I'm ashamed to admit that for nearly two decades, any time I'd head to Milwaukee I'd drive right by Kenosha, Wisconsin. Once or twice I stopped at Mars Cheese Castle. I flew past the Brat Stop. The only reason I'd get off I-94 (and this I'd do nearly every drive) would be to stop at Woodman's and pick up a 12-pack of New Glarus*.
Basically, Kenosha was my Spotted Cow fix, and that was it.
* For the uninitiated, New Glarus beer is only available in Wisconsin, and Spotted Cow is the Holy Grail of smuggle-worthy brews.
All I can say is, I'm sorry. To Kenosha; to you, dear readers; and to myself. Don't get me wrong; that Woodman's is great, but now I know just how much I've been missing beyond its discount-priced doors.
Kenosha is so much more than an exit between Chicago and Milwaukee. It's a town of 100,000 people, making it the fourth largest metro area in Wisconsin as well as the fourth largest city on the shores of Lake Michigan. Millions of cars rolled off assembly lines in a place that was the first to use electric trolley buses. It's the home of the oldest operating velodrome in the country, a free dinosaur museum, historic restaurants, not one but TWO lighthouses, and you can still ride one of those electric trolleys. And so much more.
In short: Kenosha is awesome.
I finally got off that exit and took a quick spin around a town that's simultaneously a Tree City, a Park City, and a Bike City. There's a good reason their hashtag is #KenoshaFun. Take a spin with me to see why you should visit Kenosha, WI, too.
Disclaimer: Visit Kenosha hosted my visit, and of course all opinions are my own and not fueled at all by the GIANT FLIGHT OF BEER (see below) or the big box of Jelly Belly.
and most of them are free!
As a travel writer, and especially as a long-time resident of the Chicago area, I've been to a lot of museums. I haven't counted, but I'm guessing I'm in the triple-digits. Small, large, free, expensive - I've seen the whole range, and I can tell you, Kenosha museums are incredible. There's a distinct passion for preserving the past and sharing it in an interactive way.
When you visit Kenosha, check out these five museums that are conveniently located either on the harbor or a short trolley ride away.
Kenosha History Center
The exterior of the Kenosha History Center is deceiving. While it's definitely a big building, it seems more like the type to have administrative offices instead of a wealth of the area's past. Step inside and you'll find permanent collections that tell the story of Kenosha's beginnings, as well as special exhibits that highlight important periods in the city's history.
As you enter, the first thing you'll notice is the display case in the lobby. This area highlights local businesses that have been in existence for more than a century. I felt like a teenager again when I saw the Leblanc display. In my high school and early college days I wanted to play clarinet professionally, and the woodwind I cherished (and still do) was a Leblanc. It had been my mother's before it was mine, and I had no idea that it had been manufactured in Kenosha until I saw that display.
Beyond the lobby is Yesteryear, a gallery filled with items that illustrate what it was like to be an early settler. The Upson family oxcart is a topsy-turvy stack of stuff that traveled from Connecticut all the way to the Wisconsin Territory. There's a schoolroom, a general store, an apothecary, a barber shop, and a railroad ticket office. There's even a lawyer's office, because after the train came the attorneys.
A seemingly irrelevant display, but fun nonetheless, is a collection of toys a local Kenoshan had donated to the museum. Whether they're relevant or not to the theme of Kenosha history, it's a fun walk down memory lane for people of a certain age. (Ahem.)
The Rambler Gallery is a cavernous room that takes you into the 20th Century. Permanent displays include "Lost Industries," an homage to the companies that fueled Kenosha's growth. The facades that line the perimeter of this room are reminders of the past and replicate historic buildings.
During my visit, the floor of the room was filled with AMC AMX vehicles in honor of the car's 50th anniversary. Considered one of the greatest American cars of all time, it was a competitor of the Corvette and one of the most stylish exotic hot rods from the late sixties and early seventies.
Another temporary display showcased the history of ice harvesting in Kenosha, with photos and tools detailing this dangerous and profitable industry.
Kenosha History Center is located at 220 51st Pl, Kenosha, WI. It's free to enter, although a donation is appreciated. The center is open Tuesday - Friday 10am to 4:30pm; Saturday 10am to 4pm; Sunday 12pm to 4pm.
