20 Top Things to Do in Wisconsin
Top attractions in Wisconsin
Wisconsin is a state of adventurers, thinkers, farmers—and everything in between.
In the thriving capital of Madison and the reborn metropolis of Milwaukee, everyone seems to be on the go. It's a fitting spirit in a state with a motto that's simply "Forward." Still, away from all the cities' activity, it's easy to see why the Ojibwe word "Wisconsin" has stuck; it means "place where waters gather." Great Lakes and rivers nearly encircle the state, watering the dense forests and providing endless opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Click ahead to find out about 20 of our favorite experiences in Wisconsin, from browsing the eye-catching Milwaukee Art Museum to kayaking in Minocqua or gathering for fish boils in Door County. For a printable list of 10 top things to do in Door County, Minocqua, Bayfield and the Apostle Islands, Milwaukee and Madison, click on "Download Midwest Living's Wisconsin Top 10 Booklet" below.
Door County's cool community
On a jagged peninsula that's 70 miles long and just 10 miles wide, you'll find the Cape Cod of the Midwest. Why the nickname? Well, to start, there are lighthouses (10), beaches (about 30) and forested state parks (5) along more than 300 miles of shoreline.
There are pretty little towns, too, clustered around glittering Lake Michigan bays. Door County's 30,000 or so year-round residents work hard to pique visitors' interest. But even as residents welcome new art galleries and upscale clothing and home-decor boutiques, they haven't forgotten their past.
Folks still gather for evening fish boils; hand-laid stone walls still divide pastures; and cherry orchards that date to the 1800s are still carefully tended. Just the simple act of eating a fresh slice of cherry pie or taking a bike ride along the shore makes you feel part of the community. (800) 527-3529; doorcounty.com
Kid fun in the Wisconsin Dells
The nickname Water Park Capital of the World is a pretty good clue to the kid-appeal of this hilly vacation area near Lake Delton (50 miles northwest of Madison). Water-park resorts, plus old-fashioned amusement parks, top most itineraries.
But the Wisconsin Dells also has good state parks and plenty of spots for grown-up relaxation. Try to find time to see the Dells, the unique, craggy bluffs rising over the Wisconsin River like stacks of sandstone pancakes. Some of the best views are from double-decker excursion boats. For a Dells-style adventure, bounce your way through the woods and splash into the river on the Wisconsin Ducks—amphibious transport vehicles from World War II. (800) 223-3557; wisdells.com
The Wisconsin Great River Road
The Wisconsin Great River Road parallels the majestic Mississippi River along 250 miles of the state's western border. It's one of the most scenic roads in the Midwest, flanked by 400-foot-high sandstone bluffs and historic little river towns.
Boating, fishing and birding are popular pastimes along the road; several state parks and wildlife refuges make access easy. River towns offer visitors diversions such as hunting through antiques shops, dining on catfish and other local specialties, and spending the night at inns and B&Bs, many of them a century old. (800) 658-9424; wigreatriverroad.org
Milwaukee Art Museum
More than 30,000 works of art take visitors on a chronological tour of art from the 13th century to the present at the striking Milwaukee Art Museum. The postmodern Quadracci Pavilion, completed in 2001, houses a grand reception hall, temporary exhibits and a cafe. The pavilion's 217-foot exterior wings, which open twice a day, have become the city's visual icon. (414) 224-3200; mam.org
Frank Lloyd Wright sites
No architect packed more drama into a life than Frank Lloyd Wright, who left a thousand stories in a collection of Midwest sites open for tours. Among his Wisconsin buildings:
Taliesin, Spring Green Wright lived and worked here for 48 years while experimenting with design principles in the Hillside Studio, where a group of architecture students carry on his work. taliesinpreservation.org
Unitarian Meeting House, Madison In the hall shape, lobby tile pattern, pew placement and other elements, triangular forms subtly speak to the Unitarians' philosophy of unity and equality. fusmadison.org
Wingspread, Racine From the sky, the largest single-family home Wright designed looks like a four-bladed windmill. scjohnson.com
SC Johnson, Racine A forest of dendriform (treelike) support columns steals the show in the Administration Building on the SC Johnson campus. scjohnson.com
Monona Terrace Comunity and Convention Center, Madison Sixty years passed between Wright's initial design submission and the structure's completion (in 1997, 38 years after his death). mononaterrace.com
Madison's food scene
Madison's fabulous, diverse food scene is one of the best in the Midwest. The city teems with chef-owned restaurants serving dishes focused on fresh-picked local produce, while ethnic eateries reflect the nationalities of the scholars, researchers and students who find a home at the University of Wisconsin.
