Just beyond Milwaukee’s metro area lies a ton of charm. Think antique-ing, hikes in state parks, cute cafes and more. While they are all year-round destinations, summer is a great time to escape the city in search of these more pastoral settings. The best part? All of these destinations are within an hour’s drive, which will have you back in the city by dinner.
An hour north of Milwaukee is this harbor town deeply entrenched in history, those details revealed at the 1860 Light Station Museum and Port Exploreum. Some even say the downtown resembles the New England shoreline. There’s a long pier jutting out into the water that’s suited for a stroll, a restored beach area and vibrant lifestyle just steps from the sand. Downtown’s North Franklin Street is lined with shops, restaurants and cafes, including an indie bookstore called Craft, Twisted Willow (owner Dan Wiken has his own farm in nearby Grafton) and an old-fashioned smoked-meats shop, Bernie’s Fine Meats.
Grand mansions built by some of the Midwest’s most storied, affluent families (like the Wrigleys and Sears) are still standing along Lake Geneva’s shoreline, 50 minutes southwest of Milwaukee. Get up close to these homes on the 26-mile walking path encircling the town’s namesake lake or hop on a boat with Lake Geneva Cruise Line for its hour-long guided Geneva Day Tour. Downtown Lake Geneva boasts cafes, restaurants and niche boutiques like Balance Bath & Body and Lake Geneva Spice Company. To dip your toes in the sand, experience Riviera Beach on Wrigley Drive; and for adrenaline, visit the 271-acre Big Foot Beach State Park, with 6.5 miles of hiking trails.
Grab brunch at Simple Cafe (an offshoot of the Simple Cafe on Milwaukee's East Side), open until 3 p.m.
Dubbed the design capital of Wisconsin, Kohler is also a household name—literally. It’s a company town for many of the bath and kitchen fixtures manufacturer but also a luxurious getaway for spa-goers, foodies, design lovers and golfers. Even if time doesn’t allow for a stay at The American Club, splurge for dinner at The Immigrant Restaurant or a pampered afternoon at Kohler Waters Spa. Walk through the free Design Center (you’ve never seen such beautiful toilets!) or take a tour of the factory (also free). The adjacent Shops at Woodlake is a great spot to not only browse boutiques but bite into Kohler’s latest invention: chocolates! Just like the kitchen-and-bath products, these are works of art and sold at Craverie Chocolatier Café. Golfers won’t want to miss teeing off at Blackwolf Run or Whistling Straits (in 2020 will host the Ryder Cup).
Vintage streetcars circle through downtown Kenosha, which is experiencing a renaissance. That includes the city’s lakefront, harbor and marina. Saturday mornings the farmers market draws locals to the lakefront (along 2nd Ave., it’s called HarborMarket), and the Kenosha Public Museum in the backdrop continually rotates its shows and exhibits. To rest your feet, drop by The Buzz in downtown Kenosha for lunch where the vibe is farmgirl chic with exposed-brick walls and a menu of paninis (like “The Dilly Bird,” with maple turkey, dill Havarti and cranberry-honey mustard on honey wheat), salads (such as “rhubarb and pistachio,” with arugula, goat cheese and candied ginger drizzled with dijon vinaigrette) and lattes. History buff? Then you won’t want to miss the Civil War Museum in downtown Kenosha. For a nice dinner, book a table at Mangia, where James Beard Award-winning chef-owner Tony Mantuano presides over the Italian-centric menu.
Whether it’s a dinner show at Fireside Theatre or popping into unique shops during First Friday in Fort, the town of Fort Atkinson thrives with arts and culture and is a hub in Jefferson County. Snug along the Rock River, the downtown features live music and Irish fare for lunch and dinner at Paddy Coughlin’s Irish Pub and two museums — Hoard Historical Museum, and National Dairy Shrine Museum. Both museums are small but worth a visit, and this leaves you more time in the day to hike Before you get back on the road, drop by Simple Life Country Store for farm-raised beef or Amish fruitcakes, or Jones Market (an extension of the sixth-generation-owned Jones Dairy Farm) for brats or dry-aged bacon, and a quick visit to the Jones Dairy Bar ice-cream window along the bicycle path (open Tuesday-Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons).