Every year around mid-November, Midwesterners grumble about the same thing. “It’s too dark too early!” is repeated ad nauseum, and for good reason. When Daylight Savings Time kicks in, the sun sets an hour earlier, and suddenly it’s pitch black before the work day ends. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, we’re ready to head someplace where the sun shines more than eight hours a day.
Fortunately, there’s a cure for those seasonal blues: holiday lights.
Lots and lots of holiday lights.
Add an historic mansion overflowing with evergreens, a greenhouse bursting with poinsettias, a downtown sparkling with brightly-colored murals and a food scene that’s getting better by the bite, and top it off with a smattering of friendly locals and you’ve got a recipe for a fantastic holiday weekend in Janesville.
I spent three days immersed in this southern Wisconsin town, and I learned that Janesville is a wonderful Christmas destination. That’s not only because of how much there is to do, but also because everywhere I went I met people who epitomized the phrase “Midwest nice.”
If you’re ready to get in the holiday spirit, let me introduce you to Janesville Wisconsin.
My visit was hosted by Janesville Convention and Visitors Bureau, but all opinions are my own and not influenced at all by millions of twinkling lights, a six-generation brewery, or Scotch eggs.
Related: find more of the best Christmas towns in the USA
Things To Do in Janesville Wisconsin
Holiday Tree Show at Lincoln-Tallman House
The Lincoln-Tallman House has been a fixture in Janesville since 1857, four years after the city was incorporated. William Tallman’s family lived there until 1915 and it’s been a museum since 1951. The Italianate mansion is in beautiful shape, from the gasoliers that were installed when the house was built – and a decade before gas lighting was available – to the short bed Lincoln squeezed into when he visited, even down to the sheets he slept on. Astoundingly, eighty-five percent of the furnishings are original.
During the holidays, it seems like eighty-five percent of the house is covered in trees.
That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. The mansion is turned into a gay twinkling forest of more than one hundred and thirty trees. They’re decorated by local businesses and families and add a creative warmth to the Victorian-era home.
Open-house-style tours of the Holiday Tree Show at Lincoln-Tallman House are $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 5 to 10 and tickets can be purchased online. The house is open Thursdays through Sundays until December 30, 2021 and closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Holiday Light Show at Rotary Botanical Gardens
Talk about dazzling: Rotary Botanical Gardens’ Holiday Light Show shimmers and glitters with more than a million lights. A two-thirds-mile long path is lined with multi-colored milk-cartoned luminaria, leading the way past snowmen and penguins, windmills and palm trees.
The forest is literally draped with lights, and some of the trees are so tall they had to use a bow and arrow to shoot the strands over the high branches. There are tunnels made of arches strewn with lights and a gazebo decorated with snowflakes.
Everywhere you look is magic.
It’s a magnificent, almost spiritual experience, especially when you see the lights reflected in the lagoon. I dare any Scrooge to take a stroll through these holiday decorations; I guarantee those Bah Humbugs will be replaced with Happy Holidays.
The Holiday Light Show is the biggest fundraiser of the year for Rotary Botanical Gardens, and it’s open through December 30, 2021. Check their schedule and get your tickets online; advance purchase is required.
Janesville’s Jolly Jingle
No holiday celebration is complete without a) a parade and b) fireworks. I happened to be in Janesville during their Jolly Jingle weekend, and they covered those bases as well as a few others. There were trolley rides, crafts for kids, and a holiday art show.
Revelers waiting for the Friday fireworks could warm up with s’mores and cocoa at Town Square, and kids scrambled for candy during Saturday’s parade. It was Christmas in a three-day package, and I recommend planning a visit for next year’s event.
A Panoply of Public Art
Downtown Janesville looks like somebody was told to paint the town red – and blue and purple and yellow and orange and every other color. And they did; several buildings are decorated with murals.
Many of them were commissioned for Art Infusion, an event that took place in 2020 and 2021. One of the most arresting of all the murals is Diversity & Women’s History (2020) by New Jersey artist Jeff Henriquez.
He also painted Black Hawk in just ten days in 2019. Its completion was celebrated with a Native American ceremony.
You can learn the stories behind all the murals at Janesville CVB’s website. You can also get a map and conduct your own mural selfie scavenger hunt.
Hike the Ice Age Trail
One of Janesville’s evergreen (ba dum bum) things to do is Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail. It’s a National Scenic Trail and State Scenic Trail that traces the edge of the last glacier to cover the state. Stretching from the Minnesota border to Door County, it’s over a thousand miles from end to end. Some of that trail cuts right through town. In fact, Janesville has more miles of the trail within its city limits than any other Wisconsin community.
Most of Janesville’s section is paved. I hiked a mere mile and a half, but since it was to Devil’s Staircase, it was a bit rugged.
Visit iceagetrail.org to learn more
Shopping in Janesville
You’ll want to have your list of who’s been nice when you visit Janesville. There are several stores that can help you check off those names.
