14 Top-Rated Small Towns in Wisconsin
Author Anietra Hamper has spent a lot of time in Wisconsin exploring the outdoors and the many charming small towns that make visiting the state unique.
So much of Wisconsin's charm can be attributed to the hundreds of small towns that exist between the highways that connect the big cities like Madison, Green Bay, and Wisconsin Dells. These small towns get their charm because chain stores do not exist, and village festivals happen for almost any reason.
These towns are the living extensions of the natural beauty that surrounds Wisconsin, from the dense forests in the Northwoods to the limestone cliffs and Lake Michigan, which fill out the borders of the Door County peninsula.
You can find wonderful places to visit in tranquil old-fashioned resort villages like Elkhart Lake, towns along the Cranberry Highway in Stevens Point, small roadways that pass lavender fields on Washington Island, and at points along the Ice Age Trail in Janesville.
Pack the car and a picnic basket and head out to explore, with our list of the best small towns in Wisconsin.
1. Sturgeon Bay
The tiny community of Sturgeon Bay is the largest town in Door County, the peninsula of Wisconsin surrounded by the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan. The town's character is rooted in its maritime and shipbuilding history.
Start your visit at the Maritime Museum to learn about Door County's contribution of NAVY ships during World War II. Spend an afternoon touring one or all of the three lighthouses in Sturgeon bay at Sherwood Point, Sturgeon Bay Canal Station, and North Pierhead. Walk down to the Michigan Street bridge and see the many types of ships and tugboats that frequent the port.
Fishing is central to the Sturgeon Bay community, so enjoying a traditional fish boil or dining in an authentic Supper Club will make you feel like a local. Check out the boutiques and shops in the three quaint shopping districts on the West Side, Jefferson Street, and Third Avenue, where you will find unique arts and gifts.
One of the most spectacular places to stop in Sturgeon Bay is Cave Point County Park. It is a small community park with trails that lead to picturesque jagged limestone cliffs overlooking Lake Michigan. You will spot kayakers below looking for the underwater caves that define the area, as it is one of the best kayaking locations in Door County. Hikers and photographers also take advantage of this pristine and unique landscape.
Spend your evenings watching the sunset at Sunset Park or nearby Potawatomi State Park where you can enjoy the preserved natural landscape of the area. You can stay at a lodge like the Bay Shore Inn, which is located right on the waterfront and is close to all the things to do.
2. Elkhart Lake
The resort town of Elkhart Lake is set in the middle of Kettle Moraine State Forest with the clear lake as the centerpiece of the community. Water activities are the top draw to Elkhart Lake, besides rest and relaxation, making it one of the best lakes in Wisconsin to visit.
Kayak on the lake on a guided ecology tour or learn how to go fly fishing. Rent a hydro-bike, paddleboard, or even a pontoon boat for the day to explore the magical lake at your leisure. Spend an afternoon at Fireman's Park and Beach, which is great for families, or you can take a walk on one of the paved trails at Jeanette Moioffer Park or June Vollrath Park.
Health and wellness are central in Elkhart Lake, so you can schedule some spa time at the Aspira Spa or get outdoors for running or biking on the Four Miles of Fitness trail. Dining will likely be a special part of your visit, so be sure to experience some of the local restaurants serving farm-to-table cuisine.
Lodging on Elkhart Lake does not get more elegant than at the historic Ostoff Resort, built in 1885 and still serving vacationers with its all-suite hotel located on the waterfront.
Read More: Best Beaches in Wisconsin
Spend a day in Janesville, a quaint town with a lot to do. Explore several locations listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Lincoln-Tallman House and the hexagon-shaped Milton House, which was a stop along the Underground Railroad.
Plan some time in the award-winning Rotary Botanical Gardens that have more than 24 types of gardens and more than 4,000 types of plants. Fresh air is easy to find in Janesville on a bike trail or on one of several golf courses in town.
Hike on part of the Ice Age Trail that runs through Janesville and tackle a popular section called Devil's Staircase, which is actually quite enjoyable, although the name gives it a more aggressive reputation. If it is raining, you can hit your golf balls at the Ironworks Golf Lab.
