An easy 80 miles from Chicago and 50 miles from Milwaukee, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin has been a popular vacay playground for families, friends and couples for more than a century. There are must-dos for first-timers and a boatload of new attractions for seasoned visitors to “The Hamptons of Chicago.”
You won’t run into any snooty Real Housewives in Lake Geneva – just generous, open-hearted Midwesterners who will help you have a great lake vacation.
Lake Geneva offers year-round opportunities to torch some calories and commune with the natural world.
The length alone of the Geneva Lake Shore Path – 21 miles – is a resounding hint that it’s not a typical hiking trail. You’re walking on a two-foot-wide footpath through the backyards of historic mansions, Beaux-Arts manors, Queen Annes and French-style chateaus built after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 by Chicago’s first 1% with last names like Wrigley, Maytag, Swift and Schwinn.
Bring your own or rent/purchase a bike at downtown Lake Geneva’s full-service Avant Cycle Café where the coffee is robust and the bike route recommendations are expert. Staff supplies maps of trails (like White River State Trail, 19 miles of smooth limestone); coordinates Sunday breakfast rides and Wednesday coffee rides; and mechanic, Don Thomas, can change a tube in minutes.
The sprawling Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy has been lovingly managed to provide woodlands and wetlands, lush meadows and restored prairies, plus a five-acre children’s fishing park for little anglers to dig worms, chase butterflies and drop in a line.
Just five minutes from busy downtown, Lake Geneva Ziplines & Adventures offers single track mountain biking/hiking trails (plus bike rentals), as well as four-and-nine-line biplane courses and a high ropes course.
There’s also a brand new 35-foot high Climbing Tower with three unique walls, 12 different routes to the peak and a vertical obstacle course. Expert tip: Hold out for the last zipline tour of the day and you’ll spy a spectacular sunset over Lake Como.
Take a Lake Geneva Cruise Line narrated boat tour for a breezy excursion on the second deepest lake in Wisconsin, and learn about the history of those ritzy stacks of bricks that rim the shore. Opt for an evening dinner cruise or a fun US mailboat tour as mail “jumpers” deliver the mail to piers without the boat slowing down a bit.
After your cruise, take a few minutes to explore the historic Riviera building, which underwent a multi-million dollar restoration that included renovation of the ballroom (where Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman entertained) and a refresh of the lower level Coney Island-style shops.
Rent a Shelby Cobra Tribute, Pontiac GTO or another fine set of wheels circa 1950s-‘70s, from American Classic Rental. Wind through the countryside for an hour or a day, complete with maps of various routes.
Lake Geneva Scooter Tours will outfit you with a simple-to-drive scooter so you can traverse country roads or even buzz around downtown and park it on the sidewalk for free.
Dining and drinking
Don’t donate those pandemic eating pants just yet because you’ll want to try a number of historic and sparkly new restaurants. Farm-to-table? It was practically invented in Wisconsin.
That live music you’ll hear is emanating from the new Topsy Turvy Brewery and its outdoor beer garden and pet-friendly patio. Come inside the former church with kaleidoscopic stained glass windows and try some of 20 brews on tap or their own hard seltzer. A pint of Hell is Far From Here pilsner or Sinful Holy Water hard seltzer would be appropriate.
Visit Inspired Coffee where staff with developmental and physical disabilities are your baristas. The java is exceptional (Jeremiah Fox, coffee roaster, is blind and roasts by scent and sound resulting in a smooth, less acidic cup of joe). And you wouldn’t even know that the made-fresh daily bakery items are gluten-free.
If you’ve been shopping or beach-going all day and need something healthy and light, pencil in a stop at the new Wicked Poké Hut. Build your own bowl of clean proteins and veg with inventive sauces and toppings, and finish with Hawaiian ice cream.
Locals rave about the Friday fish fry and Bloody Marys at Freddie’s West End (with a lakeside dock and outdoor deck), and supper club Mars Resort has been serving fabulous BBQ, burgers and fish since 1923. Both are situated on Lake Como. Gaggles of gal pals seem to go for the wine, small plates and people watching at Barrique Bistro and Wine Bar.
For an upscale, peaceful dinner, reserve a table at Savoy. The elegant space, with splendid views of the gentle ripples on Lake Como, is awash in white and serenity. Start with Turkish deviled eggs, marble salt roasted potatoes or gooseberry salad, then onto a most tender ginger beer braised short rib or Chilean Sea bass.
There are also vegetarian entrees, and pastry chef McKenzie Champion’s gooey butter cake is a revelation. This may be the best food in LG.
Baby Face Nelson and the Dillinger gang took to the Lake Como Hotel and so will you in its current incarnation as The French Country Inn, tucked away on the lake.
When you check in, notice the solid oak hand-carved staircase and inlaid parquet floors – they were built in Denmark and shipped to Chicago for the Danish Pavilion at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Rooms have lake views with balconies to enjoy the included Continental breakfast.
Stay the night, stop in for a brandy old-fashioned at the Apothecary Bar or Speakeasy (look for the password on Facebook) or indulge in a cocktail and live music on the back terrace at Maxwell Mansion. Snooze in a Mansion room if period/antique furnishings are your thing, choose a Carriage House room for a rustic-chic accommodation or enjoy the Stables for luxurious suites.
Ascend the hand-carved solid cherry wood staircase to one of five rooms (or the Owner’s Suite for groups) at Baker House. Every Friday through Sunday night, there’s live music in the garden and you can brunch or enjoy a steakhouse menu at dinnertime in the parlor. The Ringmaster’s Bar is full of Gilded Age accoutrements (check out the fireplace with glass warmers).
Groups, friends and families should consider The Main Street Loft by Keefe Vacation Rentals for an indoor glamping experience right in downtown Lake Geneva. Five tents, living room, kitchen with bar, dining table and two bathrooms serve as home base for a bachelorette party or getaway with pals. Easily walk to the beach, dining and shopping.
Expert tip: Parking in downtown LG is, quite simply, a pain. Those pay-to-park boxes put you back $2 an hour and, trust us, the meter readers ticket on the regular. Just a block or two north of the downtown area, side streets still have free parking and Parking Lot I (near McDonald’s) has full-day parking for just a couple of bucks.
Before you head home, pick up some sweet treats at Kilwins and morsels from America’s Dairyland at the Cheese Box (since 1940).
10Best is a part of the USA TODAY Network — providing an authentically local point of view on destinations around the world — in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.