Uncovering Wisconsin's Hidden Gems: Eau Claire

Photo by Travel Wisconsin

One of the greatest things about Wisconsin is that, no matter where you go, there’s something unexpected ready to be discovered. I love helping people make these discoveries. The Eau Claire buzz is sweeping the nation, and you just have to check it out!

Eau Claire could probably lay claim to being the “Indie Capital of the Midwest,” but trademarking that is too corporate for this independent-minded university town. Instead, Eau Claire, located at the confluence of the crystal-clear Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers, marches to the beat of its own drum and encourages visitors to join in the fun. This is where farm kids grow up to be artists and entrepreneurs. Where attitude is more important than age. Where hospitality is legit. Where originality is celebrated. In a word: indie.

Located in west-central Wisconsin, Eau Claire gets its name from French fur traders who were sailing down the Chippewa River when they came upon a tributary and, so the story goes, exclaimed “Voici l’eau claire! —Here is the clear water!” If you’re ready to discover the clear water and a whole lot more, here are some ideas to get started.

Photograph provided by Travel Wisconsin

The Art Lover
Eau Claire has one of the fastest-rising art and music scenes in America. It’s home to several music festivals, including the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, founded by native son Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and the Blue Ox Music Festival.

If you’re looking for a place to stay that inspires, check out The Oxbow Hotel, right in the heart of downtown. This revamped boutique hotel has gorgeous aesthetic touches, including a turntable in every room. Don’t worry, you don’t have to bring your own records—there’s a lending library right in the lobby! They also have The Lakely, a stunning restaurant with fantastic craft cocktails and farm-to-table cuisine.

When you wander the city, check out the vibrant and beautiful public art. With 60 outdoor sculptures—and growing—from local and international artists, Eau Claire is home to the second-largest outdoor sculpture tour in the nation, and it’s completely free to art-loving visitors. There are fantastic local galleries and shops throughout downtown, like B-Framed Galleries, Tangled Up in Hue, and Artisan Forge.

After a long day of art, satisfy your appetite at The Plus: a casual eatery with fantastic pizza as well as live music and shows, or the Mousetrap Tavern: a venue with live music and never a cover charge in sight. Looking for something a little more laid back? The Acoustic Café offers hoagies; soups; and salad with, you guessed it, live music.

Photograph provided by Travel Wisconsin

The Outdoor Enthusiast
The Eau Claire area is filled with fantastic places to bike and hike, like the 30-mile Chippewa River State Trail, starting in Phoenix Park right in downtown Eau Claire and traveling along the Chippewa River through prairies, sandstone bluffs, and wetlands. And if you’re an avid cyclist, start your day at the SHIFT Cyclery & Coffee Bar. If you want a longer ride, head south to a pizza farm, like Farm to Fork Retreat, where their refurbished horse barn hosts wood-fired pizza night with locally sourced ingredients, or head north from Eau Claire to River Bend Vineyard & Winery for a glass of their River Bend Rosé.

And, of course, with the roaring waters of the Chippewa and Eau Claire Rivers, there are plenty of water activities. You can rent everything you need for kayaking, tubing, and boating. There are also plenty of great spots for fishing and birdwatching.

After all that, you’ll need a place to rest, and there are plenty of campgrounds in the surrounding area. South of the city, there’s Stoney Creek RV Resort, with tent and RV sites as well as cabins to rent.

Photograph provided by Travel Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Enthusiast
While travel enthusiasts compare Eau Claire to Austin and Portland, there are still things exclusive to the Badger State.

First, you can step back in time and explore a real logging camp at the Wisconsin Logging Museum, featuring Paul Bunyan and his faithful blue ox. Learn more about the area’s history at the Chippewa Valley Museum’s historical and cultural exhibits, and step back in time at their authentic 1950s ice cream parlor.

If you want some friendly competition, how about a game of kubb at Owen Park? I know it’s technically a Swedish lawn game, but it’s become a favorite pastime in Wisconsin. Eau Claire became the “Kubb Capital of North America” because they host the annual National Kubb Championships.

And if you want a souvenir, I especially love The Local Store, located in a historic downtown building. Everything is made by Wisconsin crafters—art, apparel, books, home goods, music, décor, food, drink, and more.

All of that would probably leave you pretty hungry. You’ll need to get some of our state’s most famous culinary delights at Eau Claire Cheese & Deli. You want a Wisconsin fish fry? The locals love 4 Mile Restaurant & Bar, Westside Bar & Grill, and Eau Claire Ale House for their Friday night tradition.

Speaking of ale, we must talk about beer. Eau Claire is home to several local craft breweries, including The Brewing Projekt, with creative and fun beers constantly in the works. They have a great dog-friendly taproom with a kubb pitch, of course, and a rooftop patio. There’s also K Point Brewery, whose restaurant boasts a mean fish fry. If you want more traditional brews, look to Lazy Monk Brewing; the oldest brewery in Eau Claire has a classic German-style beer hall with steins to match.

Cozy up for the night at the Otter Creek Inn, with a full breakfast and a jacuzzi tub in every room and a friendly welcome by the local owner.

These are just a few ideas, but there is so much more to uncover in the city of clear water and cool vibes. Check out travelwisconsin.com to learn more!

Anne Sayers is the acting secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. travelwisconsin.com .