My mom is coming to visit me (and her new grandbaby) this Thanksgiving. Last time she came to visit, I had just moved from Southern California to Wisconsin, so my mom and I spent the whole trip gawking at fall foliage. But this trip will be different. I’ve been in Wisconsin for over a year so now I have an overwhelming list of places I want to take her.
If you live near Milwaukee, Wisconsin and ever have visitors from Southern California, I highly recommend the following activities. I know this advice is a bit specific – I mean, how many Wisconsin-Californian friendships are there, really. Having lived in So Cal my whole life (ignoring the 3 years I lived in Nor Cal for grad school), I can make no promises these sites and activities will woo your visitors from other states, but I still recommend them.
The list below comes with the giant asterisk that, for all the exploring I’ve done over the last year, I’ve stayed within the southeastern region of Wisconsin. That means the list below is missing jaw-dropping, must-see sights like Devils Lake, Cave of the Mounds, Door County, etc. Wisconsin has A LOT to offer, but if you don’t have time to explore outside Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties, the following 10 places should still make an impression on your out-of-state guests.
Waukesha County, WI has a lot more trees and a lot less people than Orange County, CA. The parks below really drive this message home, and are fun to explore in every season. The parks below are all dog-friendly too, which is why they made the Top Ten list and some of the other parks I’ve explored did not.
I’ve never been to a dog park this large in So Cal. I’ve waxed poetic about Nashotah Park in another post but, to summarize, I love this park because it feels more like a forest than a park. If you wanted a quiet place among the trees to do some reading, thinking or writing, you will be able to find some solitude here, guaranteed. If you wanted to find a place to play catch or have an outdoor birthday party or go for a short hike, you can do all that here too.
The last time I visited this park, it was springtime, which means the trees I admired are probably all naked now that it’s November. Nonetheless, of all the parks I’ve explored in Wisconsin thus far, Nashotah is second to none among my favorites. It’s a bit further than other parks around Pewaukee, Wisconsin, but I think it’s worth it — especially if you can get there on a weekend morning.
In Waukesha County, Minooka Park is one of the only places you and your dog can swim in the same spot. In other parks, the human-swim and dog-swim areas are separate. This desegregation is why I’ve ranked Minooka Park higher than Fox Brook and Menomonee Parks. But even if you’re not going in the water, Minooka Park is worth a visit. There are trails around the lake, trails throughout the more foresty-parks of the park, and a dog play area.
You might like other parks on this list more, but Minooka will always hold a soft spot in my heart. The little lake in Minooka Park is the first Wisconsin lake Gjalla and I ever swam in. That was the first weekend of October 2017, and seeing the happiness Gjalla’s face was the first moment I thought, “Maybe living in Wisconsin won’t be so bad.”
If you enjoy walking around a lake, Menomonee Park is one of the best places to go. I’ve ranked Menomonee Park higher than Fox Brook Park because you can see the lake the whole time. This is a big deal for me because it reminds me of seeing the ocean while driving along Pacific Coast Highway. There’s something comforting and pacifying about being able to see water for your whole journey.
Menomonee Park also has a little sandy beach area. It’s painfully obvious how different this beach is from the beaches I’m used to (e.g., the shore in Huntington Beach, Newport, Bolsa Chica, Sea Beach, Long Beach). Perhaps it’s this stark difference which makes visiting Menomonee Park enjoyable. Your visitors will look at their hometown beaches differently after visiting a beach at a Wisconsin lake.
A second reason I’ve ranked Menomonee over Fox Brook is that the former facilitates scuba diving, archery, horseback riding, and camping. In winter you can go snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding. There is so much to do here, you’re only limited by your willingness to try new things.
4-Fox Brook Park
Fox Brook Park has a bigger beach and swimming area than Menomonee Park, but it doesn’t facilitate as many activities (see above). What makes Fox Brook Park so great is how you can have fun here every season. In spring, walking around the lake lets you admire the plants that are starting to come back to life. In summer, this is one of the best lakes to swim in, especially if you can beat the crowds and come early in the morning. In the fall, the colors of the trees against the color of the lake make for beautiful pictures. In winter, it’s fun to watch the water trapped under the ice in the shallowest part of the beach.
Mitchell Park has a long trail, a canoe launching area, little league baseball diamonds, and a MASSIVE hill. There is an official dog exercise area but Gjalla loves log-rolling down the big hill, which is the number one reason we keep going here. In my opinion, the hill is the best reason to visit, even if you’re only there for 5 minutes. You can take in the magnificent view and do that scene from Lion King, “Everything the light touches is our kingdom!”
Other Attractions in Southeast Wisconsin
6-Milwaukee Public Library
I’ve rambled on and on about my love for the Milwaukee Public Library in another post. You can find books on any topic you could imagine – they even have comic books! This library is impressive not just for the size of its collection but also for the stunning architecture of the building itself. Bonus – it’s walking distance from the Milwaukee Public Museum. If you’re not a giant book nerd like me, you could stop and admire the library for 10 minutes and then move on – it’s worth it.
7-Milwaukee Public Museum
I think of MPM as a smaller version of the Smithsonian — MPM is Wisconsin’s Natural History Museum. There you can browse the taxidermic exhibits of different animals and insects from all over the world. And even if you’re not into reading and learning about different cultures and different time periods, MPM is still worth a visit. You could skip all the exhibits and still have a great time walking through the butterfly garden or catching a show in the six-story hemispheric Dome Theatre and Planetarium. The “Wisconsin Stargazing” presentation is on year-round, and (as of this post) they’re also showing “Oceans: Our Blue Planet” – I recommend both, whole-heartedly.
I used to read Janet Evanovich’s novels and I thought the Piggly Wiggly was a fictional store just like the fictional characters Stephanie Plum and Lula who frequent it. Lo and behold, there’s a Piggly Wiggly right across the street from one of my favorite libraries – the Pauline Haas Library in Sussex.
I think walking through a grocery store you don’t have in your own state can be an adventure because you can always find something your hometown store doesn’t sell. You can’t leave Wisconsin without trying cheese curds, so if that’s the one thing you buy at Piggly Wiggly, it is not a wasted trip. Hopefully, you’ll be in the store long enough to hear one of the announcements with the pig oinks and squeals, “Shop the pig.”
Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, is one of 6 MLB ballparks with a retractable roof. Whether it’s open or closed, the structure is a sight to see. Moreover, Miller Park is not one of those ballparks where you have to be inside to admire it. Miller Park has banners and statues and a whole separate, smaller baseball diamond to explore.
10-The Domes (aka Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory)
Being a So Cal native, I had no idea how miserable a humid day could be. We get hot days in So Cal too, but it is a dry heat. Visiting the Domes is a great, cheap place to bring your guests if the weather’s yucky (cold, hot, humid, rainy, or snowy). The added bonus is one of the domes has the dry heat I’m used to – it’s a little piece of home away from home.
What are your favorite places to bring out-of-state guests?