- Distance from Chicago: 80 miles
- Best time: June to September
- Best for: FamilyGirl's GetawayRomantic
From Gilded Age reminders and glacier-made beauty to spa going and stargazing, Lake Geneva feels a world away from the Windy City. In the early twentieth century, the area was dubbed "Newport of the West" for its wildly extravagant summer mansions—many of which you can spy by walking on the public access Shore Path or boating across the lake—built by wealthy Chicagoans, the likes of Wrigley, Schwinn, and Maytag. These days, the Lake Geneva area, which includes adjacent Fontana and Williams Bay, welcomes visitors for rest and relaxation year-round. – By Elisa Drake
Lake Geneva Cheat Sheet
View a printable list of all sights, restaurants, entertainment, and hotels from this itinerary. View
1The quaint, small-town shops of Lake Geneva are worth a browse, so be sure to stop into the Cornerstone Shoppe & Gallery. There's plenty of local influence among the gifts and home décor, such as paintings by area artist William Nelson.
2Popeye's opened in 1972 (no relation to the chain) and is now a genuine Lake Geneva institution. Its famous slow-roasted rotisserie chicken, pork, and lamb and its popular fish fry all come with stellar lake views and plenty of nautical kitsch like treasure map-topped tables.
3While planning this trip, check the night-viewing schedule at Yerkes Observatory. Multiple times a month, this 90-foot, domed telescope opens to small groups for stargazing in the evening (9–10:30 p.m.), a real celestial eye-opener when you're beyond the city lights. From Lake Geneva, it's only about six miles straight west on Main Street to the adjacent town of Williams Bay. Alternately, make your own star-gazing evening simply by stepping outside.
Did you know: The Grand Geneva Resort & Spa began in 1968 as Hugh Hefner's original Playboy Club & Resort. Look for the hidden Playboy bunny icon in a large painting down the hall from the hotel lobby.
1Pack up for a morning of outdoor exploring and head to Scuttlebutts for breakfast at a table by the window for prime lake-watching. Then enjoy family-recipe Swedish pancakes, skillet dishes, omelets, and fresh-baked muffins.
2Walk just down Wrigley Street to the lakeshore to get a sense of how this small town started as a summer-home haven for Chicago's elite on a walk around the Geneva Lake Shore Path, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area. The 20.6-mile path winds around Geneva Lake and affords views of the mansions that circle it. (A map called "Walk, Talk and Gawk" divides the distance into seven shorter stints and can be purchased at the Cornerstone Shoppe and other retail locations.) Head south to make it to your next stop.
3 About a mile and a half into your stroll along the Lake Shore Path, you'll come to Big Foot Beach State Park. Although you could keep on hiking right on through the 6.5 miles of color-coded, wildflower-filled trails, you've earned the right for some lounging. Lay down a towel in the grassy area or dip into the crystal-clear lake in the small swimming area.
4Walk back into town (or call Lakes Area Taxi: 262-248-4770) for what could be called a quintessential Wisconsin soup: beer cheese soup made with the home brew at Sprecher's. Choose it for your all-you-can-eat soup and salad lunch special. Or try the crispy, freshly fried tilapia taco. Thirsty? Order a locally brewed Sprecher's beer or soda.
5Combine dessert and a lake outing with Lake Geneva Cruise Line. On the 75-minute Ice Cream Social Tour aboard the turn-of-the-century-style Grand Belle of Geneva, you'll devour your customized ice cream sundae while learning about the second-deepest lake in Wisconsin and some of its most famous waterfront residents.
6Your next stop takes you for some much-deserved pampering with the 90-minute 5 Diamond Pedicure at the Grand Geneva's WELL Spa + Salon. Just picture it: around your sore neck and shoulders, a heated lavender-scented wrap; across your tired eyes, a lavender eye pillow; in your head, soothing tones from a customized iPod play list; and from your knees to your toes, a relaxing massage.
7Get fancied up for dinner and head to one of Lake Geneva's traditional faves, Baker House. Built in 1885, and now also an elegant inn, this historic mansion has beautifully restored inlaid wood floors, hand-carved fireplace mantles, rare tiles, and, especially, its impeccable hospitality. Dine on signature crab cakes and made-to-order sizzling skillet dishes.
1Whatever's growing at nearby Wisconsin farms is what you'll be eating for breakfast at the cheerful Simple Café, with its sunny yellow walls and mint-green chairs. Cross your fingers for the scrumptious brioche French toast, whose cinnamon baked apples come from Hafs Road Orchard in Genoa city, or the harvest frittata, chock-full of local roasted veggies.
2Now fueled up, get back out on the lake one more time in a kayak or stand-up paddle board from Fontana Paddle Company, on the west shore of Geneva Lake. No experience? No problem. The pros can provide a quick lesson before you set out on an adventure.
3On your way out of town, make your last stop the Dancing Horses Show, which you really need to experience to fully appreciate. Elaborately dressed riders and decorated horses showcase their dazzling and daring skills in this 90-minute show.
Where to Stay
If it's true romance you're after, then book a room at the no-kids-allowed SevenOaks (rooms from $239/night). England natives Leon and Amanda Lavallin turned an old '50s-era motel into this English-style bed and breakfast whose nine suites each have their own entrance, fireplace, two-person soaking tub, and porch, finished off perfectly with wooden rocking chairs.
For families, groups, and couples looking for more of a resort setting, the 90-acre Abbey (rooms from $239/night) is our pick. Besides popular indoor and outdoor pools, a whole host of kid-oriented options and activities fills the summer schedule, including crafts, lawn games, bonfires, and poolside movies, not to mention babysitting services for moms and dads hankering for some alone time.
When to Go
With "lake" in its name, it's easy to assume Lake Geneva is a summer tourist town—and you'd be mostly right. After all, summer is boating, beach, and barbecue season. It's outdoor dining time and lounging at the pool time.
Winter can be equally as inviting, though, when the streets quiet down and the restaurants are a bit calmer, when hotels and inns often run off-season specials, and when the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa pulls out all the stops for its holiday festival and festivities.
How to Get There
By car: It's a straightforward, about two-hour drive to Lake Geneva from Chicago. You could take I-90, but we recommend avoiding the toll road and simply using I-90/94 North to Exit 344 for Route 50 (WI-50/75th Street). Head west on WI-50 for about a half hour, and it'll take you through town.
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