Photos (clockwise from top left): courtesy Viroqua Visitor Center, courtesy Travel Wisconsin, courtesy. Princeton Chamber of Commerce, courtesy Pepin County
Some of Wisconsin’s best places to visit are quiet, quaint and easily driveable.
Where will you go next?
We couldn’t wait to share with you these four picturesque burgs that boast delicious food, excellent shopping and one-of-a-kind events. Who doesn’t love an amazing hidden gem, free of tourists? Before you visit, though, be sure to do a little online perusing to see if there are any COVID-related hindrances.
Heart of the Driftless: Viroqua
By Megan Roessler
Wisconsin’s Driftless Area is truly unique. Here, steep, rugged hills are punctuated by cold, clear trout streams that run through valleys left behind when glacial drifts flattened the rest of the state 31,500 years ago. Hidden among these hills is Viroqua: a tiny town with a population of just 4,500. Despite its size, Viroqua has charisma, culture and cuisine all its own and has the makings of a perfect weekend getaway.
Start your day with a fuel up at the flagship location of Kickapoo Coffee. A garage-style door opens the café to picnic table seating outside. Next, a stroll down Main Street, which has small-town charm in spades, offers something for everyone. Anglers can stop by the Driftless Angler, which serves as an outlet for fly-fishing clothing, gear and more. Knitters can delight in hand-dyed wools and knitting supplies at Ewetopia Fiber Shop. Bookworms can sate their intellectual appetite at Driftless Books and Music, a bookstore with a truly vast collection that specializes in rare and antique finds. A trip to the indoor Viroqua Public Market to browse arts, crafts and foodstuffs will round out the afternoon, and a stop at Wisco Pop! to sip a soda made from local, organic ingredients makes for the perfect afternoon treat.
For dinner, hit up the home base of Luke Zahm — who you may recognize from his freshman season hosting “Wisconsin Foodie” — in an understated storefront on Viroqua’s Main Street. There, The Driftless Café humbly serves lunch, dinner, pizza and brunch made from the finest local organic meats and vegetables. Rest up at the quaint Coulee Cabins, a short jaunt up Highway 14, to enjoy an authentic log cabin experience or stay at the historic Viroqua Heritage Inn to be close to the quiet, comforting hum of downtown.
For those who are looking to amble around the Driftless region’s landscapes, there are plenty of outdoor sights and activities. Three Chimneys and Monument Rock are spectacular examples of the region’s unique geology — both are remnants of a long- gone undersea mountain range. Nearby Duck Egg County Forest is perfect for a quick scenic hike, and offers both pedestrian and horse trails that weave through a lush Midwestern ecosystem.
The cold water trout streams of the Driftless region make it a world-renowned destination to go out casting, especially for colorful brook trout. A sport that requires patience, focus and a careful hand, fly fishing in these streams is the perfect way to spend a meditative afternoon outside.
Creative Underground in Mineral Point
By Nicole Gruter
Nestled within southern Wisconsin’s bucolic rolling hills lies a small town big on attractions. What began as a mining town in the 1820s, Mineral Point has transformed into an enchanting destination for lovers of culture, early American history and old-world charm.
The town’s creative flair can be experienced through its thriving art scene wherein artists live, create and sell exquisite works in every medium. From rustic folk to fine art, the variety and craftsmanship are inspiring. Gallery nights (normally held the first weekends in April, June, August and December) invite visitors to shop over 20 galleries until 9 p.m. And each October, curious visitors get a behind-the- scenes look at how artists create their work when the vivacious artistic community opens its galleries and studios for the Fall Art Tour.
Mineral Point’s strong historic preservation movement is highlighted within the area’s lodging. Beautifully refurbished boutique hotels and rustic homes-turned-bed-and-breakfasts provide uniquely eclectic choices for where to rest your head.
The first city in Wisconsin listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mineral Point’s exceptional architecture can be fully admired during the Historic Preservation Celebration held every first weekend in May. An incredible array of historic sites are packed into just a few square miles. Pendarvis State Historic Site, a collection of restored buildings from early Wisconsin’s mining community, the Mineral Point Railroad Depot (Wisconsin’s oldest) and the gorgeous Mineral Point Opera House are but a few examples of how this distinctive city preserves its past with purpose.
Along the downtown streets and beyond, you’ll find distinct culinary delights, including Red Rooster’s traditional pasties (stemming from the area’s Cornish immigrants); Popolo’s wood-fired pizzas; and of course, Wisconsin’s cornerstone: internationally award-winning Hook’s cheese, made right in Mineral Point. Many restaurants also feature locally- sourced meats and greens, along with the occasional local musician.
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MINERAL POINT BLUES & ROOTS FESTIVAL
This late August event has expanded to two days and two stages of national and regional musical acts. The festival benefits the Mineral Point Historical Society and the Mineral Point Music Boosters. Bring a chair and enjoy fantastic entertainment performed on the beautiful grounds of Orchard Lawn, an authentically restored Italianate mansion. No carry-ins are allowed, but there’s no need with the on-site beer, wine, hard cider and food trucks.
SHAKE RAG ALLEY CENTER FOR THE ARTS
Ever wanted to try blacksmithing, print-making or creative writing? Immerse yourself firsthand in Mineral Point’s artistic culture. The center offers a huge array of workshops and custom retreats in the visual, performing and literary arts for both adults and children. Historic on-site lodging and site rentals include a log cabin, the refurbished Coach House and an 1850’s cut-stone cottage. Lush gardens with a natural spring-fed stream inspire the imagination.
