There’s a destination in southern Wisconsin that draws tourists like a magnet.
It’s the home of Gilded Age mansions and golf courses galore. It’s the birthplace of modern astrophysics and the quintessential lake life escape. There are boats, beaches, good food, wineries, outdoor adventures, and a couple of giraffes.
Where is this magical place?
This is beautiful Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Variously called the Newport of the West, the Hamptons of Chicago, and the Lido of the Middle West, this collection of three lakes in southern Wisconsin has long been a popular destination for residents of Chicago and its suburbs.
While the area’s known for golf and for the ritzy mansions that surround Geneva Lake, it’s got much more going on.
You can ride along one of the last remaining mailboat routes, visit a beer baron’s estate with ties to Jane Addams, discover the landmark financed by Chicago’s most hated man, and feed ostriches.
Things to do in Lake Geneva
Lake Geneva Area Basics
The Lake Geneva Area is a collection of three lakes and several towns.
The resort town of Lake Geneva sits on the eastern shore of Geneva Lake, which is the largest of the three bodies of water. It’s got twenty-one miles of shoreline around eight square miles.
With nearly 8,000 residents, Lake Geneva is the largest community, and is where you’ll find many of the restaurants and attractions.
That makes it the most popular destination, but you’ll want to go beyond its borders or you’ll miss out on some of the area’s unique allure.
Fontana-on-Geneva-Lake sits on the other side of the lake, and Williams Bay is in between. A short drive away is Delavan, an historic town situated between Delavan Lake and Lake Como.
Delavan Lake offers prime fishing, and at only 9’ deep, so does Lake Como.
Where is Lake Geneva?
Lake Geneva is located in central southern Wisconsin. It’s about an hour and forty-five minutes from Chicago and an hour from Milwaukee.
Things to do in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
This resort community offers a plethora of options for vacationers.
Lake Geneva Shore Path
People have been walking around Geneva Lake since 2500 B.C. What is now the Geneva Lake Shore Path had been a trail created by Native American residents.
This footpath is open to the public today because early settlers preserved it with a decree stating the “20 feet leading to the shoreline be preserved as public domain.”
It’s reminiscent of Chicago’s Lakefront Path, which was similarly preserved. Despite the historic mansions that sprouted up around the lake, the Geneva Lake Shore Path has remained open to everyone.
The path itself is about twenty-six miles, five more than the shoreline of the lake, because it winds through a few wooded areas. In some areas, it’s an easy trek with sidewalks. In others, it’s a a bit rougher.
What’s remarkable about this path is that not only does it meander through beaches, public parks, and marinas, it also crosses through the lawns of historic estates.
A stroll on this path will take you past homes built for Chicagoans escaping the city after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Familiar names include Wrigley, Maytag, and Schwinn.
One name that may not be as familiar is Conrad Seipp, but you’ll learn about him later.
The property owners maintain the sections of the path that cut through their yards. Because you’re walking past someone’s home, make sure you stay on the path, don’t litter, and try to preserve their privacy.
It takes about eight to ten hours to walk the entire circumference of the Lake Geneva shore path. There are a few access points, including one at Big Foot Beach State Park. The easiest ingress is near the Lake Geneva Public Library.
This is a footpath only; no bicycles, skates/skateboards, or motorized vehicles are allowed.
Strollers aren’t a good idea since the path is uneven and the surface could be grass, cement, gravel, and even stepping stones.
Visit Lake Geneva has a list of things to know before you hike this trail.
Riviera Ballroom & Plaza
The Riviera Ballroom and Plaza is an iconic building in downtown Lake Geneva.
Built in 1932, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 as the “most intact building associated with transportation in the Geneva Lake area.”
During its first two decades, the Riviera was the place for swing and jazz. Legends appearing at the ballroom included Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lawrence Welk, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Sarah Vaughan, and Billy Holiday.
During the 1970s, the Riviera followed the disco craze and became a club called Top Deck. Donna Summer, Chubby Checker, Chaka Kahn, and the Village People all performed there.
Today, it’s an event venue. The lower level has Coney Island-style shops where you can pick up souvenirs and Wisconsin cheese from an outpost of The Cheese Box.
Stick your toes in the sand at Riviera Beach, one of the most popular things to do in downtown Lake Geneva. It’s fee-based, and adult admission is $8. Children six and under are free.
There are pay stations near the beach entrance. The beach is typically open around Memorial Day through Labor Day. Lifeguards are on duty from 9 am to 6 pm. lakegenevariviera.com
Lake Geneva Cruise Line US Mailboat Tour
One of the best ways to experience Geneva Lake is on a boat. You can learn the story behind those massive mansions, as well as about the area’s original inhabitants, aboard a tour with Lake Geneva Cruise Line.
