In the 90 miles that separate Milwaukee from Chicago, the culture capitals of the Midwest, small towns abound with friendly faces, quaint main streets, and good, old-fashioned cooking. Here lies Racine, Wisconsin.
This charming spot on the shore of Lake Michigan is technically a city, but it’s compact enough that you’ll soon run into familiar faces downtown. It’s also big enough to have more than its fair share of attractions. These are the nine best things to do.
Visit a number of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
The famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Wisconsin and the state is dotted with a large concentration of his works, including two major sites in Racine. Wright designed both the Administration Building and the Research Tower on SC Johnson's main campus. Tours of the chemical company's facility include a visit to the SC Johnson Gallery, which showcases Wright’s influence on architecture via rotating exhibits.
Five miles north of downtown Racine is Wingspread, the last and largest of Wright’s prairie-style houses. Like most of the private homes Wright built, the organic design of the exterior makes the house blend into the surrounding landscape. The 14,000-square-foot space was originally commissioned as the personal estate for H.F. Johnson (part of the second generation to lead SC Johnson). It now serves as an ADA-accessible retreat and conference center. Free tours are available but reservations are required. Both sites feature on the Wisconsin Frank Lloyd Wright Trail.
Explore Downtown’s independent shops and restaurants
Downtown Racine is home to the highest concentration of restaurants in the city, including the must-try Indian restaurant Chit Chaat, whose finger-licking mint chutney is fabulous on everything. Visitors should also seek out independent shops like the record store Longshot Vinyl and the handmade vegan soap studio, Perennial Soaps, which both share a space.
Join the locals at Monument Square
Smack dab in the middle of the Downtown area is Monument Square, which serves as a gathering space and picnic spot for locals when it’s not being a busy pub crawl stop. The square also hosts live music events known as First Friday from spring through fall. The 61.5ft-high obelisk on the south end of the square is the Civil War Soldiers Monument.
Check out Racine Heritage Museum
Racine Heritage Museum is also Downtown. Here visitors can learn about the role the city played in the Underground Railroad, the secret routes used by enslaved African Americans to flee into free states, and how the Racine Belles won the first championship in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s, which was later portrayed in the film, A League of their Own.
Take a left after you exit the museum and walk south on Main St (and then along several parallel streets west of Main) to see more of the city’s historic heritage. Here you will find a collection of stunning and sizable Queen Anne-style homes with towers, turrets, and impressive wraparound porches.
Hang out on Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan runs the entire length of the city from Wind Point Lighthouse to the restaurant-rich Downtown Racine. Runners, walkers, picnickers, and cyclists all enjoy this stretch of sand, rocks, and manicured lawns, though the most popular coastal area here is undoubtedly North Beach.
The sand here is soft and the water is so clean and clear that it is consistently rated as one of the best freshwater beaches in the USA. Most spread out on a blanket and soak in the sun, but you can also swim, play volleyball, or take free Zumba classes in the summer. The beach is also great for families as there are bathrooms and a large children’s playground. Racine Zoo is only a few blocks away too.
Admire a huge collection of craft art at the Racine Art Museum
While most smaller cities are limited to a local heritage museum or historic society, Racine has something special up it's sleeve: An art museum that houses the largest collection of contemporary craft art in the US. Encompassing nearly 10,000 works from internationally-recognized artists like Dale Chihuly, Arline Fisch, Eddie Dominguez, and Wendell Castle, plus regular traveling exhibitions, it's easy to lose an afternoon here. If you’re more of a doer, the museum often hosts ceramics, pottery, stained glass, and watercolor workshops for both adults and kids.
Cycle the length of the Lake Michigan Pathway
Running along the waterfront, the well-maintained Lake Michigan Pathway is a great place to walk or ride a bike as it merges with a number of car-free routes that take you to various public parks and viewpoints. The views along the 9.8-mile-path are unparalleled, taking you so close to the water that you can sometimes feel the spray from Lake Michigan’s crashing waves. If you’re not afraid to ride on the streets – many of which have very few cars – then it's possible to cycle all the way up to Wind Point Lighthouse.
Indulge in a kringle, the state’s official dessert
If you were to ask any Wisconsinite what the state dessert is, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll say one of two things – cream puffs or kringle. While cream puffs are usually associated with the Wisconsin State Fair (in Milwaukee), the kringle is a Racine original. This sweet, stuffed, circular pastry can be traced back to the city’s historic Danish population, who brought the dessert over as immigrants.
In southeastern Wisconsin, kringle can be found anywhere and everywhere, from supermarkets and gas stations to cheese shops and bakeries. It’s rarely found outside the area, but when it is, it’s almost certainly produced by one of four Racine bakeries: Racine Danish Kringles; O&H Danish Bakery; Larsen’s Bakery, which offers a vegan kringle; and Bendtsen’s Bakery, the only bakery to still hand-roll their dough. Popular flavors include cherry, pecan, peach, and almond.
Go beer hiking at the River Bend Nature Center
About four miles northwest of Downtown Racine is the River Bend Nature Center, 78 acres of protected land where locals come to hike, ski, canoe, or bird watch (the center rents out cross-country skis, snowshoes, and canoes). The dense forested trails here make the city feel a world away. It’s also a great place to attend events like chainsaw art demonstrations or beer hikes – where Wisconsinans haved combined tipples with trekking.