By Melanie Radzicki McManus | Photos courtesy of Travel Wisconsin
When life gets to be a little too much, sneak away to one of Wisconsin’s quaint small towns. The best ones feature charming, century-old buildings that exude the warmth of the past, while containing creative businesses that are hip and relevant. Here are five towns to put on your radar.
This southeastern town regularly racks up accolades for its historic inns, restaurants and specialty shops, not to mention the allure of containing a 19th-century mill and burbling Cedar Creek. Wander along Washington Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, popping into boutiques such as Lillies, which carries fair-trade and eco-friendly clothing, gifts and accessories. Or Up the Creek, a home décor shop that also sells canvas totes and messenger bags crafted from recycled materials. A stop at Cedar Creek Settlement is a must. The restored 1864 woolen mill is home to specialty shops, restaurants and Cedar Creek Winery.
Make sure to set aside time to stroll through one of Wisconsin’s last remaining covered bridges, which sits a few miles north of downtown. Then stay the night at the Washington House Inn or Stagecoach Inn Bed and Breakfast.
The Washington House Inn originally opened in 1846, although today’s structure dates back to 1886. Indulge in the complimentary wine and cheese hour and scratch-made breakfast. The more rustic Stagecoach Inn opened in 1853 as a stop for the stagecoaches rumbling between Milwaukee and Green Bay. It sports a guest pub and period antiques.
Baraboo’s downtown is full of Rockwellian charm, boasting a traditional courthouse square ringed with nearly 100 historic structures. One is the Beaux-Arts Al. Ringling Theatre, built in 1915 and patterned after France’s grand opera houses. Ringling and four of his brothers ran one of the nation’s most prominent circuses, which wintered here for more than 30 years. Tour the theater, then stop at the Al. Ringling Brewing Co. for a glass of Ringling Original, a light ale created using the family’s beer recipe. At Circus World, admire the museum’s collection of more than 260 colorful, authentic circus wagons, then catch a live circus show.
Of course, Baraboo is about more than circuses and the Ringlings. Browse through the town’s bevy of boutiques, including Bekah Cate’s, a high-end culinary shop that also offers cooking classes, and A Sense of Adventure, which sells quality, fair-trade goods. (Think steel-drum wall art from Haiti.) The food scene here is lively, too. The Cheeze Factory is famed for its quality vegan fare, while Bella Vita Café serves flavorful drinks like blackberry caramel lattes and lavender lemonade, often using house-made syrups. The city is also home to several wineries and breweries, plus a distillery.
Sitting along a picturesque curve in the sapphire bay of Green Bay, Door County’s Sister Bay is known as the home of Al Johnson’s, a Swedish restaurant featuring a grass roof, which goats nibble into shape. Snap some photos, then head inside to nosh on Swedish pancakes and pickled herring. Another popular dining spot is Door County Creamery, where you can score hefty sandwiches like the Hot Honey & Chevre, fashioned with baked truffle goat cheese, basil, arugula and chili hot honey sauce. Freshly made soups, gelato and cookies are also on hand, plus wine, baguettes, and cheese-and-charcuterie plates.
Work off the calories by hitting the shops. Al’s Butik (at Al Johnson’s) carries both traditional and modern Swedish clogs, clothing and gifts. At Blue Heron Glass Etching, you can nab etched wine glasses, mugs and more, while Tannenbaum Holiday Shop sells gifts and collectibles for Christmas and other holidays. Book a room at Roots, a 1902 inn listed on the National Register of Historic Places.The inn is steps from the beach,yet in a secluded pocket of land. Plated breakfasts are served each morning.
Sitting along the St. Croix River, Hudson is filled with century-old buildings that have been transformed into a wealth of eclectic shops and restaurants. Take the Black Rooster Bistro, tucked into the lower level of Hudson’s historic opera house. It offers fine American cuisine, such as ricotta dumplings, duck breast and shrimp fettuccine. The 715, housed in an 1872 building, sells urban rustic goods.
Stroll along the river and through the “Hudson, Wis.” arch, donated to the city in 1936. The lighted structure once stood on the Wisconsin side of a toll bridge across the St. Croix River, welcoming visitors to the city and state. Afterward, take a guided tour of the Octagon House Museum, which includes an on-site garden and carriage houses. Built in 1855, it’s one of just a handful of eight-sided homes remaining in Wisconsin. You can also sign up for a variety of other local tours, including a Hudson Food Walk, where you’ll sample signature dishes at six spots, and one of the St. Croix River Cruises’ excursions — perhaps its Fajita & Margarita outing. The Hudson Trolley Company also offers tours, including a wine-tasting option and a story-time jaunt, perfect for families.
A wealth of picturesque stone buildings lines downtown Mineral Point, many of which were built well over a century ago by Cornish immigrants who powered the local lead and zinc mines. Today, many have been transformed into restaurants, inns and shops. The Commerce Street Brewery & Hotel, built in 1854 as a warehouse, today is a European-styled brewery offering sharable plates, like Korean beef tacos and Nashville fried-chicken sliders. Five posh guest rooms are tucked upstairs. At the Walker House, constructed in 1836, your stay includes access to a Cornish pub, which sports a wood burning stone fireplace and table shaped like a Cornish pasty.
The town is also home to Pendarvis, a Wisconsin State Historic Site. Pendarvis contains additional stone buildings constructed in the early 1800s, plus remnants of the town’s mining past, including mining shafts and an ore mill foundation. Spend some time here, then check out the city’s wealth of galleries and specialty shops. Brewery Pottery Studio sells pottery crafted in-house, plus works from more than 250 different artists, both local and regional. At The Mineral Point Gallery, you can browse through the folk art and fine art created by more than 50 artists of diverse backgrounds.