Filling the shells of some of the state’s most historic buildings are hip and chic boutique hotels. With features like a rooftop lounge boasting a bird’s-eye view of Lake Michigan to a private lake for kayaking, the fun begins at check-in — and suddenly spending time outside of the hotel is a less attractive option. Each offers authentic, unique experiences not to be found at other properties and that truly reflect their surroundings, whether its past is in manufacturing or agriculture.


The newest boutique hotel in Wisconsin is Journeyman Hotel, a new-build property snug on a corner in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward, where antique lampposts and century-old brick warehouses line the streets. Open since June, the 158-room hotel is part of the Kimpton brand, which has hotels in urban centers like Chicago, Seattle, Miami and San Francisco. “Top Chef” alum Heather Terhune runs the inhouse eatery, Tre Rivali, where dishes dip into Modern Mediterranean fare and most are prepared in a wood-burning oven. Like other Kimpton hotels, the property is dog friendly and all guests can easily practice yoga in their rooms thanks to a provided mat and a yoga channel streamed through the television set. But what’s really snagged the attention of many is the hotel’s ninth-floor rooftop lounge, The Outsider. In a city where rooftop spaces are rare, it’s a true gem, flaunting views of Lake Michigan (just a few blocks away) and the downtown-Milwaukee skyline. The hotel also is a nod to the neighborhood’s craftsman past, as echoed by the nearby Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and the many art galleries. Local artists were tapped to display their pieces throughout the hotel, and guests can further explore the arts scene by borrowing one of the PUBLIC bicycles for free. Another complimentary perk is morning coffee and tea service, followed by a hosted wine hour each evening.


In the state capital across the street from Camp Randall (home to University of Wisconsin Badger football games), HotelRED opened to huge acclaim in 2012. Like Journeyman Hotel, the ground-floor restaurant (The Wise Restaurant & Bar) is a hot spot for locals and guests alike. Serving daily breakfast and dinner, as well as weekend brunch, the comfort-foods-driven menu — which rotates with the seasons — culls from local farms, and plays with the palate. Items on the spring menu included charred cauliflower with cocoa nibs, almonds, golden raisins and candied lemon; and ricotta gnocchi mingling wild mushrooms, peas, asparagus, leeks and manchego cheese. Each of the 48 suite’s contemporary design is punched up by shades of red and original art, and their size above average, with a kitchenette (includes a refrigerator, stove and dishware), soaking tub and private balcony. To heighten the experience, guests can tack on add-ons, such as chocolate-covered strawberries or a tray of local artisan cheeses, waiting in the suite upon arrival. Dogs are encouraged here as the property is very pet-friendly.


For those looking for a stay in a small town, but not without compromising on luxury amenities, two sister properties in Lake Geneva are poised to deliver, whether it’s a romantic escape or a girlfriends’ getaway. As historic properties, Baker House is within an ornate Victorian dating back to 1885 and Maxwell Mansion, built in 1856, is celebrated as Lake Geneva’s first mansion. Just two blocks from Lake Geneva, Maxwell Mansion offers two lodging options: five uniquely decorated rooms in an historic mansion filled with antiques, or the more modernized Carriage House (whirlpool tubs for-two and chromatherapy are two pampering features in the 26 suites) and Stable Suites (peek-a-boo showers are one of the design features behind its barn-like Dutch doors). There are cozy little spots to have a drink, too, such as the Apothecary Bar, a parlor dubbed Cognac Lounge, outside by the fire and an underground speakeasy.

Afternoon tea is served at Baker House complete with the staff dressed in Victorian outfits, followed by a house tour. Cocktails and small plates are served nightly in summer (to the tune of live music Thursday and Friday), and from Thursday through Saturday in the off seasons. Each of the four rooms exudes elegance and is different from one another, from the Versailles Turret suite (a canopied bed and a sitting room in a private turret) to the Bordeaux Premier room (a fireplace and Victrola-turned sink are two swoon-worthy design perks), each is luxurious.


Clear across the state, up in the North Woods, Canoe Bay near Chetek channels similar charm. Built on the grounds of a former church camp, this lakefront collection of cottages — the state’s only member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group — blends luxury (meals of lobster and wine, for example) with laid-back activities like kayaking and fishing. It’s been open since 1993 but has continually evolved. Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégé John Rattenbury designed his namesake Rattenbury Cottage, with a 14-foot stone fireplace and cantilevered deck overlooking the lake, as well as the Edgewood Villa (2,000 square feet plus a 1,500-square-foot wraparound deck) but there are also options to stay in the inn or in smaller  cottages. All guests have access to a gorgeous  A-frame building housing the library, stocked with thousands of books, many of which are new releases. Other on-property activities are in-room massages and — come winter — snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.


Two mid-size cities in Wisconsin have welcomed boutique hotels in recent years — La Crosse and Beloit. The 67-room Charmant Hotel (charmant means “charming” in French) debuted in September of 2015 as La Crosse’s first independent luxury hotel. Inside a former candy factory (the 107-year-old Joseph B. Funke Candy Company), the space has been built out into a chic spot.  Totaling five stories, the top floor is a wrap-around deck boasting Mississippi River views — and pizzas prepared in wood-burning ovens. Wisconsin’s own Kickapoo Coffee Roasters serves its brewed Fair Trade andorganic coffee on property. The Parlour is popular with guests and locals alike, its vintage furnishings and fireside setting the perfect spot to enjoy a pastry (an extensive selection is available on-site). On the first floor is a Frenchinspired restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus weekend brunch. A commitment to sourcing from local farms — including greens, cheese and vegetables — translates to regional accents on dishes like octopus, branzino and lamb’s neck. Rooms are rich in history, with reclaimed maple floors, exposed brick walls, lofted ceilings and beams.

In 2014, Ironworks Hotel opened in downtown Beloit on the banks of the Rock River as a nod to the Dairy State’s industrial past. At the restaurant’s eatery, Merrill & Houston’s Steak, vintage photos of Beloit are framed and hung on the walls. Six signature cuts of steak are on the menu, including 18-ounce rib eye, and the seafood dishes are top-notch whether it’s Duck L’Orange, lobster tails flown in from Australia or Shrimp Scampi. Keurig coffee makers are in each of the rooms, with wood walls stained a warm hue or exposed brick. Some, particularly the suites, have a two-way fireplace, soaking tub and rainforest shower, ensuring that no traveler leaves without a little bit of pampering.

This article originally appeared in the 2016 fall/winter 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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Kristine Hansen is a freelance writer who calls Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood home.