Imagine a peninsula between a tranquil lake and a sparkling bay with stunning views of woods and water, a welcoming community, and delicious food. Such a place exists in Wisconsin. This slice of heaven is called Door County.
Have you never heard of Door County? Neither had I until a few months ago. I am grateful for Destination Door County’s invitation to explore the area. Although this was a hosted trip, all opinions are my own.
Brimming with natural beauty and charming coastal towns, I now understand why the area is affectionately dubbed “the Cape Cod of the Midwest.” That said, Door County offers unique landscapes, adventures, and cuisines that extend beyond comparison, making it worthy of distinct recognition.
Opportunity knocks, and I urge you to open your mind and your travel plans to Door County. It may become your go-to vacation spot. I must issue a warning. Many travelers have fallen in love with the region and now call Door County home.
Where is Door County?
Door County is Wisconsin’s easternmost county, a peninsula that stretches 18 miles wide and 70 miles long. Beautiful Lake Michigan washes along its eastern shores while lovely Green Bay laps at its western coastline.
The nearest airport is the Austin Straubel Airport in Green Bay (GRB), a one-hour drive from Sturgeon Bay at the peninsula’s southern end. You can also fly into the Appleton International Airport (ATW). The drive from Appleton to Sturgeon Bay is about 1 hour and twenty minutes. Another option is the Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE), leaving you with a 2.5-hour drive.
Two major roads run the entire length of the peninsula. State Route 57 begins at the peninsula’s southwestern end, while State Route 42 starts in the southeast corner. As you head north, the two routes eventually meet, run concurrently, and then cross to the opposite side of the peninsula.
What Makes Door County Special?
Door County is a breath of fresh air for many reasons. Like a dish of lasagna, we will explore and savor each layer.
One of the best features of Door County is that restaurants and hotels are local businesses. Rather than well-known chain brands, you will discover unique places and authentic experiences.
Trust me, this is not a negative in any way. It is a refreshing change of pace that makes your visit rewarding.
People, People, People
I have never met such a large group of people who are kind, caring, and passionate about their businesses and community. Door County residents come from many walks of life. You may recall the warning issued earlier. People fall in love with this place and make it their home.
Door County locals don contented smiles and practically glow with happiness. They welcome you with open arms, inviting you to share in the region’s beauty, food, and experiences.
Do people make a difference? Absolutely, without question, people can make a place better. That philosophy shines through in Door County.
Nestling between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, Door County offers endless breathtaking woods and water views. It is mind-boggling, but the famous limestone cliff that features Niagara Falls along the New York and Canada borders extends through Door County. The spectacular limestone cliff rises more than 150 feet above the bay in Peninsula State Park.
Door County offers many places to explore with a wide array of activities. For a relatively small region, it abounds with parks.
Door County houses five state parks and many other county parks and natural areas. You can enjoy leisurely days of sunbathing and picnics or more active pursuits like swimming, paddling, boating, hiking, and biking.
The peninsula comprises dozens of communities and 34 named islands. Each area offers unique adventures. You will discover everything from hiking to touring a lavender farm and sampling food and drinks. If you enjoy ferry rides and exploring lighthouses as I do, Door County is a dream come true.
You will find many eateries with mouthwatering dishes across the county. I sampled quite a few of them and enjoyed them all. However, three primary foods spring to mind at the mention of Door County: cheese, cherries, and whitefish.
As any Packers fan knows, Green Bay is known for its rich and creamy cheese. Door County sits just north of the football town on the Bay of Green Bay, as the locals call it.
Many restaurants and stores proudly offer cheese products to patrons, whether locals or tourists. If you want to enter a state of bliss, do yourself a favor and sample some of the cheese.
Due to cool spring temperatures and a unique soil composition, the region is ideal for growing cherries. Famous for its mouthwatering tart cherries, Door Peninsula offers red fruit in many forms, including pies, desserts, drinks, and more.
You will not regret sampling the cherry products. I quickly admit Door County serves the best cherry pie I have ever tasted. Sorry, Mom.
In honor of a Scandinavian tradition, Door County residents cook whitefish and potatoes in boiling water over an open fire. People gather around the fire to swap stories, laugh, and cheer as the pot boils over. Then, everyone savors a feast of tender, juicy whitefish.
Although the food is delicious, the celebration is about community and tradition. Accept the invitation if you get invited to a Door County fish boil. It is a memorable experience.
Things To Do in Door County
Now that we have tasted the top layer of our lasagna, let’s dig into the meat so you know where and how to spend your time in Door County.
Yes, the name is scary, but the experience is delightful. Ride the Washington Island Ferry from the northern tip of Door Peninsula through Death’s Door.
The half-hour ferry ride takes you through a six-mile wide channel between Green Bay and Lake Michigan that has claimed over 275 shipwrecks. The iconic route delivers spectacular views along the journey to Washington Island.
The magnificent Washington Island provides plenty of adventures and is a fantastic place to spend the day exploring. Be sure to check out these two attractions while visiting the island.
You will find a beach of smooth white limestone rocks between the blue waters and a lush green forest. It is one of just five beaches like it across the globe.
Savor the view and enjoy an afternoon of swimming, sunbathing, and picnicking. It may not be the sand beach from your dreams, but the unique beach is breathtaking.
Explore a world of purple hues and heavenly scents at Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm & Shop. For the skeptics out there, a visit to Fragrant Isle is a delight. The lovely gardens induce serenity even for those who do not love flowers.
Do yourself a favor and sample some of the lavender-infused fare. I was reluctant but found the subtle lavender flavor pleasant on the palette. My top picks are the fairytale cookies and the lavender rosé slushie.
The shop contains various lavender items, including culinary and therapeutic-grade products. Lavender oil has analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-bacterial properties.