For some relaxation, catch a water ski show on the Rock River by the Rock Aqua Jays water ski show team, noted as the best water ski show in the world.
4. Lake Geneva
Lake Geneva is the kind of classic small town that is loved for its boutiques and cafes with the elegance of an old-world resort village. It is hard to miss the stunning mansions located around the lake, and you could spend an entire afternoon walking around just to see them. You will find some of the top luxury resorts in Wisconsin located around the lake, too.
If sightseeing some of the local mansions is on the agenda, your starting point can be at the Black Point Estate and Gardens, which you can tour to see how affluent families vacationed in the late 1800s. Then, plan a stop at the Ten Chimneys estate for a tour of the home that was made famous by Broadway notables Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
Some of the best experiences in Lake Geneva are outdoors. Take a zipline tour through the forest with Lake Geneva Zipline Tours or kick back on a boat tour of Lake Geneva as you soak in your surroundings.
You can also just plan some beach time on Lake Geneva, which is one of the most popular pastimes. The Grand Geneva Resort and Spa is a luxury resort in town with two golf courses, a full-service spa, and horseback riding in addition to unmatched views of the lake.
Accommodation: Best Resorts in Lake Geneva
Read More: Top-Rated Romantic Getaways in Wisconsin
5. Sister Bay
Sister Bay has one of the best waterfronts in Door County, making it a great small town to visit for some Wisconsin water sports. You can rent kayaks and stand up paddleboards from local outfitters or take guided kayak tours of the lighthouses and caves in the area.
The area has quite a few historical experiences, from the restored 1800s farm buildings at the Corner of the Past Historical Museum to the Death's Door Maritime Museum, which chronicles the area's commercial fishing history. For a day on the water, you can take a trip on a tall ship with Sail Door County out of the Sister Bay marina.
No visit to Sister Bay is complete without a visit to Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant. The restaurant has been a staple in Sister Bay since 1949, known for the live goats eating grass from the rooftop. Go hungry to enjoy large portions of Swedish delicacies like Swedish pancakes with lingonberries.
The town of Stockholm only has a population of 78, so on any given day there are likely more tourists passing through than residents, but parking the car and staying to visit a day is worth it. The town originated as a stopping point for Scandinavian immigrants heading to western Wisconsin in the mid-1800s, so you will see the Swedish influence, including its name.
The arts scene is big in the town, with a number of galleries and boutique shops that showcase craftsmanship, like the Adobe Gallery and Ingebretsen's.
You can take the Fresh Art Tour through Stockholm and visit artists in neighboring Pierce and Pepin counties as you see some of the picturesque countryside. You might also just want to walk around Stockholm and casually enjoy the small eateries and cafés.
Make sure to visit the Stockholm Pie & General Store for a slice of homemade pie made from scratch before you head out of town.
7. Stevens Point
Stevens Point is such a fun small town to visit because it is in the heart of the cranberry industry in Wisconsin. The air smells like cranberry, and during the fall (late September through late October) the brilliant blaze of red color in the cranberry orchards is a stunning sight.
Starting in Stevens Point, take a self-guided tour along Wisconsin's Cranberry Highway, which stretches for 50 miles, taking you past cranberry beds that have operated in the region for more than a century.
The downtown area is fun to explore, especially at the Stevens Point Farmers Market, a two-block market on Main Street where you can buy fresh-from-the-farm produce the way locals have done since 1847.
It is one of the longest-running markets in Wisconsin and fun to browse. If you want to enjoy the area's rich outdoor scene, take a walk or bike trip along the Green Circle Trail, which runs along the Wisconsin River. This trail will take you past wetlands, rivers, and several parks where you will see remnants of the area's history.
8. Eagle River
While the natural scenery throughout Wisconsin is stunning, some of the most tranquil opportunities are in Eagle River and surrounding communities in Vilas County in the Northwoods region of the state. Eagle River is the county seat known for having the largest chain of lakes in the world.