They offer narrated boat tours and an evening dinner cruise, but the one not to miss is the U.S. Mailboat Tour.
Lake Geneva is one of the few places where mail is delivered by boat. The US Postal Service pays Lake Geneva Cruise Lines to deliver the mail to select residents each summer – for a whopping $300.
Residents can request this service at no charge, and there are about 45 to 60 addresses on the route.
The US Mailboat Tour is a unique thing to do in Lake Geneva because you get to ride along while they make these deliveries.
During the tour, not only will you learn about the area’s history, you’ll also be entertained by a Mail Jumper. Area teenagers audition and only a few are selected each summer.
These Mail Jumpers jump off the boat onto the dock, deliver the mail, and then jump back on, and the entire time the boat is still moving.
The US Mail Boat Tour only operates during the summer months, since many of the residents occupy their homes seasonally. cruiselakegeneva.com
Black Point Estate & Gardens
In the mid-1880s, beer baron Conrad Seipp needed a summer getaway for his family. With its easy access via train, Lake Geneva made sense. He would join other wealthy Chicagoans, some of whom arrived shortly after the Chicago fire.
Conveniently for them, train service between the two towns began a mere three months before the devastation.
Conrad built his lovely Queen Anne-designed “cottage,” as these retreats where called, with thirteen bedrooms and a four-story tower. He could afford this extravagance because, at one point, his was the largest brewery in the country.
He began making beer in Chicago in 1854, and his brewery was one of the few to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Sadly, Conrad could only vacation at his summer cottage for two years before he passed away, but four generations of his descendants continued to enjoy the lovely home. One of those generations included his granddaughter Alma Schmitt Petersen.
She’s credited with instilling in her children a love for the estate, which is why it’s been preserved so well. She was also a dedicated philanthropist. In addition to other activities, she served as president and lifetime trustee of Jane Addams’ Hull House.
Conrad’s great-grandson, William Petersen, gave Black Point Estate to the State of Wisconsin and it opened to the public in 2007. When the state received the keys, they also received everything in the house, including the furniture, clothes, and even a razor.
The house is, as the Wisconsin Historical Society says, a time capsule.
To tour the house, you’ll get to it the same way Conrad Seipp did: by boat. Lake Geneva Cruise Lines runs the scenic forty-five minute guided tour.
Once you arrive at Black Point Estate’s dock, it’s 120 steps up the hill to the mansion, so be sure you’re physically able to make the climb before booking your tour.
Today you can get a taste of Conrad Seipp’s beer. His great-great-great granddaughter, Laurin Mack, possessed recipes for the brews and connected with Metropolitan Brewing in Chicago to resurrect the Conrad Seipp Brewing Company.
They now produce Seipp’s historic brands, which include Seipp’s Extra Pale (a pre-prohibition pilsner) and Seipp’s Columbia (a dark lager first introduced at the Columbian Exposition of 1893).
Lake Geneva School of Cooking
Get your toque on with Chef John Bogan at the Lake Geneva School of Cooking. Whether you’re experienced in the kitchen or lean towards dishes requiring a can opener and a microwave, you’ll enjoy these interactive classes.
Located in downtown Lake Geneva, the school offers a variety of events, both public and private. Chef John knows wine and pours quality varietals.
His Dinner Time, Wine Time events highlight different wineries and regions. One day it might be Caymus and another, Tuscany.
One of his most popular classes is Farmers Market and More. Attendees stroll to the local farmers market before returning to the kitchen for a three-course luncheon.
The recipes you’ll prepare are from his cookbook, Recipes from the Seasons of My Life. I have a copy and have made several recipes; it’s become one of my favorite cookbooks.
These classes often sell out, so it’s a good idea to reserve your spot in advance.
Yerkes Observatory is considered the birthplace of modern astrophysics, which is a combination of astronomy and physics.
In the late 1800s, George Ellery Hale was a young professor of astrophysics at the University of Chicago. He secured two 40-inch lenses and convinced Charles Yerkes to fund what would be a new type of observatory.
The financier basically wrote a blank check. Henry Ives Cobb designed the building, the Olmsted Brothers designed the grounds, and Yerkes Observatory opened in 1897.
The observatory has three domes. The biggest houses the Yerkes Great Refractor, which is still the world’s largest refracting telescope. Two additional, smaller domes contain reflecting telescopes.
Since it opened, it’s welcomed a who’s who of astrophysics. Sherburne W. Burnham cataloged 13,665 star systems. Edward Barnard discovered the large dark clouds of the Milky Way.
