Photo © Dan Laurence
Although located in the heart of the land-locked Midwest, Wisconsin still has plenty of water to go around—namely, in over 15,000 lakes, each with their own story, appeal and neighboring lake towns.
It’s fun to hop into a boat and spend the day cruising the waters, but there’s another aspect of lake living—the quaint Main Streets within eyeshot of the water. Boutiques, restaurants and activities can be found near the shore, with beautiful views to boot.
Here are some of our favorite Wisconsin lake towns, featuring plenty of stops for a weekend adventure.
A suburb of Milwaukee, Port Washington is steeped in rich, nautical history, and has the many shipwrecks in outlying waters to prove it. To get an up-close-and-personal look at these naval ruins, take a dive with Port Deco Divers and see famous wrecks such as the Northerner, the Mahoning and the Niagara. Not SCUBA-certified? They offer classes, too.
For a dryer way to see Lake Michigan, rent a bike from ZuZu Pedals, a full-service bike shop located just a block from the marina. Ride from shop to shop in Port’s thriving downtown, stopping at Blue Heron for pottery, organic soaps and accessories made by over 75 Wisconsin artisans, all showcased in a 1929 fire engine house. Or satisfy your sweet tooth at The Chocolate Chisel, where you’ll find an impressive selection of house-made truffles, caramels and barks. Be sure to savor the customer-favorite Port Wine Cone, a chocolate truffle infused with port.
To get your carb fix, look no further than the Daily Baking Company, where the smells of freshly-made breads, croissants and more waft through the air. And for a farm-to-table feast, Twisted Willow presents delicious meals made with locally-sourced fixings and ingredients grown on the owners’ Grafton farm.
Located less than two hours from Chicago, Lake Geneva is southern Wisconsin’s maritime playground. Known for its grand, turn-of-the-century mansions that flank the shoreline to this day, the best way to see them is taking a self-guided walk along the 21-mile Geneva Lake Shore Path. Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers a hike and boat tour wrapped into one. Stroll an eight-mile section of the path, then hitch a ride with one of their passenger boats from a public pier.
The downtown shops and restaurants are beloved by tourists and locals alike. Queen Bee Artisan Market purveys wares made by local makers and has a “charm bar” where you can design your own jewelry creation. Brick & Mortar Home is a décor-lover’s paradise. Lake-chic and cozy must-haves are packed in a restored 1900s home. Afterwards, head to Sopra Bistro for Italy-by-way-of-America eats or to the welcoming Egg Harbor Café for breakfast or lunch—their seasonal French toast offerings are not to be missed. End your day with a nightcap at the Maxwell Mansion’s Speakeasy Bar, a 1930s-style watering hole that requires a password to enter, shared only with guests of the inn or via Facebook. It’s open to the public on Friday evenings.
Bayfield is one of the northernmost points in Wisconsin, marked by natural beauty and sea caves made for kayaking. This Lake Superior hamlet also features delightful shopping spots and eateries, including the treasured Apostle Islands Booksellers with an emphasis on historical reads, cultural tomes and regional books. Big Water Coffee Roasters makes its very own—you guessed it—coffee roasts that can be sipped at the café or taken home, like Moon Chaser, which can be made hot or cold, or Sea Smoke, with notes of black cherry. Stone’s Throw is a whimsical gallery-meets-boutique featuring sculptures, artwork and home décor.
Maggie’s is an especially lively restaurant—you can’t miss the bubblegum pink building with pink flamingo accents inside to match. It’s a surprising tropical retreat in the middle of the Northwoods where you’ll enjoy pizza, burgers and seafood specialties.
To learn Bayfield’s story, plan a stop at the Bayfield Maritime Museum. Through photographs, exhibits and dioramas, uncover the tales of local lighthouses, tugboats, steamers and more. Then book a walk with Bayfield Heritage Tours to study the architecture of Bayfield’s Queen Anne mansions, or if you’re feeling brave, go on one of their spooky, historical Ghost Walks.
Elkhart Lake, located on the body of water of the same name, has been a resort town for over a century. Nestled amongst classic resorts like The Osthoff, Victorian Village Resort and Siebkens Resort are favorite downtown spots like Vintage Elkhart Lake, a shop that has an impressive selection of over 200 wines, oils and local fine foods. Or visit eateries including the Paddock Club, known for its seasonal menu and a name inspired by a local 1900s-era gambling club, or the Lake Street Café, where you’ll find tempting wood-fired pizzas and salads. Finish the evening with a piña colada at the Barefoot Tiki Bar, an island getaway right on the lake.
There are plenty of things to do in downtown Elkhart Lake. Stroll around the sculpture garden at Two Fish Gallery. Go to the Farmer & Artisan Market to pick up fresh produce, baked goods and handmade crafts. Visit the Osthoff to take a cooking class at the renowned L’Ecole de la Maison or make time for pampering at Aspira Spa—the Cedars Massage smells like a soothing walk through the trees surrounding Elkhart Lake.
Jutting between Green Bay and Lake Michigan lies Door County – a peninsula filled with lake towns. Door County’s past is centered on water, and is widely celebrated in the unincorporated town of Fish Creek. Within walking distance of its many marinas, you’ll discover places like TR Pottery, a husband-and-wife-owned studio that specializes in electric-fired pottery and wood-fired pots. They love putting on live demonstrations during the summer months. Also, don’t miss Fish Creek Market for Door County wines, homemade granola and other gourmet goodies to take home.
White Gull Inn is Fish Creek’s most famous dining destination, where you’ll get to experience an authentic Door County fish boil. Watch as your dinner of just-caught Lake Michigan whitefish is cooked over an open flame and served in a classic Wisconsin dining room. Cap it off with a visit to Not Licked Yet, a lighthearted, ma-and-pa parlor well-known for its custard. And no trip is complete without a Fish Creek Scenic Boat Tours trip. Take the Peninsula Park & Ephraim North Cruise to see the shoreline, learn some history and take in a view of the 145-year-old Eagle Bluff Lighthouse. They also have sunset live music cruises on the waters of Green Bay.
IT’S NOT ON A LAKE, BUT…
Hudson, on the St. Croix River, has no shortage of on-the-water views and charm. The pulse of the town can be found on Second Street, where you’ll go to boutiques like Lavender Thymes, filled with cult-brand lotions and bath products; Urban Olive & Vine, a one-stop shop for wines, oils and vinegars; and Seasons on St. Croix, a local art utopia. Mallory’s Restaurant has a rooftop bar for ideal views of the river, and for the best cheese curds in town, head to the Stone Tap. To sample all of the culinary goodness downtown has to offer, book a Hudson Food Walk and try a little of everything.
This article originally appeared in the 2017 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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