Eric Paulsen and Mariah Haberman here. As co-hosts of the TV show, Discover Wisconsin, one of the questions we get asked most often is: “What destination were you most pleasantly surprised about after visiting?” This is a tricky one to answer because if there’s one thing we can confirm from our travels around the state it’s that Wisconsin as a whole is one big hidden gem chockfull of underrated communities. That said, here are 10 truly amazing places that tend to fly under the radar:
- Eau Claire (Eau Claire County)
Beautiful rivers, wonderful music and one-of-a-kind attractions are just part of what makes the city of Eau Claire so amazing. The local pride in Eau Claire is strong and it’s easy to see why. For starters, it’s located at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers, meaning stunning riverfront views and water activities abound here. But perhaps it’s Eau Claire’s music scene that truly sets this northwest Wisconsin town apart. Home of big-time music festivals such as Country Jam, Blue Ox Music Festival and Eaux Claires—the latter of which was created by Bon Iver frontman and Eau Claire native, Justin Vernon—Eau Claire thrives on all styles and varieties of music. The city is also full of interesting trivia: It’s the Horseradish Capital of the World and the place where Hank Aaron started his professional baseball career.
- Hudson (St. Croix County)
About an hour west of Eau Claire is another vibrant river town worth a visit. Hudson. Set on the banks of the beautiful St. Croix River, Hudson is built on rich history and an impressive downtown district. Spend a morning exploring Willow Falls State Park, take a river cruise down the tranquil St. Croix River (preferably during the autumn months), tour the historic Octagon House, pop in and out of the stores on 2nd Street or take in a view unlike any other when you partake in Hudson’s Hot Air Affair held every February.
- Manitowoc (Manitowoc County)
A particular crime documentary may have launched this community in the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons this past year but rest assured, Manitowoc is one of Wisconsin’s most captivating harbor towns. This Lake Michigan gem is home to Wisconsin’s Maritime Museum, USS Cobia World War II submarine and S. S. Badger so if you have even a slight interest in maritime history, you’re going to have a ball in Manitowoc. Next: Explore the Rahr-West Museum and Mansion, take in a show at the Capitol Civic Centre and observe the crash site of a 20-pound piece of the Soviet Union’s five-ton Sputnik IV satellite!
- Mineral Point (Iowa County)
An ode to the state’s early mining days, Mineral Point claims the title “where Wisconsin began,” and the handsome buildings along High Street attested to the new wealth and impressive designs of the day. The city lost by one vote to Madison when the state’s capital was selected.The town has many small shops offering antiques, galleries and artisan crafts. The handsome Mineral Point Opera House started as a vaudeville and performing arts house and continues to feature live performances. A big attraction in Mineral Point is Pendarvis, a complex that shows visitors what life was like during the 1830s, including the day-to-day tasks of miners and their families as well as superstitions and traditions that influenced them. The Mineral Point Depot is the oldest surviving railroad depot in the state and now hosts a museum. The Shake Rag Alley Center for Arts & Crafts features displays, workshops and classes on a 2.5 acre campus featuring gardens, trees and brick pathways.
- Ashland (Ashland County)
Located on Lake Superior at the very top of the state, Ashland is as compelling as it is beautiful. Nearby Bayfield and the Apostle Islands are perhaps the better known tourist destinations here but don’t overlook the city of Ashland. If you go, spend an hour or two exploring the Mural Walk in the community’s downtown district, stop by the Ashland Area Farmer’s Market, wet your whistle at South Shore Brewery and consider staying at The Hotel Chequamegon for a truly spectacular view of Lake Superior. The greater Ashland area also boasts world-class smallmouth bass fishing, exceptional hiking trails and sensational waterfalls.
- Monroe (Green County)
Monroe sits in the heart of Green County about 45 minutes south of Madison. Like its New Glarus neighbor to the north, it celebrates Swiss heritage; The Swiss Colony started here in 1926 and maintains its headquarters here to this day. The city also celebrates Green County Cheese Days, a semi-annual brouhaha filled with music, beer, arts and crafts and… well, cheese. While Cheese Days will happen again September 16-18, the city is worth visiting any time of year. Surrounding the gorgeous Green County Courthouse, downtown Monroe bustles with shops, restaurants, a theatre, and a DW favorite known as Baumgartner’s on the Square. Mere blocks away from downtown are the Minhas Craft Brewery and the Herb and Helen Haydock World of Beer Memorabilia Museum, which is chock full of old beer collectibles. Take note of the Monroe Depot Welcome Center and the National Historic Cheesemaking Center for more cheesemaking history or the Cheese Country and Badger State Trails if you want to take in some outdoor exercise.
