Appleton's Renaissance by the River

Enjoy arts, culture, food and more in the city's vibrant downtown

Sep 14, 2011

A park bench by the Lawrence University campus

A park bench by the Lawrence University campus

When you’re craving a cultural getaway, Appleton, Wisconsin, might not be the first place to pop into your mind. Yet this small city by the Fox River is experiencing a renaissance. It’s long been home to revered liberal arts college Lawrence University but today it also boasts a thriving downtown with restaurants, cafes, museums and more where music, art and theater mix with good food and scenic views.


College Avenue connects the city’s major arts venues. A visit to the History Museum at the Castle offers the chance to learn about Harry Houdini, the famed magician and stunt performer who spent his early years in Appleton. The entire second floor of the museum is devoted to his feats, with some hands-on exhibits revealing the secrets to his tricks. The Trout Museum of Art boasts two floors of airy gallery space. The latest exhibition, A World of Post-Impressionism, is open through February 24, and the Lawrence Jazz Trio performs at the museum on October 20. The grand Fox Cities Performing Arts Center became part of the cultural landscape back in 2002. Highlights this month include the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra on October 1 and 29 and the Fox Cities Choral Music Festival on October 25. And Lawrence University often hosts concerts, lectures and exhibitions.


Café culture is strong in Appleton. One could easily while away a day at Harmony Café. The large, comfortable space features a huge menu of organic and fair-trade coffee drinks, sandwiches, and vegetarian and breakfast treats. Settle in at a worn wooden table with a board game or book and listen to a musician perform on the small stage. Or pop into Brewed Awakenings, a charming, narrow bistro-like coffee shop offering from-scratch bakery treats and homemade gelato, or the Copper Rock Coffee Company, a high-ceilinged café with exposed brick walls and cozy booths. If you go in for a warm drink, you may stay to enjoy the atmosphere and occasional live music.


Dinnertime brings a wonderful problem—the difficulty of choosing among the city’s many restaurants. Flanagan’s Wine Review is a romantic space with elegant tables and booths tucked in intimate niches. The food is flavorful and artistically presented, with a long list of wine options complementing the courses. Wild Truffle Pizza is a new and popular restaurant west of downtown, with a contemporary interior, happening vibe and excellent wood-fired pizzas served on wood cutting boards. Tucked by the river, Fratellos Riverfront Restaurant is a truly unique space. Originally a hydroelectric power plant, the eatery has brick walls, a diverse menu and stellar views of the water—at tables as well as the long bar. (If you can’t choose just one destination, dinner hop by visiting Flanagan’s for wine and appetizers, Wild Truffle for pizza and Fratellos for after-dinner drinks and dessert.)


After a full day exploring Appleton, there’s no better place to spend the night than the CopperLeaf Boutique Hotel & Spa. The new hotel’s contemporary-classic style is carried out in warm tones and woods in its seventy-three rooms and suites, as well as the welcoming lobby and adjacent bar. The suites offer a large sitting area, plus a luxurious bedroom complete with a king bed, electric fireplace and whirlpool tub. Bell Vita Ristorante recently opened for dinner, and guests enjoy a complimentary hot breakfast buffet in the morning. A fitness center, whirlpool and Spa BenMarNico’s round out this inviting hotel.


On your way home, a pleasant stop is the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum in nearby Neenah. Housed in a historic waterfront estate, the museum is dedicated to glass art and paperweights. 

Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine. 

Photographs courtesy of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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