Trust us: This lakeside resort city will warm your heart in winter.
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Santa Cruise Visit Lake Geneva
Credit: Courtesy of Visit Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva Wisconsin Lakefront Festivities

Twinkling lights dance across the midnight black surface of Geneva Lake. An elf testing toys with Rudolph winks from his reflection as you float by, en route to Santa's Hideaway—the finale to the Santa Cruise boat tour. When you find the big man in red perched at the water's edge, he bellows a "ho ho ho" and calls out names from his nice list, which just so happens to include all the children on that evening's trip.

Lights are the, ahem, bright spot of celebrations in Lake Geneva, a historic resort town an hour southwest of Milwaukee. The glittering Santa Cruise sets sail several nights each week, millions of bulbs twinkle at Grand Geneva Resort and illuminated floats star in the Electric Christmas Parade.

Summertime lakeside charm has drawn people here for more than a century, and during the holidays it comes wrapped in festivity (and possibly dusted with snow). Along Main Street, stores have an unofficial window- decorating competition, with whimsical displays that add to the convivial atmosphere. "A lot of people shop online these days, but what's so magical about main streets in smaller towns is that all their shops are independent, one-of a-kind. And the gifts that you find in them can only be found there," says Deanna Goodwin of Visit Lake Geneva.

"It's a way to up your gift-giving game." Off the water, kids can find Santa at family-friendly breakfasts and teas, while adults enjoy peppermint-themed or other seasonal spa treatments at area resorts. In addition to the holiday light show, Grand Geneva Resort hosts an annual gingerbread house competition. Evenings end with hot drinks around firepits or in igloo bubble domes overlooking the lake.

Visitors of all ages from Chicagoland and beyond have come to Lake Geneva for years. "There's history here," says Goodwin. "Children came to visit their grandparents or spend summers here, and now they're bringing their kids or grandkids. There's a great feeling of tradition and community pride here."

The Nice List

SHOP Wander the blocks between Geneva Street and Main Street downtown. Browse gifts at sunny Marigoldfashionable clothes at Twelfth and Brownor home decor at Cornerstone Shop and GalleryMake sure to snap a pic with the iron dragon at Delaney Street Mercantile.

DRINK Toast in a 111-year-old church at Topsy Turvy Brewery—the stained-glass windows make an excellent photo backdrop for your flight. A glass of wine pairs nicely with lake views at Barrique Bistro and Wine BarWarm up with a cuppa at Avant Cycle Cafe.

EAT Family-favorite Next Door Pub and Pizzeria has been around for more than 40 years. Sopra Bistro brings Chicago fine-dining flair (like rigatoni with braised duck leg) to the lake. And it wouldn't be Wisconsin without a fish fry at a supper club— Mars Resort is the go-to.

STAY For maximum merry, book a room at Grand GenevaResort and Spa.You'll find a quieter, upscale mood at The Geneva Innwhere large balconies overlook the lake. A bit farther away, The Abbey Resort is known for its spa.

Lake Geneva Datebook

Electric Christmas Parade In its 46th year, this annual parade (December 4) features floats strung with dazzling lights, as well as live music and characters.

Santa Cruise Ride past illuminated displays during your search for Santa on the 40-minute cruise. The boat sails dozens of times a week; the 8:30 p.m. cruise on weekends is for adults only.

Christmas in the Country More than 2 million lights electrify the grounds of Grand Geneva Resort. Drive through in your car, or if you're a guest at the resort, hop on a complimentary trolley tour.

Gingerbread House Walk Throughout December, admire the creative gingerbread engineering of area residents, on display at Grand Geneva Resort.