Hikes, beers and (yes) cheese: the best things to do in Wisconsin

Hikes, beers and (yes) cheese: the best things to do in Wisconsin

Every summer, Wisconsin overflows with festivals and fairs – like the State Fair, held in Milwaukee © Matt Anderson Photography / Getty Images

Whether you’re heading to the Badger State for fun and sun during the summer festival season or looking forward to winter hiking and cross-country skiing, Wisconsin has you covered.

Warm-weather fans will find plenty of outdoor music and culture festivals to keep them busy, while colder months are a great time to explore nature, museums and the state’s famous food scene. Regardless of when you visit, Wisconsin promises to show you a good time.  

While it wasn’t easy to pare down all this state has to offer, here are our picks for the best things to do in Wisconsin.

Catch an outdoor concert 

Come summer, Wisconsin hims with the sound of live music.

The state’s most famous music event is Summerfest, a 10-day outdoor concert series in Milwaukee that features dozens of performances each day. Lesser-known local groups and bands that were big in previous decades perform on small stages around the Summerfest grounds, while huge international acts fill up the on-site Marcus Amphitheater. From rock and hip-hop to country and bluegrass, the vast lineup has something  for every music lover. Outside of Summerfest dates, outdoor concerts take place at Marcus Amphitheater all summer and fall. Check out the upcoming lineup and plan your trip around a favorite band.

About 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee, the city of Elkhorn plays host to another outdoor music favorite, Alpine Valley Music Theater. The outdoor venue can accommodate up to 37,000 people in its reserved seats and on its first-come-first-serve lawn area. Country-music lovers should look out for the Hodag Country Festival, where 25,000 campers head to the northern part of the state for camping and country music, while bluegrass lovers should check out Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire. In central Wisconsin, Rock Fest is set on 360 acres of land and is the largest rock and camping festival in the country. Large and mid-size cities across the entire state also hold free weekly outdoor concerts at city parks and botanical gardens during the summer.

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Hit up one of the state’s festivals

Some of the best-known festivals in Wisconsin also take place on the Summerfest grounds, in the heart of Milwaukee. On non-Summerfest weekends in summer and fall, you’ll find food truck festivals and events celebrating the city’s culture and ethnic diversity, including festivities for the city’s Mexican, African, Irish, German and LGBTIQ+ communities. The Wisconsin State Fair, also held in Milwaukee, is a massive festival that takes place every August and features food, music, rides and entertainment for couples, groups and families. In Madison, head to Brat Fest, which has been going strong for 40 years – and where attendees consume 200,000 brats in a single weekend every year.

Hikes, beers and (yes) cheese: the best things to do in Wisconsin

Wisconsinites would argue that you can only get a true cream puff at the Wisconsin State Fair © Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock

Indulge in the state’s official desserts

Depending whom you ask, Wisconsin’s official state dessert is one of two things: cream puffs or kringle. While you can technically find the former in bakeries and supermarkets year-round, the real deal can only be sampled at the Wisconsin State Fair in August. Kringle, on the other hand, can be found every single day of the year, mostly at supermarkets and bakeries. Racine, Wisconsin is the kringle capital of the country; even if you can’t squeeze in a day or two to explore the city (which we highly recommend), you’ll still find authentic, Racine-baked kringle all over southeastern Wisconsin.

Enjoy a day at the beach

Thanks to over 800 miles of Great Lakes coastline and 200 miles of Mississippi River shoreline – not to mention the state’s 15,000 lakes – Wisconsin has a huge number of wonderful beaches. From the urban beaches in Milwaukee to tiny beaches in front of cozy cabins in the Northwoods, you’re sure to find a stretch of sand to relax on no matter where you find yourself in the state.

Hikes, beers and (yes) cheese: the best things to do in Wisconsin

Known as “Brew City,” Milwaukee has a proud tradition of beer brewing – which continues to this day at the giant Miller Brewery © Nina Alizada / Shutterstock

Take a brewery tour – and sample freely 

If there were a contest for the official Wisconsin state drink, there would be a tie between a glass of milk and a pint of beer. Milwaukee is nationally famous as the “Brew City” (its baseball team is the Milwaukee Brewers, after all), so you’ll find a huge number of breweries offering tours here, including Pabst Brewery, MobCraft, Lakefront Brewery, Miller Brewing and Milwaukee Brewing Company.

In college town and state capital Madison, the huge number of breweries includes Capital Brewery (one of the oldest), and the female-, LGBTIQ-owned Giant Jones Brewing Company. There’s even a dedicated gluten-free brewery and tap room, ALT Brew. While you’ll find the most breweries in the state’s two largest cities, rest assured that you’ll find great beer (and breweries) all over the state, from the New Glarus Brewing Company in southern part of the state to Sand Creek Brewing Company in Black River Falls. Serious beer lovers can even plan a visit along the state’s Brew Trail.

Eat some cheese 

Since Wisconsin’s unofficial nickname is the Dairy State, and since its residents lovingly call themselves “cheeseheads,” you’d do well to sample some of the state’s most famous culinary product. While you’ll find especially large selections at places like the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha, you’ll find great cheese anywhere and everywhere in the state. Specialty stores, cheese emporiums, small roadside stands and supermarkets all sell great cheese; you’ll even find cheese curds in bulk at some gas stations. True cheese connoisseurs should head to Milwaukee for the fine selection at the West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe and Wisconsin Cheese Mart, and to Madison, where Fromagination is your go-to spot.

Go for a hike

Whether you’re looking for an easy family-friendly jaunt in a city park or an epic multi-day backpacking trip, you’ll find fantastic hiking all over Wisconsin. Hiking is a year-round activity here, and each season has its own unique appeal. Spring hikers are treated to wildflowers, while summer wanderers can enjoy nature in full bloom; autumn excursions promise fabulous fall foliage everywhere in the state. Snow-covered pine plantations are especially picturesque in winter, when trails also tend to be less crowded (just be sure to bundle up).

Hikes, beers and (yes) cheese: the best things to do in Wisconsin

Across Wisconsin, bicyclists can ride thousands of miles of former railroad lines converted to bike trails © Dave Jonasen / iStockphoto / Getty Images

Cycle on one of the state’s rail trails 

Former railroad rights-of-way that have been converted into car-free bicycle and pedestrian paths, rail trails date to the 1960s – and Wisconsin was one of the first states to embrace the idea in the 34-mile Elroy Sparta State Trail. The state now boasts nearly 2000 miles of trails, ranging  from Milwaukee’s urban Beerline Trail, which runs along an old freight route and connects city parks and popular breweries, to the 52-mile Heart of Vilas County Bike Trail System near the Michigan border in northern Wisconsin. Ambitious riders could tackle the ride in a single day, though since you’ll also find plenty of picnic spots, swimming holes, campgrounds and motels along the route, we recommend taking your time over multiple days.

Spend some time in the Northwoods 

While Milwaukee and Madison in Wisconsin’s Southeast have plenty to offer, to get a true sense of what it’s like to live in Wisconsin one has to visit the remote Northwoods. Going “up north” to a cabin or campsite is a core part of Wisconsin’s culture; visiting the Northwoods means being surrounded by pine trees, smelling campfires at night and looking out onto small lakes and meandering rivers. It’s possible you’ll see a bear, it’s probable you’ll see someone fishing and it’s guaranteed that you’ll see loads of deer. Life is a bit slower and quieter up here. And that’s exactly the appeal.

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