Called the “Badger State”, Wisconsin is most famous for its production of dairy products, craft breweries, natural wonders, historic sites, and cultural attractions. It’s found in the Upper Midwest bordered by two of the Great Lakes (Michigan and Superior).
Home to plenty of charming large and small communities, tourists can explore major cities like Madison and Milwaukee or head off to smaller populations in places like Kenosha and Oshkosh. In quiet towns, visitors will find surprising attractions like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and the Land O’Lakes. Away from the urban areas, open space provides the opportunity to explore rural landscapes along the Great Lakes and woodlands.
In addition, the state is popular for its food and drinks. Dairy is the dominant production with cheese being the most famous food to come out of the state. However, visitors should also indulge in a slice of kringle or a craft beer. From the allure of the city to beautiful views and great food, Wisconsin is an enthralling destination that caters to all ages.
Livin’ La Vida Wisconsin
History of the “Badger State”
Wisconsin’s earliest inhabitants were Paleo-Indians that date back to about 10,000 BCE. Surviving during the Ice Age, these early people hunted now-extinct animals like the Boaz mastodon. When the world warmed up, they relied on hunting and gathering to survive. Evidence of these people have been found in the southwest regions of the state.
Historians believe that Jean Nicolet, a French explorer, was the first European to venture into what is now the state of Wisconsin. Traveling in 1634, it’s theorized that Nicolet sailed through the Great Lakes before going ashore near Green Bay. By the 1660s, Europeans were trading furs with Native Americans. Although France remained in the area throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, they never established any permanent settlements.
The first permanent settlement was built by Great Britain in 1764, after France lost control of the territory during the French and Indian War of 1763. For the French that remained in the area, little changed under British rule. Relying heavily on fur trading, licenses were free given to residents to help grow the economy. The largest settlement was in Green Bay.
After the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, the United States won possession of Wisconsin. At the time, it was part of the Northwest Territory. With territory boundaries and names changing throughout the early 1800s, Wisconsin was also a part of the Illinois and Michigan Territories.
In May 1848, the local population grew large enough for Wisconsin to become the 30th state. By the later half of the 1800s, Wisconsin was an important center for northern abolitionism during the American Civil War. It’s estimated that 91,000 soldiers from the state fought for the Union. Since then, the state has grown its economy through agriculture, diary production, lumber, and tourism.
Capital City of Madison
Supporting a population of 269,840 residents as of 2020, Madison is the capital and second largest city in Wisconsin. The city was named after James Madison, a Founding Father and former president. However in the native Ho-Chunk language, the city is called “Dejope”, which means “four lakes”.
Situated on an isthmus, Madison is surrounded by the lakes Mendota, Monona, Kegonsa, and Waubesa. The numerous lake shores ensure that there are plenty of recreational trails and areas for people to enjoy while visiting the capital. Activities that are permitted on the lakefronts include hiking, fishing, boating, and windsurfing. There are also quite a few public beaches on the lakefronts.
Within the city, major attractions include the State Capitol Building, Henry Vilas Zoo, University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union Terrace, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Arboretum and Geology Museum at UW, the Chazen Museum of Art, the Monona Terrace designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
As a mid-sized city, this capital draws in plenty of tourists annually. Boasting an atmosphere that is similar to a college town because of the University of Wisconsin, while also filled with dozens of attractions ensures that guests always have a great time in Madison.
Milwaukee, the Largest City in Wisconsin
Less than 90 minutes to the east of Madison is Milwaukee, the largest city in the state with a population of 577,222 as of 2020. The city sits on Lake Michigan and it also has three rivers (Menomonee, Kinnickinnic, and Milwaukee) flowing through its landscape. As the second largest metropolitan area on Lake Michigan after Chicago, Milwaukee has become a major hub for culture, art, and tourism.
Two of the most popular attractions in the city are the Lakefront and the Harley Davidson Museum. The Lakefront is often considered to be one of the most beautiful areas for visitors to explore. Along the water, there are dozens of dining and shopping options, as well as a variety of attractions including the Lakefront Trail, beach, galleries, War Memorial Center, Milwaukee Art Museum, and Discovery World.
At the Harley Davidson Museum, visitors can learn more about the history of the motorcycles and their future. Housed at the museum is the oldest Harley in existence, “Serial Number One”, as well as a variety of interesting exhibits that house more than 450 bikes and artifacts. Additional highlights in Milwaukee include the Historic Third Ward, Milwaukee County Zoo, the Pabst Mansion, and the Boerner Botanical Gardens.
Green Bay, “Titletown”
Called the “Bay of Green Bay” by locals but more prominently known as “Titletown”, Green Bay is a city within a sub-basin of Lake Michigan. Home to 107,395 people, it is moderately sized and the third largest urban area in the state.
The city is most famous for being the home of the Green Bay Packers that play in the National Football League (NFL).
A fun city, tourists are drawn to the historic neighborhoods, vibrant arts, numerous museums, outdoor recreational areas, restaurants, shops, and breweries. While winters in Wisconsin can be harsh, most visitors will choose to see Green Bay in the spring, summer, or fall. However, there are activities and attractions all year-round.
