Lake Geneva, a year-round playground in southern Wisconsin, grew up around picture-perfect Geneva Lake. During the Gilded Age, wealthy Midwesterners with names like Wrigley, Schwinn, and Swift built palatial summer homes along the shore, inspiring the city’s nickname, Newport of the West.
In 1968, the late Hugh Hefner opened his first Playboy Club Hotel with star-studded entertainment, and Lake Geneva became a swinging paradise. Thirteen years later, his bowtie-clad cocktail Bunnies and their Playmates hopped into oblivion. Lake Geneva morphed into a family-friendly destination with good times and good eating for all ages.
Lake Geneva sits near the Illinois border about 80 miles northwest of Chicago and 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee. Here’s our guide to what to do, where to eat, and where to stay.
Things To Do In Lake Geneva
View The Mansions From A Tour Boat
Board a sightseeing boat for a narrated cruise of Geneva Lake by Lake Geneva Cruise Line. You’ll get an up-close view of the many historic mansions and their exquisitely manicured lawns. Several themed tours are offered, including sunset and brunch cruises. The most talked-about is the U.S. Mailboat Tour during the summer months: Postal jumpers (usually athletic college kids) leap from the boat to deliver and retrieve mail from the piers of lakeside residents, then leap back again. The boat never stops or slows down. Tours operate from downtown Riviera Docks seven days a week from May 1 through October 31.
Hike The Geneva Lake Shore Path
A 21-mile trail, the Lake Geneva Shore Path circles the lake. You can hike it in a day, although you might want to break it up into shorter lengths. The 3.5-mile segment between downtown and Chapin Road passes chewing gum magnates William and P.K.’s Wrigley Estates homes and boathouses, and Lake Geneva Public Library, which was designed by a protege of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The entire trail is walkable, but the terrain varies from dirt to paved. Note that bikes, skates, skateboards, and motorized vehicles are not allowed on the path. Wear sturdy shoes.
Fun Fact: Wrigley Estates is made up of several homes and buildings -- that’s why it is plural.
Be Amazed At The Tristan Crist Magic Theatre
Master illusionist Tristan Crist delivers thrilling Vegas-style magic and comedy in an intimate setting. The fast-paced 60-minute show includes audience participation and a helicopter that suddenly appears on stage. Originally from Milwaukee, Crist worked as a featured performer at such venues as the Circus World Museum in Wisconsin Dells and Circus Circus Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. His new year-round home, Tristan Crist Magic Theatre, has 175 tiered seats. You’re close to the action, but that won’t help you figure out how he does what he does. It’s magic.
Take A Class At Lake Geneva School Of Cooking
Chef John Bogan offers entertaining hands-on culinary classes for all skill levels. You’ll prepare a three- to four-course restaurant-quality lunch or dinner using classical techniques and locally sourced ingredients. Then take a seat in the formal dining room and feast upon your creations, along with appropriate wine pairings. Toques and aprons are provided. Sign up for a scheduled class on Lake Geneva School of Cooking’s website or call to book a private party.
Zip Through The Countryside On A Scooter
Rent a motorized scooter from Lake Geneva Scooter Tours and Rentals and admire the Wisconsin scenery on low-traffic back roads. Explore on your own, or join a three-hour guided tour around Geneva Lake. Scooter rentals start at under $60 an hour. Three-hour guided tours are under $150 a person with a four-person minimum. Helmets are provided. Pick up your scooter from Lake Geneva Scooter Tours and Rentals at The Mountain Top chalet at Grand Geneva Resort and Spa (more on that below).
Step Back In Time At The Lake Geneva Museum
Stroll along a recreated “Main Street” to learn the early history of Lake Geneva and glimpse the lives and lifestyles of those who shaped the region. View Potawatomi Native American artifacts, an 1890 fire hose wagon, and a 1920s dental work station. Architecture buffs: The museum’s home is a 1929 brick low-rise that formerly housed the Wisconsin Power and Light utility. Admission to Lake Geneva Museum is under $10 for adults and there is a discount for seniors.
Sip And Savor At Studio Winery
Raise a glass at Studio Winery, a combination tasting room, art gallery, and live music venue. Small-batch artisanal wines and distilled spirits are produced on-site from local and imported grapes and grains. Tasting prices start at under $10 for five samples or are free with a two-bottle purchase. Party snack platters and chocolate pairings are extra. Check the calendar for musical performances and for craft and painting classes.
