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There’s so much more to the Badger State than beer, brats and cheese (not that there’s anything wrong with those—we love all three). But venture off the Dairy State’s main highways and you’ll find some of Wisconsin‘s most charming little hamlets, offering up intriguing small-scale art scenes, incredible farm-to-table dining, entertaining oddball festivals and beautiful encounters with nature. Give these small Wisconsin towns and the surrounding areas a try, either as worthwhile weekend destinations or quick springs from big Midwestern cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee or Minneapolis.

Related: Top 9 things heard on family road trips – and how to deal


Trempealeau | Flickr CC: Joshua Mayer

1. Trempealeau

Situated right on the Mississippi River and surrounded by tributaries, inland lakes, and nature parks, Trempealeau is the home base of an outdoorsy paradise for both water freaks and landlubbers. There’s scenic biking along the Great River Trail, camping with views of limestone bluffs in nearby Perrot State Park, and excellent bird-watching and other opportunities to observe the local fauna at the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. After your exertions, slake your thirst at the award-winning Elmaro Vineyard, which focuses on Midwest grape varietals, or fill up on the locally and responsibly sourced menu items at the restaurant in the historic Trempealeau Hotel.

Historic Cornish Pendarvis in Mineral Point, Wisconsin

Historic Cornish Pendarvis in Mineral Point, Wisconsin

2. Mineral Point

This pretty town in the southwestern part of the state has become a thriving artists’ colony. The charming English-style stone buildings dotting the countryside and the 19th-century downtown are a legacy of the Cornish miners who settled in the area—which continues today in the cafes and pubs that feature Cornish specialties like pasties and figgyhobbin. But Mineral Point has its contemporary delights, as well, such as a recently restored 100-year-old opera house where you can catch concerts, movies and plays, and plenty of artists’ studios and galleries.

Driftless Cafe, Viroqua | Photo: Dan Howard

Driftless Cafe, Viroqua | Photo: Dan Howard

3. Viroqua

Tiny Viroqua is a great base for exploring the Driftless Area, which is not a wasteland of slackers but a region untouched by glaciers, whichresulted in some pretty dramatic geological features, including caves, underground streams and prehistoric rock formations (experience them in Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Sidie Hollow County Park). The town itself is renowned for stores and restaurants focusing on fresh and local foods, including the farm-to-table Driftless Café and the European-style Viroqua Public Market, where you can find an independent bookstore, antiques and crafts, and a cooperative art gallery. And don’t miss the Farmer’s Market at the Vernon County Fairgrounds: The county boasts the highest concentration of organic farms in the nation, so you’re sure to find some pretty impressive produce here. Other solid options include wine-tasting at Vernon Vineyards and Branches Winery, renting bikes or snowshoes at Bluedog Cycles, and taking advantage of top-notch fly-fishing (check in at the Driftless Angler for lessons and supplies). Visit Viroqua’s web site for more info.

Related: The road trip less traveled: California’s Highway 395

Apostles Island in Bayfield, Wisconson

Apostles Island in Bayfield, Wisconson

4. Bayfield

This picture-perfect lakeside town brings a New England vibe to the coast of Lake Superior. Sail or take a ferry to the Apostle Islands, where you can also explore the spectacular sea caves by kayak. In summer there is barely a weekend without some kind of festival, and plenty of orchards and berry farms to keep you in fresh fruit. In winter you can walk, ski, skate, or drive the ice road from town to Madeline Island. It’s worth it to make time for the Bayfield Maritime Museum, which houses an impressive array of beautiful and historic watercraft.

Washington Island

Washington Island | Flickr CC: Amy Meredith

5. Washington Island

Located six miles from popular vacation spot Door County, this small island settled by Icelandic immigrants has a dairy museum, a lavender farm, the oldest lighthouse in the state, and a beach of smooth polished limestones, one of only five sand-free beaches in the world. The natural beauty and wildlife of Washington Island and the surrounding area attracted the noted economist Thorstein Veblen, whose 1916 cabin is being restored. You can also visit the Stavkirke, or “stave church,” built of wooden posts and pillars in the style of buildings erected inScandinavia during the Middle Ages. It hosts services and is also open to the public for prayer and meditation. Head to Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub and do a shot of bitters—which the original proprietor famously received permission to sell as a “tonic” during Prohibition—to become an official member of the Bitter’s Club, with an actual certificate to prove it.

House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin

House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin | Photo courtesy of Erica Vanderburg

6. Spring Green

Although it’s well known as the home of Taliesin, the estate that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for his personal residence and studios, Spring Green has plenty of additional reasons to visit. The American Players Theatre offers outdoor performances of classics by Shakespeare, Noel Coward, and other noted playwrights in a tree-ringed 1,140-seat amphitheater. Spring Green is also home to the famed House on the Rock, featuring its signature cantilevered lookout attached to a rock by cables and giant bolts. You could spend hours exploring the endless themed rooms of collectibles and curiosities—including the world’s largest indoor carousel and a room full of automated instruments. Of course, no visit to Wisconsin is complete without a traditional Friday fish fry, and Arthur’s Supper Club offers the classic version with beer-battered freshwater bluegill.Still hungry for more? From Spring Green, it’s only about a 35-minute drive to Blue Mounds, where you can see what’s underneath the green, rolling hillsides of the area at the Cave of the Mounds, a meandering limestone cave formation discovered in 1939 that houses “galleries” of dramatic mineral and crystal formations.

Cave of the Mounds in Spring Green

Cave of the Mounds in Spring Green | Wiki CC

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Heather Kenny

Heather Kenny

Heather is a Chicago writer with a serious travel jones. She draws comics occasionally, blogs sporadically, and tweets quite often at @heatherkenny.

6 thoughts on “These are Wisconsin’s most charming small towns to visit”

  1. One of my WORST stays ever was at the Trempeleau Hotel. The “quiet singer-songwriter” that was plugged over the phone when I booked my stay turned out to be a multi-piece ELECTRIC band that played until the wee hours directly under our room (it sounded like they were next to our bed) and then moved the party upstairs and got all huffy when my husband asked them to please be quiet. The hall light shined through the transom ALL NIGHT LONG. I emailed when we got home and basically got blown off with, “You are the only person who has ever complained.” I was so disgusted. I will never go there again. (The area is beautiful though.)

  2. Live in S.D. now and while I love the solitude of the plains, if you’re looking for the solitude of trees and small lakes Wisconsin is the place to be. I once owned a lake cabin over looking a small lake in N.W. Wisc.

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