Fun things to do in Janesville Wisconsin include a mix of downtown dining and shopping, outdoor activities, interesting history, and a top-rated botanical garden. Janesville is about half way between Madison Wisconsin and Chicago Illinois, making it an ideal day trip or weekend getaway from either city.
Like many small US cities, Janesville WI has undergone a tremendous recent change. The city was once home to the oldest GM plant in USA until it closed in 2008 and the Parker Pen Company until it moved overseas in 1987. Now Janesville has rebranded itself as “Wisconsin’s Great Outside” and is updating and expanding fun things to do in its walkable downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
We were hosted by the Janesville Area CVB for the experiences and restaurants included here. As always, all opinions, photos, and text are our own.
Fun Things to Do in Janesville Wisconsin
Our round-up of fun things to do in Janesville Wisconsin mix nature, history, and foodie fun. Please leave your suggestions for more Rock County activities in the comments below.
1. Visit the Beautiful Rotary Botanical Gardens
One of our favorite places to visit in Janesville WI is the beautiful Rotary Botanical Gardens. The Rotary Gardens boast 26 garden styles featuring over 4000 plant species; an impressive collection. Many installations change seasonally so there is always something new to see. The lovely setting includes a pretty pond where a Japanese bridge, and a nearby row of Adirondack chairs, offer perfect photo spots.
The Rotary Botanical Gardens is 95% accessible, and guests are welcome to bring a picnic to enjoy on the grounds. The gardens are open year-round, and special events include a popular holiday light show. Admission of $5 – $7 is charged, and hours are extended from April through October.
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2. See the Champion Rock Aqua Jays Water Ski Team
The 19-time U.S. National Champion Rock Aqua Jays Water Ski Team are a highlight of any summertime visit to Janesville WI. The most successful water ski show team in the world offers free public shows from late May through Labor Day on the Rock River at Traxler Park. The free shows are held on Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:00 PM, and sometimes include food trucks and other extras.
3. Bike Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail
Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail is one of only 11 National Scenic Trails in the United States. Like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Potomac Heritage Trail, the Ice Age Trail offers over 100 miles of continuous outdoor recreation. The Ice Age Trail navigates 1200 miles along a glacier’s edge where Mammoths and saber tooth cats once roamed. The Janesville section of the Ice Age Trail is mostly paved, so it is perfect for biking.
The downtown section of the Ice Age Trail is also a nice option for a walk along the Rock River. There are comfortable spots to stop and enjoy the view on both sides of the Rock River in downtown Janesville.
Hike the Devil’s Staircase
The Devil’s Staircase is an unpaved portion of the Ice Age Trail that begins in Riverside Park. The one-and-a-half mile trail follows a bluff beside Rock River, offering scenic views and a shady hike. The hike passes beautiful rock cliffs, and several steep and narrow sections offer a nice workout. Restrooms, water, and free parking are available in Riverside Park. After your hike, relax and enjoy a picnic at one of the tables along the river.
4. Explore History at the Rock County Historical Society
Start your visit at the Helen Jeffries Wood Museum to get oriented and purchase tour tickets. Collections include local artifacts and a beautiful display of Pauline Pottery & Pickard China.
Lincoln Tallman House
The Lincoln Tallman House is a fascinating historic stop in Janesville Wisconsin. This Italianate beauty, built in 1857, is the only place that Abraham Lincoln spent the night in Wisconsin. The bed in which Lincoln slept two nights is displayed along with other period furniture. Tours of the Lincoln Tallman house cover two floors and the basement rooms and offer an engaging look at the lives of both the well-to-do family and their servants.
Ask about the interactive Help Wanted Tour, a favorite for school groups but fun for visitors of all ages. Guests learn about history from the perspective of life as a servant. Visitors adopt the immigrant background and jobs of servants in the house, where they might be assigned to straighten a room or work in the kitchen.
Schoolhouse and Carriage House
The 1853 schoolhouse was moved to the historical property and is now visited by every 3rd grade student in Rock County WI. Francis Willard, who is honored in statuary hall in the Washington DC Capitol Building, was a teacher at the schoolhouse. The restored Carriage House once stabled the Tallman horses and is now used as an event space.
