Swiss chalet

The best things to do in New Glarus, WI: America’s Little Switzerland

Are you heading to Wisconsin and wondering what the best things to do in New Glarus are?

In my 20s I lived in the mountains of Switzerland for four years. Now that I’m back in the States, I definitely get some major cravings for fondue and good white wine. Fortunately, I have America’s Little Switzerland in my backyard, so whenever I’m feeling nostalgic for Switzerland I head there to satisfy my fondue craving and to enjoy feeling like I’m back in Switzerland again. But it’s not just fondue– there are lots of fun Swiss things to do in New Glarus, WI!

Here are the best things to do in New Glarus, WI, Swiss themed or otherwise.

New Glarus History and Location

New Glarus, known as America’s Little Switzerland, is about 30 minutes south of Madison, in South Central Wisconsin. You’ll need a car to get there, unless you are an avid cyclist, in which case it’s a great weekend biking destination from Madison. New Glarus is a small town that is easily walkable with free parking on all main streets.

New Glarus was founded in the 1840s by a group of 100 or so intrepid immigrants who came from the canton of Glarus in Eastern Switzerland. They founded the town of New Glarus, sent for more friends and family back in Switzerland, and the rest is history. While there are no real mountains in Wisconsin, it’s said that the original settlers chose the spot for New Glarus because its hills reminded them of home. Today those Swiss roots are still a very important part of the town.

Swiss style building

The New Glarus Hotel Restaurant

As you arrive in New Glarus, turning onto Main Street you’ll be greeted by a large, wooden building with Swiss flags that makes it look just like you’re in Switzerland! It’s the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant, an icon of the town for many years. While you can’t actually stay at this “hotel” anymore, this is the place you’ll want to go for some good fondue, dancing and live music.

Fondue and menu

Fondue means “melted” in French and the most common version is melted cheese, typically Emmental and Gruyère. It is eaten with small pieces of bread that are skewered with a fork and dipped into the cheese. It goes best with white wine. There is also fondue with melted chocolate.

Raclette cheese over potatoes and spätzle

I learned a lot about the etiquette for eating fondue when I was in Switzerland. It’s quite serious business. First, I learned that you never want to drink cold drinks with fondue, because it will turn the cheese into a hard ball in your stomach. If your bread falls off the fondue fork while you are dipping it in the cheese you have to kiss the person next to you. And make sure to stir the cheese every so often–that crusty stuff at the bottom is called the nun’s undies!

Besides fondue, some other specialties to try at the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant include raclette, spätzle and rösti. It seems almost all Swiss dishes contain either cheese or potatoes. Or both! While there are some definite Wisconsin touches here, like a salad bar and French fries, the food is pretty close to what you would be served if you were in Switzerland.

If you are craving Swiss food already, here are my favorites for at home Swiss treats:

The interior of the restaurant is lovingly decorated with carved wooden tables and the lights above some of the tables are giant cow bells!

On Friday nights the hotel hosts a polka band. While it is mostly an older crowd, as you can imagine, it’s still a really fun time to see people come together and do the very Swiss/Wisconsin tradition of dancing Polka. Watching a couple that was in their 80’s dance was very impressive! We were even treated to a yodeling demonstration.

Swiss Historical Village

If you like history, you’ll want to make a stop at the Swiss Historical Village. This open-air museum contains more than a dozen traditional buildings like a one-room school house, a bee house, a church and more. My favorite building was the cheese maker’s. Those large copper kettles are exactly like the ones that are still used traditionally in Switzerland!

Walking around the village, you can get a glimpse at what life was like in the late 1800s for early settlers to New Glarus. It also provides an overview of New Glarus’ Swiss roots and where in Switzerland they came from.

The museum is open from May to October and admission for adults is $9. Guided tours are often available and you can do a self-guided tour at any time. The main building also contains a gift shop with Swiss souvenirs.

Chalet of the Golden Fleece Museum

The Chalet of the Golden Fleece Museum is one of those museums that is hard to describe. Housed in a beautiful Swiss-designed chalet built in 1937 that is on the National Register of Historic Places, it was the home of the wealthy New Glarus resident Edwin Barlow. Barlow was a world traveler and crossed the ocean by ship more than 60 times on his trips to Switzerland and elsewhere. The museum is a collection of his childhood things, family heirlooms, and souvenirs from his world travels. Traditional dishes and dolls are juxtaposed with exotic jewelry and even a secret spy ring. The chalet is open for guided tours on Saturdays from May to October and costs $8.

The Swiss Center of North America

The Swiss Center is not a normal stop for tourists, but if you are interested in genealogy or really diving deeper into Swiss-American heritage, it is a must. The building has a beautiful display of Swiss clothing and crafts like this scherenschnitte paper cutting. The Donald G. Tritt Archives and Library contain over 10,000 books and documents including genealogy records. It is free to visit and if you call ahead someone will be there to show you around.

New Glarus Brewing Company

outdoor beer garden

Although not specifically Swiss, one of the major draws of New Glarus is the New Glarus Brewing Company. The New Glarus Brewing Company makes one of the most famous, if not THE most famous, craft beers in Wisconsin: Spotted Cow. This is the beer that everyone brings to their Wisconsin friends who live out of state when they go and visit them.

