5 Hallmark-worthy Wisconsin small towns to visit during the holidays

It’s time to deck the halls and streets of Wisconsin for the holiday season.

There’s plenty to do in Wisconsin’s big cities, from seeing lights in Milwaukee to visiting the Capitol Christmas tree in Madison.

But there’s something extra charming about small towns that get festive. There’s a reason Hallmark holiday movies always take place in small towns — Main Street America is where the magic happens.

Many small towns across Wisconsin have parades, tree lightings and visits from Santa. But some turn up the volume with special things to see and do.

Here are five small towns worth visiting this holiday season. Some are within day-trip distance of Milwaukee, others are great for a weekend getaway.


Cedarburg might have the market cornered on Christmas charm. The downtown district along Washington Avenue is the perfect backdrop: It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, with 19th-century buildings now filled with modern shops, galleries and restaurants. During A Cedarburg Christmas, that stretch of downtown is lined with luminaries, decked out in garland and ribbons, and plays host to special events.

Highlights include Festive Friday Eves in December. The Shops of Cedar Creek Settlement are open until 9 p.m., and there is live music, wine tasting, cider, cookies and kid-friendly activities. Kids will also love visiting with Santa in his workshop, a gingerbread house on Washington Ave.

About 20 miles north of Milwaukee, Cedarburg is easy day- or night-trip distance from the city. Find more information at cedarburgchristmas.com.

Elkhart Lake

The Osthoff Resort’s Old World Christmas Market is a town in itself. Now in its 24th year, the market is modeled after a traditional Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany. More than 70 vendors from around the world sell hand-crafted gifts, from Czech blown-glass ornaments to Polish pottery.

"The whole market is reminiscent of the Christmas markets in Germany and all of the European countries," Lola Roeh, general manager of the resort, said in a statement. "We try to re-create that feeling, so we have some of the traditional wooden booths, but we also have all of the booths lined with fresh greens and little white lights, and it's set up like it would be in little village streets."

German influence permeates the Old World Food Market, with the smells of bratwurst and roasted almonds mixing with hot glühwein (mulled wine). Kids might also spot Father Christmas there.

Little ones can enjoy other holiday activities at the resort, including breakfast with Santa, horse-drawn wagon rides and cookie decorating.

The market is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 2-10. Admission is $7 for adults and free for kids 14 and under with an adult. The Osthoff offers special lodging packages for the holidays. See osthoff.com.

The Osthoff Resort is at 101 Osthoff Ave., Elkhart Lake, about 60 miles north of Milwaukee.


Ripon’s special take on the holidays includes living windows displays in 20 storefronts around downtown during Dickens of a Christmas the first weekend in December. Real people depict festive scenes inside on Saturday night, and carolers and horse-drawn carriage rides add to the festive feeling outside.

Other weekend festivities include a craft fair, breakfast with Santa and a holiday parade.

Ripon is about 90 miles northwest of Milwaukee.


A couple enjoys a sunset hike at Ephraim's Anderson Dock in winter.
A couple enjoys a sunset hike at Ephraim's Anderson Dock in winter.

You can't go wrong with a getaway to any Door County town during the holidays.

Ephraim is especially picturesque, tucked into a scenic bay with white-washed buildings and church steeples looking out over a marina of sailboats serenely floating on glasslike water in the summer.

The village piles on the charm during Christmastime, when decorations and sparkling lights adorn those buildings and a community Christmas tree stands in Harborside Park.

That tree gets lighted during Christmas in the Village on Dec. 3. The daylong celebration also includes Christmas carols, horse-drawn wagon rides, a visit from Santa and kids’ activities.

Ephraim is about 180 miles north of Milwaukee. Make this trip a weekend getaway with a stay at the Eagle Harbor Inn, and journey to Door County’s other villages for more festivities.


The home of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame turns its focus to land-based fun for the holidays.

During Christmas in Hayward (formerly A Lure of Lights), volunteers decorate downtown with thousands of LED lights that turn on every night at dusk. Special events fill the weekends, from horse-drawn sleigh rides and hot chocolate crawls to an ugly sweater 5K.

Hayward is a hike from Milwaukee — at least a five-hour drive — so plan a weekend in the area. Stay at the McCormick House, a Victorian bed and breakfast downtown, or the Spider Lake Lodge, a classic Northwoods retreat 15 miles east of town. For good food and beer, stop by the Angry Minnow. If there's snow, check out the legendary Birkebeiner ski trail that travels between Hayward and Cable.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 5 Hallmark-worthy Wisconsin small towns to visit during the holidays