Most of the lodging in Eagle River is cabins and lodges, making you a part of the nature that defines the area and adding a special peacefulness to the visit. Due to the many lakes in the area, fishing is a popular pastime. The chain of connected waterways along Eagle River makes it one of the top fishing lakes in Wisconsin, especially for the prized musky.
Another favorite pastime in Eagle River is just sitting quietly by the water and enjoying the candy-colors of sunrise or making friends around a bonfire in the evening. For the full Eagle River experience, you should plan an evening of fine dining at one of the area's traditional Supper Clubs.
Eagle River has a number of festivals during the year that are nice to see if they time right with your visit. Cranberry Fest is the first weekend in October every year, and it celebrates the fall cranberry harvest. You can take cranberry marsh tours and enjoy food and drink all made from cranberries. The town's Artarama Riverwalk Art Show and Sale is another notable event in the town that usually takes place in the summer.
9. Washington Island
Although it is an island, Washington Island is a small community, and just the journey to get here is worth the experience. You must take a five-minute ferry from the top of the Door County Peninsula to Washington Island across Death's Door waters, where Lake Michigan and Green bay come together.
The town of Washington Island has lavender fields, small family-owned restaurants, and unique boutiques with gifts that were either made from resources on the island or by local artisans. Stop by the Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm to learn about the delicate process involved in growing, harvesting, and creating pure lavender oil.
A must-see on Washington Island is the wooden stave church hidden away off a small road. The Viking-designed replica stavkirker church is mostly used for events like weddings, but it depicts the stunning architecture of the area's Scandinavian heritage.
A great shaded spot for a picnic is at Schoolhouse Beach, which is famous for its smooth, round limestone rocks on its beach instead of sand. The beach has nice views of the crystal-clear water.
If you are up for it, a fun and active way to explore Washington Island is by bike. There are several bike rental shops by the ferry port so you can meander at your leisure. Many of the small restaurants around the island are happy to make lunches to go so you can picnic at the scenic spot of your choice — and there are so many to choose from.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in Door County, WI
Read More: Best Things to Do in Wisconsin
10. Eau Claire
The university town of Eau Claire has a free-thinking flare, which makes it a fun place to visit. The town sits where the Chippewa and Eau Claire Rivers meet. Chances are likely that a music festival or outdoor event is happening whenever you decide to visit, since festivals and community gatherings are central to the small town.
To learn more about the town's culture, stop by the Chippewa Valley Museum or the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp at the Wisconsin Logging Museum for some interactive history.
Another place to visit if you are in Eau Claire is The Dells Mill and Museum about 20 minutes away in Augusta, which is more than 150 years old.
Eau Claire, like most of the small towns in Wisconsin, is surrounded by nature, so enjoying the outdoors is easy. During the summer, take a tubing excursion down the Chippewa River Water Trail or plan an afternoon hiking or biking trip at Pinehurst Park, Lowes Creek County Park, or Mt. Simon Park.
Fall is when color comes alive in Eau Claire and a great opportunity to pick apples from one of several orchards in town. In the winter, Eau Claire's many parks are open for snowshoeing, sledding, and ice skating.
Read More: Top Things to Do in Eau Claire
Hayward in Wisconsin's Northwoods is a small town that you will never forget because of the warmth of the locals, the four-season outdoor recreation opportunities, and the many small family-owned restaurants.
Water sports are popular since there are many lakes, including the Chippewa Flowage, which is the third-largest lake in the state. Spend a day learning how to fish for muskies or try your hand at ice fishing for perch and walleye in the winter on Nelson Lake or Round Lake.
Some of the best golf courses in Wisconsin are in the Hayward area, with several to choose from. In the wintertime, rent a fat tire bike or cross-country skis from a local shop and spend a day on the trails.
When the American Birkebeiner Ski Race is not underway in Hayward, you can ski along the trails that are groomed for this world-class event. It is also fun to rent a snowmobile and ride on the hundreds of miles of trails that connect the small towns throughout the region and explore several locations in the same visit.
