The Traveling Shepherd’s Best Wisconsin Towns poll is
perfectly timed for those who want a close-to-home trip instead of a
wallet-busting holiday. In our survey, nearly 3,000 people voted for favorites
in 20 categories of Wisconsin towns. Now those
recommendations can be your inspiration for summer day trips, weekends away or
full-blown vacations. These are Wisconsin
places you can afford to visit—even if gas prices reach the dreaded $4 a
Here are the winners, close runners-up and tips on
what else to look for when you get there.
Meet the Best Wisconsin Towns
First Place: Bayfield, with its toes in Lake
Superior, sits on the sunny east side of the orchard-covered hills
that overlook the wild Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. You can learn to
kayak, enjoy the sandy beach, climb aboard a chartered sail boat or catch the Apostle Islands cruise boat that splashes past
historic lighthouses as it circumnavigates the islands.
Second Place: Alma, the historic postcard-pretty town on the northern end of Wisconsin’s Great River Road.
Place: Green Lake, the town on Wisconsin’s deepest
inland lake in east-central Wisconsin,
is a great family getaway, according to our respondents.
Place: Mineral Point, in southwest Wisconsin, was home to the state’s “badger” miners who
dug lead and zinc out of the rolling hills and built one of the most charming
settlements in Wisconsin Territory. A great way to
see it is during the “Garden Tour & Garden Clinic” on June 20 and 21. On
June 21, two master gardeners will conduct a garden clinic at beautiful Shake
Rag Alley. Pendarvis, a state historic site, is a showcase of architecture,
history and Cornish culture. Visit on June 7 for the summer Art Walk or Aug. 2
for Gallery Night, when you can meet dozens of artists in their galleries.
Check out outstanding original live theater productions on the new outdoor
Alley Stage. Lodging ranges from historic miners’ houses to country estates and
national franchise inns. The Brewery Creek Inn serves great food and its own
craft beers. The Red Rooster Cafe and the Old Royal Inn are known for their
pasties and figgyhobbin.
Second Place: Cedarburg(see Most Distinctive Architecture)
Third Place: Ephraim,on Highway 42 on the bay side of the
Door Peninsula,has earned a
reputation as the most beautiful town in Door County.
First Place: Cedarburg,on
Cedar Creek, long a favorite getaway for Milwaukeeans, has been discovered by
travelers from the rest of the state for its unique heritage, 19th-century
stone buildings and local flavor. An excellent time to visit is June 7 for the
Stone House Tour or June 28 for the annual Strawberry Festival.
Second Place: Mineral Point (see Most Beautiful Town)
Third Place: New Glarus (see Best Ethnic Getaway)
Best Town for Galleries and Arts Scene
Place: Egg Harbor, in Door County,draws visitors because of its
fantastic galleries. Don’t miss the incredible decorated egg collection at the
Dovetail Gallery. Yore Place features prints and originals with Door County
themes while the 1871 Cupola House offers works by Phil Sealy. The art scene is
enhanced by 32 concerts offered over the summer by the Birch Creek Music
Association. Celebrate Independence Day weekend at Egg Harbor
with a fireworks display (July 3) and parade.
Second Place: Mineral Point (see Most Beautiful Town)
Third Place: Paoli,a tiny town15 miles south of Madison,
boasts five galleries as well as the Paoli Cheese Shop, likely Wisconsin’s smallest
Theater and Entertainment
First Place: Spring Green is home to American Players Theatre (APT), the
Tony Award-nominated outdoor theater that specializes in the works of William
Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Hillside Studio are just up the road. For a taste
of Wright-style lodging, book a room at the House on the Rock Resort, the work
of Wright’s apprentices and built on property that Wright once owned. Keeping
with the designer labels, the excellent golf courses at the resort were
designed by Robert Trent
Jones (the Original 18) and Andy North and Roger Packard (The North Nine). Head
into Spring Green for art galleries, antiques, shopping and dining. The Bank,
once the Bank of Spring Green, features lots of local produce and the creative
cuisine of chef James Jens. To dine in an authentic Wright-designed building,
go to the Riverview Cafe at the Wright Visitor Center,
open daily from May to October. The Visitor Center also has one of the best Wright
gift shops in the Midwest.
