Travel and Tourism are big business in Wisconsin. In fact, tourists to Wisconsin spent $12.9 billion in 2021. Wisconsin is home to some of the most popular travel destinations in the Midwest. However, information about the most popular vacation destinations in Wisconsin is hard to come by. Many blogs and articles feature articles like “Best Vacation Destinations in Wisconsin,” but they do not have any data to back up their claims.
That’s where this article comes in. We analyzed publicly available data to determine which vacation destinations are most popular with tourists. Specifically, we analyzed where tourists spend the most amount of money. We used this metric because the amount of money that tourists spend is a good measure of the enthusiasm that travelers have for a travel destination. Some of the results might surprise you!
Here is who will benefit from this data analysis:
- People planning travel and vacations to Wisconsin
- Businesses evaluating potential markets
- Local tourism bureaus
- Travel writers
We anticipate that this information will be extremely valuable to many individuals and publications. Because of this, we are glad for you to reuse it, including the infographics, as long as credit and a link is provided to HelloDoorCounty.com.
The 7 Most Popular Travel Destinations in Wisconsin According to Data
Here are the 7 most popular travel destinations in Wisconsin, ranked by the amount of money tourists spend in them:
|#||Tourist Destination||2021 Visitor Spending|
|1||Milwaukee Metro Area||$2.75 billion|
|2||Wisconsin Dells / Devil’s Lake||$1.85 billion|
|4||Green Bay||$633 million|
|5||Lake Geneva||$595 million|
|6||Northwoods Lake Country||$523 million|
|7||Door County||$423 million|
1. Milwaukee Metro Area: $2.75 billion
This one might come as a surprise to many people. Many people think of the Dells or Door County when they think about Wisconsin travel destinations. But, the most popular destination in the state is also the most populous area: Milwaukee.
Milwaukee is a tourism powerhouse. In 2021, tourists spent $2.75 Billion in the Milwaukee Metro area. That’s almost $1 Billion more than the second most popular tourist destination in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Dells / Devil’s Lake area.
These are the counties we included in the Milwaukee Metro Area, along with the number of tourism dollars spent in each of these counties:
|Milwaukee Metro County||2021 Visitor Spending|
|Milwaukee County||$1.78 billion|
|Waukesha County||$740 million|
|Washington County||$123 million|
|Ozaukee County||$108 million|
Milwaukee isn’t usually thought of as a “tourist destination.” Part of that is because Milwaukee is a working metropolitan area with lots of businesses and industries besides tourism. However, there are many draws to visit Milwaukee. Here are some of them:
The Wisconsin Center is a convention center right in the heart of downtown Milwaukee. Architecturally interesting and technologically advanced, the Wisconsin Center has become one of the most popular convention centers in the United States. Conventions drive a large number of tourism dollars to Milwaukee.
Milwaukee Art Museum
The Milwaukee Art Museum is one of the most iconic destinations in the metro area. It is popular not only for its strong art collection but also for its fascinating building right on the shore of Lake Michigan. A modern marvel, this building changes shape based on the time of the day and the weather conditions. Its mechanical wings are extended at times to let the light in. At other times they retract to protect the glass from the harsh conditions along Lake Michigan.
Harley Davidson Museum
The classic American motorcycle, the Harley Davidson, originates from Wisconsin. The Harley Davidson Museum chronicles the history of this famous American institution and also displays gorgeous specimens of motorized freedom.
The Milwaukee Bucks
The underdogs for decades, the Milwaukee Bucks have become a basketball powerhouse with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the fore. Fans flock from across the state and nation for Bucks games.
The Milwaukee Brewers
The Milwaukee Brewers are a classic baseball team, and they play in one of the top stadiums in the country. With its retractable roof, American Family Field is a delightful place to catch a game in any kind of weather.
The Milwaukee County Zoo
Animal-loving visitors to Milwaukee are sure to take a trip out to the Milwaukee County Zoo. An especially popular experience there is feeding the giraffes.
