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How Appleton, Wisconsin Earns Its ‘One Great Place’ Moniker

From a mile-long music festival to savory eats to America's favorite pastime, Appleton is "One Great Place."

Written bySheryl Nance-Nash

When you think Wisconsin, two things probably come to mind, cheese and the Green Bay Packers. But there’s a whole lot more and some surprises, like the city of Appleton.

Apple who? You may not have even heard of it, Milwaukee and Madison hog the state’s limelight. Appleton’s working hard to change that. Seems like they’re off to a good start.

What gets your attention is the music scene and the cuisine. There’s a summer concert series on Thursday evenings at Houdini Plaza, as well as lunchtime concerts. But the big thrill is the Mile of Music Festival which is no average event. Four days during the first week of August, more than 200 artists perform 900+ music sets of original music at locations not only in downtown cafes and bars, but also parks, Gibson Musical Hall, Fox River House, and elsewhere. There is no kind of music you won’t hear, be it roots, indie rock, country, soul, R&B, jazz, and folk. The city is abuzz. Everybody is feeling good with the continuous music. It’s one big party, complete with the Mile of Music Bus, whose band will get you in the mood on your way to one of the music spots. Better still, walk your way from bar to café and hear one great performance after the other. It’s free.

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All that music, dancing, and drinking may give you an appetite. No worries. For a town of 75,000, the number and variety of restaurants and eateries is pleasing to even finicky gourmands. Fress Restaurant & Bar is impressive. You might think you’re dining in New York City or San Francisco in this sophisticated eatery. While you can get a large plate entrée, shared plates are the thing because you’ll get a flavor explosion. But the food is so good you’ll have to remember to be polite. Try the pork belly with chard sauté, honey mirin soy glaze, and cilantro salad; fried oyster mushroom with peppadew mignonette, toasted sesame, radish, and honey; or perhaps Parisian gnocchi, tomato broth, rainbow carrots, green beans, summer squash, and parmesan. There’s much more to choose from, along with craft beers and cocktails. Another great dinner option is Mark’s East Side, for that traditional Wisconsin supper club vibe. Go on Friday for the legendary fish fry, as its German food and Old Fashions. For lunch consider Bowl 91, for some of the best ramen, pho, lemongrass chicken tacos, pad Thai, and a variety of fried rice. For breakfast or lunch the spot is Zuppas in nearby Neenah. It’s cafeteria/deli-style, but don’t let that fool you. The food is delicious, whether you opt for a breakfast quesadilla or a warm pear salad, ham and brie on pretzel bread with apricot mayo, or roast beef and white cheddar with avocado, spinach, tomato, and chipotle mayo on tomato focaccia for lunch.

Walk off all that good stuff at Loop the Lake, a 5k trail with four trestle bridges that takes you around the lower half of Little Lake Buttes des Morts. It’s peacefully uncrowded. Walk, think, and walk some more. Another way to get your walk on is the Appleton Farm Market downtown. There are about 150 vendors, selling fresh produce, flowers, breads, pastries, specialty foods, handcrafted items, cheese of course, and you must try the springy and oh so tasty cheese curds. Then there’s the Fox Trot Trail, a 2.2-mile, self-guided scenic trail that loops downtown Appleton and the riverfront.

If you’ve never been to a minor league baseball game, Appleton is a good place to start. They support the Timber Rattlers with the fervor of a Yankees or Cubs fans. This is family entertainment and it almost doesn’t matter who wins, everybody has a good time.

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For something else you may have never seen the likes of, there’s the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass. There are more than 3,500 pieces that glass art aficionados from around the globe come to see. Collection highlights include Germanic, contemporary, and art glass along with the largest glass paperweight collection in the world. In Neenah, the Historical Society has an exhibit, Voting for Change – The Impact of the 19th Amendment on our Community, that highlights the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the U.S. and how local women helped fight on the front lines of the women’s suffrage movement. Who knew?

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When you’re ready to relax, there’s the "Love Your River" boat tour. See the Fox River and the palatial homes and hear about the history of the area. If you’re lucky, you might spot a fox or eagle. As for where to stay, there’s the brand-new Holiday Inn Appleton, as well as the popular CooperLeaf Boutique Hotel & Spa and Courtyard Marriott Appleton Riverfront.

Appleton bills itself as “One Great Place,” go there and you’ll see why.