Fort Atkinson’s Fireside Dinner Theatre is
one of the Midwest’s most popular professional dinner theaters and one of the
largest group tour destinations in Wisconsin.
Place: Fish Creek’s Peninsula Players of Door
County opened with a Noel Coward play in 1935 and has been charming
theater-lovers ever since.
Best Town for a Festival Weekend
Place: Warrens, just north of Tomah off I-94,
hosts the Cranberry Festival (Sept. 26 to 28) with a 100-vendor farmers’
market, a flea market with 350 sellers and an arts and crafts market with 800
exhibitors. A huge parade will feature Wisconsin’s
largest marching band. The Cranberry Discovery Center
is open from June through October. Warrens
also has great trout fishing and biking on the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail.
Second Place: Monroe,in Green County,
celebrates Cheese Days on Sept. 19-21.
Third Place: Port Washington, just
north of Milwaukee,
will serve up the World’s Largest One-Day Outdoor Fish Fry on July 19.
Best Town for Dining
First Place (Tie): Lake
Geneva deserves this honor. From incredible steaks and wines
at the Geneva Chop House at the Grand Geneva Resort to the Red Geranium, El
Palenque or Popeye’s casual sining, an institution overlooking the grand
waterfront, Lake Geneva can please any palate.
To round out your trip, catch a ride on one of the Gage Marine excursion boats
and get a relaxing view of the lavish estates built by Chicago-land
industrialists, or stargaze at the historic Yerkes Observatory on Williams Bay.
First Place (Tie): Sister Bay’s Al Johnson’s restaurant has goats on its sod roof, but be sure
to go inside for the lingonberry pancakes. And don’t miss the Mission Grille or
the Inn at Kristofer’s.
Place: Green Lake with Grey Rock, Norton’s Dining Room and Carvers on the Lake.
Best Town for a Fishing Getaway
First Place:Minocqua, surrounded
by hundreds of excellent muskie lakes, has long been a favorite headquarters
for serious sport fishers and families looking for Northwoods tranquility. The
quiet town that once was a favorite getaway for mobsters like John Dillinger
and Baby Face Nelson now sports dozens of great shops, excellent restaurants,
bookstores and latte kiosks, as well as excellent family resorts.
Second Place: Hayward not only has 55,000 acres of lakes
and miles of great rivers, but it also hosts the Freshwater Fishing Hall of
Fame with the world’s biggest muskie, five stories tall.
Third Place: Eagle River,
in northeast Wisconsin
on the 14-mile chain of 28 lakes, is said to be the longest inland chain in the
world. For excellent resort lodging and dining, the Chanticleer Inn on Voyageur Lake is a longtime favorite.
Best Town for a Biking Getaway
First Place: Sparta, about 20 miles east of
La Crosse, is
at the northern end of the famous Elroy-Sparta Trail and claims to be the
Bicycling Capital of America. It’s set in the picturesque rolling hills and
valleys of west-central Wisconsin,
where you can also visit the museum that honors Apollo astronaut Deke Slayton.
From June 6-8, don’t miss Butterfest.
Place: Two Rivers claimed second place on the
strength of two great trails that skirt the Lake Michigan shoreline and connect
Point Beach State Forest
with Two Rivers
and downtown Manitowoc.
Third Place: Boulder
a wonderful Northwoods town with a railroad and logging history and a
well-deserved reputation for great fishing, but it earned this honorable mention
because of its outstanding bike trail system.
Place: Eagle River is where the World Champion
Snowmobile Derby got its start and where its 500 miles of groomed trails draw
thousands of fans every winter.
Second Place: Hayward (See Best Fishing Getaway)
Third Place: Minocqua (See Best
Best Town for a Boating Getaway
First Place: Pepin on Highway 35 in
is best known as the birthplace of author Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Save Sept. 13
and 14 for the delightful Laura Ingalls Wilder Days.) But don’t overlook the
beautiful Lake Pepin,
the natural lake of the upper Mississippi River.
