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11 Top-Rated Small Towns in Wisconsin

Written by Anietra Hamper
Jun 13, 2019

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. The 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 will find art galleries showcasing local artists and mom-and-pop restaurants featuring in-season ingredients, like fresh cherries from the orchards in the summer for homemade pies. You can find these small getaways in tranquil old-fashioned resort villages like Elkhart Lake, towns along the Cranberry Highway in Stevens Point, or somewhere 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

Sturgeon Bay Lighthouse at sunset

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.

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 close to all of the activities.

2. Elkhart Lake

Kettle Moraine State Forest

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. Kayak on the lake on a guided ecology tour or learn how to go fly fishing. Rent a hydro-bike, paddle board, or even rent a pontoon 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 and find many restaurants serving farm-to-table cuisine. For dinner with a view, make a reservation at Lola's on the Lake, one of the top restaurants in the village, with an unforgettable panoramic view of Elkhart Lake to go along with your dinner. Lodging on Elkhart Lake does not get more elegant than at the historic Ostoff Resort, built in 1885 and still serving vacationers with their all-suites hotel located on the waterfront.

3. Janesville

Janesville

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 the two golf courses in town. If it is raining, you can hit your golf balls at the Ironworks Golf Lab. 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. For some relaxation, catch a water ski show on the Rock River by the Rock Aqua Jays, noted as the top water ski show in the world.

4. Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva in autumn

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. If that 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 Canopy Tours or kick back on the Lake Geneva River Cruise 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.

5. Stockholm

Bakery in Stockholm, Wisconsin | Amrit Tuladhar / photo modified

The town of Stockholm only has a population of 66, so on any given day there are likely more visitors 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 before you head out of town.

6. Stevens Point

Wisconsin cranberries

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.

7. Eau Claire

Confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire Rivers | Randen Pederson / photo modified

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, Dells Museum, or the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp for some interactive history.

Eau Claire, like most of the small towns in Wisconsin are 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.

8. Hayward

Road winding through the fall colors of the Hayward countryside

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.

9. Fish Creek

Peninsula State Park

The Fish Creek community located in the Door County Peninsula is a lovely, walkable, artsy town. Take a tour of the Alexander Noble House, 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.

10. Bayfield

Winter icicles at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

The town of Bayfield is a unique place to visit in Wisconsin because it is the portal to the 22 Apostle Islands. The town is located on the shores of Lake Superior, and the scenic views are its main draw. 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.

11. Ephraim

Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in Peninsula State Park

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 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.

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