by Karen Ung – “We are passionate not pretentious,” says Troy Hoyt as we sip his Soul Brewed Coffee in the soon-to-open Shift Cyclery and Coffee Bar. The same could be said of family friendly destination Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Hoyt’s home town of 65,000 which is tucked between Madison and the Twin Cities. Touted as “mini Portland,” Eau Claire boasts a vibrant arts and music scene, with ample locavore dining and recreational opportunities, while maintaining its Midwest charm.
Shift Cyclery and Coffee Bar is one of many new, renovating, or expanding businesses in town. “If you’ve not been here in five years, you don’t know Eau Claire” says Linda John, Executive Director of Visit Eau Claire. It is currently the second fastest growing city in Wisconsin!
New parks, restaurants, and boutique hotels have sprung up; and an arts center, convention center, and recreation center are in the works. Several trails have been redeveloped and there’s a brand new 4.2-mile water trail (Chippewa River Water Trail) for paddlers.
Collaboration and innovation is fundamental to Eau Claire’s rebirth. Shift Cyclery and Soul Brewed’s partnership aims to build cycling culture in Eau Claire and offer a unique experience.
While perusing a curated accessories collection, waiting for bike repairs, or getting biking information, customers will be able to enjoy a craft coffee or book a bike tour to the Soul Brewed Coffee Roastery in the woods. On a larger scale, The University of Wisconsin, City of Eau Claire, and Mayo Clinic have partnered to build a rec centre.
While passionate entrepreneurs with a collaborative spirit sparked the renaissance, the Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival fueled it by putting the city on the map. Started in 2015 by Justin Vernon, frontman for Grammy award winning indie folk band Bon Iver, it is now one of the top 10 music festivals in the country attracting 20,000 visitors a year!
The festival takes place along the Chippewa River each summer. Other musical events of note – pardon the pun – include 52nd Street at Eau Claire Jazz Festival (April 20, 2018), the largest jazz fest outside of New Orleans; Blue Ox Music Festival (June 14-16, 2018); and Country Jam (July 19-21, 2018).
You can experience an eclectic mix of live music year round thanks to an abundance of homegrown and imported talent. It helps that the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire (UW-EC) is “the singing school” and home to America’s best collegiate jazz band seven years running.
At The Lakely Restaurant & Bar, we enjoy bluegrass banjo over a delectable farm-to-fork lunch, and jazz after dinner. As we stroll along the river pathway at sunset, a flash mob – comprised of the Michael Rambo Project and CollECtive Choir – gives the illuminated Baroque sculpture a voice. Later, in nearby Altoona, Ben Johnson rocks the stage at Cowboy Jack’s and gets everyone on their feet.
Morning finds us at The French Press for breakfast where “everything is made from scratch”. While our coffee steeps, we dig in to Chef Ellie’s Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, the most popular item on the menu. Before leaving, Pat French presses a sample of Buzzed Monkey smoothie into our hands; a decadent concoction of banana, peanut butter, chocolate, and coffee.
Energized, we head downtown for the free, self-guided Sculpture Tour. A sloth smiles benevolently at us from a rebar tree at South Barstow and Gray Street. “Slow as you go,” by Minnesota artist Dale Lewis, is one of over 40 wonderful and whimsical sculptures decorating the streets of Eau Claire.
On this weekday morning, the street is quiet save for music piped from speakers on lampposts, and the distant din of construction. Kevin Miller, Executive Director of the Confluence Art Centre, says that construction noise is “music to his ears.” When the art centre opens in fall 2018, it will include a 1,200 seat theatre, studios, labs, workshops, and offices.
As we explore the heart of the city, we visit Revival Records, hipster cafe ECDC – for paninis and pastel macarons, riverside Phoenix Park (home to a bustling Farmer’s Market in the summer and stone labyrinth), river pathway, and Children’s Museum.
Eau Claire’s many parks and trails make it easy to experience nature without leaving the city. Hike or bike in summer, and snowmobile or cross country ski in winter!
With three levels of hands-on exhibits, the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire is a must-see if you have kids under 10 years old. We solve problems in the WaterWorks exhibit, then climb through the larger than life digestive system, deliver mail and go shopping in Bitty City, milk Oreo the Cow, and build a house at the Kidstruction zone.
Next, we check out the FailSafe experiment room that promotes S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art, math) education, “camping” area, Art Cafe, toddler play park, theatre, and mini recording studio.
After an afternoon of unplugged play, we walk to retro Ramone’s Ice Cream Parlour. The tantalizing aroma of fresh waffle cones fills the air and award-winning Chocolate Shoppe ice cream fills each bucket. A scoop of Exhausted Parent hits the spot (though Fat Elvis is also tempting).
Seeing so much art has inspired us to create our own. At Artisan Forge Studios, a creative hub for 20 artisans and craftsmen, we try needle felting, wax resist dyeing, and beading. Founded in 2015, Artisan Forge is a working studio with items for sale, demonstrations, and lessons.
I can feel the energy here and love the supportive atmosphere. When I fear I am destroying the canvas (I am not a painter), Jen from Blue Canvas Art Studio reassures me that colors blending together is good, and the end result will be beautiful. Ilana of Ilana’s Bead Shop presses her card into my hand and tells me to email with “any questions at all” if I have trouble with my DIY brooch making kit.
In the studio next door, The Torch Sisters put on a mesmerizing dance performance with fiery hoops and torches. Irie Sol picks up where they leave off with a set of funky reggae-meets-jazzy-rock numbers.