Kenosha Southport Lighthouse & Lighthouse Keeper's Home
One of the most striking features of the Kenosha lakefront is the Southport Lighthouse. Standing 55 feet tall and 74 feet above Lake Michigan, it was built in 1866 and guided ships into the harbor for forty years. It's constructed of Milwaukee Cream City brick, a resource that's no longer available. This was the third lighthouse built on Simmons Island, although the first one was just a stump with a rock-lined wooden platform on which a fire was lit each night. The Southport Lighthouse, with its fourth order Fresnel lens, was a bit more sophisticated.
There's a fourth order lens inside the Southport Light Station Museum so you can see what one looks like up close, but it's not the Fresnel lens used in the lighthouse.
"The Coast Guard's better at saving lives than they are history," quipped Chris Allen, Executive Director of the Kenosha County Historical Society. "They had no idea where [the lens] is from; they just knew they had a fourth order."
The "order" specifies the size of the lens. If you want to see one in action, here's what the first order lens at Heceta Head Lighthouse in Oregon looks like:
In addition to the Fresnel-of-uncertain-origin, inside the museum are displays about Kenosha's maritime history, as well as a replica of a period kitchen and bedroom. There are also historical harbor maps dating to the time when the area was called Southport (hence the name of the lighthouse).
If you're not afraid of heights, you can climb the 72 steps to the top of the lighthouse during museum hours. Just watch that last step - you have to duck to get through the opening!
Southport Light Station Museum is free and is located next to the Kenosha History Center and is open seasonally from May - October. Check their website for hours.
Dinosaur Discovery Museum
A bird and a dinosaur walk into a museum... The Dinosaur Discovery Museum is "the only museum to focus on the link between meat-eating dinosaurs and birds." This museum is small but mighty, with only one display room and an activity/research center in the basement. But oh, what a display room! It tells the story of the transition from Tyrannosaurus Rex and Allosaurus to tiny (relatively speaking) little winged things.
Downstairs, there's a real, working lab staffed by researchers from the Carthage Institute of Paleontology. Through the large windows you can see what these scientists are studying. It brings these old bones to life, especially since there's an area for kids to play and explore right next to it.
Admission to the Dinosaur Discovery Museum is free. It's located at 5608 Tenth Avenue and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 12pm to 5pm.
Kenosha Public Museum
If I tell you the Kenosha Public Museum is mammoth, I'm not just talking about its size. I'm actually talking about the giant woolly mammoths that you can see on display. Two mammoths were excavated in Kenosha County, and the exhibit shares the story of their discovery and subsequent excavations. Toolmarks on the bones of the Schaefer mammoth indicate that humans were in Wisconsin, and the Western Hemisphere, about a 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.
The Kenosha Public Museum also features exhibits on climate change, the Ice Age, and the lives of the area's original inhabitants.
It's also got a life-size replica of an honest-to-goodness R.O.U.S.
But the display that really took my breath away was somewhat hidden on the second floor. There, across from a totem pole and a view of Lake Michigan, was a series of dioramas by sculptor Lorado Taft. The dioramas depict the studios of famous sculptors like Michaelangelo in miniature. Peering into the recesses of each cubicle reveals a depth of remarkable detail. Chicagoans might recognize Taft as the sculptur of Washington Park's The Fountain of Time.
These alone are worth a visit.
Kenosha Public Museum is also free with a suggested donation of $5. You can find it at 5500 First Ave, Kenosha, WI. Hours are Monday - Saturday 10am to 5pm and Sunday 12pm to 5pm.
Civil War Museum
If your first thought is "why is there a Civil War Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin?" I hear you. I hear you loud and clear. I had the same thought. The warfront wasn't even close to Kenosha, yet they've got a Civil War Museum?
Yes, they do, and it's one of the most engaging and educational museums I've ever visited.
The Civil War Museum's lifelike and life-size displays reminded me a great deal of another favorite museum, the Museum of Mississippi History in Jackson.
Despite their homes being far from the action, Wisconsinites and other upper Midwesterners played a big part in the war. The museum focuses on their contributions to the battle against slavery and secession, especially the personal stories. When you visit, make sure to watch the 360 video, "Seeing the Elephant." Narrated by Bill Kurtis, it's a gripping and poignant ten minutes that make the displays even more impactful.
Admission is $9; Kenosha City and Town of Somers residents pay $5. The Civil War Museum is located at 5400 First Avenue, right next to the Kenosha Public Museum. Hours are Monday - Saturday 10am to 5pm and Sunday 12pm to 5pm.
