With a prime location within a few hours driving from stunning natural areas and the best cities in the Midwest, Milwaukee is an ideal base for many day trips around the region. You can explore the coolest college town in the Midwest, hike along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, traverse a stunning slot canyon, see one of the country’s winningest football teams, or even try cherry wine at a Wisconsin vineyard. And if you really feel like getting out of town, you’re just 90 minutes from Chicago. But we’d recommend spending your time really getting to know Wisconsin — few out-of-state visitors ever do. Here are some of our favorite day excursions from Milwaukee.
Madison — Just an hour and a half by car from downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s capital, Madison, is a charming small city with big-city culture. It has an iconic capitol building modeled after the US Capitol in Washington DC, a thriving bar and restaurant scene, a Big Ten university sports program and attractive college campus, and a stunning location between two large lakes.
Walk around Capitol Square to see a well-preserved example of an early American downtown area. You can even walk through the capitol building to admire the architecture and climb the stairs to the dome for stunning panoramic views of the city. Stroll down legendary State Street, taking time to check out the boutique shops, local bars, and ice cream parlors along the way. You’ll find plenty of casual lunch options in the area, from sandwiches to ramen or tacos. You can also check out the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union (for chicken fingers and those iconic sunburst chairs), or stroll through the UW Arboretum’s 17 miles of trails.
Set on an isthmus, Madison is a water lover’s dream. Hit the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail at the Monona Terrace (designed by the man himself), take a sunset booze cruise on Lake Monona, and listen to live music at the UW Memorial Union on Lake Mendota. You could also check out the hipster neighborhoods of Willy Street and Atwood, as well as the nightlife scene and live music venues of the near east side. If you want to try the best cheese curds in town, make sure to visit The Old Fashioned and, while you’re at it, enjoy the classic Wisconsin cocktail of the same name.
Devil’s Lake State Park — The jewel in the crown of Wisconsin State Parks, Devil’s Lake State Park is without question the region’s premier hiking and rock climbing destination, and it’s only two hours driving from Milwaukee. With two or three hours in the park, you can hike a popular loop trail, which includes part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, a 1200-mile trail that showcases how glaciers shaped this region’s lakes, valleys, and hills. You’ll pass seemingly impossible natural formations like Balanced Rock, Devil’s Doorway, and the Potholes.
While taking in big views of the lake itself, don’t forget to look down to see countless colors of wildflowers along the trail. In the fall, Devil’s Lake is also the best location to see the autumn colors pop. With advanced planning, you can arrange a rock-climbing lesson from Devil’s Lake Climbing Guides. Less adventurous types can enjoy the beach and picnic areas. On hot summer days, it’s the perfect place for a swim.
Wisconsin Dells — Wisconsin Dells is the quintessential Midwest summer resort town. In less than two hours by car from Milwaukee you can arrive for a day of shopping, swimming, partying, or exploring in nature. It’s also home to the largest outdoor waterpark in the nation as well as the largest combined indoor/outdoor waterpark, which have earned it the moniker “Water Park Capital of the World.”
Wisconsin Dells is a worthwhile day trip from Milwaukee year-round. In the summer, the popular Upper Dells Boat Tour takes you to the Witches Gulch, a lovely moss-covered slot-canyon on the Wisconsin River. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you’ll find plenty of jet boat tours, bungee jumping, and thrill rides on offer. Before you set out, grab a coffee from Bella Goose; lunch options in town include burgers and beer spots like The Keg. By night, Broadway Street has countless bars mere steps from one another, making it a favored spot for bachelor and bachelorette parties. Dance until the bar closes at the Showboat Saloon, and if you aren’t tired yet, keep the party going at the Ho-chunk Gaming casino.
Governor Dodge State Park — This state park is a popular hiking destination and an intriguing historical site just over two hours driving from Milwaukee. Archaeological research shows that 8000 years ago humans lived in the sheltering overhangs of the sandstone cliffs that now stand tall over the main hiking trail through the park. Don’t miss the remains of an 1800s homestead or Stephen’s Falls, a beautiful waterfall about 10 minutes walking from the parking lot.
Though you could easily spend an entire summer day on its trails, which stretch across 40 miles of the more than 5000-acre park, looking for resident deer, turkeys, fox, beaver, and more. Or walk the 3.5-mile Lost Canyon loop, visit the homestead ruins, and then enjoy a picnic at Stephen’s Falls all in less than four hours. The fastest route to the park from Milwaukee takes you through the city of Madison, where you can stop for coffee on the way or pick up picnic fixings.
Green Bay — Also known as Title Town, Green Bay is home to the Packers, one of the National Football League’s most beloved teams. About two hours driving from Milwaukee, Green Bay is a must-see for sports fans and also a worthwhile destination for anyone interested in the region’s history and culture. Sports lovers should try to arrange their visit with a game day at Lambeau Field, and plan to arrive a few hours before the game to partake in free-for-all tailgate parties outside of the stadium. Otherwise, the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame is the next-best way to experience the team’s legendary history and even see trophies from the Packers’ 13 championships, including four Lombardi trophies. Regardless of whether you are able to attend a game, touring Lambeau Field gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the stadium, including access to parts of the facility typically closed off to the public.
For train enthusiasts or even kiddos, the National Railroad Museum is a fun and educational glimpse into the history of trains and rail travel in the United States. The free, 47-acre Green Bay Botanical Garden is also worth a visit; seasonal favorites include spring blossoms, the rose garden in summer, apple trees in the fall, and a spectacular winter light display. Finish your Green Bay trip with a stop at Badger State Brewing Company for local beer and pub fare.
Door County — Although Door County is three hours driving north from downtown Milwaukee, it’s worth the trip to see one of the Midwest’s best vacation destinations on the shores of Lake Michigan and Green Bay. The area is set on a peninsula that’s home to dense forests, jagged limestone cliffs, and pale sand beaches. Your first stop on the peninsula can be to try some Door County cherries at Choice Orchards. If you’re there in April, you’ll also see the cherry trees in bloom throughout the peninsula.
North of the orchards at Cave Point County Park, on the peninsula’s west side, you can hike, kayak, or dive to explore the underwater limestone caves in Lake Michigan. You could also walk along the moderately difficult, one-mile trail from Cave Point to Whitefish Dunes State Park to take in its lovely beaches. After that, you can drive northeast to Peninsula State Park, another excellent place to kayak, hike, bike, swim, and watch the sunset over Green Bay.
Consider staying the night nearby, or choosing a designated driver, since Door County is renowned for its local wines, beers, and liquors. You can taste the county’s trademark wines at a number of vineyards, like Stone’s Throw Winery and Harbor Ridge Winery, which also offers wines made with the county’s trademark cherries. Beer drinkers can tour the Door County Brewing Co., while visitors looking for harder spirits can sample a variety of liquors from locally-sourced ingredients at Door County Distillery, which is also conveniently home to the Door Peninsula Winery.
The House on the Rock — Undoubtedly one of the strangest tourist attractions in Wisconsin, The House on the Rock is more than just an architectural marvel. Built into the rocks and surrounded by forest, this unique house has scarcely any visible footprint from outside, yet inside seems to go on forever. The famous Infinity Room, which extends out to a visually endless point over Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, is the most significant draw for visitors to this quirky attraction in Spring Green, about two hours driving from downtown Milwaukee.
Allow about three hours for the full tour of The House on the Rock, which will have you meandering through an imitation 1800s village, past a giant blue whale statue, to the world’s largest carousel, a collection of coin-operated musical machines, and so much more. The deeper you get into the house, the less you understand what you’re looking at.