Lake Geneva is the classic city escape. And for Chicagoans, it’s been the place to get away for more than 100 years.
There are so many things to do in Lake Geneva. Whether you’re just grabbing a bite or perusing the cute shops in Downtown Lake Geneva or out on a boat on one of the many boat tours of Lake Geneva, it’s a great place for a Midwest weekend escape.
Things to do in Lake Geneva
Years ago, I had swung by downtown Lake Geneva during a road trip up in Wisconsin and I think we stopped for lunch. But unfortunately, since we hardly spent any time there, I can barely remember it.
Now my partner and I were getting away for a quick escape. Located in southeast Wisconsin and just a two-hour drive from Chicago, Lake Geneva is like a world away. No matter what time of year, it’s a great destination for a weekend getaway. It’s a place to unwind, re-charge and enjoy nature.
Boat tours Lake Geneva
To get a great overview, the best thing to do is take one of the boat tours of Lake Geneva. The area is probably most well known for its jaw-dropping estates built by Chicago notables after the Great Chicago Fire. Many of these early mansions, and newer modern homes, are best viewed from the lake itself.
We took the one-hour Geneva Bay boat tour with Lake Geneva Cruise Line (starting at $29 for adults, and $16 for kids). They offer a multitude of ways to experience the lake, including a live-narrated, two-hour full lake tour (with an on-board bar). We really enjoyed all the interesting facts and tidbits that our guide pointed out about the various magnates’ homes with a bit of history mixed in.
They also offer a truly unique U.S. Mailboat tour that allows you tag along as they deliver the letters and parcels to homes on the lake. With over 100 years of mail service, they still deliver to about 75 homes on a daily basis during the summer. This is one of only a few places left in the country where mail is still delivered by boat.
And of course, you can also rent your own boat and drift around the lake for the day. Elmer’s Lake Geneva rents out everything from pontoon boats to speedboats to catamarans. Prices start around $250.
Walk Around the Lake Geneva Shore Path
One of my favorite things here and one of the coolest (and free!) attractions in Lake Geneva is the 26-mile Lake Geneva Shore Path, a walking path that circles the entire lake. One of the neatest bits is that it cuts right through the back yards of all the jaw-dropping, private waterfront estates. You get to see some pretty cool homes up-close and gawk at the lovely landscaping. We only got to do a mile or two as the sun set over the lake, but I would love to return and do the entire thing! I love looking at homes and all the different design choices, so this was a real treat for me.
Explore Lake Geneva’s Scenic Trails
Lake Geneva is full of many scenic trails and nature areas for hiking and biking in summer, or cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and ice-skating in winter. Lake Geneva Canopy Tours rents snowshoes for $15 per day including access to their nine miles of Arbor Trails.
Chill at the Beach in Lake Geneva
In summer, you can hit up local beaches and state parks like the in-town Riviera Beach, the small but picturesque Williams Bay Beach or the Village of Fontana Beach, and the more off-the-beaten-path Big Foot Beach State Park, which occupies 900 feet of shoreline south of town with campgrounds and plenty of nature trails.
Explore Downtown Lake Geneva
A simple stroll through downtown Lake Geneva’s charming business district is a relaxing way to spend an afternoon, hopping from local shops to cafes. It’s a charming cluster of old brick buildings with boutiques, restaurants and ice cream shops.
Zipline in Lake Geneva
Lake Geneva Canopy Tours not only offers fun and scenic zipline adventures through the trees, but also nine miles of hiking and biking trails plus snowshoeing adventures in the winter. The 100-acre forest offers views of Lake Como and the surrounding countryside, plus a 1,200-foot racing zipline for those who still feel the need for speed. Lake Geneva Canopy Tours is even open all winter long offering clear views of the sky as you fly through the bare trees.
Hot Air Balloon Ride in Lake Geneva
Hot air ballooning is one of the most unique things to do in Lake Geneva. Lake Geneva Balloon Company offers a unique vantage point as you float through the skies at sunrise or sunset. With around a dozen takeoff and landing locations scattered around the area and a perfect safety record, the one-hour journey ends with a small post-flight champagne toast on the patio of Lake Geneva Pie Company!