Mention Wisconsin food and drink and what immediately comes to mind? German cuisine, including encased meats, and beer. Kenosha's got those and more.
House of Gerhard
Regulars of the House of Gerhard don't return time after time just for the food. Oh, they would, I'm sure, because it's delicious. Their traditional German specialties are on the mark, from the beef rouladen to the schnitzel to the stroganoff. Every night is prime rib night, and their rolls are legendary.
So, yes, the food is worth a first visit and many subsequent returns, but I have a hunch that the real reason this restaurant has been around since 1964 is the people.
Gerhard Dillner opened House of Gerhard ten years after arriving in the U.S. from Germany via Ellis Island. He'd wanted to be a chef since an apprenticeship when he was 14, and after moving to Kenosha, he and his wife Ruth opened their restaurant. They built up a reputation and a loyal following that's continued by their daughter, Angie, and son-in-law, Dick Rudin, and their staff, some of whom have been with them for more than 20 years.
I had lunch at the same time as a tour bus, and I eavesdropped as Angie came out to talk to the group. She shared her dad's story and determination, and when her husband, who is also the chef, came out to say hello, the ladies erupted in applause. After they left, Dick took me into the kitchen to show me the ancient Dutchess roll-cutter that is still used every day.
House of Gerhard is a must-visit. When you go, save me some schnitzel, please!
House of Gerhard is 5 miles east of I-94 at 3927 75th Street. They're open for lunch Monday - Friday, dinner Monday - Saturday, and closed on Sunday.
What do the Three Stooges, Bela Lugosi, Duke Ellington, and Liberace all have in common? They've all eaten at Franks (no apostrophe) Diner.
The diner's story began in 1926 when a team of horses pulled the railcar into Kenosha. Anthony Franks turned it into a restaurant and the rest is history. Now owned by Julie Rittmiller and Kevin Ervin, a couple of regulars who bought the place in 2013, it's known for house-baked bread and their signature Garbage Plate. If you've heard of this quirky and historic spot and you're not from Kenosha, it's probably because Guy Fieri featured it on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.
I skipped the signature dish (a delightful mess of hash browns, eggs, and meat) and had a veggies and cheese omelet with American potatoes and a side of salty, savory, crispy bacon. Mmmmmm.
When you visit Franks Diner, expect good and fast service with a side of sass.
Franks Diner is anchored at 508 58th Street. They're cash only, so bring some green. Hours are Monday - Friday 6am to 1:30pm, Saturday 7am to 1:30pm, and Sunday 7am to 12:30pm.
If you've driven I-94 in southern Wisconsin, then you've seen the giant CHEESE sign. This, my friends, is Brat Stop.
"Shouldn't it say BRAT?" you ask? It could, but this is Wisconsin, and so there's a law somewhere that says it must say cheese. They've got plenty of that, of course, and they've also got brats, beer, and live music.
Brat Stop is another legendary spot in the Kenosha dining scene, and they've been entertaining and feeding people since 1961. The restaurant is cavernous with a long bar, a large stage for live music, and tons o' big screen TVs. There's pool, darts, and rides for the kids, too.
You can dine in, or be like me and pick up some brats to go. I was going to be leaving on a cross-country road trip to research my next book, so I selected four packages and froze them to take with me. I tell you, there is nothing like a little bit of Wisconsin by a campfire in Oregon.
Brat Stop is open at 8am seven days a week and closes at Midnight Sunday - Thursday and 2:30am on Friday & Saturday. There's a $10 cover on nights with live music, and no one under 21 is allowed during concerts.
Public Craft Brewing Co.
When one is in Wisconsin, one must drink beer (if one is over the age of 21 and normally would drink beer, that is). Not one to ignore local customs, I stopped into Public Craft Brewing Co.
"Do you offer flights?" I asked.
"Yes," said the lovely barkeep. "It's $15 and every beer on tap."
I looked at the board. At the massive board describing ten beers.
Blink. "Aw heck. Why not?" When in Wisconsin...
I have never seen a flight with that many beers. "That's not a flight - that's a whole squadron!" I wrote in my notes. I'm the first to admit I don't have a particularly picky palate. When people ask me what type of beer I like, I say "beer." But these? These were delicious and unique.
The Weisse City was a traditional German-style Berliner Weisse, but when she added raspberry syrup, a concept I never ever would have tried without her recommendation, she opened a whole new world. Another beer I loved was Pepper in the Rye. The collaboration between Public and Rustic Road had this pepper-lovin' gal swooning.
