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​A Fox Cities Christmas

HPR Abroad | November 22nd, 2023

By Alicia Underlee Nelson

alicia@hpr1.com

Even if you don’t love Christmas movies, you’d have to be a Grinch not to notice that holiday films get the vibe right. This heady cocktail of twinkling lights, softly falling snow, and cozy shops all aglow (spiked with a spoonful of nostalgia) keeps us coming back for more.

The Fox Cities have perfected their unique holiday ambiance. These 19 east central Wisconsin communities clustered around Lake Winnebago and the Fox River temper Hallmark movie standbys like strollable sidewalks lined with mom-and-pop shops to sipping cocoa at the ice skating rink with an un-fussy Wisconsin attitude.

Be merry in Neenah

Start in Neenah, where stately Victorian homes built by timber barons stand bedecked in their holiday finery. Spend a leisurely afternoon browsing the shelves at Thomas A. Lyons Fine Books, shopping for women’s clothing and accessories at The Revival, or selecting the perfect gift for your four-legged friends at Lucy’s Closet pet boutique.

Kids can drop their letters to Santa into the cherry red mailbox in front of the Future Neenah office between December 1 and December 21. If they include their return address, he’ll even write back!

Lace up your skates (or rent a pair) at The Plaza at Gateway Park, which was recently named one of the most charming ice skating rinks in the country by USA Today. Stay toasty by the bonfires or pick up a s’more kit, hot cocoa or a maple latte from Globe Coffee. The plaza is cashless, so bring a credit card.

Take in over 5,000 treasures on display at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass. They include dramatic studio glass, delicate paperweights, and domestic objects like stemware through the ages. Admission is free.

If a holiday festival is more your speed, Neenah has got you covered. The city pulls out all the stops during A Very Neenah Christmas on December 1. Come for ice sculptures, dancers, carolers, a visit from Santa and his reindeer and shopping and dining deals all over town.

More athletic types can don their gaudiest Christmas gear during the Ugly Sweater Shuffle on December 9. It runs along the Loop the Lake Trail, which links three different communities – Fox Crossing, Menasha and Neenah.

Get back to nature in Sherwood

For a more subdued outdoor activity, rent snowshoes at High Cliff State Park in Sherwood. Visitors can also bring cross-country skis and fat tire bikes. A three-mile snowmobile trail runs through the park, connecting Lake Winnebago with the Calumet County snowmobile trail system. The frozen lake and snow-covered trails offer a much-needed moment of calm during the busy holiday season.

Order ahead or linger over wraps, panini, or an excellent pizza at Bistro by the Park. As the name indicates, it’s located right next to the park entrance.

Celebrate the season in Appleton

Score a commemorative Santa beanie after crossing the Santa Scamper run/walk finish line. It’s held right before the annual Appleton Christmas Parade, which occurs the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. (That’s November 21 this year.) This beloved holiday spectacle includes floats, animals, and more than 20 marching bands from around Wisconsin. Over 80,000 spectators pack the streets of downtown Appleton to experience this marquee event. Thousands more watch the festivities on television.

It’s always Christmas at Cleo’s Brown Beam Tavern, where lights twinkle and oversized ornaments cover the ceiling all year long. Try a cold brew martini or toast the season with a rum-based Jingle Juice or a Red Nosed Reindeer cocktail flavored with apple and cranberry.

For a double dose of nostalgia, try a classic Wisconsin supper club. Time stands still at Dick & Joan’s Supper Club, a favorite spot for hand-breaded perch, prime rib, or a porterhouse, paired with a generous soup and salad bar.

Complement this kind of classic comfort food with a Wisconsin-style Old Fashioned, made with brandy instead of bourbon or rye. You’ll find versions of the state’s unofficial cocktail all over town.

Beer lovers should sip the Scottish-style ale or vanilla stout at Stone Arch Brewpub. This comfortable space (which offers live music on Tuesday nights) was established as the county’s very first brewery back in 1858.

Warm up with a cup of locally roasted Joe from ACOCA Coffee or Copper Rock Coffee Co. The pain au chocolate at Voyageurs Bakehouse and a frozen custard cookie sandwich from Legendairy Cookies N’ Creamery are also worth a pilgrimage if you have a sweet tooth. The ultra-rich frozen custard isn’t the only treat sourced from local producers.

Rich, creamy caramels from Vande Walle’s Candies (made with Wisconsin butter) make an excellent gift. But you’ll probably be tempted to keep them for yourself. Or pick up the Award collection from Wilmar Chocolates. Everything in the elegant box – from butter toffee to chocolate truffles – is made from local butter and cream and has earned accolades from Wisconsin State Fair judges.

The Fox Cities boast over 30 locally owned boutiques, antique stores, markets, and galleries. Some of the best are located in Appleton, so it’s a great place to start your holiday shopping. Look for Wisconsin-made art and gifts at Blue Moon Emporium, eco-friendly, soy wax selections from Eclectic Candle Company, and a beautifully edited selection of men’s and women’s vintage clothing and accessories at Beatnik Betty’s Resale Butik. (The shop’s upcycled clothing and jewelry are really cool, too.)

Don’t leave town without picking up award-winning cheddar and utterly addictive cheese curds from Simon’s Specialty Cheese. Wisconsin cheese is always in season.

_________________

Alicia Underlee Nelson has written for Thomson Reuters, Lonely Planet, Food Network, Delta Sky Magazine, AAA Living, Midwest Living, Beer Advocate, trivago Magazine, Matador Network, craftbeer.com, and numerous other publications. She is the author of 100 Things to Do in Fargo Before You Die and North Dakota Beer: A Heady History. Alicia also co-authored Midwest Road Trip Adventures and Midwest State Park Adventures with colleagues from the Midwest Travel Network. Follow her adventures in the Midwest and around the world at prairiestylefile.com.

Fox Cities CVB provided lodging, research assistance, and some trade for this story. All options are the author’s own.

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