Allot plenty of time to browse Adorn Janesville or you might miss the perfect gift because you were looking at another, equally perfect gift. This store is filled with unique items, many of them handmade. They’re all ethically-sourced and made by women.
Next door is Angie’s, a 7,000 square foot emporium of gifts and items on consignment. This is another place where you want to take your time because there’s just so much stuff and you don’t want to miss anything.
A couple blocks away, Bodacious Shops of Block 42 houses two of my new favorite stores:
One is Bodacious Olive. This is a foodie’s candy shop, with infused olive oils and vinegars and other fun ingredients. You can taste the various types and the helpful staff will give you ideas on how to use each one.
I took home some black truffle oil and a cilantro-onion infused olive oil, which I was told makes great fajitas and cowboy caviar.
The other is an actual candy shop. You’ll know it when you’re near: the smell of chocolate emanates from The Sugar Exchange like those chocolate chip cookies Snoopy craves. Inside is a bonanza of candy, truffles, and fudge.
TLTip: if they have the pumpkin pie fudge, GET IT.
A lovely gift idea is their hot chocolate movie night box, complete with cozy fluffy socks.
Head north of downtown Janesville to K & W Greenery for the green thumbs on your list. Their greenhouse is a lesson in lush and is packed with poinsettias. They’ve also got a gift shop that’s filled to the brim with seasonal items.
Where to Eat and Drink in Janesville Wisconsin
Start your day in Janesville Wisconsin at Citrus Café. With biscuits and gravy as a side option, and the choice of fluffy or pan-flat omelets, it’s a breakfast diner with a little something extra. The service was spot-on and the hash browns – perfection in butter.
I went spicy with the fluffy Olé Omelet and it was stuffed with chorizo, jalapenos, tomatoes, onions, and cheese, and topped with fresh avocado. Huge and delicious, and I can see why Janesville Gazette readers have named it the best spot for breakfast in town seven years running.
TLTip: arrive before 9 am for early bird specials.
Citrus Café’s menu includes a whole array of skillets, pancakes, waffles, and eggs benedict. They’re also open for lunch, with burgers, paninis, and other items like a rotisserie gyro plate and a chicken cranberry wrap.
Sandwich Bar, Sandwich Bar, Sandwich Bar, oh Sandwich Bar!
Forgive me. I’m channeling my inner Jolene.
That’s the name of the best chicken sandwich I have ever had. Fried chicken, Alabama white sauce, pimento cheese, and lettuce. Simple. Delicious. Taking half of it home was a struggle because I wanted to eat every bit of it, even after I had a handful of fries with parmesan aioli. Oh. My. Jolene.
One look at their menu tells you they’re serious about their food, but if it doesn’t, the walls will give it away. On one is Anthony Bourdain. On another, Julia Child.
They’re vibrant and lifelike, which makes sense since Jeff Henriquez, the muralist who painted Black Hawk and Diversity & Women’s History also painted Sandwich Bar’s interior before the restaurant’s opening in May 2021.
Sandwich Bar is run by the team behind Lark, and while I didn’t eat there, it’s highly rated. Next door is Lark Market, a gourmet grocery store and deli.
Genisa Wine Bar
When you’re ready for dinner, Genisa Wine Bar is the perfect restaurant for the holidays because it’s all about sharing. Also opened in the spring of 2021, Genisa is named for owner John Hugh’s mother. It’s a modern space in a building from 1865.
The menu is divided into sections: Meats and Cheeses, Pizzas, Meatballs, Share, and Salads. Bring a group so you can try something from each.
My personal recommendation includes the Genisa Sampler. Although the menu claims it’s a meat and cheese selection meant for two, it’s a hefty portion. Our table of five shared it without stabbing each other with our forks.
Then again, we were distracted by the Florentine artichoke dip and the trio of pizzas we ordered. Our hands-down favorite was the Modena: wood-fired dough topped with dry ricotta, parmigiana Reggiano, arugula, balsamic, and prosciutto.
If you get the garlic “bread,” be aware that it’s basically pizza dough topped with roasted garlic, olive oil, and cheese. Their red sauce is quite hearty, and next time I go I’ll order a side of it to accompany the bread.
As you’d expect from the name, they’ve got a strong wine list. I ordered the house red, a Genisa “Cucchiella” Chianti, and it was a great pairing throughout the meal. My friend Dannelle raved about the sangria, and Alicia loved her Italian Margarita, which is made with Limoncello.
Another great spot for dinner is drafthouse. I went the evening of the parade after it was recommended by a couple I met that afternoon at Gray Brewing Company (more on the brewery later).
With all the revelers, I was lucky to get a seat at the bar. As their name implies, they’ve got a hefty beer list. I skipped my standard Spotted Cow and tried a taster beer from the same brewery, the blueberry cocoa stout. I tell you, New Glarus just makes good beer.
And drafthouse makes good food. At bartender Bri’s recommendation, I ordered the salmon tacos. Stuffed with salmon. $11. Delicious. Especially paired with the Pizzolato pinot grigio.
