The greater Appleton, Wisconsin area, known as Fox Cities, had its history cemented in the 1870s when paper manufacturers created their paper production plants in the area. The Fox River that runs through the region created hydropower, including electricity, making it the perfect spot for manufacturing.
The area’s diverse activities make it the perfect place for a multi-generational getaway. You can visit High Cliff State Park in the morning for hiking and a picnic lunch, then take in a Broadway show in the evening at the Fox Cities for the Performing Arts Center in downtown Appleton. In addition, downtown Appleton is bursting with public art displays. Use this map to guide you on a walking tour of all the area’s murals and sculptures.
Appleton makes the perfect road trip destination. The city has less congestion than its larger town siblings, with the warmth and feel of a small town but all the big city amenities. If road tripping isn’t your thing, they have an international airport (ATW) serviced by all the major airlines.
Thank you to Greater Appleton, Wisconsin, for hosting my visit. All are opinions of my own.
1. Visit The Paper Discovery Center
The Paper Discovery Center is a center focused on papermaking, an important local industry. One example is the display that tells the story of how a hard tree becomes a soft tissue. Exhibits feature four main divisions — tissue, printing and writing, carton board, and specialty. In addition, the center includes informal interactive education.
They have a portion of the center that is self-guided interactive experiences with exhibits staying on display for 2 to 3 months and then rotating. They are shifting their focus to a science center, focusing on a broader range of activities besides paper. They have added an interactive science stage presentation that gets the kiddos involved, and even the younger ones, about ages 4 and 5, had their attention captured.
When we visited, the stage presentation was about Henrietta Lack’s cells, where they taught about the first human cells discovered to be immortal. The presenter was able to take this complex idea and explain it at a level the younger kids could understand. These topics engage the teens as well.
Be sure to go down to the River Level and take some time to make paper in their Paper Lab. Again, this even works for the younger kids because it’s a hands-on defined process.
Pro tip: If you’re visiting around mealtime, the River Tyme Bistro — located in the same building — makes a convenient snack or meal stop.
2. Discover Building For Kids Museum
While the Building for Kids Museum is best suited to preschool and elementary-age kids, middle schools and high schoolers will find engaging activities in the Innovation Lab. They can explore hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) activities. In addition, artists of all ages will enjoy the Leonardo da Vinci Studio and can explore creativity at the easel.
You’ll find a lot going on here, so you’ll probably want to spend half a day. The youngest adventurers, ages 0 to 3, will enjoy the Babies & Toddlers Around the World space, where they can explore slides and dunes. Preschoolers and early elementary will have fun in the water areas and the Curious George exhibit, to name a couple.
Every age can explore physics and engineering in the “Move It” exhibit. All ages, even adults, love using levers, pulleys, and ramps to change airflow and shoot bright balls through transparent tubes.
Pro tip: Check their hours on the day you want to visit. They aren’t open on Monday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they are close as early as 3 pm
3. Explore the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass
Mrs. Evangeline Bergstrom’s passion for paperweights began when she admired one belonging to her grandmother at the age of 10. She later acquired a similar one on a trip to Florida, and from there, her collection took off. She soon became an antique paperweight aficionado and opened the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in 1959. With more than 3,500 items, it’s one of the largest collections of paperweights globally. The permanent collection features German, contemporary, and art glass.
I was concerned about children with all the glass, but well-behaved children are welcome at the museum. You’ll find lots to keep them busy there, with scavenger hunts available for them to enjoy. In addition, the docent-led tours suggest items they’ll find exciting and incorporates “I-Spy” activities to capture the kiddos’ attention.
Pro tip: The Plaza at Gateway Park is a new multi-purpose facility modeled after Rockefeller Center in New York City. The Plaza features an ice rink in the winter and roller skating in the summer. Globe Coffee inside The Plaza roasts all its coffee beans in-house and serves breakfast and lunch. Take a credit or debit card, as you can’t pay with cash.