“That guy with blue shoes is my prof!” exclaims Samantha West, local UW-EC student and reporter. Joel Pace, is indeed a literature professor who moonlights as Irie Sol co-band leader. He goes from singing, to playing the trumpet, to breakdancing and back without missing a beat.
The indie spirit of Eau Claire extends beyond the arts and music scene to the rapidly expanding dining scene. Mona Lisa’s, an Eau Claire landmark since 1994 (for its food and ambience), changes its menu with the seasons to make the most of local ingredients. The Lakely prides itself on knowing its farmers’ names, and offering a one-of-a-kind experience with live music, fire-breathers, and stories around the patio campfire.
At Dive Bar, named such because it’s where a rooftop swimming pool used to be, they’ve created signature cocktails and reinvented classics. Flamed orange peel replaces maraschino cherries in their bourbon old fashioneds for a refreshing twist. They taste even better on the patio!
On my last day in Eau Claire, I sample fruit wines and pick honeycrisp apples at Autumn Harvest Winery and Orchard. Leaves are just starting to turn and the air is sweet with the aroma of apples. The corn maze rustles in the wind as Chad and Jean McIlquham share how they got into the business.
Like many people from around here, they moved away for school, then came back for the quality of life and started new (dream) careers. They admit that it’s been hard work, but look happy. What they don’t tell me is how many award winning wines they’ve produced. “Passionate, not pretentious” comes to mind again.
Eau Claire’s indie spirit and joie de vivre are hard to resist. If you visit Eau Claire, you will want to come back!
A 3-Day Family Friendly Eau Claire, Wisconsin Itinerary
Day 1: Art and Children’s Museum
- Breakfast at The French Press
- Sculpture Tour: South Barstow Street
- Lunch at ECDC (cafe)
- Eau Claire Children’s Museum
- Ice cream at Ramone’s Ice Cream Parlour
- Art class at Artisan Forge Studios
- Dinner at Mona Lisa’s: look for the Mona Lisa painting while you’re there!
- Walk along the river at night (downtown) to see the Baroque Sculpture and bridges lit up
Day 2: Ride and Wine
- Breakfast at Randy’s Family Restaurant
- Walk / Bike / Fatbike the Chippewa River State Trail (In some areas north or south of the city proper, a trail pass may be required for biking or inline skating). Look for: Boyd Park, ‘S’ Bridge near Banbury Place, Phoenix Park stone labyrinth
- Baroque Sculpture, High Bridge. OR paddle the Water Trail Chippewa River Water Trail (summer).
- Lunch at the Lakely, Oxbow Hotel
- Wine tasting at River Bend Vineyard and Winery (year round) or Autumn Harvest Winery and Orchard (open May 1 – Oct 31)
- Dinner at Houligan’s steak and seafood bar: Eau Claire’s “city supper club with a twist.” Don’t miss the Friday night fish fry!
- Drinks at Dive Bar, the Lismore’s rooftop patio
NOTE: A trail pass is not required for the bike trails within Eau Claire city limits. If you travel north or south on the trails beyond the city, a pass is required. Fee is $25/annually, $5 daily for bicyclists and in-line skaters ages 16 and older.
Day 3: Adventure and History
- Breakfast at Perkin’s Restaurant and Bakery
- Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum (open May 1 – September 30), Chippewa Valley Museum (open year round), and Carson Park playground; OR Beaver Creek Reserve: Nature Centre + 9
- miles of trails (open year round)
- Lunch at The Classic Garage: 50s diner and vintage Cadillac showroom
- Metropolis Resort bumper cars and zipline / Chaos City Water Park / Action City Trampoline Park and Fun Centre
- Dinner at The Informalist
Family Friendly Lodging in Eau Claire
- Staybridge Suites is a luxury extended stay hotel in Altoona, 3 miles from downtown Eau Claire with spacious suites, free breakfast, free laundry, transportation to festivals, pet friendly rooms, swimming pool and fitness center.
- The Lismore is a modern boutique hotel with fitness center in the downtown core. Conveniently located next to the convention center and walking distance to the University.
- The Oxbow is a trendy downtown hotel with a record player in every room. Ask about canoe and kayak rentals!
- Camp Brunswick is the perfect location for family reunions, corporate retreats, or Scouts camps with a large Nature Center, group camping areas, picnic areas, ropes courses, and zipline on 40 forested acres.
Family Events in Eau Claire, Wisconsin
- Downtown Eau Claire Farmer’s Market: May to October in Phoenix Park
- Eaux Claire’s Music & Arts Festival – TBD
- Eau Claire Marathon: May 5-6, 2018
- 52nd Street at Eau Claire Jazz Festival: April 20, 2018
- Blue Ox (bluegrass) Music Festival: June 14-16, 2018
- 4th of July at Carson park : July 4, 2018 Baseball game and fireworks
- Country Jam: July 19-21, 2018
Getting To Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Eau Claire is located 96 miles east of Minneapolis-st Paul International Airport on the I-94. For more information, check out Visit Eau Claire website.
Note: Travel Wisconsin provided complimentary airfare, accommodations, activities, and dining for the purposes of this article.
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Karen Ung is married to her backpacking sweetheart and is a mother and lover of maps, mountains, and mochas. The mission of her blog, Play Outside Guide, is to provide “everything families need to know to get outside and have fun.”