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to actually go up because it was too windy the morning we had scheduled. They are very careful and conditions have to be very calm. I was so bummed!
Tour an Ice Castle in Lake Geneva
Lake Geneva is one of just six cities in North America to host the amazing Ice Castles, an award-winning frozen attraction. The experience is built using hundreds of thousands of icicles hand-placed by professional ice artists. The castles include breathtaking LED-lit sculptures, frozen thrones, ice-carved tunnels, slides, fountains and much more. Set on Riviera Beach in downtown Lake Geneva, it’s a really fun treat for visitors this winter. Ice Castles opens in early January and remains open through late February or early March, depending on the weather of course!
Try a Hovercraft
Get adventurous with a different kind of ride. Try out a hovercraft ride during the Lake Geneva Hovercraft Challenge held on January 26. Rides are $20 for adults and $15 for children under 12 years old. Come and cheer on the 360 Shoot-out and the Lighted Hovercraft Parade.
Winterfest Lake Geneva
This nine-day festival offers more than a dozen fun events and activities for all ages like human dog sled races, a wine pairing dinner, magic shows, helicopter rides, live music and entertainment, and a winter carnival at The Mountain Top at Grand Geneva Resort. Celebrate winter at Lake Geneva’s annual Winterfest January 26 – February 3.
Snow Sculpting Championship
Watch teams of the most talented sculptors and artists from across the country create works of art out of 8-foot wide by 9-foot tall snow blocks. The United States National Snow Sculpting Championship takes place January 30 – February 2. After about three days’ work, competitors will vote to name the best of the best. There’s also a “people’s choice” winner based on ballots available to the public at the competition.
Go Skiing or Snowboarding
Can’t afford a trip to the larger ski resorts out west? No worries! Strap into skis or a snowboard at the Mountain Top at Grand Geneva Resort or nearby Wilmot Mountain and enjoy the slopes at these easily accessible and affordable ski resorts. Plus, don’t worry about the forecast — they make their own snow.
Fly a Kite in Lake Geneva
I’m not talking about some little kiddie kites. Check out the gigantic kite displays and marvel at airborne performances by world-class kite teams at Lake Lawn Resort’s Sky Circus on Ice February 15-17. Take part in hands-on kite making workshops, expert-led kite flying lessons and family winter activities. Plus expert ice and snow carvers will display their works of art Downtown Delavan and along the shores of Lake Lawn Resort.
Ice Skating & Sledding in Lake Geneva
This year, an ice-skating rink has been added to Flat Iron Park in downtown Lake Geneva. Ice skaters can also find rinks at The Abbey Resort, The Ridge Hotel, Lake Lawn Resort and Grand Geneva Resort. The best sledding hills are at Big Foot Beach State Park and near the parking lot at Sage and Mill Streets in downtown Lake Geneva.
Where to Eat in Lake Geneva
There is a surprising variety of good places to eat in and around Lake Geneva. There are a ton of family-friendly bars and restaurants, but there’s also some more unique spots serving up some a nice variety of food.
Barrique Bistro and Wine Bar
Once we got to town and dropped our bags, our first stop was to Barrique Bistro. Situated right on the lakefront, they focus on fresh, made-to-order dishes with a fair bit of vegan and gluten free options. Although they have an international wine selection with 75+ offerings by the glass and bottle, we opted for a couple of beers from their menu of 60+ craft brews and boutique producers. It’s a cozy place for an intimate lunch and in summer, they have a great outdoor patio facing the lake.
Boxed and Burlap
I wish I’d known about this place, but it comes highly recommended. Boxed and Burlap is a super-cute coffee shop located inside a converted farmhouse. Their coffee is custom roasted and cannot be found in any other mid-western coffee shop. The coffeehouse offers a full service espresso bar along with a selection of tea and pastry items. Plus there’s a greenhouse attached where they offer greenery and do a Farmer’s Market.