Watercraft of every shape and size—including one-person kayaks, fishing boats,
houseboats, sail boats, riverboats and barges—make their way through these
waters. If you don’t have a boat of your own, check out On-Deck Seminars and
Charters for a cruise. The Victorian Harbor Hill Inn is a great B&B treat,
and the Pickle Factory restaurant and bar and the highly acclaimed Harbor View
Cafe are worth a visit.
Second Place: Baileys Harbor on the scenic lake side of Door County.
Third Place: Eagle River (See Best
Cross-Country Skiing Town
First Place: Blue Mounds, with Blue Mounds State Park, about 25 miles west of Madison,
has quietly developed a reputation as one of the finest cross-country skiing
areas in southwest Wisconsin.
The 1,153-acre park has excellent ski trails, while the nearby Tyrol Basin
attracts the snowboarding set and downhill fans. Check out the year-round Cave
of the Mounds, too. From late spring to fall, visitors can enjoy the historical
buildings and exhibits at Little Norway, including an authentic Norwegian
Stavekirke, one of the few remaining buildings from the 1893 Chicago Columbian
Second Place: Cable, home to the
internationally known American Birkebeiner cross-country race every February.
Third Place: Fish Creekand Peninsula Park in Door County
(See Best Theater and Entertainment)
Best Town for Folk/Outsider Art
First Place: Baraboo is close to
the mind-blowing outdoor park known as Dr. Evermore’s Sculpture Park,
just off Highway 12 between Prairie du Sac and Baraboo. It just might be the
world’s largest outdoor sculpture garden, and it’s definitely an awesome
display of imagination and creativity. Its centerpiece, the Forevertron, is a
massive “time machine,” and in a grove of underbrush you’ll find the “Bird
Orchestra” with 10-foot-tall metal birds made from junk.
Second Place: Dickeyville is the
site of the Dickeyville Grotto, a religious shrine created from stone, mortar,
ceramics, glass and seashells between 1918 and 1931 by Father Mathias Wernerus
on the Holy Ghost Parish Grounds.
Third Place: Hollandale, about 12 miles east of Mineral Point on
Highway 39, is home to Nick Englebert’s Grandview,
a fanciful sculpture garden of cast concrete figures that recall mythology,
fantasy and fairy tale characters.
Best Ethnic Getaway Town
Place: New Glarus was settled by 108
immigrants who left economic hardship in the Swiss Canton of Glarus in 1845.
Today their community preserves the ambiance of Switzerland in art, culture and
architecture. On any given night you can sample delicious Swiss meals, fondue
and craft beers and enjoy yodeling, bone-dry Swiss humor and an occasional
alphorn concert at the New Glarus Hotel or the Chalet Landhaus. The annual
Heidi Festival, with sidewalk sales and a production of the Heidi play, is scheduled for June 27-29.
On Aug. 2 the fire department celebrates it 106th anniversary; Swiss Fest, with
plenty of accordion music, alphorn concerts and flag throwing (yes, it’s legal)
is on Aug. 3; and the Wilhelm Tell Fest will be held Aug. 29-31.
Second Place: Cashton, on Highway 33
in western Wisconsin’s
“Coulee Country,” is known for its Norwegian heritage and Amish community.
Third Place: Lac du Flambeau on
Highway 47 northwest of Minocqua has the George Brown Museum & Cultural Center and Waswagoning Ojibwe village.
Place: Cedarburg is rich in art and history
(the downtown is on the Historic Register), but it’s also full of great
shopping opportunities, with Washington Avenue’s specialty shops, inns, pubs,
antiquaries, art galleries and coffee shops. Bargain hunters flock to town May
25, July 13, Aug. 31 and Oct. 5 for some of Wisconsin’s greatest shopping during the
town’s Maxwell Street Days.
Place: Mount Horeb charms thousands of
visitors each year with its “trollway” shops, antique stores and the
one-of-a-kind Mustard Museum.
