By Jessica Steinhoff | Photo courtesy Travel Wisconsin
Named by early French explorers for the crystal-clear water they encountered in the (now) Eau Claire River, Eau Claire was a hub that attracted fur traders, before the first white settlers permanently laid stakes in the late 19th century.
Today, like many early American cities, it’s drastically transformed and, as Visit Eau Claire cheekily suggests, could be known as “The Indie Capital of the Midwest,” because of its array of music festivals. The hometown of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, he and the National’s Aaron Dessner launched the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival 2015. (Editor’s note: as of press time, because of the coronavirus pandemic, no updates have been posted on a 2020 Eaux Claires festival).
Discover Eau Claire’s longtime allure for yourself, and do some of your own exploring with this weekend guide.
Downtown is the place to be if you’re looking for a treasure to buy. Start your retail adventure at Tangled Up in Hue, a gallery-meets-gift shop with works by more than 100 artists. For apparel, music and books that emanate local pride, visit The Local Store in the headquarters of the alt-weekly newspaper Volume One. Scandinavian-inspired but made in the U.S., the home goods and accessories at Red’s Mercantile are simple, functional and stylish.
Do you adore objects from decades past? Browse mid-century furnishings and blast- from-the-past fashions at Good & Sturdy Vintage (open by appointment only).
Frolic at Festivals
Eaux Claires isn’t normally the only festival in town during the summer. However, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the majority of Eau Claire’s festivals were unfortunately cancelled for 2020. Typically, music-lovers flock in June and July to the glorious twang of Country Jam USA and Country Fest, as well as Rockfest, a headbangers ball in nearby Cadott. The city also hosts the Blue Ox Music Festival (normally held in June), which celebrates Americana, plus camping under a star-spangled sky. Seeking something less intense? Next year check out Festival in the Pines, which offers family-oriented music as well as games, rides, food and shopping.
Grab a Bite
Culinary exploration is a modern tradition in Eau Claire. Several local spots appeared in Food & Wine’s 2018 profile of the city. These include Mona Lisa’s, an Italian eatery that worships seasonal ingredients, and The Brewing Projekt, whose original creations include Hustle & Flow, a pale ale featuring aromatic Citra hops. (Editor’s note: as of press time, The Brewing Projeckt’s taproom is closed but offers pickup). Rice Palace makes giant spring rolls and mouth-watering Thai curries, while 4 Mile Restaurant & Bar offers scrumptious beer-battered walleye and shrimp. For the most Wisconsin experience possible, order a wood-fired pizza at Foster’s Fireside in nearby Osseo. It’s loaded with artisan cheese from local dairies and herbs grown on the premises.
Eau Claire sits at the confluence of two rivers that lure swimmers, boaters and tubing enthusiasts. A kayak is one of the best ways to explore the 4-mile Chippewa River Water Trail.
The 30-mile Chippewa River State Trail is a bicyclist’s dream, connecting downtown to Eau Claire’s outskirts as it winds past prairies, wetlands and bluffs. If you live for golf, tee off at Wild Ridge, a championship course with sprawling greens, 18 holes and beautiful natural scenery. Or just bring your sneakers to hike Mount Simon Park’s beginner-friendly trails. The trek to the top of a huge sandstone rock won’t take your breath away, but the views from the top will.
Rest Your Head
Created by three influential locals, including the aforementioned Vernon of Bon Iver, the Oxbow Hotel has made a splash in Time and Thrillist. The guest experience stretches far beyond comfy beds thanks to an on-site music venue, a trendsetting restaurant, and an outdoor outfitter that offers bikes, canoes and more. In- room record players and a vinyl library cater to music aficionados, while an art gallery hosts film screenings and book readings. A courtyard patio and a dedicated space for lawn games foster fun and relaxation, too. (While currently closed, watch theoxbowhotel.com for updates on its reopening.)
The Lismore Hotel also makes the most of its location near a bustling farmers market, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and numerous downtown attractions. Its bar, Dive, is known for its craft cocktails and wine list. Meanwhile, the sustainability- minded Farm to Fork Retreat beckons visitors to nearby Mondovi, where they can sleep in a lodge, gaze at a red barn and enjoy Frisbee golf and campfires. They also have pizza nights Thursday, Friday and Saturday through late September.
Explore Even More
Eau Claire is nuts about Kubb, a lawn game also known as Viking chess. If you’re in town next summer, watch seasoned players throw sticks at wooden blocks at the U.S. National Kubb Championship ( July 9-11, 2021 — the 2020 event was cancelled) or give it a try yourself at The Lakely, where they have a yard game lawn. If card, board and arcade games are your jam, visit Eau Claire Games and Arcade (facebook.com/eauclairegamesandarcade) for pinball and classic arcade games.
Craving a memorable movie-watching experience? Head to the old-school marquee of Micon Downtown Cinema. This vintage theater satisfies the senses with tasty food and gorgeous architecture. Then add some art-viewing to your weekend with a trip to the Pablo Center at the Confluence. In addition to hosting music and theater performances, it has three galleries that display works by local and national artists.
This article originally ran in the 2020 issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine, a Nei-Turner Media Group-owned publication and was accurate at the time of publishing. Some information may have changed since then.