14 Reasons to Drive to Lake Geneva
Channel your inner Elsa on a weekend getaway to the Midwest’s frozen paradise.
Between the negative 40-degree temps, black ice, and the constant threat of frozen fingers and toes, a wintertime getaway to Wisconsin is a tough sell. It’s no wonder snowbirds tend to flee the Badger State in search of warmer respites. But, we’d argue winter is when the waterfront town of Lake Geneva really, erm, heats up, bursting with small-town charm mixed with a topographic diversity perfectly primed for urban explorers and outdoor adventurers alike. As it turns out, there’s a whole host of reasons you can—nay, should—pay a visit to Lake Geneva sooner rather than later. Here are 14 reasons to shift into four-wheel-drive and point your GPS to Wisconsin’s snowy wonderland this winter.
We’ve already established that winter in Wisconsin can really suck, but the good people of Lake Geneva have spent nearly 30 years trying to win us over with Winterfest. The annual event involves nine days dedicated to wintry activities, including beach bonfires, a cocoa crawl, and hovercraft rides. But the centerpiece of the whole affair is the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Championship, where more than a dozen teams compete over three days to carve snow sculptures of truly impressive scale and detail—seriously, check out last year’s winners for a glimpse at their mastery.
Southeast Wisconsin’s unique landscape creates a wealth of ski opportunities in (and near) Lake Geneva, so skiers can choose their flavor: Nordic or Alpine. Newbie-friendly hills and Black Diamond thrills are both on offer at the lauded Alpine Valley Resort’s 90 skiable acres, located just 20 minutes north of Lake Geneva, or stick around town to check out the 20 runs at the Grand Geneva. Cross-country lovers can get their fix with a trip to Big Foot Beach State Park, where five miles of hiking trails transform into groomed Nordic runs once the snow falls. And don’t forget the après-ski, of course. Cozy up by the fire with a warming whiskey-based cocktail in the Grand Geneva’s Lobby Lounge, or take full advantage of the Alpine Valley Resort’s ski-in/ski-out rooms offering full-service dining.
If Lake Geneva’s grand waterfront mansions aren’t majestic enough for your taste, ooh-and-aah over the grandiose Ice Castle installation at the Geneva National Resort & Club. Lake Geneva is home to one of just five of these fairy-tale creations, which are crafted from more than 25 million pounds of ice and come adorned with 12,000 daily-formed icicles. Crawl through ice tunnels, or reign over your wintry domain from atop a frozen throne, all of which is illuminated with a spectacular LED light show worthy of the ‘Gram.
Outdoor activities are de rigueur for a Lake Geneva visit, but for those bored with the standard ice skating-snowshoeing-skiing trifecta, a visit to Lake Geneva Ziplines and Adventures is on the docket. Commune with the birds on either a four- or nine-line zipline course, providing stunning views of the company’s tree-filled 100-acre property. Looking to keep your feet planted on, well, anything? The high ropes course is billed as a “jungle gym in the sky,” allowing you to tackle 16 elevated obstacles from rope walls and swinging skywalks to a 35-foot tower. Adrenaline junkies, you’ve arrived.
Sometimes you’ve got to fly high to catch the best views. And Lake Geneva Balloon Company offers a way that you won’t soon forget, as you float through the skies via sunrise and sunset hot air balloon flights with the help of owner and chief pilot John Trione (yes, even in the winter). With take-off and landing locations scattered around the area and a spotless safety record, the one-hour journey ends with a post-flight Champagne toast—though we’d recommend making a beeline to the nearest bar (more on that later…) for a hot toddy, as well.
Hole up in a historic mansion
While you can get a nice view of many mansions owned by titans of Chicago business on the Lake Geneva Shore Path, it’s even more fun to actually stay in some of those opulent estates. Built in 1885, Baker House is a gorgeous lakefront palace complete with a Gilded Age-style cocktail lounge and plush B&B-style accommodations. Meanwhile, Maxwell Mansion (built in 1856) offers romantic rooms like carriage house and stable suites, including a couple of rooms with “peek-a-boo” steam showers for two (wink, wink).
Hit up a local dive bar
This being Wisconsin, drinking is a big part of the experience, and while fancy cocktail lounges are all well and good, to get a true sense of a place one must experience its epic dive bars. Fat Cats in downtown Lake Geneva is a prime spot for cheap booze and friendly conversation with locals, while Owl Tavern is a hidden gem for smoked pulled pork and drinks in a lodge-style setting. Meanwhile, head to nearby Lake Como to experience true local watering holes like Freddie’s West End and DJ’s in the Drink. Or try Thumbs Up in downtown Lake Geneva for live DJs every Friday and Saturday night and plenty of tomfoolery.
Instead of dinner and a movie, mix up your date night routine with a trip to the Tristan Crist Magic Theatre. And while anyone familiar with Will Arnett’s character Gob Bluth from Arrested Development knows the magic jokes practically write themselves, this show is no laughing matter. With Vegas-quality acts featuring levitation and close-up magic, this 60-minute show will change the way you think about tricks—sorry, illusions—and provide you with a fun night out, to boot.
Not only is the world-class Abbey Resort one of the nicest places to stay in Lake Geneva, it’s also one of the premier destinations for treating yourself to full-on pampering with a relaxing spa day. Choose from treatments as simple as massages and as extensive as seasonal scrubs and “body coffee wraps” with green coffee extract, caffeine, and sea algae designed to release toxins and activate fat dissolution. You could also, like, exercise—but where’s the fun in that?
Explore downtown while putting on a winter layer
A simple stroll through downtown Lake Geneva’s charming business district is a great way to spend the day, hopping from local shops and restaurants on your own two feet and going whichever direction you damn well please thank you very much. But consider letting the sweet smell of sugar guide you: Kilwin’s is a classic for hand-paddled fudge, peanut brittle, or a host of confections. Or thumb your nose at the cold and get the full ice cream parlor experience with a visit to Scoops Ice Cream and Deli, which serves southeast-Wisconsin-favorite Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream near the waterfront.
Unlike most waterfront vacation destinations, you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy gorgeous lakefront property views. One of the coolest and most unique attractions in Lake Geneva is the 26-mile Lake Geneva Shore Path, an old Native American walking trail that cuts right through the backyards of private properties and extends along the whole length of the lake. While a bit steep in some parts, the mostly flat trek offers A-plus panormas of both the water and the beautiful homes lining the shore. But winter hikers beware: Wear your sturdiest pair of treaded boots—there are narrow patches directly on the lake that present fall risks and you do not want to get up close and personal with that water in the winter.
Buckle up for a scenic drive
While most of the action takes place on the east side of the lake in the town of Lake Geneva, no trip to the area is complete without checking out the small towns of Williams Bay and Fontana as you cruise west along the lake. Highway 50 is the main drag, but it’s best to get off the well-trodden route and onto local roads like South Lake Shore Drive to see the area in all its glory. The road is slower, giving you more time to take in the spectacular scenery along the way—just watch for black ice or (as any Wisconsin mom might warn) deer.
Lake Geneva may be the biggest lake in the region, but it isn’t the only game in town. In addition to the aforementioned Lake Como, Delavan is a laid-back town about 20 minutes northwest of Lake Geneva offering lakeside lodging at the charming Lake Lawn Resort and a peaceful waterside arboretum for seclusion in nature. And when you're looking to commiserate with a colorful cast of characters, Delavan more than delivers with Inn Between, one of the best dive bars in the state featuring the locally famous/batshit bananas “Ice Ball” softball tournament on the lake whenever it freezes.
Not all wineries are the same, and Studio Winery is a prime example. Instead of your standard stuffy tasting room packed with wine snobs and grapevines, this urban winery pops up in an old warehouse space complete with its own in-studio music room hosting live shows and painting parties courtesy of its creative power couple owners. Wine not your vibe? The spot shares space with Geneva Lake Distilling, where you can sip moonshine, gin, or bourbon or opt for one of the many cocktail offerings. Best of all? They don't take themselves too seriously around here, making it a welcome space for large groups or a casual date night.