Some might say Wisconsin is your average state: 20th highest population; 23rd in square miles; 30th to join the union, generally inoffensive across the board. Not a lot of buzz escapes the state, either, leaving most of us thinking about cheese, farming, and the Green Bay Packers if we’re thinking of Wisconsin at all. Well, we would like to bring the buzz, because nothing is average about Wisconsin. In fact, we would say The Badger State is probably the most underrated of all fifty United States, and we cannot wait to tell you about the many incredible things to do in Wisconsin
Wisconsin is pastoral from east to west, boasting picturesque farms for hundreds of miles in all directions. The bucolic beauty of it is undeniable, making Wisconsin a hidden treasure of the United States.
We are going to highlight four specific regions of the state: Door County, the Dells, the Great River Road, and Lake Superior.
Most folks have heard of Milwaukee. Perhaps it is the only place in the state that rings familiar. While the good things to do in Wisconsin include those found in Milwaukee, we will not feature the city in this article. There is just too much beauty to be found outside of a middling metropolis.
And peruse farmers’ markets in the afternoon. One weekend you might find yourself kayaking in glacial caves, and the next you could be driving one of the nation’s most scenic highways, or visiting the home of America’s most famous architect. And when you’re done with all of that you can polar plunge in the largest freshwater lake on earth, or splash in America’s largest waterpark.
Wisconsin might seem average. We’re here to tell you its anything but average. We hope you enjoy learning about all the incredible things to do in Wisconsin as much as we did experiencing them.
The Apostle Islands should be a National Park, but they’ll settle for being a Nat’l. Lakeshore. Found off the Wisconsin shores of Lake Superior, this archipelago of 22 islands is the gem of America’s Dairyland. Explore sea caves by boat or kayak in the summer, and hike through the ice caves in the winter.
Al Johnson had a good idea: Put sod on the roof of his restaurant and employ a herd of goats to manicure it. Every visitor to Sister Bay gawks at the peculiar sight, and after taking a few photos they mosey into the gift shop to drop a little coin. You’re a genius, Mr. Johnson. He’s even scheduled an annual “Roofing of the Goats” parade and ceremony where he swaps out the goats.
If you want to learn more about things to do in Door County, check out our Complete Guide.
Madeline Island is the largest of the Apostle Islands and the only island with ferry access ($$). Big Bay State Park is the best place to visit once you’re there. Be sure to drive tout to Big Bay Point, and from there enjoy a stroll along the red sandstone shoreline all the way to the beach. The town of La Pointe has enough shops to keep you entertained for an hour or two.
When it comes to hallowed sporting venues in the United States of America, Lambeau has very few peers: Fenway Park, Wriggly Field, and that’s about it. The facility is grand and beautiful, and The Tour is fantastic. You can easily spend a day doing all the Packer things around the stadium. Everyone must visit the Mecca in their lifetime. Even Dallas Cowboy fans pay fealty at Lambeau Field.
Alex Jordan was a college grad struggling to find motivation. He bought a piece of property with a tall, rocky tower and built himself a small residence at the highest point. In 1959, folks in the community took notice, and a short while later he was giving $0.25 tours. By the 1970’s, Jordan was clearing $100K monthly and investing every dime back into ever-growing cathedral. What we are left with today is a one-of-a-kind museum packed with collections and creations that blow the mind.
It would be a shame to visit Door County and not take the ferry to Washington Island. It is a pleasant boat ride, short but eventful, with scenery galore, (although outrageously expensive). Once you are loosed on Washington island the possibilities are numerous. Most folk head to Schoolhouse Beach and skip rocks (yup, skip rocks). The Albatross Drive-In has delicious burgers and fries — we wouldn’t skip it. Art galleries, gift shops, and markets are abundant — Washington island is a fine place to wander.
