20 Top Things to Do in Wisconsin

people enjoying fire at night Door County Wisconsin
Photo: Kevin J. Miyazaki

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 recreation.

Whether you're looking for cosmopolitan flair, small-town fun or outdoor adventures, you'll find it in Wisconsin. The Apostle Islands, Cave of the Mounds, the State Capitol in Madison, water parks in the Wisconsin Dells and Frank Lloyd Wright buildings are just a few of the state's highlights.

01 of 20

Explore the Apostle Islands and Bayfield

woman orange kayak apostle islands sea caves
Aaron Peterson

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.

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.

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.

02 of 20

Tour Frank Lloyd Wright Sites

Taliesin, Spring Green, Wisconsin
Taliesin. Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

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.

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.

SC Johnson, Racine A forest of dendriform (treelike) support columns steals the show in the Administration Building on the SC Johnson campus.

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).

03 of 20

Experience Door County's Cool Community

people enjoying fire at night Door County Wisconsin
Kevin J. Miyazaki

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.

04 of 20

Drive The Wisconsin Great River Road

Great River Road, Wisconsin, view from Maiden Rock Bluff near Stockholm
John Noltner

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 or more old.

05 of 20

Take the Kids to the Wisconsin Dells

Wisconsin Dells: Water Park Capital of the World

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 (Devil's Lake is a favorite) 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.

06 of 20

Visit the Milwaukee Art Museum

inside the Milwaukee Art Museum
Kevin J. Miyazaki

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 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.

07 of 20

Float Along Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva Cruise Line Wisconsin
Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

Geneva Lake, ringed by resorts, vacation homes and 19th-century mansions, is anchored by the town of Lake Geneva on its east end. Stroll the lakeshore path, seek fun on the water, or head into town for restaurants, shops and more.

Excursions on Lake Geneva Cruise Line offer close-up views of the Victorian estates ringing the lake as well as access to Black Point Estate, an 1888 Queen Anne-style mansion that is now a state historic site.

08 of 20

Wander Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Olbrich Botanical Gardens Thai Pavilion Madison Wisconsin
Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

Stroll 16 acres of outdoor gardens, including a 2-acre Rose Garden 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.

09 of 20

Relax at Kohler

Sunrise over Golf Course at Whistling Straits
Destination Kohler

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.

Free, three-hour tours of the Kohler Factory are offered weekday mornings. You can also peruse upscale plumbing fixtures at the Kohler Design Center.

For lodging, The American Club, the Midwest's only AAA five-diamond resort hotel, has luxurious rooms and suites, plus a spa.

10 of 20

See the AirVenture Show and Museum

Experimental Aircraft Association's annual end-of-July AirVenture celebration
Courtesy of EAA AirVenture

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.

11 of 20

Thrill to the Harley-Davidson Museum

Harley-Davidson Museum Milwaukee Wisconsin
Harley-Davidson Museum. Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

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.

12 of 20

Get to Know The Southern Hills' Fresh Appeal

Downtown New Glarus Wisconsin
Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

The lush farm country south and west of Madison aligns perfectly with travel trends toward fresh food and active, green, artsy pursuits.

Spring Green has a long-standing artsy reputation, thanks to the open-air American Players Theatre and Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio at Taliesin.

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.

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.

13 of 20

Savor Milwaukee's Brewing Legacy

Pabst Mansion Milwaukee
Pabst Mansion. Courtesy of Visit Milwaukee

To see breweries in action, check out tours of Miller Brewing Company, Sprecher and Lakefront breweries.

Or for a different side of the city's brewing history, tour 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.

Stay at The Brewhouse Inn and Suites, where gleaming copper brewing kettles anchor the lobby in the refurbished Pabst Brewery Complex.

14 of 20

Dive Into Madison's Food Scene

Graze restaurant Madison
Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

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.

15 of 20

Vacation at Hayward's Lake Retreats

Hayward KOA campground - Hayward, Wisconsintubing down the Namakegon River
Hayward KOA. Nate Luke Photography

Hayward and its North Woods neighbors offer a cluster of peaceful retreats for fishing, hiking, golf, canoeing, tubing, bicycling and other outdoor activities.

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.

The annual Lumberjack World Championships celebrate the logging heritage of northern Wisconsin, with three days of log-rolling, chopping, sawing and tree-climbing. Throughout the summer, visitors can cheer on activities at Scheer's Lumberjack Show.

16 of 20

Tour Cave of the Mounds

Cave of the Mounds, Wisconsin
Courtesy of 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.

17 of 20

Take the Family to Minocqua

Min-Aqua Bats ski team

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.

Kids love cheering at Scheer's Lumberjack Show. And the lodgings here understand what a family lake vacation is all about—no one minds a little sand tracked in.

18 of 20

Visit the National Railroad Museum

The National Railroad Museum calls northern Wisconsin home.
National Railroad Museum.

One of the nation's largest rail museums houses everything from decorative train drumheads to a massive Big Boy steam locomotive—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.

19 of 20

Soak Up Cedarburg's History

Limestone buildings create a scenic backdrop in Cedarburg.
Cedarburg. Courtesy of Edmunds Studios

Located along Cedar Creek (20 miles north of Milwaukee), the one-time mill town of Cedarburg 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.

Wine tastings ($10) at Cedar Creek Winery highlight the vineyard's Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. In a house on actual stilts, Stilt House serves Gouda-topped burgers and grilled hearts of romaine. The 34 guest rooms at the updated 1846 Cream City brick Washington House Inn featured exposed-stone walls, luxe beds and fireplaces.

Cedarburg also contains part of Wisconsin's paved 30-mile Interurban Trail.

20 of 20

Hike at Interstate State Park

View of the St Croix River from MN Interstate Park at sunset.
Courtesy of NPS / Eret

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.

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