Sturgeon Bay, the portal to the Door County peninsula, offers
a charming downtown in a maritime setting.
First Place: Mineral Point (See Most Beautiful Town)
Second Place: Prairie du Chien, in southwest Wisconsin
on Highway 35, the Great River
Road, at the confluence of the Wisconsin
and Mississippi rivers, served as the gateway
community to Wisconsin Territory. Today the
Villa Louis historic site and Fort Crawford Museum
preserve and interpret Wisconsin’s
Third Place: Ripon in east-central Wisconsin
is famous for great cookies, but
it’s also the birthplace of the Republican Party in The Little White
Best Town on a Lake
First Place: Port Washington is a
great quick getaway for Milwaukeeans who want to explore more of the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Second Place: Ashland,
on the south shore
of Lake Superior, was
once a bustling port. Today it’s known for its spectacular vistas, sailing and
Third Place: Elkhart Lake in east-central Wisconsin is a traditional
Victorian-era resort town on a sparkling glacial lake, and home to Road America, one of
the world’s finest race tracks.
Best Town on a River
First Place:Trempealeau is on one
of the most stunningly beautiful areas of the Mississippi River and Great River Road,
Highway 35, north of La Crosse.
In fact, some 150 years ago a local Methodist minister published an essay
“proving” with biblical references that the area must have been the original
Garden of Eden. You can argue the point at one of the fine pubs in the area or,
better yet, just explore PerrotState Park and the
Trempealeau National River Wildlife Refuge or watch river traffic on Lock and
Dam No. 6. Bring your bike and ride the Great River State Trail. The preferred
lodging and dining is at the 1880s Trempealeau Hotel, which also hosts musical
entertainment throughout the summer. Seek out Art on the River with music by
Jimmy Liggett on June 29.
Place: St. Croix Falls is one of the nicest
towns in Wisconsin, but it’s better known to
Minnesotans because of its remote location at the northwest corner of Wisconsin on the St. Croix River.
Third Place: Cassville,on the Mississippi in the southwest corner of the state, is a favorite place to watch
eagles. It’s also the hometown of Wisconsin’s
first governor, Nelson Dewey. His farmstead, Stonefield, is open to visitors as
a state historical museum and a ferry offers service (seasonally) to the Iowa shore.
Romantic Town for an Adult Getaway
First Place: Bayfield is home to
some of the finest B&Bs in the Midwest,
like the Old Rittenhouse Inn, Cooper Hill House, Bayfield Inn and Greunke’s
First Street Inn (where JFK Jr. hung out). Plus, some of the finest musical
entertainment in the state is presented just south of town at Big Top Chautauqua
from June to September.
Second Place: Lake Geneva (See Best Town for Dining)
Third Place: Fish Creek (See Best
Theater and Entertainment)
Best Town for a Family Weekend
First Place: Wisconsin Dells is the place H.H. Bennett made
popular with his photos, and who can resist the amphibious Dells Ducks rides
and the Upper and Lower Dells Boat Tours? But the Dells’ entertainment
offerings don’t stop there. Besides the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski, Sky and Stage
Show, visitors can also enjoy the Rick Wilcox Magic Show or spend a day in a
wave pool at Mt.Olympus amusement park. Adults get their
playtime at Trappers Turn Golf Club, the nearby Ho-Chunk Casino or the Sundara
Spa. The Del-Bar, Field’s at the Wilderness and Kalahari have brought fine
dining to town. What’s next? Watch for The Dells to become a major competitive
Place: Green Lake offers much family fun.
Catch a ride on the Escapade catamaran cruise boat at Heidel House Resort, play
golf at Lawsonia Links and bring the whole family for the Fourth of July
festivities. Dine at Norton’s Dining Room for steaks and seafood, or head to
award-winning Grey Rock at Heidel House Resort for American regional cuisine.
Third Place: Minocqua (See Best
For More Information:
You’ll find info on all these towns, along with maps
and free travel guides.