At first glance, Switzerland and Wisconsin seem worlds apart. But not so fast…
New Glarus was settled in 1845 by immigrants from Switzerland, and that influence is felt to this day, which is how it earned the nickname “America’s Little Switzerland.” Rumor has it that yodeling and alpine horns still sound through the streets, but when we visited, I didn’t hear any. Still, it’s a nice image to consider and somehow, completely believable.
Just a couple of hours from Chicago, this little town is big on Wisconsin charm, from a great biking trail to decorated cows to a state-of-the-art brewery. Come along with me and see why there are at least 10 reasons to visit New Glarus.
1. Bike The Beautiful Sugar River Bike Trail
Last fall, my husband Dean and I were on a road trip to the east coast but planned a several-night stop in New Glarus to take a break from driving, explore this delightful little town, and get some exercise on the Sugar River State Trail, a bike trail we had only heard about.
The Sugar River State Trail is another great “rails to trails” trail that follows an abandoned railroad line for 24 miles from New Glarus to Brodhead. The ride features trestle bridges (14 of them) that cross over the Sugar River and its tributaries and gives you ample opportunity to gaze upon farm fields, woods, rolling hills, and prairies (the biking trail is flat and easy).
We started our ride at the Sugar River Trail Headquarters (trailhead), a restored 1887 railroad depot. We didn’t bring our bikes, but easy and efficient bike rentals are readily available. Because we had paid for bike rental online, we arrived at the trailhead to find two bikes tagged with our names. These were seven-speed bikes, so not our usual ride, but a step above other rentals we had had previously.
Pro Tip: Each cyclist age 16 or older needs a state trail pass to use the trail.
2. Keep Your Eyes Open For Wildlife Sightings
On our bike ride, we saw groups of distinctive, large white birds with red markings. My web research tells me whooping cranes like prairies and fields (check, and check). The National Wildlife Federation confirms a “non-natural migratory … breeds in the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge [which is north of New Glarus] in Wisconsin.” We love seeing wildlife in natural surroundings from a bike seat.
Pro Tip: Need more biking? Just south of the Monticello trailhead, this trail connects with the 40-mile Badger State Trail.
3. Walk To The (Somewhat Elusive) Covered Bridge
We biked about 12 miles out and then turned around and biked back to New Glarus. The trail map showed us that the southern portion of the trail featured the Clarence Covered Bridge Replica. I’m always interested in covered bridges for their charm, variety, and history. But you can only see the bridge from the trail; it’s not visible from any roads. So, we drove to what looked like the closest rural road, and my patient husband waited while I set out to jog/walk my way to the bridge. It’s a long story, but I did end up finding this beauty.
This bridge was built in 1984 but does a good job mimicking the original mid-1800s bridge. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I loved the way the late afternoon sun created light contrasts on the bridge.
4. Go On The New Glarus Cow Parade
What other town lays claim to 16 uniquely decorated cows? According to SwissTown.com, “The New Glarus ‘Cow Parade‘ got its start when two New Glarus shopkeepers saw a cow parade in the airport in Zurich, Switzerland. Since the cows are manufactured in Zurich, and New Glarus is in dairy country, the painted cows seemed a perfect fit. Cows were imported from Switzerland and painted with unique designs by area artists.”
Agreed, they’re a perfect nod to Switzerland and Wisconsin and they add to the New Glarus charm.
5. Enjoy Farm-To-Table Deliciousness At Fat Cat Coffee Works
For a great breakfast or lunch stop, try Fat Cat Coffee Works. It’s an eclectic place with plenty of character. We ordered coffee to complement breakfast burritos and wraps — all wonderful. You can bet I was eyeing up the good things in their bakery and pastry case! They also have great lunch offerings.
Pro Tip: Rainy day? Head to nearby Black Earth and visit The Shoe Box, which claims to be the “Midwest’s Largest Shoe Store.” (Being a bargain shopper, I had more success at their adjacent outlet store.) Or take a road trip to the capital city of Madison, about half an hour away.
6. Hear The Peal Of Resounding Church Bells
There’s something joyful about the sound of church bells, and thanks to the Swiss United Church of Christ, church bells still ring true in New Glarus. The church’s website tells me they rang their first bell in 1852 at noon and sunset to help folks keep the right time. It was also a fire warning so villagers could help battle a neighbor’s blaze. Today, there are more updated methods for timekeeping and firefighting, but the bells are another part of the undeniable charm of New Glarus.
7. Find Something Special At Brenda’s Blumenladen
New Glarus doesn’t lack for fun shops to explore and browse. One great example is Brenda’s Blumenladen (Blumenladen means flower shop). From the trellised garden to flower arrangements to home décor and gifts, there’s always something new here.
8. Savor Dinner At Kristi’s
It’s a fine thing to sit outside on the porch at Kristi’s Bistro Restaurant and Bar and enjoy a good meal. Their dinner menu changes, but my beef tenderloin filet with herb butter, roasted potatoes, and sauteed vegetables and Dean’s pork tenderloin with the same sides were equally delicious.
Pro Tip: They do a bustling business, so call for dinner reservations.
To our surprise, across the street from Kristi’s, we saw another infamous decorated cow perched on a platform above the entrance to Tofflers Pub and Grill! The web tells me this is Chuck the Cow and explains his attire: “Tofflers — Swiss slang for biker — is why the cow wears a leather vest…”
9. Discover Painted Barn Quilts
New Glarus participates in the barn quilt artwork you’ll find all over Wisconsin. A barn quilt is a square, quilted-style design that’s painted on roughly an 8-by-8-foot piece of plywood and fastened to the barn. These tributes to local wildlife, plants, farming, carpentry, or just colorful quilted patterns are fun to see.
10. Try A Spotted Cow From New Glarus Brewery
Since 1993, New Glarus Brewing Company has been brewing beer from high on a hilltop overlooking New Glarus. The buildings have the look and feel of a Bavarian village and the long driveway you take to get to it feels like you’re on top of the world (or at least, the top of New Glarus).
We took a self-guided tour for a fee that included a glass of beer (keep the glass) with our choice of regular and seasonal offerings: Spotted Cow, Fat Squirrel, Moon Man, Staghorn, Raspberry Tart, and more. Enjoy it, because you can only buy New Glarus beer in Wisconsin.
As we took our tour, signs explained the story of the brewery. It’s a beer story, a love story, and a miracle story (in the early days, they purchased German brewery equipment valued at a million dollars for $24,000.) Born of humble beginnings: “Big was never our goal. We just wanted to pay our bills and be fair to the people around us. We hoped we might sell 10,000 or 15,000 barrels one day.” I don’t know how much they sell in a day, but judging from the facility, I think they are doing all right.
This sign quoting Francis of Assisi sums up their artistic passion: “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” Who would have guessed touring a brewery could be so aspirational?
The outdoor courtyard is expansive, terraced, and well-designed, with many options for seating. Mid-week in late October, we had the area all to ourselves, but I could imagine how it comes alive in warm weather and on weekends.
New Glarus is a special place. Is it the bike trail? The bovines? The bells? The brewery? It could be any of those things, and it’s all those things. Whenever the sun sets on New Glarus, it’s a good day. This is Sunset Cow, set in dramatic color, representing the sunset as it falls over the rolling farmlands and hills of New Glarus. And it seems a fitting way to conclude this article about the many reasons to visit this charming Wisconsin town about two hours from Chicago.