Summerfest is an annual music festival that takes place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is considered to be one of the largest music festivals in the world. The festival spans eleven days and attracts over 800,000 visitors each year. With over 800 musical performances across multiple stages, Summerfest offers something for everyone, from emerging artists to big-name headliners. In addition to live music, the festival also features a variety of food vendors, family activities, and interactive exhibits. Summerfest has become a staple of Milwaukee’s summer tourism industry, drawing visitors from around the country and contributing significantly to the city’s economy.
2. The Wisconsin Dells / Devil’s Lake: $1.85 billion
When people think about tourist destinations in Wisconsin, they often think immediately of The Wisconsin Dells. And, the numbers support that assumption. The Wisconsin Dells and the area around it, including Devil’s Lake State Park, drive a huge amount of tourist spending in the State of Wisconsin. In 2021, tourists spent $1.85 Billion in the area.
While this amount of tourism spending is about $1 Billion less than in the Milwaukee Metro area, it is still a respectable number. This is about $0.8 Billion more than the spending in the third most popular travel destination, Madison.
The City of Wisconsin Dells is interesting in part because it lies in four counties. Because of this, we are including the amount of direct tourism spending in each of those four counties for this area. Here is a breakdown of the amount of tourist spending in each of the counties that comprise this area:
|Wisconsin Dells / Devil’s Lake Area Counties||2021 Visitor Spending|
|Sauk County||$1.48 billion|
|Adams County||$165 million|
|Columbia County||$121 million|
|Juneau County||$76 million|
This area is popular as a tourist destination for several reasons. First, it is accessible to several large metro areas, including Milwaukee, Chicago, the Twin Cities, and Madison. Second, The Wisconsin Dells and Devil’s Lake region has an abundance of natural beauty and tourist attractions. It is a favorite for families in large part for its commitment to unapologetic fun.
This part of Wisconsin has some of the state’s most unique and beautiful scenery. It’s the natural beauty that originally put this area on the map as a tourist destination.
The Wisconsin River Dells (beautiful rock formations) are the namesake for the City of Wisconsin Dells. River tours and river walks afford the opportunity to take in these gorgeous sights.
Devil’s Lake State Park protects an almost otherworldly natural setting. Stone bluffs tower five hundred feet over the pristine waters of 360-acre Devil’s Lake. This is one of Wisconsin’s most popular state parks.
Tourists also love visiting Witches Gulch, a narrow canyon formed by water and wind.
One thing that comes to mind when many people think about Wisconsin Dells: waterparks. This is the waterpark capital of the United States. Popular waterparks include Noah’s Ark and Kalahari. And, these destinations offer huge indoor water parks as well. Going to the waterpark is a year-round experience in Wisconsin, and a welcome respite in the cold winter months.
3. Madison: $1.05 billion
Madison, Wisconsin is the third most popular tourist destination in the state, with tourists spending a whopping $1.05 billion in 2021. Madison’s popularity as a tourist destination can be attributed to a number of factors.
Here are some reasons Madison is a popular tourist destination:
University of Wisconsin – Madison
Madison’s popularity as a tourist destination is largely due to the University of Wisconsin – Madison, a renowned public university. Prospective students, alumni, and families visit the university, which is known for its exceptional sports programs, particularly football and basketball. Visitors come to experience the excitement of a Badgers game at Camp Randall Stadium or the Kohl Center. The university’s cultural scene is also noteworthy, with world-class museums, galleries, and theaters offering a range of events and performances throughout the year. The university’s research programs and spin-off companies contribute to the city’s thriving technology and innovation sector. These factors make the University of Wisconsin – Madison a key contributor to the city’s tourism industry and a top destination in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin State Capital
Madison, as Wisconsin’s capital, attracts visitors from all over with its political and administrative activity. The state Capitol building, located in downtown Madison, is a major draw for tourists, with its stunning architecture and rich political history. Madison is also home to important government institutions such as the Wisconsin State Supreme Court and the Governor’s Mansion, offering visitors a look into the state’s political workings. Additionally, Madison hosts important state-wide events and initiatives throughout the year, such as the Wisconsin State Fair and the Wisconsin Film Festival. All these factors contribute to Madison’s appeal as a destination for tourists and ensure it remains a top choice for visitors to Wisconsin.