Noah’s Ark is the largest waterpark in the USA. The park features two wave pools, a water coaster (Black Anaconda — a must-do), two lazy rivers, an assortment of water thrill rides (Scorpions Tail, Time Warp), and about a hundred waterslides. The Ark makes for great family fun, but be sure to buy your tickets online ahead of time. Gate admission pricing is set to anger.
Few, if any, architects have reached the level of renown achieved by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Over the course of his 70-year career, he designed over 1,000 homes, schools, offices, and other structures, of which 532 were actualized. His most notable works are: Falling Water, the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, the Marin County Civic Center, and his Taliesin and Taliesin West residences. Taliesin is his childhood home-turned-architect school in Spring Green, WI.
Devil’s Lake is the most visited state park in the state of Wisconsin. Not only is this the perfect summertime retreat to put the boat in the water, but the hiking all around the lake is fantastic. Treat yourself to breathtaking vistas and rock formations (like the above Devil’s Doorway), as you ascend and descend the trails circumnavigating the lake. Be aware the crowds are formidable and parking is limited.
Of all the places we visited, this one surprised us the most. Cave County Point Park and Whitefish Dunes S.P. offer incredible lakeside views with teal water and interesting cliff formations. The parks are next door neighbors, located south of Bailey’s Harbor on the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula (MAP).
A Little Advice…
Parking at Cave Point County Park is free while there is an entrance fee at Whitefish Dunes. Park at Cave Point and enjoying the sensational shoreline stroll between the parks, for free!
One of the best things to do in Wisconsin is to take a boat ride on the Wisconsin River through the Dells. The Dells is a stunning gorge carved out by ancient glaciers in middle-Wisconsin. Dells Boat Tours have been giving tours on the river for decades. Tours run from mid-March to mid-November. You can choose between the upper and lower Dells — the upper includes a hike into Witch’s Gulch, a highlight.
Wisconsin’s preeminent botanical garden is found in Madison. At Olbrich Botanical Gardens you can stroll through 16 acres of outdoor display gardens and an indoor, tropical conservatory. One of the outdoor garden highlights is the above pictured Thai Pavilion. Other highlights include: The Rose Garden, Perennial Garden, Sunken Garden, Herb Garden, and our personal favorite, the Tower Garden.
Cave of the Mounds was accidentally discovered on August 4, 1939, when workers from a limestone quarry blasted into the underground caverns. The caves are less than 50′ deep and 1/3 of a mile long, and it doesn’t take long to see it all. What makes the Cave of the Mounds one of the best things to do in Wisconsin is there are no barriers separating you from the ornamental features of the cave. Get as close as you like to the stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, and cave bacon — very few caves allow this.
Along with the goats, most people mention Peninsula State Park when Door County comes up in conversation. The is a popular place for golf, kayaking, boat tours, camping, and hiking. A famous lighthouse, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, is found on the tip of the headland. Nicolet Beach is popular for water sports and sunbathing. The park has a great location, too, wedged between Fish Creek and Ephraim.
If you’re coming to Wisconsin, Door County is a must. Read about it HERE.
Fish Creek is one of the best towns in Door County. Here you will find an assortment of gift shops, candy stores, art galleries, and charismatic restaurants, all along a picturesque street. Be sure to stop at Not Licked Yet Frozen Custard! We plan on staying here on our next visit because of the town’s charm and central location. If you’re looking for something less touristy than Sister Bay, Fish Creek has much to offer.
Egg Harbor also has an assortment of shops, parlors, and restaurants, plus a large grocery store (the best we found on the peninsula). Egg Harbor tends to sprawl, which makes it feel less organized than the Fish Creek. We think its in the same tier, nonetheless, and consider it a premium spot to base your vacay. Harbor View Park in lends big views of the marina. One Barrel Brewing is a great place to eat.
Because farmer markets are the lifeblood of Door County WI, we won’t be remiss to mention them as top things to do. Wood Orchard Market has an excellent selection of jams, jellies, salsas, and all things cherry. Lauterbachs Orchard Country Market has more of the same, with a focus on wine. Be sure to test your cherry spitting’ mettle at Lauterbachs — the pits are free in the wine shop.
