I was invited on a summer’s last sojourn to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I had visited once before, probably 20 years ago when my husband did a triathlon there, and I vowed to return. If you’re lucky enough to have visited Lake Geneva (I have heard from several Tri-Staters who have), you will understand the appeal. And if you have not, here are 10 reasons you should check out this destination two hours northwest of Chicago.
1) The stunning Geneva Lake
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, is located on Geneva Lake. On its shores are the city of Lake Geneva and the villages of Fontana-on-Geneva-Lake and Williams Bay. In the late 1800s, Geneva Lake in Southern Wisconsin rose to prominence as a Gilded Age lakeside retreat for magnates of industry in Chicago. The Wrigleys, Wackers, Chapins, Drakes, and Schwinns are among many wealthy families who built lavish summer mansions there. More than 100 of these homes still exist today and can be viewed (along with their elaborate grounds and boat houses) on boat tours. (Estate onshore photo by Maria Jiminez)
2) The Shore Path
A shore path, open to the public, completely surrounds the lake. Between 21 and 26 miles, it follows the route taken by Potawatomi Native Americans who lived on the land prior to colonial settlement and passes by the estates of the magnates who built estates dating from the 1870s to today.
3) Mail Jumping
For more than 100 years, Lake Geneva residents have had the option of receiving their mail, seasonally from May through September, by boat. It’s one of only a handful of places left in the U.S. where mail still is delivered by boat and the only one that employs actual mail jumpers. And the coolest thing is that you can witness it on a 150-passenger double-decker boat operated by Lake Geneva Cruise Line. Tryouts are held annually for mail jumpers. The four jumpers selected each season help preserve the town’s history and get a really cool summer job, but not one without risk. My son Jackson advises the “mail jumpers have blown up on Instagram” with images of them making their jumps — and sometimes not.
4) You Can Stay in a former Playboy Club
Almost half a century ago, Lake Geneva was picked by Playboy Enterprises as the site of a new high-end resort, nothing the area had ever seen, with picturesque grounds and progressive architecture along with nationally recognized music and entertainment. After changes to the ownership in the 1980s, and briefly becoming the home of a recording studio, the resort now is owned and operated by Milwaukee’s Marcus Corporation. The Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Grand Geneva Resort attracts visitors from around the world to its AAA 4-Diamond getaway in the country, tucked away amid rolling hills.
5) Yerkes Observatory
The birthplace of modern astrophysics is a majestic, iconic building with a rich history of science and education. Since 1897, Yerkes Observatory has welcomed astronomers, astronauts, Nobel prize winners, scientists, educators, and now the public to its beautiful location in Williams Bay which houses the world’s largest refracting telescope. The observatory was operated by the University of Chicago from its founding until 2020 when the University of Chicago discontinued its stewardship. Local interests quickly banded together and founded the Yerkes Future Foundation, partially funding the continued restoration of the property and the 50-acre Olmsted Brothers-designed grounds.
Matt Rowe, executive director of Reitz Home Museum in Evansville, has visited Yerkes Observatory with a group of architecture enthusiasts from Chicago.
“The Yerkes Observatory is an 1892 Beaux Arts style building housing multiple telescopes with grounds and landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted,” Rowe notes. “The dome with the biggest telescope has a wooden floor that rotates and raises to adjust the lens, which is quite amazing, and the exterior is covered in gargoyles on a prime spot overlooking the lake.”
6) Top-notch Accommodations
While you can stay in a former Playboy Club, my accommodations were a couple of blocks from the lake and featured a speakeasy, among other nice amenities. Maxwell Mansion was completed in 1856. The current owners, with degrees and work history in hospitality, are Luke and Monica Pfeifer, the 18th owners.
Today, it operates as an upscale boutique hotel and estate featuring the historic mansion, Carriage House, and Stables, which have been renovated to offer luxe rooms outfitted with steam showers.
7) Outdoor Adventure
With lake life comes lots of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Members of our visiting group of travel writers took to the oars with kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding on the lake. Others rented bicycles from which to explore. Walking the shore path is a very popular activity — just know that it’s 21 to 26 miles around, which could take eight to 10 hours. While we didn’t play golf, The Ridge resort features three courses and 54 holes of legendary golf under the Geneva National umbrella designed by the masters: Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Lee Trevino. Geneva National gives those who stay at the resort the unique opportunity to experience three of the best golf courses in Wisconsin at one club. The Grand Geneva offers the Brute and Highlands courses. Guests of all ages can also ride horses at Grand Geneva.
Harry Houdini was from relatively nearby Appleton, Wisconsin (he was born in Hungary and emigrated with his family when he was a toddler), so perhaps it is no surprise that the area has a rich history in sleight of hand and misdirection. Tristan Crist is an award-winning Wisconsin native magician who invested in his own magic theatre. Seated in the front row with the other travel journalists, of course, we were picked to help onstage.
We were impressed to see a Las Vegas-style magic show in Lake Geneva.
9) Wisconsin Beer, Cheese, Food, and Drink
Of course, there was great food and drink at the ready for the well-heeled Chicagoans who historically spent summers at Lake Geneva, and that tradition continues today. We’ll let the photos do the talking here; all the food we enjoyed was fantastic.
10) Lake Geneva Has a Female Mayor
While this alone might not be reason enough to visit Lake Geneva, Mayor Charlene Klein is a force to be reckoned with. We met her in The Riviera Ballroom, the 90-year-old storied hall and popular nightclub that hosted legendary musicians and celebrated bands for over four decades. Mayor Klein recently was awarded a local historic restoration award for her commitment to renovating the Lake Geneva icon. Today, it serves as the dock for boating excursions and offers retail shops and wedding and event space.
Convinced? Now is the time to plan to either greet summer or enjoy a sojourn at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.