Madison is a top destination for sporting events and competitions, drawing visitors from across Wisconsin and beyond. Its prime location and top-notch facilities make it the perfect location for events such as the Ironman Wisconsin triathlon and state championships in various sports. The city also hosts a range of festivals and events throughout the year, such as the Wisconsin Book Festival and the Madison Farmer’s Market, which is one of the largest in the country. These events contribute significantly to the city’s tourism industry, with visitors spending on dining, entertainment, and more. Madison’s blend of sports and culture makes it an appealing choice for visitors seeking an exciting and diverse experience.
Madison is a popular destination known for its attractions that draw visitors from far and wide. The Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a stunning 16-acre garden that features themed gardens and an indoor conservatory with exotic plants. The Henry Vilas Zoo is a free attraction with a variety of animals from around the world, known for its conservation efforts. Madison’s downtown area is a vibrant hub of culture and entertainment with shops, restaurants, and bars. The State Street area is known for its eclectic mix of businesses. These attractions make Madison a top destination for visitors looking for natural beauty, culture, and entertainment.
Madison’s location on an isthmus between two lakes offers breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside, making it one of the most scenic cities in Wisconsin. Visitors can explore the city’s many parks and trails, including the popular UW-Madison Arboretum and Lakeshore Path. With its forests, prairies, wetlands, and gardens, the UW-Madison Arboretum is a must-see destination for nature enthusiasts. Whether biking, hiking, or walking, visitors can take in the stunning views of the lakes and skyline, ensuring a memorable visit to this picturesque and thriving city.
4. Green Bay: $633 million
Green Bay is the fourth most popular tourist destination in Wisconsin, attracting visitors from around the country with its unique blend of outdoor activities, cultural attractions, and sports. In 2021, tourists spent $633 million in Green Bay, making it a significant contributor to the state’s tourism industry.
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay is home to the iconic Lambeau Field, the oldest and most storied stadium in the NFL, making it a mecca for football fans. Visitors come from all over the world to see games and tour the stadium, which is a major tourist destination in the city. The Lambeau Field Atrium, which features interactive exhibits and displays showcasing the Green Bay Packers’ rich history and tradition, is a popular attraction. Visitors can also take part in other Packers-related activities, such as the Packers Heritage Trail and the Packers Pro Shop. The Packers’ home games contribute $15 million to the local economy, making the team an integral part of the city’s tourism industry.
Arts and Culture
Green Bay also boasts a lively arts and cultural scene. The city is home to several museums, galleries, and theaters that showcase the region’s rich history and artistic heritage. The Weidner Center for the Performing Arts is a popular destination that hosts a variety of musical performances, theater productions, and dance shows throughout the year. It is known for its exceptional acoustics and state-of-the-art facilities, making it a top choice for performers and audiences alike. Green Bay is also home to smaller galleries and theaters like the ARTgarage, which offers classes, workshops, and exhibits on various art forms such as painting, sculpture, and ceramics. Whether you’re interested in history, music, or visual arts, Green Bay’s cultural scene has something for everyone to enjoy.
Anglers can try their hand at catching a variety of species, including pike, perch, walleye, and whitefish, either on the bay or on the river. In the winter, the frozen bay and river offer a unique ice fishing experience, with many locals and visitors alike heading out onto the ice to try their luck.
Whether you’re looking for a peaceful paddle along the calm waters, a thrilling speedboat ride, or a day of fishing, the bay of Green Bay and the Lower Fox River have something for everyone.
National Railroad Museum
The National Railroad Museum is one of Green Bay’s most popular attractions. Visitors can explore an extensive collection of historic trains and artifacts, as well as enjoy interactive exhibits and events suitable for all ages. It’s a must-visit destination for anyone interested in rail history or transportation.
Shopping and Dining
Green Bay is not just known for its cultural and outdoor attractions, but also for its unique shopping and dining destinations. One such destination is the historic Broadway District, which boasts a range of locally-owned shops, restaurants, and cafes. It’s the perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon exploring the quaint streets, browsing for souvenirs, and enjoying some delicious food.
