Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- 1. Take a US Mailboat Tour
- 2. Cruise the Lake
- 3. Stroll Along the Geneva Lake Shore Path
- 4. Geek Out at the Yerkes Observatory
- 5. Be Mesmerized at the Tristan Crist Magic Theatre
- 7. Rent a Kayak or SUP
- 8. Shop in Downtown Lake Geneva
- 9. Pick (or Buy) Apples at Royal Oak Farm Apple Orchard
- 10. Take a Hike at Big Foot Beach State Park
- 11. Visit the Geneva Lake Museum
- 12. Hop on an E-Bike
- 13. Play a Round of Golf
- 14. Cruise to the Victorian Summer Retreat of a Chicago Beer Baron
- 15. Zip Through the Trees
- 16. Soar in a Hot Air Balloon
- 17. Ride the East Troy Electric Railroad
- 18. Browse the Farmer’s Market
- 19. Taste the Beer and Wines
The writer was hosted.
Long the summer playground for Chicago’s rich, the opulent over-the-top mansions they built along the lakeshore gave Lake Geneva Wisconsin the nickname “Newport of the Midwest.” Today, this southern Wisconsin town is still the playground of the wealthy — it’s the kind of place where the mega-rich buy $10 million mansions on the lake and tear them down so they can build a $20 million mansion on that lakefront spot.
But it’s also a charming small town with beautiful resorts, 21 miles of lovely lakefront and a wealth of fabulous restaurants. Even better, there are plenty of fun things to do in Lake Geneva, whether you’re visiting on a day trip from Chicago or spending a long, lazy week at the lake.
From high-end boutique shopping in the quaint downtown to a Las Vegas-style magic show, a drive-through safari and cruising the lake with a “mail jumper” who delivers mail to the piers in front of those opulent mansions, here are our favorite things to do in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Don’t get confused between the name of the town — Lake Geneva — and the name of the lake — Geneva Lake.
1. Take a US Mailboat Tour
Hands down, this was my favorite thing to do in Lake Geneva. Yes, it’s a boat tour of the lake. But it’s more than just a boat tour; it is the BEST boat tour of the lake. That’s because it features the mail jumpers.
Lake Geneva is one of the few places in the US where lakefront homeowners can opt to have their mail delivered by boat rather than the standard mail carrier.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Looking to make the most of your summer budget while maximizing the fun? With a wide range of deals on local activities, dining, and experiences, Groupon helps you stretch your budget by offering discounted options near you.
Known as “mail jumpers,” these are the teens and young adults who win the coveted summer job that sees them, literally, jumping off the boat onto the docks to deliver a local newspaper and other pieces of mail to a smattering of homeowners along the lake.
Once the mail is safely tucked into the mailbox — or, charmingly, placed in the eager mouth of a waiting golden retriever — the mail jumper then has to jump back onto the boat. To ratchet up the challenge, the mail jumper — it was Paige on our trip — sometimes has to run all the way down the pier, across a lawn and back along a neighboring dock to jump back onto the still-moving boat.
Her heroics drew regular rounds of applause from our boatful of appreciative tourists.
SheBuysTravel Tip: If you plan to fly to Lake Geneva, you’ll need to rent a car. The closest airports are O’Hare International in Chicago and Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport. Seeing the sights of Lake Geneva requires transportation; Ubers are not plentiful here.
2. Cruise the Lake
While the mailboat tour is the most fun thanks to the mail jumper, there are many historic boats operated by the Lake Geneva Cruise Line that cruise Geneva Lake from April through November. Cruises range from 1 -2 hours with lots of options. In addition to the mailboat tour, there are dinner cruises, cocktail cruises, ice cream social cruises and plain old cruises. All include commentary about the area’s history, the lake’s wealthiest occupants and its most opulent mansions.
Those historic mansions around the lakefront were once summer homes to Chicago’s wealthiest families, including the Wrigleys (of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs baseball fame) and the Hyatt Hotels’ Pritzkers. (Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker still has a house on the lake.) Many were built between 1870 and 1920 and remain elegant reminders of a bygone era.
SheBuysTravel Tip: The tours travel counter-clockwise around the lake, so sit on the starboard (right-hand) side of the boat for the best views of the mansions along the lakefront.
3. Stroll Along the Geneva Lake Shore Path
The Geneva Lake Shore Path runs alongside the lake and through the front yard of every one of the mansions that line the lake. In some spots, it feels like a nature walk with trees all around and the lake lapping at the shore. In other spots, it’s a beautifully manicured path that offers an up-close look at the mansion at the top of the hill.
Stop at the Lake Geneva Visitor Center to pick up a map that shows the few spots where you can park a car to take a walk. And note that there are very few places to get a drink of water or take a potty break. So go before you go and bring your own water bottle.
