By Carla Minsky
Special to Travelwisconsin.com
Wisconsin has its own “Big Apple.” It’s Appleton, a city deserving of top billing for performing arts, shopping and dining. Surprised? So are a lot of first-time visitors to this city known as the “cultural heart” of the 20 communities along the Fox River stamped the Fox Cities. It’s where big city chic meets easy-going charm.
2 p.m. – First on the itinerary is visual arts, with a stop at The Trout Museum of Art. Don’t miss the third floor, where work from local artists is featured. If you’re in the area after dark, enjoy the art installation light display that illuminates the building exterior. There’s also the Feather & Bone Gallery located in a building known as The Draw, a new venue for the work of local visual artists and musicians.
4 p.m. – Time to check in. Go boutique-y with a stay at the CopperLeaf Boutique Hotel & Spa, artfully appointed with plush beds and robes and where the feel is that of a small European inn. For a quiet neighborhood experience, there’s The Roost B&B with incredibly large and tastefully decorated rooms. In neighboring Neenah, The Bridgewood is resort-like with cross-country ski trails mapped out on the golf course and two outdoor, heated platform tennis courts open year-round.
6 p.m. – Make this a classic pizza night. Franks’ Pizza Palace, old-school and family-owned since 1955, is a favorite of locals and has the awards to prove it. There’s also Cannova’s Pizzeria in Neenah, where the pizza sauce follows the original family recipe.
7 p.m. – Keep it casual with a craft beer or gourmet soda at Stone Cellar Brewpub. The owners are big on local and sustainable when it comes to both their beverages and their food menus. Located in the same building is Skyline Comedy Café, where the owners have a talent for booking big national acts.
9 a.m. – If you’re hankering for a from-scratch breakfast and smile-rich atmosphere, then take a seat at SAP. Happy Bellies Bake Shop is committed to creating tasty breakfast treats with organic, gluten-free and vegan options.
10 a.m. – Get ready to shop, as artful finds are at every turn. At Coventry Glassworks & Gallery you can see stained glass artisans at work in the studio, then shop myriad mediums of work created by local artists. A must-visit is Urban Evolutions, where the rustic elegant furniture and furnishings are made from reclaimed materials. Visit Eco Candle Company’s flagship store for candles, hand-poured in Wisconsin and using natural soybeans. The word delicious doesn’t even begin to describe Wilmar Chocolates. To give you an idea of the temptation factor here, during the holidays alone they hand-make 60,000 pecan turtles. You can even have candy bars custom made to your sweet cravings.
Noon – Opt for lunch with a view at Fratello’s Waterfront Restaurant. It’s perched next to the Fox River dam, which means flowing water and eagle spotting. Zuppas in Neenah is upscale urban cafeteria cuisine, with the mac and cheese just one of many starring dishes on the menu.
1 p.m. – You’ll want to shout “bravo” the minute you step inside the grand Bergstrom Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah. The collection here stays true to the original benefactor’s passion of art glass collecting with pieces ranging from highly intricate paperweights to stunning contemporary sculptures. Hint: The gift shop here is destination-worthy unto itself, so get in some holiday shopping.
3 p.m. – Time for a relaxing interlude, as in a trip to the spa. If you’re staying at CopperLeaf, the spa is conveniently tucked away on the lower level. Try the classic European facial for a beautiful glow. Balance mind, body and spirit with a Thai massage at Sunflower Spa. This treatment, performed fully clothed, is a mix of massage and assisted yoga poses.
5 p.m. – Enjoy cocktails at Déjà Vu Martini Lounge. There are nearly 100 martinis on the menu. Cleo’s cocktail lounge is where the locals like to go and where the holiday decorations stay up year-round.
6 p.m. – As for fine dining, Carmella’s Italian Bistro is the toast of the town. Start with the insalata menu and save room for a sweet bite from the dolci offerings. IL Angolo Resto-Bar, just one block from the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, serves upscale Mediterranean food.
7:30 p.m. – The Performing Arts Center is a vibrant venue, thanks to deep community support. Along with being home to the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra, the schedule here is filled with touring Broadway musicals, plays, ballet, bands, comedians, choral festivals and more.
10 a.m. – A leisurely brunch at Houdini’s Escape Gastropub is the Sunday ticket. This is a plated brunch, plus there are three Bloody Marys on the menu that come loaded with items like cheese, sausage, fried avocado and truffled baguette.
11 a.m. – Before your Appleton escape draws to a close, be sure to visit the History Museum at the Castle. This former Masonic temple, largely untouched by time, is home to the Harry Houdini magical arts exhibit. For the unaware, Houdini grew up in Appleton.