5. Lake Geneva: $595 million
Lake Geneva is the fifth most popular travel destination in Wisconsin, known for its picturesque location and variety of activities for visitors. In 2021, tourists spent a total of $595 million in Lake Geneva, contributing significantly to the state’s tourism industry. This spending includes direct visitor spending, such as lodging, dining, and entertainment.
Located in southeastern Wisconsin, Lake Geneva offers a range of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, boating, and fishing. The city’s namesake lake is a popular destination for water sports, with many visitors also taking boat tours to enjoy the scenic views. Additionally, Lake Geneva is home to several golf courses, making it a popular destination for golf enthusiasts.
Beyond its outdoor activities, Lake Geneva is also known for its historic mansions and landmarks. The Black Point Estate and Gardens, a Queen Anne-style mansion built in 1888, offers guided tours and stunning views of the lake. The Geneva Lake Shore Path, a 21-mile walking path that winds around the entire lake, also provides visitors with a glimpse into the area’s historic past.
Shopping and Dining
Shopping and dining are also popular activities in Lake Geneva, with a range of locally-owned boutiques and restaurants in the downtown area. The city’s Main Street offers a variety of shops and cafes, while the nearby Geneva Commons offers larger retailers and chain restaurants.
Overall, Lake Geneva’s scenic location, outdoor activities, historic landmarks, and shopping and dining options make it a top destination for visitors to Wisconsin.
6. Northwoods Lake Country: $523 million
The sixth most popular travel destination in Wisconsin is a sprawling area over two large counties: Northwoods Lake Country. In 2021, tourists spent a total of $523 million in Northwoods Lake Country, contributing significantly to the state’s tourism industry. This spending includes direct visitor spending, such as lodging, dining, and entertainment, and is a testament to the area’s popularity among visitors.
Northwoods Lake Country is well known for its thousands of lakes surrounded by cabins and cottages. Many of these lakes are connected in “chains” like the Eagle River system of lakes. Water enthusiasts can navigate from lake to lake through the river channels between them.
For the purposes of this analysis, we included Villas and Oneida Counties in this destination. Here is the direct visitor spending in each of these counties:
|Northwoods Lake Country Counties||2021 Visitor Spending|
|Vilas County||$259 million|
|Oneida County||$254 million|
Minocqua and Eagle River are two of the most popular destinations in Lake Country. Minocqua is a small town known for its scenic beauty and abundant outdoor recreation opportunities. Visitors can explore the town’s charming downtown area, take a stroll along the Bearskin State Trail, or go fishing on one of the many nearby lakes. Eagle River, on the other hand, is a hub for water sports enthusiasts, with numerous lakes and rivers to explore by boat, kayak, or paddleboard. The town also hosts the annual World Championship Snowmobile Derby, attracting thousands of visitors each winter.
Hodag Country Music Festival
One of the most popular events in Lake Country is the Hodag Country Music Festival, which draws music enthusiasts from across the country each year. The festival features top country music performers and offers a lively atmosphere for attendees to enjoy.
7. Door County: $423 million
Door County is one of the most popular travel destinations in Wisconsin, attracting visitors with its stunning natural beauty, charming small towns, and vibrant cultural scene. In 2021, tourists spent a total of $423 million in Door County, contributing significantly to the state’s tourism industry. This spending includes direct visitor spending, such as lodging, dining, and entertainment.
Located on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan, Door County offers a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, fishing, and boating. The area is home to five state parks, each offering its own unique scenery and recreational opportunities.
Arts and Culture
In addition to its natural attractions, Door County is also known for its thriving arts scene, with many galleries, studios, and live theaters throughout the area. The Peninsula Players Theatre, located in Fish Creek, is one of the oldest and most respected resident summer theaters in the country.
Visitors to Door County can also enjoy the area’s unique cuisine, which emphasizes local ingredients and fresh seafood. The peninsula is dotted with charming small towns, each offering its own selection of restaurants, cafes, and local shops.
