-seat outdoor amphitheater.
(Courtesy of Let’s Minocqua Visitors Bureau + Chamber of Commerce)
Pure Americana is served up in central Wisconsin’s Minocqua; the town offers everything from the fudge and ice cream shops to the popular screen-door cottages families love to rent. Guests appreciate the old-school lake vacation experience they get in the condos, cottages and cabins of The Beacons of Minocqua. Experience classic local dining by going to what Wisconsinites call a supper club. Get a taste for this classic culinary tradition at Little Bohemia Lodge in the nearby town of Manitowish Waters. Diners rave about the generous portions and highly recommend the German pork schnitzel and spaetzle noodles. Besides the authentic cuisine, guests will appreciate that meals come with a side of history. Little Bohemia Lodge was the site of a 1934 shootout between John Dillinger and the FBI. You can even see the bullet holes that remain in one of the windows.
The one-of-a-kind Min-Aqua Bats have been entertaining crowds in Minocqua with their first-rate water-ski show since 1950. Visitors praise the mostly local teenagers who participate for mastering some incredible tricks and keeping a beloved tradition alive. Catch this not-to-be-missed free show on Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. Fred Scheer’s Lumberjack Shows make for another fun, unique family outing in Minocqua. Young men show off their sawing skills and log-rolling agility while including plenty of comic moments for laughs.
Address: 400 W. Park Ave., Minocqua, WI 54548
Wisconsin Dells is home to the most indoor and outdoor water parks in the world – more than 20 different parks. If traveling to the self-proclaimed “Waterpark Capital of the World” with kids, stay at one of the top resorts for easy access to amenities. In addition to its water parks, the Wisconsin Dells offer a wide variety of kid-friendly entertainment options, from mini-golf to indoor amusement parks. Visitors point to the Palace Theater as a great night out, applauding the talent and production value of the concerts, comedy shows, plays for children and Broadway-style productions. Another fun venue is the Rick Wilcox Magic Theater, which guests praise for funny bits and impressive illusions. Want to escape the indoor attractions for a natural one? Head over to Mirror Lake State Park for a scenic hike along a tranquil lake surrounded by sandstone bluffs. Pontoon boats, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are also available to rent.
(Courtesy of Visit Eau Claire)
In the heart of northwestern Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley, Eau Claire is perfect for weekend getaways, with both outdoor activities as well as a thriving downtown scene of arts and brewing. The city has a lively music scene, with summer festivals focusing on jazz, rock and country music. Visitors will also discover a robust farm-to-table movement in this fertile section of America’s heartland. The Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market welcomes shoppers May through October every Saturday morning. This being Wisconsin, Eau Claire houses a handful of craft breweries, including The Brewing Projekt, where you can order up a flight of creative beer flavors in a hip, loft-like setting. The Oxbow Hotel’s accommodations are inspired by the town’s hip, artsy feel with a stylish design featuring exposed brick, regional artwork and a turntable in every room.
Chippewa River State Trail
(Courtesy of Visit Eau Claire)
One natural feature that makes Eau Claire truly special is that it’s at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. The two rivers provide plenty of outdoor opportunities, from fishing and swimming to kayaking and tubing. The 30-mile Chippewa River State Trail takes full advantage of the city’s riverfront location and provides an option for walkers and endurance athletes. Starting in downtown Eau Claire’s Phoenix Park, the trail runs along the Chippewa River through prairies, sandstone bluffs and wetlands.
Generations of Midwesterners have enjoyed weekend getaways to the crystal-clear waters of this town, about 60 miles north of Milwaukee. Rent your own boat and water ski on Elkhart Lake or hit the nearby Kettle Moraine State Park trails. You could spend an entire weekend quietly hiking or biking along the country roads, but Elkhart Lake also has a racier side. It is home to Road America, a racetrack hosting NASCAR races, vintage car events and specialized driving schools. Things get particularly revved up on Wednesday nights with live music and dancing at Siebkens Resort’s Stop-Inn Tavern. The Osthoff Resort is the grande dame of Elkhart Lake with fine dining, a French cooking school and an award-winning spa.
Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame & Lambeau Field
Tens of thousands of visitors make the pilgrimage each year to central Wisconsin’s Green Bay, considered a mecca for football fans. Green Bay is the smallest city housing an NFL team, and the Green Bay Packers are the only publicly owned major professional sports team in the U.S. Cheeseheads are a dedicated bunch, but you don’t have to own a green and gold jersey to appreciate the memorabilia and exhibits at the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. Visitors love getting to see the Super Bowl trophies.
Dedicated football fans who want to tackle even more Packers lore will score big by taking a guided tour of Lambeau Field. Adult tickets start at $21 for a 60-minute tour. Opt for the longer, more expensive options if you want to see the press box, locker rooms and more.
Address: 1265 Lombardi Ave., Green Bay, WI 54304
National Railroad Museum
(Courtesy of National Railroad Museum)
Not everything in Green Bay is devoted to the Packers. Train enthusiasts of all ages will enjoy a stop at Green Bay’s National Railroad Museum. Visitors describe the museum as amazing and compliment the friendly, informed staff for making the experience fun. Besides the permanent exhibit of train memorabilia, guests can climb aboard for a ride on a diesel locomotive. Other special events throughout the year include kid-friendly visits by Thomas the Tank Engine, a pumpkin patch train ride in the fall and a Polar Express train ride in November and December.
Address: 2285 S. Broadway, Green Bay, WI 54304
Wisconsin is the nation’s largest producer of cranberries. And the small town of Wisconsin Rapids, 100 miles northwest of Madison, is the cranberry capital. Home to the Cranberry Blossom Festival every June, you can explore the history of the tart berry year-round at the Cranberry Discovery Center in the neighboring town of Warrens. Hop on State Trunk Highway 54 for a self-guided food tour as the 50-mile Wisconsin Cranberry Trail winds past family farms and cranberry marshes. Visitors point to Le Chateau Bed and Breakfast as the best lodging in Wisconsin Rapids. Previous guests rave about the manicured gardens and sumptuous breakfasts, and many also appreciate how the owners have preserved the elegance of this 1889 Queen Anne-style house.