Visit Wisconsin Fox Cities Appleton-Neenah-Menasha

Learn about famed escape artist Harry Houdini and other Wisconsin natives at History Museum at the Castle.

Make paper at the Paper Discovery Center, Appleton.
Find Houdini, a glass museum, paper history and shopping in Wisconsin’s Fox Cities 
Photos & story by Lisa McClintick
Wisconsin’s city of Appleton, as well as neighboring Neenah and Menasha—anchor the Fox Cities, a mashup of communities with about 250,000 residents. They grew up around the paper industry that took advantage of the surrounding Big Woods for pulp and hydro-electric power from the Fox River which drops 170 feet as it flows about 40 miles from Lake Winnebago to Green Bay.
Its paper legacy lingers with a fun, kid-friendly Paper Discovery Center in a historic warehouse on the river, along with plenty of other surprises: a look at the tricks of native son Harry Houdini, a chance to craft your own custom chocolate bar at Wilmar’s, see exhibits featuring the region’s nationally known glass artists and an internationally known glass collection at the Bergstrom Mahler Glass Museum, and shopping galore with boutiques lining the downtowns. 
Here’s a look at the top things to do in Wisconsin’s Fox Cities:

Paper Discovery Center

Handmade paper souvenir
The ordinary kitchen blender roars to life, whirling and shredding discarded office papers and newspaper comics into slurry.
A staffer at Appleton, Wisconsin’s, Paper Discovery Center coaches all their visitors on making the perfect souvenir with a litany of pre-blender questions: Colored paper? Newsprint? Glitter? How about dyed fibers?
The results are always a surprise as she helps me pour the pulpy soup into a framed screen before several more steps to wick out all the water, leaving a textured, one-of-a-kind piece of homemade paper.
Paper Discovery Center
The Discovery Center, located in a former Kimberly Clark warehouse built in 1878 from cream-colored brick, explains the global origins of paper from bark and hemp to block printing and stationery until it played a crucial role in communication for centuries with printing presses, books and newspapers.
Industrial artifacts and kid-friendly, interactive activities (including the chance to “work” in a paper factory) reveal nitty-gritty details of the industry such as papermarks and embossing. Exhibits explain the evolution to more high-tech products, such as facial tissue, disposable diapers and toilet paper. Lest anyone forget these products are luxuries, an outhouse shows visitors what older generations used—including stiff catalog pages and corncobs—and elicits groans of sympathy and tsks of surprise.
The warehouse location adds a feel of authenticity, while a gallery and café soften the surroundings, inviting guests to linger on a sun-soaked patio overlooking the Fox River as it rumbles past. 
Bergstrom Mahler Museum

Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass

This lakeside mansion began with a world-class collection of paperweights with millefiori work as intricate as lace, along with an expansive collection of Germanic drinking vessels that date back to the 1500s. It’s grown from there, incorporating the work of stellar creations from the modern art glass movement. Rotating exhibitions might feature giant glass corncobs swinging on iron stalks and elaborate water fountains that bring together regional talents with national recognition. 

Bergstrom-Mahler Museum
Even better: Admission is free, and if you plan ahead, adults and kids may be able to sign up for a variety of glass classes and dabble in their own colorful creations. The museum shop also ranks among the area’s best places to find unique gifts (glass-themed, of course).

History Museum at the Castle

History Museum’s exhibit on Houdini’s famed escapes
The History Museum at the Castle grabs its share of attention with its 1920s Camelot look from years as a Masonic Temple, but it’s the exhibits dedicated to Appleton’s famous showman and world famous escape artist, Harry Houdini, that makes it stand out. Exhibits reveal a few magicians’ secrets and let visitors test their own escapist skills. Make sure you have a buddy to help if you get stuck.

A food exhibit on display through this fall cleverly dishes up regional history and culture with supper clubs, smelt fishing, “booyah,”  and letting guests try virtually spearfishing for sturgeon. Kids love it! 
Spearing sturgeon at History Museum

Catch a flying brat

Speaking of local food, nothing says Wisconsin fare like a juicy brat. Pair it up with a night of Timber Rattlers minor league baseball. The light-hearted, fun games include a sandbox in the outfield for kids and a “bratzooka” that shoots bratwurst into the audience. Games run April through September.

Make a custom chocolate bar

Wilmar Chocolate’s candy bar lab
Wilmar Chocolates, a landmark candy shop since 1956, encourages creativity with a build-your-own supersized chocolate bar. Inhale the sweet, heady scent of chocolate while you mull over the endless options from fancy nuts to crushed potato chips.

Need help deciding? Try their combinations such as cherry pie with Door County cherries, almonds and cinnamon or “Kid Stuff” with gummi bears, M&Ms and pop rocks. My favorite? Chocolate with curry, coconut and pistachios–unexpected but delicious. 

Boutiques dot Neenah (above) and Appleton’s downtown.

Shop until you drop

The area’s known as Wisconsin’s retail hub with its concentration of big malls and main-street boutiques. Best bets: Harp Gallery, Fox River Antique Mall and Urban Evolutions for vintage and reclaimed creations.

Stroll downtown Appleton for art and eclectic finds at Studio 213, fashionable baby clothes at Bellybeans and hands-on art at Fire Art Studio. Watch for Hey Daisy, which follows the food truck trend by putting its fashion shop on wheels. In downtown Neenah, check out Vintique’s retro chic and Lucy’s Closet pet boutique.

Hike the High Cliff

Hike Cliff State Park

Get out of town and hike the cliff-top trails High Cliff State Park for sweeping views from the Niagara Escarpment of Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin’s largest inland lake.  There’s also a limestone quarry and a 40-foot tower overlooking the lake and the marina below. There’s a campground, beach, marina and plenty of ways to fill a weekend getaway. 

Fox Cities dining & Accommodations

Atlas Coffee Mill and Cafe at Paper Discovery Center.
The Fox Cities have plenty of accommodations with most of the major chains. Among the top choices: 
  • The Copperleaf Boutique Hotel and Spa with 75 rooms and suites sits along West College Avenue in the hub of museums and shopping and a block from the Performing Arts Center. 
  • The Holiday Inn Neenah Riverwalk has 107 rooms, some with views of the Fox River with downtown Neenah nearby.

For dining, grab a homey bowl of soup, a breakfast strata, fresh salad or panini at Atlas Coffee Mill and Café, which is attached to the Paper Discovery Center.
Indulge in the pervasive Packer-mania and enjoy a white-tablecloth dinner at VinceLombardi’s Steakhouse. Diners can sip wine and tuck into filet mignon, chops or seafood while immersed in photos and memorabilia from the legendary 1960s Packers coach.
Head to Simon’s Specialty Cheese for a bag of fresh curds, chocolate cheese fudge, mozzarella whips or aged cheddars, sausages, and Wisconsin wine and beer.