The Houdini-themed fiberglass "Metamorph Lion" stands guard in front of Appleton's History Museum.
I had a sense of what to expect from Appleton, Wisconsin, when I visited the most wholesome of college towns in Middle America—and on Flag Day, no less. But the genial college town proved more surprising with each cheesehead I encountered (best surprise: cheesehead jokes never get old). Though I guess that’s to be expected when one of the key items on the agenda was a concert starring two freshly-minted female college graduates (one being my sister-in-law) rocking a famous Bach violin duet—on tuba. Needless to say, the stage was set for an unusual experience.
About 100 miles northeast of another great Midwest college town, Madison, Appleton sits on the Fox River in eastern Wisconsin and is the childhood home of the magic-wielding likes of Harry Houdini and Joseph McCarthy. (Check out the Houdini section of the History Museum for the secrets behind some of the icon's best escape illusions.) Other big thinkers get their starts at Lawrence University and its renowned Conservatory of Music, which anchors Appleton both in location and character (spot “This is Art” stickers speckled throughout town on trees, benches, and residents, courtesy of the liberal school’s arty students).
Over the course of two and a half days in Appleton, I sampled a generous dose of local flavor up and down College Avenue:
EATING: Katsu-Ya for sushi, tempura, and grill-your-own yakiniku vegetables. Sirocco’s for Mediterranean tapas (goat cheese-and-eggplant stuffed peppers, hummus and olive tapenade). Copper Rock Coffee Company for seriously tasty tomato-and-basil quiche. Family-owned Brewed Awakenings (pictured, right) for wraps stacked high with fresh veggies, and back again later for homemade gelato. (Try a scoop of olive oil and sea salt—though it sounds disgusting, the unique flavor is pleasant, like saltwater taffy.) And to be honest, I still regret not squeezing in a third trip for their peanut-butter-and-jelly muffins or gelato bombs (a cup of hot, organic coffee with a scoop of gelato). The 1910 Sausage Company boasts juicy grilled hot dogs and sausages and a mustard bar stocked with eight gourmet dips, but my vote goes to their kettle corn. (For the ultimate strolling snack, ask for $1 worth fresh from the popper.) And no matter where you dine, order a local brew like New Glarus Spotted Cow, a refreshingly fruity farmhouse ale perfect for summer.
SHOPPING: In between all that eating, I stopped at hippie Vagabond Imports and picked up a breezy summer dress, imported from Nepal and patchworked together from a rainbow of multihued fabrics. Sure, the dress smelled a bit of incense until its first wash, but wearing it I’ve racked up compliments from everyone from a well-heeled stranger in Brooklyn to my husband’s 80-year-old grandmother. A number of other shops enticed with window-shopping eye candy, but I was in town on Flag Day and found myself out of luck, as many shops were apparently closed for the festivities. And festivities there were—Appleton claims our nation's largest Flag Day celebration (who knew?), pulling out all the stops for a lively parade of dignitaries, colorful floats, local celebrities, bands, and more patriotic revelry than I'm used to seeing in my home of D.C.
EXPLORE MORE: Though Appleton's downtown is immensely walkable—shops, restaurants, and bars line College Avenue, just up the hill from Fox River—a free trolley also loops downtown and the riverfront every 15 minutes or so. And if you're in the area July 27, be sure to check out the all-day 48th Annual Art in the Park, with regional artists, food, and entertainment in Appleton's leafy City Park.
Photos: Katie Knorovsky