A few of the top attractions are the Green Bay Botanical Garden, Heritage Hill State Historical Park, Bay Beach Amusement Park, Meyer Theatre, Oneida Street, the Fox River State Recreational Trail, Voyageur Park, and Revolution Public Market. One of the most common activities when the weather is nice is boating and sailing on the lake.
Racine, “The Belle City”
Less than one hour south of Milwaukee along the shore of Lake Michigan is Racine, also called “The Belle City”. Supporting 77,816 residents in 2020, Racine is listed as a city, but its compact design makes it feel more like a small town. The perfect balance, it has just enough attractions to keep your attention, while also maintaining a friendly vibe.
Most visitors will head to Downtown Racine, which is filled with small, independent shops and restaurants. When you want to explore the local goods or fill your stomach with good food, the downtown area is the place to go. If you happen to be around during the spring, summer or fall, Monument Square is a bustling place where locals and tourists gather to dine, socialize, and listen to music events on the First Friday.
Another popular spot is the lakefront of Lake Michigan. Visitors can head to the Wind Point Lighthouse, North Beach, or simply picnic on the verdant lawns. Close to the lakefront there are also restaurants, shops, Lake Michigan Pathway, as well as the Racine Zoo. Additional highlights in Racine include the River Bend Nature Center, and the Racine Art Museum.
Taliesin in Spring Green
Throughout Wisconsin there are plenty of architectural sites that were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. One of the most famous is Taliesin in Spring Green. Also called Taliesin East, it’s a large complex where Frank Lloyd Wright once lived. The land originally belonged to Wright’s maternal family and now, it has been preserved and turned into an architectural school.
Covering 600 acres, the highlight of the property is the main house, which sits on top of a hill. At the house, visitors can take a tour to see Wright’s living quarters and the drafting studio. While Wright was living at the house, multiple fires forced the residence to be restored. The restorations are called Taliesin I, II, and III.
Public tours of Taliesin are offered to the public from April to November. There are various tours with 1, 2, and 4 hour duration times offered. The estate is only accessible by guided tour and it is highly recommended to make reservations in advance.
The Wisconsin River Dells
Not to be confused with the town, Wisconsin Dells, the Wisconsin River Dells are natural rock formations located in the south-central region of the state. Also called the Dells of the Wisconsin River, the landmarks are made from Cambrian sandstone and many have trees growing out from the tops. Situated in a canyon, the Dells were formed about 15,000 years ago during the Last Glacial Period.
While portions of the area are closed to the public for preservation, there are plenty of spots along the canyon and gorges where visitors can take a boat to travel through the area. The Wisconsin Dells are particularly popular during the summertime with visitors coming from far and wide to see the beauty of the rocks.
One of the most beautiful waterfront areas to visit in the state is Door County. With over 300 miles of shoreline and 19 communities, this area is a prime spot for nature enthusiasts.
Within the area, visitors are particularly drawn to the Door County Scenic Byway, where you can stop at viewpoints to marvel at the lighthouses, limestone cliffs, and caves. Another place worth checking out is Washington Island, which is accessible by ferry.
Although Door County is gorgeous year-round, it tends to be the most crowded during the summer. With warm weather, folks can partake in thrilling activities like boating, kayaking, hiking, fishing, and even shipwreck diving. During the winter, the best things to do are cross-country skiing and ice fishing.
Land O’ Lakes
Although there is a town bearing the same name, most people consider Land O’ Lakes to be a region that is nestled between the Eagle River, Boulder Junction, and Rhinelander. Located in Northern Wisconsin, the area is famous for its 200 lakes, which all vary in size. Often very crowded in the summer, visitors can swim, kayak, canoe, fish, hike, bike, and boat in many of the lakes.
Copper Falls State Park
Another place to enjoy nature in the northern region is Copper Falls State Park. Filled with waterfalls, the Bad River, Tyler Forks and Loon Lake, tourists will fall in love with the enchanting beauty of the area. Hikers will particularly love the 17 miles of trails that wind their way through the park. Visitors can stay overnight as the state park has 24 campgrounds, as well as one camper cabin.
As “America’s Dairyland”, Wisconsin is famous for their cheese. Each year, cheese production in the state generates billions of dollars and products are shipped worldwide. While visitors can often taste many of the various kinds by dining out or shopping in local grocery stores and markets, tours of cheese factories are also a popular activity.
All around the state you’ll find cheese in many forms. All in all, there are about 600 varieties of cheese produced in Wisconsin. Famous cheese makers are Sartori Cheese, Emmi Roth USA, BelGioioso Cheese, Scray Cheese Factory, and Bleu Mont Dairy. Most have factory tours available to the public.
Although Wisconsin doesn’t always get a lot of hype as a tourist destination, this state may surprise you with its surplus of attractions, activities, and scenery. Whether you’re a food lover looking to indulge in a culinary tour, are visiting to see the landscapes or want to stick to the big cities, this Upper Midwest state is an awesome tourist destination.