Minocqua's lake appeal
This northern Wisconsin resort town (165 miles northwest of Green Bay) has all the ingredients of a great family vacation—including more than 3,000 lakes in Vilas and Oneida counties. Minocqua's quieter lakes are perfect for swimming lessons and sand castles. Meanwhile, you can zip across big Lake Minocqua on a wakeboard or check out the Min-Aqua Bats ski team. (715) 356-4549; min-aquabats.com
Kids love cheering at Scheer's Lumberjack Show. (715) 634-6923; scheerslumberjackshow.com If Mom and Dad get an evening to themselves, Northern Lights Playhouse has a summertime-perfect screened auditorium. And the lodgings here understand what a family lake vacation is all about—no one minds a little sand tracked in. (715) 356-5266; minocqua.org
- Photo Courtesy of EAA AirVenture
AirVenture show and museum
The Experimental Aircraft Association's annual end-of-July AirVenture celebration at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh has an unrivaled collection of planes: an Airbus A380 double-decker jet that seats 700, fighter jets, warbirds, home-builts, antiques, ultralights, plus thrilling air shows and a generous dose of patriotic sentiment.
Year-round, you can visit the AirVenture Museum, which features more than 250 historic airplanes plus five movie theaters. From May through October, a tram runs to the nearby Pioneer Airport, a living-history re-creation of an airfield in the early days of air travel. (920) 426-4800; eaa.org
Apostle Islands and Bayfield
The ruggedly beautiful Apostle Islands sit in Lake Superior beyond of Bayfield. The archipelago is known for its rocky hiking trails, lighthouses and sea caves that draw kayakers. nps.gov
Getting there means venturing onto the world's largest freshwater lake. On most summer days, the clear, cold water provides smooth passage, but when winds kick up, only experienced kayakers go out. More cautious travelers can see most of the islands' treasures on a chartered sailboat or, calmer yet, a ferry to Madeline Island. The only populated Apostle offers a tiny Main Street with restaurants, shops and a museum. madelineisland.com
Bayfield, gateway to the Apostles, offers historic tours, bike rentals, good shopping, concerts under the Big Top Chautauqua tent and a variety of well-kept lodgings. (715) 779-3335; bayfield.org
Kohler's relaxing vibe
This tidy village of 2,000 is a quiet place to relax, 56 miles north of Milwaukee. Break out the clubs for four incredible golf courses designed by Pete Dye, or visit The John Michael Kohler Arts Center with its striking vernacular art. jmkac.org
Free, three-hour tours of the Kohler Factory are offered weekday mornings. You can also peruse upscale plumbing fixtures at the Kohler Design Center. (920) 457-3699; us.kohler.com
For lodging, The American Club, the Midwest's only AAA five-diamond resort hotel, has luxurious rooms and suites, plus a spa. (800) 344-2838; destinationkohler.com
- Photo Courtesy of Harley-Davidson
Harley-Davidson Museum and factory
Milwaukee's Harley-Davidson Museum is a must-see for riders and a worth-the-trip spot for the curious. It tells the story of a scrappy Milwaukee company that began in 1903 as a motorcycle innovator and has evolved into a brand that embodies the feeling of wind in your hair. Hands-on exhibits let gearheads tinker with old engines, a Rebels and Outlaws display shows how riders gained that rep, and a movie room lets you board one of 10 Harleys and "ride" along Midwest farms and rivers. (414) 287-2789; harley-davidson.com
Motorcycle fans also can take a free 30-minute tour of the Harley-Davidson Factory in Menomonee Falls (20 miles northwest of Milwaukee); you'll see power trains being assembled and tested. (887) 883-1450; harley-davidson.com
- Photo Courtesy of Studio 44: National Railroad Museum collection
National Railroad Museum
One of the nation's largest rail museums houses everything from decorative train drumheads to a massive Big Boy steam locomotive (left) -- and yes, you can take a train ride.
Start your visit to Green Bay's National Railroad Museum with the 25-minute movie on steam locomotives. Then explore indoor and outdoor exhibits that include the command train Dwight D. Eisenhower used in Europe during World War II, a futuristic Aerotrain from the 1950s, and a mail car, with an extensive interior setup for sorting mail. For a small additional fee, you can ride a train around the grounds, passing an interesting hobo display. (920) 437-7623; nationalrrmuseum.org
- Photo Courtesy of Joe De Maio/Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Stroll 16 acres of outdoor gardens, including a 2-acre Rose Garden (left) that showcases hardy shrub varieties in a space inspired by Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style. Other outdoor gardens include a Perennial Garden, a Sunken Garden and an Herb Garden.