Optician Frank Ross introduced the wide-angle lens to astronomy. Edwin Hubble photographed the first evidence of the expansion of the universe. Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy, did her graduate work here, as did Carl Sagan.
Einstein stopped by during his first visit to the US in 1921. Afterwards, he said there were two places he thought everyone must visit in the country. The first: Niagara Falls.
The second: Yerkes Observatory.
The University of Chicago stopped maintaining the site about twelve years ago. In 2020, they transferred ownership to Yerkes Future Foundation. After undergoing extensive renovation, the foundation began offering tours this year.
So who was Charles Yerkes? The financier was largely responsible for Chicago’s public trains and increased the train tracks from 75 to 575 miles within a decade.
However, he was prone to using bribery and blackmail and was considered ruthless. He became the most hated man in Chicago.
Yerkes thought funding the observatory would scrub clean his reputation. The craftsmen who carved the columns etched likenesses of various creatures and people in the columns flanking the lakeside entrance.
Considering they gave Yerkes devil horns, it doesn’t seem like that effort succeeded. yerkesobservatory.org
Safari Lake Geneva
You probably wouldn’t expect to see giraffes in Wisconsin, but you’ll find those long-necked creatures, and many other unexpected mammals, at Safari Lake Geneva.
Previously the CEO of the Racine Zoo for sixteen years, “Jungle” Jay Christie opened Safari Lake Geneva in 2016. The exotic animal expert wanted to create a “refuge for the world’s diminishing breeds.”
Here, the people are in cages, a.k.a. their personal vehicles, and the animals roam free.
It’s not a zoo or a theme park, and is instead a conservation park, with a mission to not only introduce people to animals they might never see, but to support conservation efforts.
Species include the addax, a critically endangered antelope, Brahman cattle, American bison, and ostriches.
Animal lovers may even have the opportunity to feed the giraffes. If you do, proceeds from your encounter help save wild giraffes in Africa through the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
You can also feed the other animals, but don’t bring your own food. They have a specially-formulated grain that you can purchase.
This is definitely one of the unique Lake Geneva activities. safarilakegeneva.com
Safari Lake Geneva is featured in the best selling Midwest Road Trip Adventures.
Walldogs is a group of global artists that paint signs and murals in small towns to help promote tourism. In 2015, two-hundred artists visited Delavan, Wisconsin, and painted eighteen murals over five days.
Those murals tell the story of this small town with big history on Delavan Lake.
Primarily located in downtown Delavan and within easy walking distance of Tower Park, the murals depict milestones like the settlement of Delavan by the Phoenix brothers in 1836 and the birthplace of P.T. Barnum Circus – the Greatest Show on Earth.
There’s also a mural featuring architects E. Townsend Mix and Frank Lloyd Wright. Both left their marks on this Wisconsin town.
As you’re discovering these signs, you’ll walk by the Old Settler’s Cemetery. Most of the headstones, marking the graves of pioneers who died between 1836 and 1864, are unreadable.
However, in the very back, you can find markers for Samuel and Edward Phoenix. They’d founded Delavan as an anti-slavery temperance colony, naming it for a well-known temperance leader.
After the Phoenix brothers died, so did temperance. Soon, the circus arrived.
In 1847, Mabie Brothers U.S. Olympic Circus established Delavan Lake as their base. At the time, it was the largest circus in the US.
They also owned a pair of elephants named Romeo and Juliet. More a fighter than a lover, Romeo was a rogue beast who killed five people in fifteen years.
Rumor has it he was allowed to live because he was simply acting out his grief after his companion, Juliet, died in 1864 during a bitterly cold winter.
Since the ground was frozen, her handlers cut a hole in the ice covering the lake and “buried” her in a watery grave. visitdelavan.com
Lake Lawn Queen
Board the Lake Lawn Queen and you’ll learn the story of Romeo and Juliet. You’ll also hear about the discovery of bones thought to be that of a mastodon.
Analysis by the Field Museum proved it was actually an elephant.
Juliet had been found.
This narrated boat tour also tells the story of the lake itself, and how it had previously been in such bad shape it had to be almost completely drained.
Now, the spring-fed lake is crystal clear and one of the best fishing spots in southern Wisconsin.
While Delavan Lake doesn’t have the plethora of extravagant mansions that Geneva Lake does, it has something the sister to the southeast doesn’t:
Five homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
You’ll see these on the tour, too.