When I return to Janesville (and I will), I’m bringing friends so I can try more, like their beef tenderloin bruschetta and Duroc pork belly flatbread.
Gray Brewing Company
Sometimes, your timing is just right. Gray Brewing Company doesn’t have a tap room, but the weekend I was in town they hosted a holiday open house. As a beer fan, this was serendipitous since they’re the oldest family-owned bottling company in the country.
They’ve been brewing since 1856, which makes them older than the Lincoln-Tallman House. I met sixth-generation Sarah Gray, who with her brother works for her dad, continuing the unbroken legacy.
It remained unbroken even through Prohibition. They’d already switched from beer to soft drinks exclusively in the 1890s, so they didn’t have to worry about those pesky revenuers. They still make soft drinks using founder Joshua Gray’s philosophy.
I brought home some cream soda, and it is the best cream soda I’ve ever had. Rich, creamy, no cloying after taste. Hmm. Maybe I need to pair it with a Jolene next time I’m in town.
While you can’t belly up to the bar at Gray, you can get their soft drinks and beers or get a pint all over town. You can pick up beer and soft drinks directly from Gray by appointment only (call 608-754-5150) and you can order online to get some of that rich, creamy soda delivered.
Rock County Brewing
After visiting the oldest brewery in town, I had to visit the newest (and only other). Rock County Brewing Company is the county’s first nano-brewery and it’s right downtown in the historic Carriage Works building.
They opened in 2017; in the beer world, that means they’ve proven themselves, because bad breweries don’t last that long. I tried the Copper Ale, which was eminently quaffable, and a sip of the Lemon Cream Ale. I don’t like my beers sweet, but this was like sunshine in a glass. I would have stayed to try more, but I had two more stops to make.
O’Riley and Conway’s Irish Pub
The couple I met at Gray Brewing Co (who were big fans of the Busted Knuckle Irish Style Red Ale) told me their favorite place in downtown Janesville was O’Riley and Conway’s Irish Pub. Tell a travel writer that and it’s pretty much a directive.
I found a spot near the end of the bar next to a lovely woman who shared the same name as my mother-in-law (also a lovely woman). While a trio played rock covers and Christmas carols, she filled me in on the bar, introduced me to the owner, and told me about several places I must visit either during this trip or the next.
In its current iteration, the bar has been around since 2010, but its roots go back much further. Current owner Joe Quaerna’s great grandfather, Oscar Quaerna, opened a bar on December 7, 1933, the day after Prohibition ended, and secured Liquor License #2.
For nearly eighty years, through economic ups and downs, Quaerna’s remained a steadfast watering hole. Then GM left, and took with it not only jobs at its factory, but at all the suppliers’ factories, too.
Joe saw an opportunity to bring some life into what had become a desolate downtown. With his uncle Ed, he stripped down the bar and created O’Riley and Conway’s Irish Pub in honor of his family’s extensive Irish heritage.
The 1933 Art Deco bar is original, although Joe moved it to the other side of the bar, and it is gorgeous. So’s the floor. That might seem like an odd thing to say until you learn that Joe’s day job is in floor and tile and he’d worked with several pubs in Ireland as well as the Cork International Airport.
Joe used to be part-owner in a micro-brewery, so it’s logical that his pub has 100 beers and 54 of them are on tap. Their food menu is filled with Wisconsin and Irish specialties. I wanted to try multiple, but I couldn’t stop myself from eating all the Scotch eggs. (I did stop myself from licking the plate.)
I had one final stop to make in Janesville, and that was Wiggy’s Saloon. Cheap drinks, bar food, and super friendly patrons makes it pretty much the definition of a local bar. A live band played classics from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and I found out later it was the band’s second-to-last show. I was in my element: Jessie’s Girl with a side of Spotted Cow. It felt like a college bar, but the young twenty-somethings had been replaced by a bunch of middle-aged folks like me.
My Holiday Home Base in Janesville
My home base for my introduction to Janesville Wisconsin was the Hampton Inn. Renovated in 2019, the décor is modern and the rooms are comfortable.
Although I had breakfast at Citrus Café one morning, the other I took advantage of the complimentary buffet at the hotel. It was one of the better spreads I’ve seen, with flavored pancake and waffle batter, lots of cereal choices, oatmeal, and frequently replenished scrambled eggs with ham and potatoes. They also had a plethora of condiments, from your standard jellies and ketchup to Cholula packets, as well as chocolate and caramel sauces.
If you’re looking for a holiday getaway, I can highly recommend Janesville Wisconsin. While I was told over and over again that the foodie scene was still small, as you can see there’s plenty to keep you sated for a weekend or more. There’s also plenty to do, and both the Lincoln-Tallman House Holiday Tree Show and, especially, the Rotary Botanical Garden’s Holiday Light Show are worth adding to your festive itinerary.
When you go, tell them I said hello, and I’ll be back!