While you can walk the entire path, it would take the full day. Pick an entry spot where you can park, then walk for an hour or so before turning around and walking back to your car.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Download a self-guided audio tour that is GPS-activated, so the information automatically plays as you pass a landmark.
4. Geek Out at the Yerkes Observatory
You don’t have to be a space geek to visit here. It’s a don’t-miss thing to do in Lake Geneva for history geeks, architecture geeks and just about anyone who has ever looked up at the night sky and wondered what’s out there. There’s even something here for garden geeks since the grounds were landscaped by the venerable Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of many famous green spaces, including Central Park in New York City.
The observatory, located in nearby Williams Bay, is home to the world’s largest refractory telescope — it’s 63 feet long and weighs 20 tons. Even better, the place is staffed by people who share an infectious enthusiasm for the cosmos, history and architecture.
The observatory was built in the 1890s by University of Chicago astrophysicist George Ellery Hale using money supplied by railroad tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes. For more than a century, the observatory and its massive telescope were the epicenter of space discovery. It drew the best and brightest in the business, from Albert Einstein to Carl Sagan.
You can only visit by taking a tour led by one of the observatory’s enthusiastic and entertaining guides. They will keep you spellbound with tales of the history, highlight architectural features designed to make fun of the founders and funders or lead you on an invigorating hike through the 50 acres of grounds.
5. Be Mesmerized at the Tristan Crist Magic Theatre
Like a good Vegas magic show, the Tristan Crist Magic Show is filled with flashing lights, pounding rock and roll music and tricks that make you ask, “How did he do that???” Unlike a huge Las Vegas show, the Tristan Crist show happens in a small, intimate space where it’s possible to keep a close eye on how he does what he does — and still not be able to see the sleight of hand.
You’ll see the usuals — he cuts a woman in two — and some tricks I’ve never seen before, such as when he makes a helicopter appear and, later, a Harley Davidson motorcycle disappear.
Expect the magician to ask for volunteers to help with some of the magic. When my friend ended up on stage helping with a trick, the look of surprise on her face was the best trick of all.
6. Feed a Nilgai at Safari Lake Geneva
The brainchild of “Jungle” Jay Christie, this drive-through zoo is the place where the humans are in the cage (their cars) and the animals roam free.
The place is a refuge for wild animals, some of which are nearly extinct in the wild. They are free to roam the grounds wherever they wish. Visitors are restricted to their cars and a designated gravel and dirt road.
It is exhilarating to see these creatures walk right up to your car. Animals in residence range from the easily recognizable giraffes, camels and zebras to the less well-known eland (the world’s largest and slowest antelope), zebu (a Sri Lankan cow) and nilgai (an Asian antelope).
What NOT to Do When Feeding the Animals
When you arrive, you can buy buckets of food for $5 a pop. Then, roll down your car windows and hold out the bucket for the animals. That’s how I learned that the animals are much more adept at this feeding process than I was.
The first time, I held the bucket out the window and the nilgai immediately knocked it out of my hand and onto the ground where he and his pals snarfed it all down. On my next stop, I held the bucket tighter and only put it halfway out the window, resting it on my car door. The alpaca dove into the bucket, spraying food all over me and my car, much like someone who does a belly flop into a pool and drenches everyone nearby.
So much for feeding the animals! That meant that the rest of my meander through the park could be spent studying the animals, many of which studied me right back through the car windows.
This is one of the must-see things to do in Lake Geneva, especially if you’re visiting with kids. Once you’re inside, you can drive the circuit as many times as you like. Most people spend about 90 minutes in the park.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Entrance is by reservation only. And since this is a popular spot, the park recommends making a reservation at least two weeks before you plan to visit, especially if you want to visit on a summer weekend.
7. Rent a Kayak or SUP
Partaking in the water sports offered on Geneva Lake is another way to get a little exercise along with your close-up look at how the 1 percent lives. Even on a chilly early fall day, I enjoyed paddling around the docks, looking at the beautiful wooden boats that matched the beautifully landscaped mansions and marveling at how warm and clear the waters of the lake were.
Kayak and stand-up paddleboards are available for rent from Clear Water Outdoor.
8. Shop in Downtown Lake Geneva
Outdoor activities don’t have to require exertion!
On summer days, this vibrant downtown will be crowded with people window shopping along Main Street, eating ice cream or munching on fudge as they stroll along. There are benches to rest and people watch and plenty of boutiques for buying souvenirs and resort wear.
9. Pick (or Buy) Apples at Royal Oak Farm Apple Orchard
Open seasonally from mid-August through November, this charming spot is about 20 minutes south of Lake Geneva, just over the state line in Harvard, IL.
The 160-acre family-owned orchard has 20,000 apple trees growing more than 30 varieties of apples. It also grows pumpkins, gourds and squash. You can pick your own or do what I did: stop in the store and buy the apples someone else picked.
