Embrace Winter in This Cozy Wisconsin Town with a Huge Ice Castle
Channel your inner Elsa on a weekend getaway to the Midwest’s frozen paradise.
Even with the sub-zero temps and frozen appendages, there’s something magical about Wisconsin in the wintertime. Sure, the Badger State is infamous for black ice and long periods of gloomy weather. But you know what else the Badger State has? Fried dairy products, a propensity for booze, cozy supper clubs galore, and a sense of Midwestern resiliency that’s heartwarming enough to ward off hypothermia. And in true “making lemonade out of lemons”-fashion, this is the kind of state that uses frozen lakes as an excuse to play frozen baseball. All of which can be experienced at the charming town of Lake Geneva, a summertime haven for Chicagoans that’s just as enchanting in the snowier months. A quick hour and a half from Chicago, the waterfront community teems with wintry fun, from Elsa-worthy ice castles and urban wineries to make-the-most-of-it outdoorsy fun like skiing, hiking, and Winterfesting. For those hearty Midwesterners looking to lean into the allure of the season, here are 14 reasons to drive to Lake Geneva.
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, and boy have they thawed our frostbitten hearts. The annual event, held this year February 1-5, is dedicated to wintry activities, including beach bonfires, a cocoa crawl, a downtown ice sculpture walk, 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.
Chicago may be flat as a slice of deep-dish, but that doesn’t mean you have to travel far for some slopes. 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.
Go fishing on the ice (and in a supper club)
As evidenced by the Friday fish fry, an omnipresent supper club ritual throughout Wisconsin, this is a state that takes its fish seriously. And for those who want to reel in their own supper, ice fishing on Lake Geneva is an apt way to keep the party going year-round. Outfitters like Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle offer guided fishing excursions (and equipment rentals) all year long, including in the winter, when area lakes become frozen sheets of thick ice. Outings are available on Lake Geneva, as well as nearby spots like Lake Como and Delavan Lake, presenting the unique opportunity to drill down through the ice to hunt for bass, pike, walleye, and more. Ice shanties, which are small huts that can be erected on the ice, are optional add-ons that provide some semblance of warmth. If you don’t catch anything, just head to a nearby supper club, like Mars Resort or The Duck Inn, for all your fried fish needs.
If you’ve ever watched Elsa manifest her icy mansion in Frozen and thought to yourself, “I want that,” then prepare to 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 Disney-worthy 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 belt out “Let It Go” from atop a frozen throne, all of which is illuminated with a spectacular LED light show worthy of the ‘Gram.
Hole up in a historic mansion
In case you’d prefer a mansion made of something that doesn’t melt, there’s no shortage of Gilded Age-style decadence to be found in Lake Geneva either. 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 swanky 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). The newest of the bunch is The Belfry House, an adults-only 12-room boutique where the fireplace-equipped rooms are stately and cozy, Opus offers eclectic fine dining, and live entertainment takes place right next door at The Belfry Music Theatre.
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 in order. 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.
Hit up a local dive bar
This being Wisconsin, aka the booziest state in the country, 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 drinks in a lodge-style setting and smoked pulled pork—after all, it doesn’t get any more WISCONSIN than a meat raffle at a dive bar. 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, a raucous saloon 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 and watch someone get sawed in half at 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, close-up magic, and even a helicopter (!), 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 at the recently renovated 35,000-square-foot spa, equipped with whirlpools, sauna, salt room, steam room, and everything you could ever need for an afternoon of indulgent relaxation. Choose from treatments as simple as massages and as extensive as head-to-toe lavender body treatments and seasonal features like winter peppermint enhancements, wherein manis and pedis add peppermint scrubs to guarantee you leave feeling like a pampered candy cane. 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: Something Sweet may be new-ish (ca. 2018), but the nostalgia-rooted candy emporium is as endearingly old-fashioned as it gets, candy cigarettes and all. Meanwhile, 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 snooty waterfront vacation destinations on the coasts, you needn’t be a millionaire to enjoy gorgeous lakefront property views in Wisconsin. 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 panoramas 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.
Wander over to nearby Delavan Lake
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—held this year January 28 and February 4.
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—the only one of its kind in Lake Geneva—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? This isn’t Napa, and they don't take themselves too seriously around here, making it a welcome space for large groups or a casual date night.
Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He's the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on Instagram.