- Neenah (Winnebago County)
Neenah is a charming “little city” with a delightful and historic downtown. Gorgeous mansions of area paper barons provide an outstanding architectural walking tour around Riverside and Kimberly Point parks along Lake Winnebago and the Fox River. Neenah also hosts the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass, which houses the world’s largest collection of glass paperweights. For ladies looking to book a spring getaway, consider Ultimate Ladies Day, held every April in downtown Neenah.
- Potosi (Grant County)
You may have heard of Potosi Beer, but did you know this tiny little burg (population 700) is home to the National Brewery Museum? Potosi beat out beer titan towns like Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati to land this museum, part of a major restoration of the original Potosi Brewery, which operated on the site from 1852 to 1972. It reopened in 2008 and now features a restaurant along with the brewery and museum, plus the Holiday Gardens Convention Center across the street that features the World’s Largest Cone Top Beer Can – made to look like a “Good Old Potosi” can from back in the day.
Whispering Hills Winery is located across the street, as are an emerging set of shops including Gary David Woodworking & Design. Down the street you can tour St. John’s Mine, which was a natural cave worked by Native Americans and then European immigrants, both before and after the “Lead Rush” of 1827. Tours are available daily and you can see stalactites (those icicle-looking rock things hanging down in caves) and realize that, whatever your working conditions are, you have it great compared to 19th century miners.There’s also the Great River Road Museum of Contemporary Art, which features exhibits that reflect the Mississippi River and the flora and fauna of the river valley. Speaking of the river, make your way to “Potosi Point,” a half-mile finger of land that offers beautiful bluff views and even better fishing. Who knew there was so much to see in such a small town?
- Racine (Racine County)In Wisconsin’s southeastern corner sits another underrated harbor town along Lake Michigan. This city of nearly 80,000 boasts a fusion of exquisite architecture, beckoning lakefront and cultural destinations. Look for Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architecture at SC Johnson’s headquarters, SC Johnson Research Tower and Wingspread. Have some fun under the sun at North Beach or make a trip back during the chillier months for wintry views of Wind Point Lighthouse. Round up the kids for stops at Racine Art Museum and Racine Zoo and whatever you do, don’t leave town without picking up some of Wisconsin’s State Pastry—Kringle!
- Sheboygan Falls (Sheboygan County)
Tucked in between Plymouth and Kohler in Sheboygan County, Sheboygan Falls lies along the Sheboygan River between the Onion and Mullet (yes, Mullet) Rivers. This charming burg of 8,000 has done a great job preserving and restoring 19th century-era buildings downtown; they’re filled with shops, cafes, restaurants and artisan galleries. Behind some of the refurbished (and in some cases, rebuilt) old factory buildings, you’ll see rapids along the river flowing right through the heart of town. Sheboygan Falls won the “Great American Main Street Award” in 1995 and today has two historic districts, one for the downtown area and one called the Cole Historic District. The Cole features a mill house and hotel built in the 1830s and 1840s. Highways 23, 28 and 32 all provide access to Sheboygan Falls.
Eric Paulsen has a knack for chattin’: Between trekking the state as one of the hosts of Discover Wisconsin and playing Milwaukee’s greatest hits on 95.7 BIG FM, he keeps busy while entertaining the masses. He’s also pretty obsessed with Wisconsin’s highways and rustic roads. (Go ahead…quiz him!) In fact, he manages his own Wisconsin road trip website, StateTrunkTour.com. Catch Eric on Discover Wisconsin every Saturday morning at 10 on FSN Wisconsin’s outdoor block. (Twitter: @ericpinmke)
Mariah Haberman hosts the nation’s longest-running tourism TV show, Discover Wisconsin. She hails from Evansville, where she was brought up in a family of seven in a small farmhouse outside of town. Some of her favorite memories include Lake Michigan fishing trips with her Dad, showing sheep at the Rock County Fair and buzzing around the farm on an ATV with her little brother. Watch Discover Wisconsin Saturdays at 10 a.m. on FSN Wisconsin’s outdoor block. (Twitter: @MariahHaberman)