Seaquist Orchards Farm Market is one of, if not THE largest farmer market in Door County. Are you looking for cherry corn salsa? How about a 20-lb bag of frozen cherries? Maybe a garden gnome sitting on a cherry? Or a sign that says, “Thank you Cherry Much”? These farmer markets are all along the highways. It is our recommendation that you visit them all because, why the hell not?
State Street in Madison, Wisconsin runs between the University of Wisconsin campus and the capitol building for less than a mile. At one end of the street you can enjoy a vibrant college campus. Be sure to stop at the Memorial Union Terrace and enjoy the lakeside view. On the other end you can tour the beautiful Capitol of Wisconsin building. In between are hundreds of shops, taverns, and restaurants. State Street is a lively place and strolling here is one of the best things to do in Wisconsin.
We’ve met a lot of friendly people in our travels, and perhaps the friendliest of them all were in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The town rests along a particularly dramatic and beautiful stretch of the Mississippi River. Not only will you find wonderful people in La Crosse, but an assortment of fun activities, like the International Friendship Gardens, Riverside Park, the Dahl Auto Museum, Mount La Crosse, and the Great River Road.
Wisconsin’s Great River Road travels along the Mississippi River through more than 33 historic towns and villages. The road begins Prescott, Wisconsin southeast of Minneapolis, and continues 250 miles to Potosi, Wisconsin near the Illinois border. All in all, this National Scenic Byway follows the Mississippi for 3,000 miles across ten states. The Wisconsin/Minnesota potion is arguably the most beautiful.
Between Baraboo and Wisconsin Dells is Mirror Lake State Park, a 2200 acre park with a lake and cliffside hiking trails. The famous Ishnala Supper Club is a lodge-style, fine-dining restaurant nestled in the trees above an intimate lakeside setting. A well-established institution in the state of Wisconsin, Ishnala is popular and forms a line long enough to fill every table in the restaurant before opening. It’s not the end of the world if you have to wait for a table — just pull up a chair on the beach!
Copper River State Park: The park features three scenic waterfalls on the Tyler Forks and Bad rivers, with other natural attractions that include canyons, gorges, streams, and a beach (map).
Harley Davidson Museum (Milwaukee): An unrivaled collection of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and memorabilia on two floors of exhibits on a 20-acre, park-like campus with shopping and dining.
Mitchell Park Domes: Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, better known as The Domes, is a living museum filled with plants from across the globe.
Milwaukee Art Museum: 30,000 works of art. 400,000+ visitors a year. 125 years of collecting art.
Wisconsin impressed us with its pastoral beauty and natural variety. The Apostle Islands and Door County are the crown jewels, for sure, but there is much to see, and many things to do, in Wisconsin.
If you appreciate lakes, rivers, and beautiful state parks, your time will be spent well in Wisconsin. Perhaps you’ve yet to find appreciation for farms, farmland, and fields of crops. We understand. Nonetheless, prepare to have your mind changed, even if you’re only passing through on Interstate-90. Wisconsin is home to the most beautiful farmland in the USA.
In our minds we’re keep a list of our favorite states: Hawaii, Texas, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Florida, and the Carolinas. A separate list we keep is the states that have surprised us, places like Wisconsin, New Mexico, Missouri, and South Dakota.
We’ve found that when we gush about Wisconsin people form curious expressions. Apparently no one is considering Wisconsin for much of anything, which is fine with us. But the next time you’re looking for somewhere to go, and you’re tired of the same, old, places — the crowded, overhyped, played-out places — perhaps give Wisconsin a chance. The world will be better for you having done it.
Thank you for stopping by to learn about all the incredible things to do in Wisconsin! We hope it has been worthwhile for you. Feel free to leave a comment, and be sure to get our Free E-Book packed with stories, tips, and ideas for travel. As always, travel happy and God bless!
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