While you're at Madison's Olbrich Botanical Gardens, be sure to see the Thai Pavilion, crafted without nails or screws by Thai artisans. Also, the Bolz Conservatory features exotic plants, flowers, orchids, birds and a waterfall. Special events include a popular summer butterfly show. (608) 246-4550; olbrich.org
- Photo by Ginger Crichton
Wisconsin State Capitol
Free one-hour tours of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison feature the elegant art, architecture and furnishings of this century-old granite building. Glass mosaics, handcrafted furniture, murals and marble are some of the highlights, as well as an unusual granite dome. (608) 266-0382; wisconsin.gov
Located along Cedar Creek (20 miles north of Milwaukee), the one-time mill town of Cedarburg (population: 11,000) is an enclave of art galleries, shops and restaurants, many housed in limestone and Cream City brick buildings built by German and Irish immigrants. Nearly 230 of the town's buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. (800) 237-2874; cedarburg.org
Highlights of the area include the General Store Museum with its collection of vintage ads, soda fountain and 19th-century dry-goods store; and Kuhefuss House Museum, a 150-year-old Greek Revival home that seems frozen in time. (262) 375-3676 cedarburg.publishpath.com
Cedarburg also contains part of Wisconsin's paved 30-mile Interurban Trail. (877) 875-7795; interurbantrail.us
The Southern Hills' fresh appeal
The lush farm country south and west of Madison aligns perfectly with travel trends toward fresh food and active, green, artsy pursuits. (888) 222-9111; greencounty.org
Spring Green has a long-standing artsy reputation, thanks to the open-air American Players Theatre, (608) 588-7401; americanplayers.org, and Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio at Taliesin. (608) 588-7900; taliesinpreservation.org
Monroe still pumps out the cheese and beer that give the state much of its identity, and New Glarus still promotes its Swiss heritage. But recently, a wave of businesses has infused the area with a new level of cool. (800) 527-6838; swisstown.com
Mineral Point, a Cornish mining town, has reinvented itself as an arts enclave, while Madison chefs have set up shop in small towns. Active types come here for great trails and bike-friendly roads, exploring the seamless blend of old and new. (608) 987-3201; mineralpoint.com
- Photo by Ginger Crichton
Milwaukee's brewing legacy
Brewery tours Miller Brewing Company has a free one-hour tour (pictured) that ends with samples in the Bavarian-style Miller Inn (millercoors.com). Learn the history of Pabst beers at Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery (bestplacemilwaukee.com). Also recommended: Sprecher (sprecherbrewery.com) and Lakefront breweries (lakefrontbrewery.com).
Ttour the elegant Pabst Mansion, an 1890s Flemish Renaissance mansion constructed by beer baron Frederick Pabst. Custom-built furnishings, elaborate wall coverings, stained glass and ornate woodwork made this one of the city's grandest houses. (414) 931-0808; pabstmansion.com
Hayward's lake retreats
A hundred miles west of the Minocqua group of lakes, Hayward and its North Woods neighbors offer another cluster of peaceful retreats for fishing, hiking, golf, canoeing, tubing, bicycling and other outdoor activities. haywardlakes.com
Local attractions include the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum, which showcases North America's fishing heritage with 50,000 artifacts (lures, rods, reels and accessories) and a giant 40-foot muskie. (715) 634-4440; freshwater-fishing.org
The annual Lumberjack World Championships celebrate the logging heritage of northern Wisconsin, with three days of log-rolling, chopping, sawing and tree-climbing. lumberjackworldchampionships.com Throughout the summer, visitors can cheer on activities at Scheer's Lumberjack Show. (715) 634-6923; scheerslumberjackshow.com
Interstate State Park
Interstate State Park, Wisconsin's oldest, faces off across the St. Croix River with Minnesota's Interstate State Park. Both offer cool hikes past rocky glacial potholes, but the larger Wisconsin park (50 miles northeast of Saint Paul) also has a large swimming lake, a heron rookery, a wildlife trail and naturalist-led hikes in the summer. If you want to visit both, the US-8 bridge links the parks. (715) 483-3747; dnr.wi.gov
- Photo Courtesy of caveofthemounds.com
Cave of the Mounds
Near Mount Horeb, the hour-long tour of this family-owned cave--discovered by accident on the farm in 1939; now a National Natural Landmark--provides fascinating up-close looks at delicate crystal formations and spooky lights-out time. Above ground at Cave of the Mounds, the parklike setting is home to a variety of gardens as well as a Geologic Timeline walk and other trails. (608) 437-3038; caveofthemounds.com