We enjoyed a really nice Italian-inspired dinner at Sopra Bistro in downtown Lake Geneva. It felt like a convivial, neighborhood spot with a friendly staff. It might as well have been a nice, neighborhood joint in Chicago. So it made sense to find out that the Executive chef/owner, Simon Cumming, had worked at some top Chicago restaurants before moving to Lake Geneva to open Sopra.
Our server Brandon was the perfect mix of friendly and knowledgeable…and what he didn’t know, he found out for us. We loved the creamy Burrata special thanks to a lemony extra virgin olive oil drizzle that cut through the creaminess with a nice, bright acidity. Chris has the farfalle with sauteed tiger shrimp, bacon, jalapenos, red onion, garlic, white wine, and macerated tomatoes and I tried the paccheri pasta with cremini mushrooms, sweet peas, ham, and a parmesan cream reduction. Both were tasty and hit the spot on a chilly autumn evening.
Before we left town we enjoyed some wood-fired pizza at the airy and lively Oakfire. I’m on a pizza kick lately (mostly because Chris enjoys it so much), but more specifically, oven-fired Neapolitan style pizzas. Oakfire hit the mark. The space is open and fun. The service was super friendly and down-to-earth. And the pizzas were delicious. Do NOT miss the nutella pizza. Treat yourself!
Lake Geneva Cooking School
My friend and fellow travel/food writer Julie from Inspiring Kitchen loves Lake Geneva. Recently she visited and took a cooking class:
Leaving our busy lives behind as we escape to this lakefront resort town means looking forward to dining at the many restaurants in Lake Geneva. A trip in the summertime should also include a visit to the local farmer’s market. While you’re there, stop by the Lake Geneva Cooking School and choose from one of their many hands-on classes. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the opportunity to shop the farmer’s market as the source for the freshest ingredients for your class. Get your apron on and learn some new tips and techniques from Chef John Bogan. A meal of your creations follows your lesson.
Hotels in Lake Geneva
From luxury resorts to quaint bed and breakfasts, there are many hotels in Lake Geneva offering something for everyone.
Bella Vista Suites
We stayed at the Bella Vista Suites. With the perfect location right across the street from the lake, we were able to leave our rental car and walk everywhere. The all-suite hotel was bright and fresh-feeling, but eerily empty this time of year (we were there in fall…maybe a week before peak color). Our room was clean and simple. The best part was the balcony facing the lake – great views!
The Ridge Hotel
Megan from the Moderately Excited travel blog recommends the Ridge Hotel:
A quick 7-minute drive from the downtown area, the gorgeous, newly renovated Ridge Hotel is one of the best places to stay in Lake Geneva, WI for those looking to get off the beaten path, but not sacrifice upscale amenities or convenience. The hotel is situated on smaller Lake Como, but offers pre-arranged shuttle service to Main Street and other points of interest; the location also keeps rates reasonable.
In addition to being dog-friendly, the hotel has an on-site spa, dry sauna and eucalyptus steam room as well as a huge indoor pool (plus outdoor pool for warmer months). Live music and great food and drink in the on-site restaurant, Crafted Americana, and café and lounge Bean + Vine offer ideal spots to relax and unwind year-round, while seasonal activities like the Igloo Experience, outdoor Bar 55, bike rentals and the newly acquired marina give you reasons to come back.
Timber Ridge Lodge
Alicia from Making Time for Mommy recommends the family-friendly Timber Ridge Lodge:
Timber Ridge Lodge is a great place to stay in Lake Geneva. The suites are spacious, with a kitchen, a separate bedroom space, and a large jet tub for soaking after a long day of enjoying everything Lake Geneva has to offer.
The Lodge’s main draw is their Moose Mountain Falls Indoor Waterpark with water slides, a lazy river, a larger pool, and a separate children’s area. Families will also enjoy all the other amenities including an arcade, luxurious spa, golf, and horseback riding within walking distance. Go here to find more family-friendly activities in Lake Geneva.
During my stay, I was a guest of VISIT Lake Geneva. As always, my writing and opinions are my own.