Overall, Door County’s natural beauty, cultural attractions, and culinary offerings make it a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to Wisconsin.
Additional Facts and Figures
- Visitors spent $12.9 billion in Wisconsin in 2021.
- Visitors spent $7.82 billion in 2021 in the 7 most popular travel destinations detailed in this post: Milwaukee Metro Area, Wisconsin Dells / Devil’s Lake, Green Bay, Lake Geneva, Northwoods Lake Country, and Door County.
- The 7 most popular travel destinations in Wisconsin account for 61% of tourist spending in the state.
- These 7 most popular travel destinations represent 14 counties: Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, Sauk, Columbia, Adams, Juneau, Dane, Brown, Walworth, Vilas, Oneida, and Door.
- These 14 counties are 19% of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.
- 19% of Wisconsin counties accounted for 61% of visitor spending in 2021.
In order to compile this list, we analyzed data made publicly available by the research arm of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. Specifically, we used the county-by-county spreadsheet made available by the department.
This spreadsheet offer multiple data points including “total business sales,”direct visitor spending,” “employment,” and “total labor income” in order to measure the economic impact of tourism within Wisconsin’s counties.
We chose to use “direct visitor spending” as the measure used to determine the top tourism spots in Wisconsin. We made this choice because the amount of money directly spent by visitors was the best measure among all the data points to determine the enthusiasm visitors have for particular locations. To put it another way, the more money travelers are willing to spend in a location indicates the relative popularity versus other travel locations.
We also analyzed the data by associating counties with travel locations more commonly spoken of in everyday life. The data as delivered by the Department of Tourism is broken down by counties. However, with the exception of Door County, most people do not think of tourism destinations by referencing the county, and some tourism destinations span more than one county. For example, people planning a trip to a Green Bay Packers game probably know that they are going to a city called Green Bay, but they probably do not know or even care what county Green Bay is in. Likewise, when people plan a trip to the Wisconsin Dells, they likely wouldn’t realize that they might go to a waterpark in one county, have dinner in another county, and visit Devil’s Lake State Park in yet a third county.
We tried to associate counties with readily recognizable tourism destinations. Here is the reasoning behind the associations that were made for each of these.
For the Milwaukee Metro Area, we included Milwaukee County and the “WOW Counties”: Waukesha County, Ozaukee County, and Washington County. We grouped these four counties together because of common usage and also their designation by the U.S. Census Bureau as being a Metropolitan Statistical Area.
For the Wisconsin Dells / Devil’s Lake area, we included Sauk County, Columbia County, Adams County, and Juneau County since these are the four counties in which the City of Wisconsin Dells is located.
We associated Dane County with Madison, Brown County with Green Bay, and Walworth County with Lake Geneva. While each of these counties has tourist attractions aside from the locations we associated with them, those locations loom so largely in the public mind that the county is secondary, and the outlying areas are identified with them. For example, if someone were to stay at a hotel in Ashaubenon in Brown County, they would likely report to their friends that they had stayed at a hotel in “Green Bay.”
Door County was, naturally, associated with Door County.
Finally, for Northwoods Lake Country, we selected Vilas and Oneida since they are the home counties of several well-known lake communities like Minocqua and Eagle River and because the tourism spending in each of these two counties is so high. Arguably, other counties could have been included in this area. However, these two counties seemed a natural grouping due to their geographic closeness and the fact that so many tourism dollars are spent here in comparison to other northern Wisconsin counties.
Frequently Asked Questions
Wisconsin offers a wide range of tourist destinations, including Green Bay, Door County, the Wisconsin Dells, Milwaukee, and Madison. Other popular areas include the Northwoods region and Lake Geneva.
Wisconsin offers a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, fishing, boating, and camping. The state is also home to many golf courses and winter sports resorts for skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling.
The best time to visit Wisconsin depends on what you are looking for. Summer months offer warm weather and outdoor activities, while fall is popular for the changing colors of the leaves. Winter is ideal for winter sports, and spring is a great time to visit for festivals and events.