Food & Fun in Princeton
By Mary Bergin
A tiny sign says “cinnamon roll,” but this is no pudgy pedestrian pastry, slathered with vanilla icing. What we have is croissant dough, twisted and immersed in sugary cinnamon.
This lighter version of decadence shows up in Princeton, population 1,200, in Green Lake County. The hamlet is home to Renard’s European Bakeshop, which also makes cardamom braids, lattice-shaped fougasse and a black currant tart. All this elevates Renard’s from bakery to patisserie in rural Wisconsin.
Main Street may be ground zero for shopping elsewhere, but Princeton’s can’t-miss retail area is three blocks of Water Street, where Renard’s neighbors include cute boutiques with one-word names: Daiseye, Twigs, Twister, Shiloh.
It’s a pleasant day trip, but outdoor lovers will make it more. Follow Highway 23 (and the Fox River) four miles west, for a Northwoodsy escape at Mecan River Outfitters and Lodge. Bike, canoe or kayak on your own — or book a guided tour. Relax in front of the pine-log lodge’s 35-foot-tall fireplace and nurse a cocktail. Dine on hearty fare from steaks to seafood. Snooze in a rustic cabin or homey lodge bedroom.
East of Princeton, you can golf in Green Lake, at Tuscumbia (Wisconsin’s oldest course) and the deep bunkers of Lawsonia. Two perfect places to unwind afterward: Norton’s (a lakeside supper club since 1948) and Thrasher Opera House for music.
Count Greenway House, an 1880 mansion, is among Green Lake’s grand bed-and-breakfast inns. Roomy bedrooms are named after bygone-era resorts, but the lake — the deepest inside of Wisconsin — remains as gorgeous as ever.
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Up to 180 vendors fill City Park on Saturdays for the Princeton Flea Market, late April to mid-October. That makes it among the largest flea markets in Wisconsin. For sale are in-season produce and bedding plants, lawn and home décor, handicrafts and artwork and new and vintage merchandise. Expect an eclectic array of jewels to junk and noshing (cheese curds to doughnuts to eggrolls), 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., rain or shine. Note: No pooches allowed.
In and near southern Green Lake County are Old Order Amish communities whose residents live simply, using horse-drawn transportation and kerosene instead of cars and electricity. Look for roadside “for sale” signs outside of farms, especially near the burgs of Dalton and Kingston. Plants, bakery, cheeses, candy and woodworking are specialties at these businesses, which are closed on Sundays. Download a map of exactly where to go at princetonwi.com/shp and prepare for a peaceful, picturesque country drive.
What’s Poppin’ in Pepin
By Kevin Revolinski
Not far south from where the Mississippi River leaves Minnesota and becomes Wisconsin’s western border, a narrowing of the valley constricts the waters to form Lake Pepin, a beautiful 22-mile-long lake between the river bluffs that’s never more than two miles wide. Here on its shores you’ll find the perfectly walkable little town of Pepin.
Also known for being the birthplace of children’s book author Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pepin hosts a museum and gift shop honoring her in its downtown. And the Little House Wayside Cabin, a replica of her childhood home which was the setting for “Little House in the Big Woods,” sits on three acres, seven miles northwest of town.
For breakfast, face the day with caffeine and a pastry at The 404 Coffee Shop or get the full from-scratch breakfast at Homemade Café. A jaunt to Villa Bellezza, a quaint vineyard seemingly transplanted from Italy, offers samples of their more than two dozen wines and tours from vineyard to tasting room. Their restaurant Il Forno serves pasta, panini and wood-fired pizzas. Sunday brunches bring an Italian buffet and mimosas to go with your cannoli.
Other dining delights include the guilty pleasures at the homemade fudge and ice cream shop attached to the Garden Pub. (Have a sip at their Tiki Bar, too.) Walk to the corner of the same block for local artisan crafts at The Tin Boutique.
The finest dining in town is at the aptly-named Harbor View Café, with its upscale seasonal menu and lengthy wine list in a casual setting. The modest deck at The Pickle Factory is a nice perch for a sundowner and some tavern fare as you look across the lake to the bluffs in Minnesota.
Speaking of the lake, Captain Bob, one of the hosts at the town’s Harbor Hill Inn, commands sailing excursions on his 32-foot Catalina 320 — including sunset and starlight cruises.
After your busy day, rest your head at the aforementioned Harbor Hill Inn, an 1870 Queen Anne-style Victorian home a block away from Pepin’s marina.
THE LONG AND WINE-DING ROAD
This stretch of the Mississippi also has its own wine trail, and in addition to Pepin’s own Villa Belleza, there are two other stops nearby. Ten minutes north in Stockholm is Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery, an 80-acre farm and orchard with a tasting room. To the south, up in the bluffs above Alma, is Danzinger Winery, an 18-acre vineyard using all its own grapes for an assortment of reds and whites, ranging from dry to sweet dessert wines.
A BEAUTIFUL BYWAY
Pepin is but one of 33 towns along Wisconsin’s 250-mile segment of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway. From Prescott to Potosi with La Crosse right in the middle, State Highway 35 (and part of 133) slips between bluffs and river with a variety of regional parks, small-town charms,
and scenic overlooks. Visitor centers at either end offer ideas, and free maps are available online at wigrr.com.