If you bring kids, expect to stay awhile. There’s a cute play area, a train to ride and baby animals to pet in the petting zoo. If I had the time, I would have stayed for lunch at the onsite restaurant and had a piece of homemade apple pie for dessert.
Royal Oak also is home to the country’s only apple tree maze, Amaze ‘N Apples, in the fall.
10. Take a Hike at Big Foot Beach State Park
Named for Big Foot, a Potawatomi leader whose tribe was forced to leave the area in 1836, this 271-acre park sits on the shore of Geneva Lake. There are 6.5 miles of hiking trails, campsites for tents and RVs, a swimming beach and picnic and playground areas. A year-round park, this is the place for snowshoeing in the winter.
SheBuysTravel Tip: If you plan to fish at Ceylon Lagoon, the park will loan you fishing equipment for free, but everyone over the age of 16 needs a fishing license.
11. Visit the Geneva Lake Museum
I didn’t have time to visit, but my friend Randy Mink, who went to the Geneva Lake Museum, said he was pleasantly surprised by it. He visited after taking the mailboat tour and seeing the historic mansions.
The museum showcases furniture and stained glass windows from some of the opulent estates. He especially enjoyed the exhibits on the mailboat, the former Playboy Club hotel and Lake Geneva’s ties to gangsters in the 1920s and 30s.
12. Hop on an E-Bike
You can rent bikes to explore on your own or take a guided bike tour from Avant Cycle. Lake Geneva is home to six officially designated Wisconsin State Rustic Roads. Or you can ride around Geneva Lake on the winding, woodsy roads exploring the natural beauty of the area.
13. Play a Round of Golf
Golf is hot in Lake Geneva, which boasts eight golf courses:
Grand Geneva Resort and Spa has two 18-hole courses — The Brute, a par 72 course that is considered one of the best in Wisconsin, and The Highlands, which was designed by Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye and then updated in 1996 by Bob Cupp and again in 2006 by Bob Lohmann.
Lake Lawn Resort’s Majestic Oaks Golf Course is known for its deep sand bunkers and subtle undulations.
Geneva National Resort boasts 54 holes of award-winning golf designed by golf legends Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Lee Trevino.
Hawk’s View Golf Club has Como Crossings, the only 5-star rated course in Lake Geneva, Como Crossings, and the only family-friendly, Top 10 Nationally rated Par 3 course, Barn Hollow.
Abbey Springs Golf Course in nearby Fontana is on the south shore of Geneva Lake.
Evergreen Golf Club in nearby Elkhorn is a public course and the most affordable place to golf in the area. It was voted the best public golf course in Walworth County WI.
14. Cruise to the Victorian Summer Retreat of a Chicago Beer Baron
Chicago Beer Baron Conrad Seipp built Black Point Estate in 1888 as a summer retreat with enchanting gardens and exquisite views of the lake.
Guided tours begin with a 45-minute cruise out to this elegant estate, the same way the Seipp family would arrive. Then you’ll get a chance to see the first two floors of the mansion featuring 20 rooms. Admire the Queen Anne design, Victorian furniture and designer touches from subsequent generations. Take in the cool breezes off the lake on the veranda and feel what it’s like to be among the rich and famous.
15. Zip Through the Trees
SheBuysTravel contributor Mira Temkin says one of the best Lake Geneva attractions is a zipline tour. Head to Lake Geneva Ziplines & Adventures for a zipline tour, hiking trails, biking and lots more. At the Lake Geneva Ziplines & Adventures, you can experience an authentic Eco Adventure with eight different ziplines, sky bridges, ropes challenge and mountain biking. Your whole family will enjoy the challenge.
16. Soar in a Hot Air Balloon
Another way to enjoy the lake is from above on a hot air balloon ride. Go up, up and away as you gently glide over Geneva Lake with the Lake Geneva Balloon Company.
There’s nothing quite like a ride in a hot air balloon!
17. Ride the East Troy Electric Railroad
This electric train is operated from the East Troy Train Museum, about 16 miles north of Lake Geneva. The 10-mile ride aboard the East Troy Electric Railroad takes you through the fields, orchards and rural farms of Southeast Wisconsin.
The treat at the end of the line: It’s an easy walk to The Elegant Farmer. As locals know, the apple pie here is baked in a paper bag and just might be the best apple pie you will ever put in your mouth.
The bakers discovered this baking technique quite by accident, but it works. The pie comes out crisper and more luscious. People (including me!) drive for hours to buy one of these pies!
There will be variations — apple-rhubard, apple-peach, apple-blueberry, etc. But stick with the original. Or, if you simply must have a specialty pie, buy two — one specialty and one original. Your tastebuds will thank me, even if your waistline doesn’t.
18. Browse the Farmer’s Market
You can’t beat a farmer’s market in the center of America’s farmland. The options include the standard veggies, but also feature apples from surrounding orchards, flowers from local growers and, because it’s Wisconsin, local cheeses.