Lake Lawn Queen departs from Lake Lawn Resort. As you walk the grounds towards the dock, you’ll notice several mounds. These are remnants from mound builders who lived in the area between 700 and 1100 A.D. lakelawnresort.com
More things to do in Lake Geneva
- Clear Water Outdoor: kayak and SUP rentals, shopping in downtown Lake Geneva
- The Dancing Horses: family-friendly Vegas-style show featuring, you guessed it, dancing horses
- Geneva Lake Museum: learn the stories of Geneva Lake and the surrounding area
- Lake Geneva Balloon Company: hot air balloon rides
- Lake Geneva Scooter Tours & Rentals
- Tristan Crist Magic Theatre: magic and illusion shows
Restaurants, Wineries, and more places to eat and drink
This is a sampling of the wonderful food and drink you can find in Lake Geneva.
Staller Estate Winery
Many Midwestern wineries produce bottles that are super sweet. Not so at Staller Estate Winery.
Owned by Joe and Wendy Staller, this winery grows cold hardy grape varietals and creates drier wines than are often found in the region. They also have sweeter wines, including an ice wine.
You can taste a selection of the wines and tour the winery and vineyard. There’s an indoor tasting room as well as plentiful outdoor seating, where you can enjoy wine and chocolate flights, cheese and wine pairings, or one of their picnic platters.
When you’re browsing the gift shop, you’ll notice a couple of stained glass windows. These are heirlooms dating back to the 1870s. stallerestate.com
Apple Barn Orchard and Winery
Apple Barn Orchard and Winery has been family-owned since 1848 when Jacob and Maren Brensetre arrived from Oslo, Norway.
The farm had previously been a dairy operation. Steve Jacobson grew up on the farm. In the mid-80s, he and his wife, Judy, converted it to an orchard and began making cider.
Today, there are more than 4,000 trees and a dozen varieties, including Jona Gold, Honey Crisp, and Gala.
Next, they added a bakery, and then in 2004, the winery. Apple Barn Orchard and Winery makes non-grape fruit wines: berries, peaches, apples, pears. Inside their extensive gift shop, they offer complimentary wine tastings.
In addition to apples, they also grow strawberries and pumpkins – all pick-your-own.
Check their calendar for upcoming events, which often feature live music, games, and food trucks. applebarnorchardandwinery.com
Located on Main Street in downtown Lake Geneva, Sopra Bistro has a laid-back vibe with white linen-worthy cuisine.
Dublin, Ireland-born Chef Simon Cumming brings an impressive culinary resume, including time in Tokyo, London, and Portland and stints at Gabriel’s and JP Chicago.
The menu at this farm-to-fork restaurant is seasonally driven, and while it’s an American bistro concept, you can taste the global influences. Personal favorite: Scallops with sweet corn puree and potato rounds, grilled broccolini, with Thai vinaigrette.
They also have a serious cocktail program.
Sopra Bistro is open Wednesdays through Saturdays for dinner. Want to hear your own music while dining? Their private music room seats up to eight and you can listen to your tunes through their bluetooth speaker. soprabistro.com
You’ll definitely feel like you’ve hit the coast at this lakeside restaurant. Owned by Gage, the same people who own Lake Geneva Cruise Lines, the restaurant is right on the beach.
Expect cheese curds, because you are, after all, still in Wisconsin, as well as fresh seafood and baby back ribs. Head there on a Friday for their weekly fish fry. pier290.com
If you’re in the downtown area and need a caffeine fix, Inspired will not only give you a good cup of coffee, you’ll also be helping others.
Inspired is a premium coffee shop that employs people with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities. These individuals are not just employees; they’re celebrated, job trained, coached and, over time, placed into a fully integrated work setting. inspiredcoffee.org
Topsy Turvy Brewery
Located in an historic church with stained glass windows, Topsy Turvy Brewery names their beers for Wisconsin inventions, historical places, and tourist attractions. Examples include Geneva Beach Blonde, Wisconsin Big Buck IPA, Stellar Nova OG IPA.
The brewery itself is named Topsy Turvy because, as they say, “my Brewmaster and I are driven to create beers that will make you flip head over heels with delight.”
While they don’t have a full kitchen, you can order a variety of snacks, including chips, popcorn, soft pretzels, and pizza. topsyturvybrewery.com
The Cheese Box
The Cheese Box is a gourmet specialty cheese and sausage shop that’s been around since 1940. While they specialize in Wisconsin cheeses (of course), they also have some imports.
What they don’t carry are shelf-stable cheeses, because they only want to provide the best. That’s probably why they’ve lasted for more than eighty years.
In addition to cheese, you can find a great selection of sausages, including Landjaeger. These fully cooked sausage sticks are great for snack time.
They also stock everything else you’d need to put your own charcuterie tray together. Or, you can make it easy on yourself and have them do it for you. cheesebox.com
Where to stay in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
The Abbey Resort
The Abbey Resort is the only full-service resort on Geneva Lake. Located in Fontana on the western shore, guests are treated to spectacular sunrises over the marina.