4. Take In A Laser Show At Barlow Planetarium
For those astronomers or music lovers in the family, try one of the shows at the Barlow Planetarium. They feature a variety of programs that span different age groups. The Family Shows are fun for the whole family, particularly those 8 and younger. The staff gears Feature Shows toward adults and older students who already have a strong interest in astronomy. The music Laser Shows feature music and laser animation, making it fun for all ages. Every show ends with a visit through the current nighttime sky, where you’ll discover the constellations and planets as they are in Northeast Wisconsin.
Pro tip: Those with sensitivity to flashing lights, be aware that the laser light shows incorporate animation.
5. Visit The History Museum At The Castle
Kids love the fairy tale magic of castles, so the History Museum at the Castle is the perfect stop with the grandkids. Add to that the magic of Houdini, and you can’t go wrong. Located in downtown Appleton, the Harry Houdini interactive displays are one of the permanent exhibits. As a child, he lived in Appleton for 4 years and considered Appleton his hometown. Here the family will learn about the secrets behind Houdini’s life and magic. In addition, the kids will have a chance to break Houdini’s 3-second jail escape record or perform his Metamorphosis illusion. The whole family will enjoy this exhibit, especially the teens.
The museum features other temporary displays. For example, the interactive Da Vinci exhibit was great fun for the older kids, while the Fox Cities ABCs display was fun for preschoolers and lower elementary kids. The museum offers enough variety that this single stop will keep the whole family involved.
Pro tip: Notice the four stained glass windows in the break area to the left of the ticket counter. These windows provide insight into Appleton’s history.
6. Hike The Trails
When traveling with the kiddos, they’ll want a place to get outside and blow off some steam. The greater Appleton area has several trails that are perfect for that.
The Fox Trot Trail is a self-guided 16-stop, 2.2-mile loop showingcasing the history of downtown Appleton and the Fox River. The trail starts downtown in Houdini Plaza, heads towards Lawrence University, goes through the former industrial flats, and concludes in Jones Park. Follow the blue fox footprints on the sidewalks and the signs. You’ll find a brochure outlining the points of interest on Appleton’s Historic Walk.
Located in Kaukauna, 1000 Islands Environmental Center is home to miles of trails for hiking and snowshoeing. Inside the Nature Center, you’ll find live animal exhibits to intrigue the littles, interactive educational displays, a Fox River arrowhead collection which the upper elementary and middle schoolers will find fascinating, and a gift shop.
Another trail located in Little Chute is the David and Rita Nelson Family Heritage Crossing, a multi-use 1,100-foot pedestrian bridge over the Fox River, which helps connect the network of more than 100 miles of trails throughout the Fox Cities.
If you’re looking for more places to hike in Wisconsin, check out this article on 9 Best Hikes To Experience In Wisconsin.
Pro tip: While you’re in the Little Chute area, the windmill is another fun stop for the kids. Located in the heart of downtown Little Chute, the windmill is an authentic, 100-foot tall, fully functioning 1850s design from the province of North Brabant in the Netherlands.
7. Experience Kerrigan Brothers Winery
While a winery may not seem like the perfect multi-generational stop at first glance, Kerrigan Brothers Winery, a family-owned and operated business since 2000, checks all the boxes. They focus on fruit-based wine sourced from their home state whenever possible.
Located in rural Kaukauna — about 20 minutes from downtown Appleton — the patio space works for the adults to sip their favorite glass of wine while the little ones run off some of that pent-up energy on the open grass surrounding the patio. In addition, they offer yard games that will entertain the whole family.
Inside, the adults can partake in a wine tasting at the bar while keeping an eye on the kids participating in one of the tabletop board games the owners, Jeff and Joelle Letter, keep at the ready. They are the perfect hosts, and when you leave, you’ll feel like family.
Pro tip: This is the perfect place if you’re looking for a wine-related gift for someone back home. Kerrigan Brothers Winery has the largest wine-related gift shop in Wisconsin.
To learn more about Wisconsin’s food culture, look at Wisconsin’s Food Culture: Cheese, Chocolate, And Beer. Looking for restaurants in Appleton? This article on 7 Amazing Restaurants To Try In Appleton, Wisconsin, will help you out.
If you’re wondering how to spend more time in Wisconsin, check out How To Spend A Long Weekend In Scenic Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.