There also are an array of unique, handmade arts and crafts for sale, along with live entertainment and ready-to-eat food and drink. The market is open from 1 am-1 pm on Thursdays from May – October.
19. Taste the Beer and Wines
Wisconsin is well known for its cheese and its beer. So no visit to the state is complete without sampling some of the local beers and wines.
A few recommendations:
Topsy Turvy Brewery: Besides its fun name, this brewery is located inside a beautiful historic church in downtown Lake Geneva.
Geneva Tap House: This downtown Lake Geneva brewery offers, literally, a wallful of beer! There are 50 self-service taps lined up on the wall dispensing beers, seltzers and wines. Sample to your heart’s delight. The Tap House also serves snacks and sandwiches.
Studio Winery: A winery and distillery together, this is the place to find Geneva Lakes Distilling. Sample wines and spirits and enjoy light bites while listening to live music.
Things to Do in Lake Geneva in the Winter
While Lake Geneva is best known as a summer destination, there is year-round to be had, with both indoor and outdoor activities.
That’s right. The temperatures may drop below zero, but that is no reason for a hearty Midwesterner to stay indoors! Instead, they strap on snowshoes, put cleats on their hiking boots and head out for winter fun. (I say “they” because, although I am a born and bred Midwesterner, that winter-loving gene skipped me. I head south to Florida or South Padre Island TX to wait for spring.)
Here are the ways to celebrate winter in Lake Geneva, if you’re into winter:
Snowshoeing, Cross Country Skiing and Winter Hiking
Rent snowshoes or skis at Clear Water Outdoor and head out to explore Big Foot Beach State Park. Or just strap a set of cleats to your hiking boots and hit the Lake Shore Path for an entirely different view of the lake and the historic mansions decked out in their holiday finest.
If you prefer groomed trails, the Grand Geneva and Lake Lawn resorts have tailored trails and rent cross-country skis.
Downhill Skiing, Snowboarding, Sledding and Tubing
Skiing in the flatlands of the upper Midwest? You bet. There’s a snow hill at the Grand Geneva Resort and another about a half-hour away at Wilmot Mountain.
If you plan to take the kids, read our tips on snow tubing with toddlers before you go!
In the Lake Geneva area, Geneva Lake, Lake Como and Delavan Lake are all beacons for ice fishermen. But really, any lake in the upper Midwest that freezes in the winter will suddenly be populated with little huts all over the ice. That’s those winter-loving Midwesterners out there, hovering over a hole cut in the ice and waiting for a fish to bite. Or perhaps they’re just drinking beer. It depends on who you ask.
Several of the Lake Geneva resorts set up skating rinks each winter, complete with skate rentals, including the Abbey, Lake Lawn and Grand Geneva. Or bring your own skates to the Williams Bay Ice Rink at Edgewater Park.
Ice Castles at Geneva National Resort
One of only five Ice Castles in the United States, this outdoor adventure features an illuminated ice kingdom with frozen slides, crawl spaces, a cave and fountains built into a frozen outdoor landscape.
SheBuysTravel Tip: This is a weather-dependent activity. Check the website for tickets and information before heading to Lake Geneva.
If you happen to visit at the end of January, you’ll be able to watch state championship teams of snow sculptors competing in the only national snow sculpting championship in the United States. The sculptors work at Riviera Plaza and Flat Iron Park on the shore of Geneva Lake. Their works will be on display until they melt.
Where to Stay in Lake Geneva Wisconsin
The family-friendly Grand Geneva Resort & Spa is the jewel of Lake Geneva. Recently remodeled, the resort features 358 luxurious and comfortable rooms.
Enjoy views of the pool, water fountains and two golf courses when you sit on your balcony. Dine in the onsite Chop House for great steaks, Ristoranté Brissago for Italian food or Grand Café for a quick bite or brunch. Check out the onsite WELL Spa and Salon with a fitness center and climbing walls to keep up your routine.
Located on the shores of Lake Geneva, The Abbey has a full-service AVANI Spa and a marina with boat rentals. Onsite dining includes the 240° West, which serves steaks, seafood and small plates, and the more casual Waterfront, Café Latte, Bar West and Gazebo Grill.
There are three pools, one of which is adults-only, an arcade and a fitness center. Make s’mores any time of the year and go ice skating in the winter.
If you’re bringing the whole family to Lake Geneva, stay at Timber Ridge on the grounds of the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa. You’ll have a blast taking off down the Moose Mountain Falls, floating on the lazy river or playing in the outdoor pool.
Grab a day pass that includes fun at the water park and a hotel room for a few hours. If you want to check in for the night, Timber Ridge accommodations are perfect for families, complete with a kitchen and one or two bedrooms. More fun and games await you in the arcade room.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a story written by Mira Temkin.