When the resort opened in 1963, it was the largest in the Midwest. Its distinctive A-Frame, designed to evoke European chalets, is immediately recognizable. The design of the 80-foot tall structure received a National Lumber Manufacturers Association Best Wood Design award the same year.
The Abbey offers a wealth of things to do. There’s a luxurious spa, a movie theater, an arcade, the marina, two full-service restaurants, a coffee shop, and Bar West, which features live music.
Gazebo Grille is a place to grab something to eat when you’re enjoying either the family and adults-only pools.
Summer evenings call for concerts in the gazebo, and when there’s a chill in the air, indulge in ‘smores at one of their fire pits.
Grand Geneva Resort & Spa
While you may see rabbits at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, they’re probably a bit different from the bunnies that used to reside at the resort. It was built in 1968 as the original Playboy Club Hotel.
Guests could fly into the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired hotel via commuter service from O’Hare. Today, it’s a AAA Four Diamond Resort and is considered one of the best resorts in the country.
A short seven minute drive from downtown Lake Geneva, the Grand Geneva is an expansive complex with multiple types of accommodations and a plethora of things to do.
The two golf courses are popular, but you don’t have to play to enjoy outdoor activities. The on-site Adventure Center offers skiing and other winter sports, and hiking and biking in other seasons.
There’s also an archery range, a disc golf course, scooter tours and rentals, and bike and e-bike rentals.
Relax at the outdoor and indoor pools, and splash it up at Timber Ridge Lodge Water Park.
When you’re tuckered out, treat yourself to a spa treatment. Then head out to dinner. There’s upscale dining at Geneva Chophouse, Italian cuisine at Ristorante Brissago, and casual breakfast and lunch at Grand Cafe.
Lake Lawn Resort
Lake Lawn Resort claims two miles of shoreline on Delavan Lake. Established in 1878, it’s located where the Mabie Brothers U.S. Olympic Circus first camped out in the mid-19th century.
There’s so much history at this resort, Images of America published a book about it.
Its history extends far beyond the arrival of the circus. Delavan Lake was surrounded by mounds left by inhabitants hundreds of years ago. One survey conducted in the 1800s estimated there were around two hundred mounds around the lake.
While many of them have been destroyed, there are still several in existence, and many of them can be seen on the grounds of Lake Lawn Resort and the Majestic Oaks Golf Course.
The onsite marina offers water sports, including kayaks, paddle boats, paddleboards, as well as tritoons, power boats, and wave runners.
You can also take a tour aboard the Lake Lawn Queen, which departs from the dock next to The Hut, Lake Lawn’s outside bar.
Dining options include the grab-and-go Isle of Capri and the casual Lookout Bar & Eatery. 1878 On The Lake will soon offer a more upscale dining option.
Pro tip: Isle of Capri serves Cedar Creek Ice Cream, made in Wisconsin!
Their Calladora Spa is a full-service respite, with everything from hair and nail services to hydrafacials and couples massages.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, FAQs
How do I spend a day in Lake Geneva?
There are so many things to do in Lake Geneva, you could spend multiple days exploring. Play a round of golf, take a boat tour, walk the Geneva Lake Shore Path, and discover the past at Black Point Estate and Geneva Lake Museum. Of course you’ll want to visit one of the many delicious restaurants, too.
What is Lake Geneva best known for?
Lake Geneva is best known for the historic mansions that surround the lake, championship-level golf courses, and luxury resorts.
Is Lake Geneva WI worth visiting?
Does Lake Geneva have a downtown?
Yes. Downtown is centered around Main Street, on the north side of Geneva Bay.
What are the top attractions to visit in Lake Geneva?
The top attractions to visit in Lake Geneva are the Geneva Lake Shore Path, Tristan Crist Magic Theatre, Black Point Estate, and Geneva Lake Museum of History.
What are great free things to do in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin?
There aren’t a whole lot of free things to do in Lake Geneva. There’s the path around the lake, a self-guided mural tour in nearby Delavan, which also has Congdon Gardens. This is a free park with a garden, a pond, and a waterfall feature.
What are the best things to do in Lake Geneva in the winter?
Winters in Lake Geneva are great for downhill and cross-country skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, ice fishing, and ice skating. You can also go ziplining and won’t want to miss Winterfest, a popular cold weather event taking place in late January to mid-February.
There’s a reason the Lake Geneva area has been drawing generations of tourists. It’s the type of place where you can be as relaxed or as busy as you want to be, with no shortage of great food, plenty of things to do, and a wealth of history.