For Chicagoans, Door County is the summer and fall destination de rigueur. But there's another northern Wisconsin destination option with a lake and lots of small town charm: Appleton.
The town is nestled at the north end of Lake Winnebago, about 30 miles southwest of Green Bay. When I visited we hiked, we shopped, we ate and we relaxed, all without the pressure of crowds and tourist-unfriendly prices that come with a visit to its better known neighbor to the northeast.
You don't need to stay long at the Bergstrom Mahler Museum, home to an incredible collection of gorgeous glass paperweights. Since it's free, you won't even mind if the kids need to leave after 30 minutes. Take them out the back way and let them run across the expansive lawn down toward the lake. Then make a quick stop at the surprisingly affordable gift shop to buy some glass earrings, ornaments or other treats for yourself.
Plan to spend most of Saturday morning at the farmers market. It takes over downtown Appleton and is filled with more than 140 booths selling everything from corn to cheese curds, with enough games and activities and exotic prepared foods to keep kids' hands busy and bellies full.
There's plenty of nature here, too, including hiking the Red Bird Trail at High Cliff State Park and learning to milk a cow at Mulberry Lane Farms (it's not as easy as it looks). Or you can take a walk along the Fox River at the 1,000 Islands Environmental Center. But don't come to Appleton expecting to spend time on or in the water unless you bring your own boat. Sadly, Lake Winnebago does not have any vendors offering boat rides, renting canoes or otherwise helping tourists get out on the water.
There's plenty of big-city-like entertainment in the small town. Don't miss a baseball game at the affordable and always fun Wisconsin Timber Rattlers' Stadium, if the Milwaukee Brewers Class A minor league team happens to be in town when you visit. The antics are more fun than the game and there's a huge sandbox "beach" for kids to play in when they get bored.
If you want the kids to learn something during your vacation, take them to the University of Wisconsin's Barlow Planetarium and Weiss Earth Science Museum. They're a little outside of Appleton in nearby Menasha, but worth a stop on your way out of town.
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Cindy Richards is the mom of two who gets her muse from traveling the world, usually with kids in tow. She also writes for TravelingMom.com, where she also serves as editor.
See more of Cindy's stories here.