5. Take a Walking Tour of the Historic District
Janesville Wisconsin has 12 historic districts and there are more than 80 historical sites within 5 miles of the downtown. We toured the Courthouse Hill district with expert guide Rich Fletcher, owner of Roam Around Tours. The district includes an interesting mix of historic homes in Italianate, Craftsman, and other styles. You can also take a self-guided tour using the Clio app.
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6. Treat Yourself at Bellasazi Salon and Spa
After all that walking and learning you deserve a break. Bellasazi Salon & Spa offers relaxing treatments including full and express facials, manicures, and massages along with a full range of salon services.
7. Dine and Drink in Janesville Wisconsin
Here are some of the many great places to eat in Janesville WI.
Lark is an elegant restaurant in downtown Janesville WI with a fun bar and excellent chef. The seasonal menu highlights local ingredients and modern takes on American favorites. The bar at Lark is a comfortable spot to sample delicious cocktails prepared with artisanal ingredients. Our Wisconsin style Old Fashioned featured Korbel brandy and a luxurious Luxardo cherry. Best of all, we learned how to make this delicious cocktail under the guidance of Billy Burg, Lark’s expert bar manager. Check the website for cocktail classes and special dining events at Lark.
A friendly, casual vibe welcome diners to Whiskey Ranch in downtown Janesville WI. The fried cheese curds are so delicious, and they are the perfect accompaniment to big burgers, fried fish, and a nice draft beer list. Check the calendar for live country and rock entertainment.
Bodacious Shops of Block 42
The Bodacious Shops of Block 42 occupy the oldest building in downtown Janesville WI. The riverside location is perfect for a casual meal on the patio or in the two-story brick building, which was once a bottle brewery. Our sandwiches and salads from So Chopped were fresh and filling. After lunch, we sampled several fantastic olive oils and balsamic vinegars at the Bodacious Olive, which also sells unique foodie gifts. Next door, the Bodacious Brew serves freshly-brewed coffees and teas.
Citrus Cafe is a good bet for breakfast in downtown Janesville. You cannot go wrong with the tasty made-to-order omelettes, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and crispy bacon.
Enjoy classic American fare with a fun view of small planes taking off and landing at Bessie’s Diner. The family-friendly restaurant is located in the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport. The retro feel will take you back to the 1950s while floor-to-ceiling windows offer a show. Bessie’s Diner is named after Beloit native Bessie Raiche, the first American woman to fly solo in an airplane.
Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream
It is a bit of a drive from downtown but the rich creamy flavors at Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream are worth the effort. They make their award-winning, super premium ice cream with lots of rich, local Wisconsin cream. As the sign says, do not even ask about nutritional information. Just enjoy this local indulgence.
Rock County Brewing
Janesville’s first craft micro-brewery, Rock County Brewing, is a downtown favorite. Happy craft beer fans enjoy a changing selection of small batch brews including tasty IPAs and seasonal flavors. We visited on trivia night and the place was hopping.
Relax and sample an extensive collection of wines at Northleaf Winery in nearby Milton. The tasting barn was built in 1850 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Northleaf offers wine tasting, live music on the patio in warmer months, and special events throughout the year. The winery is open year-round Tuesday through Sunday.
8. Where to Stay in Janesville Wisconsin
The Holiday Inn Express Janesville is a good base for exploring Janesville and the surrounding Rock County area. Rooms are spacious and include wifi, breakfast, and a weekday happy hour. They also have an indoor pool and fitness center.
Another Janesville Wisconsin lodging option is vacation rentals, including condos, apartments, and houses.
9. Discover More Things to Do in Janesville Wisconsin
Check the Janesville Area Visitor Bureau website for more things to do in Janesville, and information on nearby areas in Rock County.
Whether you visit for a long weekend or on a day trip, you will find plenty of fun things to do in Janesville Wisconsin, and many reasons to plan a return visit.
Article by Julie McCool, whose Virginia travel site FuninFairfaxVA.com helps locals and visitors find fun places to explore, dine, drink, and play in the Virginia, Washington DC, and mid-Atlantic region.
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