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Wisconsin offers some of the most varied and beautiful terrain in the Midwest. People from outside the Great Lakes states are always surprised to discover that the eastern edge of Wisconsin is America’s third coast, with dramatic bluffs over Lakes Superior and Michigan, massive ships docked at the ports, and placid beaches. The Northwoods, a region stretching across the top third of the state, is a stunning expanse of pines and maples riddled with freshwater lakes. In the southwest, rocky buttes and rolling hills cover the Driftless Area. There’s a reason outdoor activities such as hiking, fishing, ATV riding, and cross-country skiing are so big here.
But the landscape isn’t the only appeal. Milwaukee buzzes with energy and creativity. In Madison, the state’s food-obsessed capital, the glorious farmers’ market supplies world-caliber restaurants. Whether you’re passing through tiny towns tucked amid the cornfields or eating Friday night fish fry at a lakeside supper club, it’s hard not to fall in love with Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has two major airports with international flights — Milwaukee (MKE) and Madison/Dane County (MSN) — as well as regional airports in Appleton (ATW), Eau Claire (EAU), Green Bay (GRB), La Crosse (LSE), and Rhinelander (RHI), all of which primarily connect to the main Midwestern hubs. Amtrak’s Empire Builder train crosses Wisconsin en route from Chicago to Seattle, making a number of stops in the state, and Greyhound and Amtrak Thruway offer many more intercity routes. If your destination is the vast Northwoods or other rural parts of Wisconsin, you’ll definitely want to have your own car — perhaps with a boat in tow.
Wisconsin’s four seasons shout at you in all caps. In winter, there are snowdrifts that reach your shoulder and temperatures below the freezing point. But Wisconsinites make the most of the season with activities such as the annual snow sculpting competition in Lake Geneva, ice fishing in the middle of the massive Lake Winnebago, or weekly snowshoe baseball games in the villages of the Northwoods. Summer is just as dramatic, a time of year when Wisconsinites spend as little time as possible indoors. You’ll find arts festivals and farmers’ markets all summer long in the cities and fishing boats on every lake. Nearly every Native American tribe hosts a powwow that brings people from all over for dancing, singing, and food.
The farther north you go, the shorter the spring and fall. That doesn’t make either season any less lovely. Every plant in the state rushes to put out its leaves and flowers in April and May. Fall comes on fast in a glorious profusion of reds and yellows — not to mention Oktoberfest celebrations all over the state.
Milwaukee has spectacular views of Lake Michigan, ornate factories and churches, and a thrumming nightlife scene. With a new symphony hall, improvements to the Milwaukee Art Museum and America’s Black Holocaust Museum, and a patio-lined Riverwalk through the heart of town, the city grows more charming every year. You can stroll along the shore at Lakeside Park, kayak on the Milwaukee River, tour houses designed by famous architects, or spend the day boutique-hopping. Milwaukee’s old nickname, Brew City, endures in the dozens of microbreweries and pubs all over town.
Just north of Green Bay, a pointy little finger of land juts into Lake Michigan. That’s Door County, whose rugged coasts and 35 islands are a popular summer destination for city-dwelling Wisconsinites. The area is rural enough to have preserved the architecture and culture of its Belgian and Scandinavian settlers. Check out the Sturgeon Bay lighthouse, the Belgian roadside chapels (and rice pie) surrounding Brussels, the old harbor at Ephraim, and the Stavkirke, a breathtaking recreation of a Nordic church, on Washington Island.
If you’re accustomed to the Midwestern plains, the limestone towers and undulating hills of the Driftless Area may cause a shock: The glaciers that flattened the center of North America missed this 24,000-square-mile region. In the Wisconsin stretch, the winding Kickapoo River and the wide Mississippi have carved out their own valleys. Tucked amid the bluffs are thousands of farms, settled by the Amish and hippie back-to-the-landers. You can spend days meandering around towns such as Viroqua and Prairie du Chien, hiking and fishing for trout on the streams, and stopping to taste local wines and cheeses.