Must-visit destinations in Wisconsin for festivals, food, foliage and family fun

Must-visit destinations in Wisconsin for festivals, food, foliage and family fun

Northern Wisconsin – or just “up north” – offers remote cabins, millions of acres woods and top-notch fall foliage © Bryan Neuswanger / Shutterstock

A gem of the Great Lakes region, Wisconsin has something for every visitor.

Milwaukee provides the festivals, nightlife and big-city entertainment urban-loving travelers crave, while foodies flock to uber-diverse (and ultra-bikeable) capital city, Madison. Couples and solo travelers have their pick of charming small towns around the state, while families will find plenty of playgrounds and water parks to keep little ones satisfied. Beautiful beaches cover much of the extensive coast along two Great Lakes, while fabulous foliage viewing and countless other outdoorsy opportunities await in every corner of the state.

Here are eight unmissable places to visit in Wisconsin.

Must-visit destinations in Wisconsin for festivals, food, foliage and family fun

Taking in the festive scene at Milwaukee’s Summerfest from above © Sylvia Laughrin Photography / Getty Images

Milwaukee is your go-to town for festivals of all stripes

While Milwaukee is known around the world as Brew City, locals call their hometown the City of Festivals. Perhaps the world’s largest music festival, Summerfest is an annual pillar of the calendar – and Henry Maier Festival Park (colloquially known as “the Summerfest grounds”) hosts massive events just about every weekend in summer and early fall. From food truck parties to cultural events celebrating the city’s Irish, African, German, Mexican and LGBTIQ+ communities, there’s always something going on at the lakefront. Throw in “inland” celebrations like Bastille Days, Anime Milwaukee and the Wisconsin State Fair (don’t leave without trying a cream puff!), and visitors are pretty much guaranteed to find something special going on during their visit.

Wisconsin’s largest and most diverse city also has the best entertainment and nightlife in the state, while its proximity to several interesting places – including Madison, Wisconsin Dells and the Door County Peninsula – make it a great base to explore the region via day trips.

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Must-visit destinations in Wisconsin for festivals, food, foliage and family fun

Wisconsin Dells is known as the “water park capital of the world” © Aaron of L.A. Photography / Shutterstock

Wisconsin Dells offers fabulous options for families

If the kids could pick just one place to go in Wisconsin, most would choose Wisconsin Dells. This town of 3000 is known as “the water park capital of the world” and is home to one of largest in the country, Noah’s Ark. The area bursts with not only outdoor, summer-only water parks, but also indoor ones, too (like the Kalahari Resort), meaning you can take the plunge here even as the temperatures plunge outside. If you visit during summer or fall, be sure to take a one of the Upper Dells river boat tours, which are led by funny, personable guides that can get even “too cool for school” teenagers to smile.

For food, head to funky indoor food truck park Grateful Shed, where kids will fall in love with Fruity Pebble marshmallow ice cream (while adults might get excited about the snazzy grilled cheese sandwiches). Both Mirror Lake State Park and Devil’s Lake State Park have year-round hiking fit for families, plus kayaking and canoeing during summer and fall months.

Foodies should flock to Madison

You can’t miss out on Wisconsin beer and cheese. And if you really love food, you can’t miss out on Madison, a college town (and the state capital) with more than its fair share of hard-to-find cuisines. Dig into Laotian red curry noodles at Lao Laan-Xang, snack on Taiwanese street food and sip bubble tea at Taiwan Little Eats and munch on momos at Little Tibet. Indulge in beer-battered cheese curds (a Wisconsin delicacy that doesn’t taste quite right in any other state) and the state’s official cocktail, a Brandy Old Fashioned, at The Old Fashioned tavern and restaurant. Oh, and for what might be the best artisan cheese in the state, hit up Fomagination – then grab a beer at Capital Brewery, one of the oldest craft breweries in the country. 

You’ll find a bit of everything on the Door County Peninsula

Known as the Cape Cod of the Midwest, Door County is a hugely popular weekend getaway destination for couples, families, groups of friends and solo travelers from all over the Midwest for two reasons: it’s gorgeous, and provides something new to discover on every (repeat) visit. Warm-weather weekends are the most crowded (followed by autumn weekends, popular with leaf peepers) – so try to plan your trip mid-week to avoid the crowds.

The 300 miles of shoreline on the 70-mile peninsula make it a great destination for swimmers, kayakers and even scuba divers, while its proximity to Whitefish Dunes State Park, Peninsula State Park, Newport State Park and Rock Island State Park (which can only be reached by ferry), offer top-notch opportunities for hiking, stargazing and camping.

Must-visit destinations in Wisconsin for festivals, food, foliage and family fun

Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula is known by many as the Cape Cod of the Midwest © Timothy Mulholland / Alamy Stock Photo

Expect a secret spot for an ideal weekend getaway at Stevens Point

Stevens Point isn’t well known (yet) by out-of-state travelers – and that’s a good thing. One of Wisconsinites’ favorite undiscovered spots promises good food, great trails and unique entertainment, all without the crowds. Stop by Ruby Colorful Coffees for the best maple latte anywhere, walk over to the 175-year-old farmers market a few blocks away, then take a stroll (or bike ride) along the 27-mile Green Circle Trail as it glides along the waterfront and passes through forests, parks and wetlands. Twenty-five minutes from town is Lonely Oaks Farm, which hosts a delightful brunch each Sunday from Mother’s Day through Halloween. And 45 minutes away is the Jurustic Park sculpture park, an outdoor museum with prehistoric-inspired sculptures fashioned from scrap metal, old beer cans and bicycle parts.

Wisconsin’s Driftless Area lets you experience river life

Hugging the southwestern border of the state, Wisconsin’s Driftless Area is known for its mixture of restored prairies, wildlife-rich wetlands and dense forests. It’s popular with bicyclists, motorcyclists and road trippers, who head for the 250-mile Wisconsin Great River Road, the state’s only National Scenic Byway. Complementing the small and mid-size cities that dot the southeastern part of Wisconsin and the tiny towns and backcountry wilderness that cover the northern part of the state, this stretch of 33 small river towns along the mighty Mississippi River offers a glimpse at a style of life not usually associated with the Midwest. Be sure to spend an afternoon at the Potosi Brewing Company, where you’ll find great beer and brewery tours, as well as a brewery museum, transportation museum and the Great River Road Interpretive Center (admission is free).

Must-visit destinations in Wisconsin for festivals, food, foliage and family fun

To Wisconsinites, going “up north” means enjoying a bit nature, no matter the time of year © KAThoms / Shutterstock

See stupendous fall foliage in Northern Wisconsin (or just “up north”)

Going “up north” is a thing in Wisconsin – a huge thing. And it’s synonymous with relaxing in a cabin, tent or RV to enjoy a bit of nature. While northern Wisconsin makes for a beautiful getaway any time of year, autumn is an especially stunning season, as the dense forests and wilderness areas light up in brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow. You can’t go wrong with any up-north destination, though we find Minocqua and Eagle River (near the Michigan border) particularly pretty. The area also has bountiful hiking, camping, kayaking and boating opportunities, with the pristine 1.5 million-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest easily accessible.

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