New Glarus Brewing recently built a new brewery on a hill just under two miles out of town. They give tours, conduct tastings and have a beer garden in their Harry-Potter-meets-medieval-Europe themed brewery. The beer garden is a great place to enjoy a cold one and to take in the beautiful view of the surrounding hills.

Bailey’s Run Winery

Bailey’s Run Winery, named after the family’s dog, is a small winery with an ideal location on a hilltop. Wisconsin isn’t exactly famous for it’s wine, but Bailey’s Run’s white and fruit wines are nice. They have brick oven pizza for sale and live music in the summer. It’s a great place to relax with friends while enjoying the vineyard view. Are those snow capped mountains I see?

In-Town Eats

If you don’t want to drive out of town to enjoy your drinks, there’s a wine bar downtown, where you can do a tasting of some traditional Swiss wines. Grab a bottle to go and have a picnic in the park. But of course you need cheese, so the other place you must stop is the Edelweiss Cheese Shop. Grab your traditional Gruyère or Emmentaler (those are the original “Swiss” cheeses) or take home some other types of cheese for fondue. You can also stock up on chocolate, fudge and ice cream at the Maple Leaf Cheese and Chocolate house.

There are plenty of other Swiss-themed places for food. If you’re craving pizza, just below the hotel is the Ticino Pizzeria, named after the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland. Carnivores will love the Glarner Stube’s meaty traditional Swiss dishes. Puemple’s Old Tavern is one of the oldest buildings in New Glarus, dating back to 1893. It has beautiful, hand-painted murals that are over 100 years old.

If you’re somehow still hungry after all this food, walk by the New Glarus Bakery for a snack or breakfast tomorrow. The have been creating Swiss and American treats for over 100 years! Die Backerei has traditional favorites like morning buns, but also a number of Swiss specialties like anise cookies, almond horns, and other things you’ll normally find only in Switzerland. You can also find traditional Swiss bread here. And if you’re going to make fondue at home, I’d suggest buying two loaves!

If you come to New Glarus at Christmas time you’re in for some special treats: Christmas stollen bread with rum, marzipan and candied fruit, fresh-baked Pfeffernusse, lebkuchen (similar to gingerbread) with St. Nicholas and more!

Outdoor activities in New Glarus

Doing an afternoon bike ride is a great way for all ages to appreciate the town and the surrounding area. The Sugar River bike trail starts right in New Glarus, and the nearby Badger State Trail connects New Glarus to north to Madison and south all the way down to Illinois. Bikes are available to rent at the historic train depot, but must be reserved in advance.

If you like miniature golf, Swissland Mini Golf has mini golf with a twist–real goats grace the course! They may not improve your score but they will definitely add to the fun.

Can you spot the goat?

As you walk around, see if you can spot all 16 of the cow statues that are part of the New Glarus Cow Parade. The cows were made in Zurich, Switzerland and painted according to their local sponsors. You can download a map and read about them ahead of time. Here’s a hint for your first one: You’ll have to look up high!

Shopping in New Glarus

After eating, head to Ester’s European Imports to do some Swiss-inspired shopping. The owner came from Switzerland years ago as part of an exchange program and met her husband here, who was also Swiss, and they’ve lived here ever since. How cute is that?! When I went, she was even wearing a traditional Swiss dress.

Swiss cowbells always make fun souvenirs. If you are now inspired to make fondue at home you can get a fondue pot. Or look at some of the cookie cutters and grab some books about Switzerland.

Another cute place is the Blumenladen. This flower store has lots of fun gift ideas for home and garden.

Summer Festivals

The best time to come to New Glarus is in the summer, and especially on a festival weekend. There seems to always be a festival happening during the summer in New Glarus, and they tend to include Swiss traditions, beer or both!

For example, the Heidi Festival in the spring includes members of the town acting out the Heidi play based on the beloved story of the little Swiss girl by Johanna Spyri.

The most popular festival though is the Wilhelm Tell Festival. If you know anything about Swiss history, you’ll know that Wilhelm Tell became a legendary hero for shooting an arrow off of the top of his son’s head, but the real story is much more complicated. The festival centers around a large-scale outdoor production of this story and involves live animals.

Ticket holders will want to make sure to get a spot in the shade because it’s a long play and in the hot sun can be very tough. You’ll definitely come away with a greater appreciation for all things Swiss. After the play, there are festivities in town with deals on shopping, drinks in the park, and other activities for families.

There are also Octoberfest celebrations, Swiss National Day festivities, and a Blues, Brews and Food Truck Festival. The full events calendar is available here.

Where to stay

The New Glarus Hotel is actually only a restaurant, but if you’re looking for a real hotel, the Chalet Landhaus hotel provides Swiss-inspired hospitality: A beautiful Swiss-style chalet, complete with flower boxes, and a cozy place to hang your hat.

Further down the road but still an easy walk from the heart of town is the Swiss Aire Motel. It also offers a Swiss theme but at a lower price.

There are many more hotel choices just a short drive away in Verona or Madison, but sadly they aren’t Swiss-themed.

Whether you’re all about the “Swissness” or not, no matter what you end up doing you are bound to have a fun time in New Glarus!

If you enjoy cultural travel in the midwest, you may want to check out Pilsen, Chicago’s Latino neighborhood.

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1 thought on “The best things to do in New Glarus, WI: America’s Little Switzerland”

  1. Wow, so great to have Switzerland so close-by!
    You made me crave for the country myself!
    I want to be allowed screaming “cheese!!” even when not taking photos 🙂

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