Best Restaurants In Lake Geneva
The Lake Geneva foodie scene is as diverse as it is plentiful. Among the Wisconsin mainstays are fried cheese curds (fresh cheddar nuggets breaded and deep-fried until melty), Friday night fish fries, and farm-to-table produce and protein. If you wish to imbibe, ask the bartender for a Brandy Old-Fashioned Sweet. Here are a few recos:
Hunt Club Steakhouse overlooks one of three golf courses at Geneva National Resort and Club while serving up prime steaks and scrumptious seafood. Save room for the carrot cake topped with Wisconsin cream cheese frosting.
Oakfire serves up Neapolitan-style pizzas and other casual Italian fare with a spectacular lake view.
Sprecher’s Restaurant and Pub is a family brewpub known for Wisconsin-brewed craft beer and gourmet sodas. The root beer is legendary.
A Lake Geneva icon for 50 years, maritime-themed Popeye’s on Lake Geneva gets raves for its rotisserie chicken and cheesy broccoli soup.
Pier 290 is notable for contemporary American fare and comfort classics on the Geneva Lake waterfront.
Two dual-identity coffee shops serve up premium brews and more: Avant Cycle Cafe rents, sells, and fixes bicycles. Inspired trains, employs, and celebrates people with disabilities to prepare them for future job opportunities.
Editor’s Note: For more dining tips, check out our full list of the best restaurants in Lake Geneva. Yes, Popeye’s and Sprecher’s make the list!
Where To Shop In Lake Geneva
Charming downtown Lake Geneva is lined with one-of-a-kind specialty stores within walking distance of each other. You’ll find a treasure trove of apparel, artwork, home goods, and gourmet foods. Satisfy your sweet tooth at any of several confectionaries and bakeshops, and bring your loyal four-legged companion a new treat from the pet boutique.
Best Hotels In Lake Geneva
You’ve got an abundance of choices for overnight accommodations, from quaint bed and breakfasts to luxury hotels and from vacation rentals to wooded campsites. Many offer water views. These are a few of our favorites:
Built in 1856 as the summer home of a prominent Chicago surgeon, Maxwell Mansion is a 24-room boutique hotel fully restored and furnished to its original grandeur. Mansion rooms are appointed with exquisite antiques and en-suite baths. Rooms in the former stables and carriage house are decked with modern equestrian themes.
A clandestine speakeasy in the mansion basement is open to hotel guests Friday and Saturday nights. That is, if you know the always-changing password. Check the Maxwell Mansion Facebook page each week to find it.
Grand Geneva Resort and Spa
Hugh Hefner’s former Playboy Club Hotel, which closed in 1981, was transformed into the luxe Grand Geneva Resort and Spa. The sprawling campus encompasses 355 guest rooms, suites, and villas; two golf courses; multiple casual and fine dining options; horse stables; indoor and outdoor swimming pools; a ski slope; an indoor water park; a shopping arcade; and a private airport with a helipad. Hail the Grand Trolley to take you around the complex.
Lake Lawn Resort
Just minutes from downtown Lake Geneva in Delavan is Lake Lawn Resort, a historic hotel and recreational enclave on Delavan Lake. The property was the winter home of a traveling circus in the mid-1800s. A modest guest house opened in 1838, and it grew exponentially from there. An extensive renovation was completed in 2012, and today Lake Lawn Resort has 272 guest rooms and suites, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a spa, a golf course, a marina with boat rentals, and watersports. The Lake Lawn Queen cruise boat will take you on a tour of the lake. The General Store Gift Shop is a delightful emporium jam-packed with sundries, apparel, games, and Wisconsin-branded merchandise. Dining venues feature American heartland cuisine. Indulge in a gigantic, freshly baked cinnamon roll at breakfast and experience sweet decadence.
Big Foot Beach State Park
Whether your camping style is a pop-up tent or a luxury RV, Big Foot Beach State Park overlooking Geneva Lake can anchor your stay. The park has 100 wooded campsites, 34 with electrical hookups, plus pit toilets and showers. Recreational amenities include 6.5 miles of hiking trails and picnic areas. Walk the 2.5 miles along Geneva Lake Shore Path to downtown Lake Geneva. You’ll pass the colossal Stone Manor, the largest mansion on the lake. Find booking details and make reservations here.
Pro Tip: Lake Geneva, designated a Bird City Wisconsin, is an ornithology lover’s dream destination. Check out a free bird-watching kit containing binoculars, ID book, and map from the Lake Geneva Public Library and explore the many natural areas and avian hotspots.