Explore Door County’s Oh-So-Dreamy Small Towns in Wisconsin

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Door County Wisconsin lighthouse
Cana Island Lighthouse is among 11 historic lighthouses in Door County. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Looking for a laidback vacation option? Consider Wisconsin’s Door County. You’ll find a collection of unique small towns within an hour’s drive from Green Bay. Shop Main Street boutiques, check out shipwreck sites and don’t miss the region’s notable edibles  – cheese curds and fish boils.

The writer was hosted for this trip.

While in Green Bay, Wisconsin in late spring,  I returned for my second visit to idyllic Door County. With 300 miles of shoreline, Door County is surrounded by Lake Michigan to the east and the waters of Green Bay on the west. For a relatively small region (about 30,000 population), Door County has an abundance of outdoor activities as well as outstanding art galleries and live theater. In addition, friendly locals share their cherished traditions like weekly fish boils.

Door County is a top Midwestern road trip destination for many reasons. Situated on a 70-mile peninsula (the thumb of Wisconsin on a map), Door County is composed of several distinct towns with charming main streets, pretty marinas, 11 lighthouses and five state parks. The region also has accessible islands, sea caves and more than 275 shipwrecks – adding a bit of mystique to Door County. In addition, Door County has art galleries, live theater and cozy mom-and-pop businesses. See for yourself why Door County ranks among “Best Small Towns in the United States,” according to Fodor and other popular travel guides.

One of the best things about Door County: the absence of chain hotels and restaurants. Independently-owned establishments and friendly customer service contribute largely to Door County’s old-fashioned charm. A number of the businesses are run by third and fourth generation Door County residents who went off to college then came home to help run the family business.

Lake view in Peninsula State Park, one of the fun things to do in door county
Peninsula State Park is one of many scenic places to enjoy activities and lake views in Door County. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

The Towns of Door County, Wisconsin

Of Door County’s 19 unique communities, we visited five that are within short driving distance of each other. Among them is Sturgeon Bay, the county’s largest town. While nearby Sister Bay’s beach, marinas and boat tours are the main attraction, visitors also come to see goats grazing on sod rooftops. Now there’s an Instagram-worthy photo opp!

Neighboring Ephraim is a historic waterfront village with water sports, museums and shops. In Fish Creek, ranked among America’s 15 prettiest towns by Forbes, we strolled on cozy streets adorned with colorful flowers and cute boutiques. Egg Harbor was voted among the “Top Ten Coolest Towns in America” by Budget Travel Magazine.

These were some of our favorite things to do in Door County:

Door County trolley car, one of the fun things to do in door county
Door County Trolley tours offer a good overview of the area. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Door County Trolley

Take a tour with Door County Trolley, based in the tiny town of Egg Harbor. The company offers several themed tours (prices vary) that introduce ages 5 and older to Door County’s scenic spaces and landmarks.  On our 90-minute narrated Scenic Tour, our guide shared area history and local tips. For example, Fish Creek – founded by three brothers in the 1850s – was (appropriately) named for its fishing. Also, Sister Bay used to be called Big Sister Bay. The tour brought us to Peninsula State Park, where we made a couple of stops to admire lake views.  The park is home to deer, turkey and other wildlife, and two cemeteries. Back in town, he drove us by a “gnome” tree. “No-one knows when it started,” he said of the tree decorated with gnomes.

Traditional building built like a Viking ship in door county wisconsin
Built without any nails, the wood Stavkirke (Stave church) resembles a Viking ship and is one of Washington Island’s treasures. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Washington Island and Rock Island State Park

One of the main reasons I returned to Door County was to visit Washington Island and Rock Island State Park. These are definitely top things to do in Door County, and require a full day. We took the Washington Island Ferry to Washington Island, founded in 1850. (Fun fact: Washington Island marks the halfway point between the Equator and North Pole.) Our first stop was at the Stavkirke, a craftsmen-built church built totally without nails that resembles a Viking ship. Nearby, we dipped our toes in the cool, clear water of Schoolhouse Beach – one of only five worldwide beaches with all white limestone, smooth rocks. Touch but don’t take these pretty gems. There’s a $250 fine for removing these polished stones.

Our next stop was the Lavender Farm & Shop, where owners Edgar and his French-born wife Martine Anderson cultivate their gardens without pesticides. Group tours are available to learn about the lavender farm. With views of the lavender fields, our outdoor lunch at the onsite Fragrant Isle’s Le Petit Bistro was simply delightful. The farm is generally open to the public from June through December.

Docents offer free public tours of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse, completed in 1836. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Rock Island State Park

We enjoyed beautiful sunny weather for our ferry crossing to the 912-acre pedestrian-only Rock Island. Aside from a few stone buildings and Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse, the island is mostly undeveloped. There’s a nice beach and 10 miles of hiking trails, including one to the historic Pottawatomie Lighthouse, completed in 1836. The privately owned island was sold to the state in the 1960s. Today, docents live for week-long stints in the lighthouse and conduct free tours through the living spaces and lantern room. Tours take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily from Memorial Day to mid-October. Donations are accepted in the Summer Kitchen.

