Lake Geneva: Wisconsin boasts treasured vacation destination for generations

Riviera Beach. (Rachel Brockett/Submitted)

By Reginald Dominique

Arriving at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, guests are immersed in a grandeur society as it propels them into a Renaissance-like world. 

Located 80 miles from Chicago and 40 miles from Milwaukee, Lake Geneva is known as one of the most stunning lake destinations in the country. It’s been historically known as a permanent fixture of wealth and hosting the upper-echelon society.

Known since the 1880s as the “Newport of the West” and the “Hamptons of Chicago,” the small lake town hosted summer retreats for prominent families like the Wrigleys, Wackers, Chapins, Drakes and Schwinns. This drove many to want to see the Southern Wisconsin lakeside retreat for themselves. 

More than 100 of those homes are still standing in their Gilded Age glory; however, today Lake Geneva is known for more than its star power. The four-season resort town is a favorite for families with young children, friend getaways, chef-driven cuisines, trendy shopping, and tons of water activities. 

A grand welcome to Lake Geneva is a stay at a AAA, Four-Diamond resort like the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa. Opened in 1968 as the Lake Geneva Playboy Club Hotel — yes, that’s right — this property offers luxurious guest rooms, suites and opulence. 

Decadent dining options include the Geneva Chop House specializing in hand-selected, custom-seasoned steaks prepared to perfection by executive chef Dustin Urbanik and his staff. The Iberico pork and Japanese whisky porterhouse are highly recommended and can be paired with the perfect wine by the resident sommelier Andy Kulakowski.

Although the lake experience is amazing, the adventures go far beyond. The Yerkes Observatory is a must. Known as the birthplace of modern astrophysics, Yerkes Observatory has welcomed astronomers and astronauts to its majestic and iconic location of scientific discovery and education of space since 1897.

It is most famously known as the home to the world’s largest refracting telescope and was one of the two places Albert Einstein asked to see on his 1921 tour of America. Today, Yerkes is owned by the Yerkes Future Foundation. With restoration and revitalization, the nonprofit is taking Yerkes Observatory to new heights.

Returning from space at the Yerkes Observatory, guests can experience the pristine waters of Lake Geneva by way of the mail delivery by boat.

Since 1916, the town of Geneva has been delivering its mail via boat on the lake, which is a rarity now. This two-and-a-half-hour cruise around the entire lake is exciting and scenic. It gives passengers the chance to learn more about the estates’ history and get close to the properties as the mail carriers deliver mail.

Working up an appetite is no problem in this town. Dining options are aplenty, but PIER 290 serves up Lake Life as the only waterfront restaurant on Lake Geneva. The friendly restaurant boasts beautiful lake views in its large dining room, front deck or covered canopies. 

The menu features casual American fare for lunch, dinner and boozy brunch on the weekends. Along with dining options, guests can also sit with a drink in their hand on the lakefront beach and their toes in imported sand around fire pits. The fun doesn’t stop when summer ends; PIER 290 is a year-round spot for weekly specials, lakeside dining, live music and fun.

Although Lake Geneva is known for its beautiful waters, there is more beyond the lake shores, including several wineries for sipping and savoring. A day of wine tasting starts at Hill Valley Dairy, which offers great wines and small-batch, high-quality cheeses with locally sourced milk. Growing up on a dairy farm, Ron Henningfeld loved working alongside his family members, caring for the animals and farmland.

That passion remains, as he and his wife create a variety of artisan cheeses with Romari Farms fresh milk. He remains passionate about making quality cheeses using quality milk and connecting local people to local food products. Make sure you try the black pepper cheddar, whiskey gouda and cheese curds.

Fruit wine lovers should check out Apple Barn Orchard and Wines. This fourth-generation farm invites parents to bring the kids for strawberry picking in June or apple and pumpkin gathering in autumn. Or, just leave the kids at home to enjoy wine. 

Their bakery uses seasonal fruits in delicious goodies like apple cider doughnuts and strawberry/rhubarb pies. Taste the selections outside, under their beautiful 140-year-old maple tree.

Magic in Wisconsin may not be the first thing you would consider during a visit to Lake Geneva, but here is where that may change. While it may not be the typical thing on your to-do list, you will want to get tickets for a show at the Tristan Crist Magic Theatre. The shows are clever, funny, engaging and baffling. 

A 6-year-old and a 70-year-old were equally as thrilled, which is a testament to the range of illusions. Appearing birds, disappearing motorcycles, appearing helicopters, ladies cut in half — it is a taste of Vegas. The award-winning, 175-seat Tristan Crist Magic Theatre is an amazing and entertaining event and a great way to end a Lake Geneva visit.

Visitors easily fall in love with Lake Geneva, with its charming downtown district filled with distinctive shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, all within walking distance of the water. 

Anchored by its history, the lakefront beckons visitors from its pristine beaches, picturesque parks and, of course, the famous Geneva Lake. From cruising the lake aboard a U.S. Mail Boat Lake Geneva tour to taking in the Yerkes Observatory, relaxing at the Grand Geneva Resort, or sipping fruity wines at Apple Barn Orchard under maple trees, it is easy to live your best lake life in Lake Geneva.

Lake Geneva