Read More: Top-Rated Midwestern Weekend Getaways
12. Fish Creek
The Fish Creek community located in the Door County Peninsula is a lovely, walkable, artsy town and one of the best places in Door County to experience a traditional fish boil. Many restaurants in the area offer them, and it is one of the most unique ways to soak in the local culture.
Take a tour of the Alexander Noble House Museum, a 10-room home that exemplifies living in Fish Creek in the late 1800s. There are many galleries to see and local artworks to buy.
You can tour art exhibitions at the Guenzel Art Gallery at the Peninsula School of Art or make your own works of art at the Hands On Art Studio. Walk-in and spend the day painting, fusing glass, or making a birdhouse with your own creativity.
Since the town is located near the entrance of Peninsula State Park there are many trails and scenic opportunities. In the summer, catch a theater performance under the stars at the Northern Sky Theater.
You can also visit the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse Museum and see the home that the lighthouse keepers lived in during the turn of the century while operating the lighthouse to protect boats from the rocky shores. To embrace the natural side of Fish Creek, make a stop at Door County Rock and Gem, where you can pick up a fossil or geode to take home.
The town of Bayfield is a unique place to visit in Wisconsin because it is the portal to the 22 Apostle Islands. This town is located on the shores of Lake Superior, and the scenic views are its main draw year-round. Summer scenery turns into a dramatic winter spectacular, which makes Bayfield a popular spot for winter recreation like snowshoeing, skiing, and fat-tire biking.
The top spot to spend time in Bayfield is at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, which includes 12 miles of forest along the shore. You can enjoy a ferry ride to any of the islands including Madeline Island, which is one of the most popular.
Natural bounty in all forms is key in Bayfield and that includes the food. Go to a local orchard or farm to gather strawberries, blueberries, and cherries for pies. The unique climate produced by Bayfield's location creates an ideal growing environment for fruits and berries, so they are some of the best.
Relax on the shores of Lake Superior or go for a swim. If biking and hiking are on the agenda, Bayfield has miles of marked trails. When you need a break from the outdoor action, relax in the village with some live local music, or indulge in a homemade dinner at one of the locally owned restaurants.
Read More: Best Ski Resorts in Wisconsin
One of the must-visit towns in the Door County Peninsula is Ephraim. The town has panoramic views of Peninsula State Park's Eagle Bluff and it holds more than 30 historical sites in its small footprint.
The Ephraim Historical Foundation offers access to and tours of the historical sites in town, including the Anderson Barn History Center, Pioneer Schoolhouse Museum, Goodleston Cabin Museum, and more. You can also hop on board the Door County Trolley and see the highlights of the area on a 90-minute ride.
Peninsula State Park is the highlight of Ephraim. Bike rentals are available from Edge of Parks Rentals, so you can easily hit one of the scenic roads or dedicated bike trails. You can kayak or paddleboard along the bluffs in the state park or rent a pontoon boat and spend the day on the water.
You can also relax and let someone else do the work by taking a Bella Sailing Cruise on an antique sailboat from the South Shore Pier. Wrap up activities with a stop at Wilson's Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor, an institution in the area, for a treat from the old-fashioned soda fountain.
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Where to Stay: Wisconsin has some stunning luxury resorts, which take advantage of the scenic lakes, fairways, and peaceful surroundings. You can also find lodging at lake-town resorts in Wisconsin Dells and Lake Geneva that keep you close to tourist attractions and have comfortable amenities like spas and golf courses.
Wisconsin Getaways: Whether you are planning a romantic getaway or a family vacation, the towns throughout Wisconsin have a variety of experiences and attractions. Fill your days with water activities along the peninsula of Door County, and beach vacations on the Apostle Islands or Elkhart Lake. You can even go after the elusive musky on one of the many fishing lakes in the Northwoods.
Big City Excursions: So much of Wisconsin's charm is in the small towns throughout the state, but the big cities have plenty of excitement to fill a weekend, too. Catch a Packers game in Green Bay, explore the state capital of Madison by foot, or take in the culture and museums in Milwaukee. You can easily plan a trip based out of a bigger city, then take smaller day trips in each region.