Peninsula State Park

The 3,776-acre park has 40 miles of trails, campsites, and eight miles of shoreline punctuated with 150-foot high cliffs. Park activities include biking, hiking, sailing and kayaking. Depending on the season, you can rent kayaks at Nicolet Beach and paddle two miles to the uninhabited Horseshoe Island. More scenic points within the park include the 1860s Eagle Bluff Lighthouse overlooking Green Bay.

Thrilling Boat Tours

things to do in door county
Thousands of cormorants and an abandoned lighthouse are the sole occupants of Pilot Island. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Cruise Across Death’s Door

The weather was cold and gloomy on the morning we sailed from Gills Rock to see lighthouses on Pilot and Plum Islands. We sailed with Captain Jim from Shoreline Cruises, which offers coastal tours aboard Navy boats. These licensed Coast Guard passenger vessels are ideal for navigating the area’s rough waters, unpredictable weather and hidden shoals. There are more than 275 shipwrecks, with many of them lying less than 60 feet underwater. Hence the name Death’s Door.

Soon, Capt. Jim shouted “Land Ho” as we approached fog-shrouded Plum Island, a stop for Monarch butterflies. Named for its “plum” location in the middle of the bay, the island has an 1896 lighthouse.

Our next stop to Pilot Island was downright eerie. Thousands of cormorants have invaded the abandoned island, killing vegetation. Even from a distance we could smell the stench from these birds. Only a historic lighthouse remains on the 3.25-acre island.

kayaking is among things to do in Door County
Door County Kayak Tours offers guided excursions along Lake Michigan. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Kayaking at Cave Point County Park

There are many kayaking opportunities in Door County. In fact, one of the top things to do in Door County is kayaking along Lake Michigan. Based in Sturgeon Bay, Door County Kayak Tours offers several guided tours. On our two-hour Cave Point County Park tour (for ages 4 and older) we paddled through clear water along the rugged shoreline to coves and sea caves. After a while, the water became a bit choppy, so we decided to return to shore. From there, we walked along the cliffs we had just paddled along below. There’s a ledge where a few brave people (not me) jumped into the chilly water below.

Door County Adventure Rafting

Located in Fish Creek, Door County Adventure Rafting offers several tours, including a thrilling Zodiac ride on Lake Michigan. A smiling Capt. Matt put on rock music as we sped through the water on our way to the Cana Island Lighthouse. Laughing, we held on tight as he made some crazy turns. But we slowed for photo opps of the Cana Island Lighthouse and Horseshoe and Strawberry Islands.

Art and Theater: Things to Do in Door County

Door County has a handful of great seasonal theater venues. For example, the Northern Sky Theater presents original musicals under the stars in the beautiful Peninsula State Park Amphitheater. For current performance info, visit Northern Sky Theater.

Situated in Fish Creek, the lakeside Peninsula Players Theatre has been presenting comedies, dramas and musicals since 1935. In fact, the Peninsula Players is America’s oldest resident summer theater. For the current schedule, visit Peninsula Players Theatre.

Also located in Fish Creek, the Guenzel Art Gallery at the Peninsula School of Art features art work, art classes and outdoor sculptures. Open year-round, the gallery is housed in a two-story structure reminiscent of historic Wisconsin round barns.

Door County restaurants
At Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, servers wear traditional attire as they present classic dishes. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Where to Eat in Door County

One of my favorite places for breakfast is Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant. Founded about 70 years ago by Al (now deceased) and his Swedish wife, Ingrid, the Swedish-themed restaurant is run by their three adult children. Signature dishes include Swedish pancakes with lingonberries and meatballs. Add strawberries or cherries and whipped cream for an additional charge.

Be sure to scout out the live goats grazing on the sod roof outside. The website even features Al Johnson’s Goat Cam. So, why goats? In 1973, Al’s friend put a goat on the grass roof as a joke. Now the goats are a big attraction.

places to eat in door county
Choose a waterfront restaurant for amazing Door County sunsets. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille

It’s here that I ate fried cheese curds, a Wisconsin staple, for the first time – and loved it! Owners/chefs Britton and Sara Unkefer whip up creative pizzas, such as the Fun Guy – a mushroom pizza with spinach and caramelized onions on garlic cream cheese.

Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor

This Door County landmark has been serving classic burgers, sandwiches, fries and ice cream specialties since 1906.

Door County Coffee & Tea Co.

Only the best will do for business owner Vicki Wilson, who serves customers top quality coffee made with Arabica beans roasted onsite. The charming restaurant also serves delicious breakfast (try a strata and hashbrown bake) and lunch.

Rowleys Bay Restaurant

Rowleys is a full-service eatery known for its traditional fish boil served on Friday and Saturday nights. The feast features freshly caught Lake Michigan whitefish, red potatoes and onions. Kerosene is thrown on the fire, causing the pot to boil over with fish oil.

Where to Stay in Door County

Door County has many unique lodging options. Some, like the Parkwood Lodge, are rustic, while others are situated on lake shores. One example is the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor. Our spacious one-bedroom condo had a full kitchen and living room (with a sofa sleeper) overlooking the lake. Swimming pools, whirlpools, barbecue grills and walking paths make this an ideal lodging option for families.

There are lots of options for hotel stays in Door County, including vacation rentals.

How to Get to Door County, Wisconsin

From the Austin Straubel Airport in Green Bay, it’s about a one-hour drive to Sturgeon Bay in Door County. The next nearest airport is Appleton Airport, about an 80-minute drive to Door County.

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