With music, arts, recreation and food, Viroqua earns a spot on any good Wisconsin day trip list.
Trout streams, kayaking, distilleries, and historic accommodations are among the reasons to stay more than a day.
Viroqua, home to 4,500 people, has transformed from a sleepy county town known for its historic tobacco warehouses into a cultural capital of the Driftless region.
From outdoor sports like kayaking and fly fishing to trendy shopping and dining, the city has something for everyone.
Hundreds of people will descend on the area June 4-5 for the annual Winding Roads Art Tour. The tour takes you along country roads to see the studios of 14 artists, who range from potters to weavers to painters. The tour headquarters is the VIVA Gallery, located at 217 S. Main St. Even if you miss the weekend of the tour, VIVA is an artist-run gallery with changing exhibitions and made up of local artists, it so always worth stopping by to see what’s new.
Next to VIVA, discover the Viroqua Public Market, an eclectic collection of small vendor stalls with items ranging from clothing to jewelry and antiques.
Music is another reason to visit the area, and did we mention it’s free? If you’re visiting midweek, check out Music in the Parks on Wednesday evenings from June through early September at Sidie Hollow or Esofea Parks. If you want to make it a midweek outing, you can camp at Sidie Hollow, which has a lake, beach, and power hookups.
The “Live in Viroqua” series, new this year, takes place on the first and third Saturday evenings from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. in June, July, August and September. The series kicks off June 4 with Joseph Huber – along with Pat Ferguson and Christian Staehly – performing on Court Street outside the historic Fortney Hotel. Other free series artists include regional headliners such as Dead Horses, Them Coulee Boys and Wurk.
The other art attraction is The Driftless Folk School, located on a farm near LaFarge. You can take courses in basket weaving, sewing or making a copper bowl. Other offerings include finding wild plants, electrical wiring, orchard management, and other skills needed on the farm.
Viroqua is also a great headquarters for exploring the outdoors. Blue Dog Cycles on Main Street rents all kinds of road, dirt, mountain and fat tire bikes and will send you with maps for your next big ride. The store sponsors a number of rides, including the PUKE (Pedaling up the Kickapoo Epic) scary ride in the fall. In winter, you can rent Nordic skis here.
Vernon County is home to many world-class trout streams, and you can gear up at the Driftless Angler, located across from the bike shop. It’s the perfect place to hire a fishing guide and check out the local report on what the Timber Coulee trout are biting this week.
If you prefer bigger water, Vernon County’s Blackhawk Park lets you camp right on the mighty Mississippi. And nearby, the Kickapoo River meanders through the 8,600-acre Kickapoo Valley Preserve, where you can camp, fish, hunt, hike and bike along old Highway 131 which is part of Reserve. The crooked Kickapoo is justly famous for canoeing and hiking. Rental canoes are available from Drifty’s in Ontario.
Of course, some of us like to bring nature home, and that’s why a stop at Second Nature at Read’s Creek, located along Highway 14 between Readstown and Viroqua is a must. The property markets itself as a “destination nursery” and they mean business. You can picnic and swim at Read’s Creek beach (which nearly destroyed the business in a 2016 flood), feed the fish in the koi ponds, and stroll through the greenhouse with a complimentary glass of wine by hand.
Viroqua’s other favorite shopping spots are the Ewetopia yarn shop on Main Street and Driftless Books, located in a historic tobacco warehouse on Walnut Street.
Viroqua is the epicenter of organic farming in Wisconsin, and you can buy some of the best of them at the Viroqua Farmers’ Market located in the Western Wisconsin Technical College parking lot on Main Street on Saturday mornings from now until the end of October.
And foodies shouldn’t miss the Viroqua Food Co-op, which offers an incredible selection of food, wine and charcuterie, and is so sparkly it makes Whole Foods look like a dollar store. Another great food shopping location is the Organic Valley retail stores near Cashton and La Farge. The company is a major force behind the rebirth of the region.
Wonderstate Coffee is headquartered in Viroqua and its cafe, located in a 1940s Mobil gas station converted into a specialty coffee shop at 216 N Main St., is a great place for a pick-me-up and Wi-Fi.
If you’re hungry, don’t worry. The Driftless Cafe, owned by Wisconsin Foodie TV host Luke Rahm, is open for lunch and dinner and offers local, seasonal dishes. In May, specials included pickled ramps and rhubarb topping a smoked trout spread, and ramen with miso broth, green garlic and local asparagus.
A newcomer is Salt and Tipple, on Main Street near VIVA Gallery. It offers savory bites to whet your appetite for drinks; we liked the “uff-dah” plate, with marinated beet caviar, smoked whitefish spread, pimento cheese, pickles and crackers. There’s a grill for burgers and chops, and a deli with an interesting selection of wines and beers so you can pack your own picnic.
Finally, a local family has begun a complete renovation of the historic Fortney Hotel, a landmark Queen Anne building on Main Street. It’s still a work in progress, but the lobby houses a lounge where you can get food and drinks.
If you love discovering local adult beverages, Vernon County is for you. For those who like the tougher stuff, St. Mary’s Distillery, open on Saturdays, makes brandy and rum on its hillside on scenic St. Mary’s Ridge.
Vernon Vineyards opened in 2006, the first winery in Vernon County. And it was joined by Branches Winery, located about 10 miles north of Viroqua near Westby. Driftless Brewing is located near Soldier’s Grove.
There are plenty of places to stay nearby, including the Viroqua Heritage Inn, a Victorian B&B located one block east of Main Street. Our favorite rural list was the grain shack, which is exactly what it sounds like – a metal grain silo with a porch. We would also like to check out the guest cabins at Kickapoo Valley Ranch, especially since the property is home to Cowboy David’s Bakery.