As I made my way through the flight my husband called. "Sounds like you're in a happy place." Yes, honey, I sure am.
Public Craft Beer Co. is open Tuesday - Friday from 3:30pm to 9pm, Saturday from 12pm to 12am, and Sunday from 12pm to 6pm. If you got on Tuesday, bring some vinyl for Turntable Tuesdays.
Speaking of happy places, The Buzz definitely qualifies. This place is all about giving you a buzz or helping you get buzzed. They serve and stock coffee, beer, and wine and consider themselves "Kenosha's destination for liquid refreshment."
The bar has twenty beers on tap that you can enjoy right there, with a scrolling screen letting you know what's available. When it's time to go home you can choose from 161 different varieties to take with you.
My visit coincided with Kenosha Craft Beer Week, and The Buzz was featuring R'Noggin Brewing Company. The founders and brewmasters were on hand and I had the chance to talk to them. Unfortunately, I didn't get a photo because GIANT FLIGHT OF BEERS. I blame you, Public Craft Brewing Co. I blame you.
The Buzz is a short walk from Public, just in case you, too, drink every beer from their flight. Their address (to tell your cab driver) is 5621 6th Avenue. They're open Monday - Saturday from 7am to 9pm and Sunday 7am to 8pm.
Way back in the very beginning of this article I mentioned that Kenosha is a Tree City, a Park City, and a Bike City. This means, essentially, that they love to be outdoors.
Bristol Woods Park and Pringle Nature Center
Bristol Woods Park is a verdant oasis on the western side of Kenosha County. At just 200 acres, it's fairly small, but it still has nearly four and a half miles of trails. I visited the day after a rain so I was only able to walk a short bit, but what I did see was surprisingly peaceful, especially considering its proximity to the interstate. Perhaps my favorite part was standing next to the open field and listening to the symphony of birds.
On-site is the Pringle Nature Center. The center is staffed by a full-time naturalist, contains a library and displays, and puts on free programs to bring children and the community closer to nature. They've also got this adorable guy:
Bristol Woods Park and Pringle Nature Center are located at 9800 160th Ave, Bristol, WI.
Southport Bike & Boards
If you've seen Lake Michigan, you know it can get windy. It's big enough that it can build up some serious chop. That's great for those who like active water sports, like Southport Bike & Boards owner Ralph Ruffolo. In 1981 he quit his corporate job to teach windsurfing and open his shop, catering to fellow aquatic athletes during the summer and skiers during the winter. A few years later the skateboarding and snowboarding crazes swept in, so he catered to them as well. In 2004 he bought the bike shop next to his store, so now if you're into cycling he can help with that, too.
And Kenosha is really into cycling. They've got the oldest operating velodrome in the country and there are 130 miles of bike trails. If you're inclined, you can ride your bike all the way to Chicago. For something a little shorter, Southport Bike & Boards leads a free weekly ride on Saturday mornings to Zion, Illinois. It's only 26 miles round trip and is mostly flat, so riders of all skill levels can join in. If you want to join them, just show up at 8am at Harborside Common Grounds (5159 6th Ave).
Southport Bike & Boards is at 2926 75th St and open Monday through Friday 10am to 7pm, Saturday 9am to 5pm, and Sunday 11am to 3pm.
Need I say more?
(Probably not, but I will.)
Kenosha's Electric Streetcar Circulator is a collection of restored streetcars that run a two-mile loop through Harbor Park, two historic districts, and by Lake Michigan and the METRA station. These cars run year-round and are only a buck. Some conductors share stories and others are less garrulous, but either way you're riding in history. These streetcars make it especially easy to see Kenosha's museums, since there are stops at all but the Kenosha History Center and Southport Lighthouse. (And you can take a trolley to those.)
My home away from home during my quick visit to Kenosha was Hampton Inn & Suites, conveniently located off I-94 by the Brat Stop. My room was comfortably appointed with a refrigerator, microwave, and lovely red couch. I especially appreciated that the dresser had baskets that pull out so you can easily access your stuff. If I hadn't gone to Franks Diner I would have loved digging into their hot buffet breakfast in their brightly lit, contemporary lobby.
There you have it! All the reasons you need to visit Kenosha, Wisconsin. Are you planning a trip, or have you visited this great town? If so, let me know in the comments!
(p.s. Don't forget to pin this for later!)