Island hopping in Door County is a blast. After exploring Washington Island, ride the Karfi Ferry to Rock Island. Sit back, relax, and savor views of glistening waters dotted with islands.
As you approach Rock Island, you will see a beautiful boathouse. The structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is an excellent place to start your adventures.
You will discover many fascinating displays and artifacts inside the boathouse. After learning more about the island, hike to the Pottawatomie Lighthouse, Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse.
I thoroughly enjoyed this hike. You start with beautiful views of the water lapping against the island’s shoreline. Then, the trail leads through a peaceful forest before emerging near the beacon. On the return trip, I spotted three sandhill cranes feeding in the meadow between the forest and the boathouse.
Stargazing at Newport State Park
At night, visit Newport State Park in Ellison Bay. The park, nestled on the peninsula’s far end, is one of the darkest spots in Wisconsin.
It earned recognition as an International Dark Sky Park and delivers a black canvas upon which the white stars paint the heavenly skies. The night show is breathtaking, even if you are not a stargazing fanatic.
Whitefish Dunes State Park
Check out Whitefish Dunes State Park in Sturgeon Bay. The park comprises 867 acres of rolling dunes and lush forests. You will discover a mix of rugged coasts and sandy beaches. The park features Wisconsin’s highest dune, Old Baldy.
I loved hiking in Whitefish Dunes State Park. The varied landscapes are a joy, and the hike to the top of Old Baldy garners rewarding views of Lake Michigan and Clark Lake. It shows how precious the dunes are and the importance of protecting this fragile ecosystem.
Peninsula State Park
Wisconsin’s most complete park sits in Fish Creek, featuring 8 miles of shoreline with rocky bluffs soaring above Green Bay. The contrasting white limestone cliff against the blue waters takes your breath away.
Peninsula State Park offers many things to do. I suggest a bicycle ride on the Sunset Trail. The path takes you by a historic lighthouse, through forests, and along cliffs with views of Green Bay. With such rewarding views, I could not stop smiling.
Before leaving, climb Eagle Tower. You can either climb 95 stairs or walk up an 850-foot ramp. You gain an exquisite view of the Upper Michigan shoreline and surrounding islands.
Due to a fear of heights, I took the ramp and stood a few feet from the observation platform edge. The perspective from above the treetops is an absolute thrill.
The Ridges Sanctuary
Resting in Baileys Harbor, The Ridges Sanctuary spans 1,600 acres. The park got its name from a series of ridges and swales that formed over the past 1,100 years due to Lake Michigan’s movement. It is one of the most peaceful and lovely parks I have ever seen.
The park has boardwalks and trails through forests and meadows. You can also explore the Baileys Harbor Range Lights and a nature center with immersive exhibits. It is the perfect place to find peace in nature.
Places To Eat in Door County
While Door County is known for its cheese, cherries, and whitefish, you will find various culinary options. People from many parts of the world have made Door County their home. Thankfully, some operate restaurants, sharing their delicious concoctions with us.
At its core, Renard’s Cheese Store offers local cheeses and products. You will find many savory and sweet items covering the spectrum of snacks, condiments, meals, and desserts. Shopping here is a lot of fun, and the food is delicious.
However, I urge you to grab lunch at their Melt Bistro. I have had many types of cheese and honestly did not expect anything different from the Wisconsin cheese. When you are wrong, you must own it. Renard’s cheeses blew me away.
Their artisan melts and mac & cheese dishes shine with bold cheese flavors that dance across the tongue. Include an order of cheese curds with your lunch. They are divine!
I had heard mention of cheese curds but had never tried one. With the first bite, a broad grin stretched across my face from ear to ear. Renard’s in Sturgeon Bay easily won me over.
Solago Restaurant & Tequila Bar
Wisconsin likely does not come to mind when discussing where to find excellent Mexican cuisine. Yet, Solago Restaurant & Tequila Bar in Sister Bay delivers in spades.
The food is fresh and flavorful, and they offer an extensive menu of tasty cocktails. If your party includes picky eaters, the restaurant serves burgers and sandwiches.
The restaurant sits along the water. If you dine near sunset, take a minute outside for an unforgettable treat.
Prince of Pierogi
Honestly, I was less than thrilled at the thought of a Polish restaurant. When we pulled into the parking lot, the Prince of Pierogi Restaurant in Ephraim appeared tiny, more like a food truck than a restaurant. My concerns multiplied.
Do not judge this book by its cover. Chef Krzysztof Krol creates absolute magic in his 240-square-foot kitchen, serving each customer in 7 minutes. The menu includes mouthwatering pierogies, kielbasa, vegan cabbage rolls, and hunter’s stew.
My previous experience with pierogies consisted of the frozen variety with bland mashed potatoes. Chef Krol’s pierogies are fresh and plump with flavorful ingredients. Pair them with a smooth, mellow Polish beer, and you achieve bliss.
The Prince of Pierogi regularly offers various pierogi options, including seasonal varieties. During our visit, savory options included cheese and potato, slow-roasted pork, sauerkraut and mushroom, bacon mac & cheese, and spinach feta. The menu included dessert alternatives like Door County cherry, wild blueberry, banana Nutella, and sweet cream cheese.
Do yourself a favor and visit Chef Krol and his team at the Prince of Pierogi. Poland’s best comfort food awaits you.
Jackson Harbor Soup
Sometimes, a simple meal is what you need. Yes, simple can be tasty. Couple that with an excellent view, and it can be perfect.
While visiting Washington Island, stop at Jackson Harbor Soup to experience tasty comfort food with a view. The eatery specializes in fresh sandwiches and hot soup and has indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the harbor. It sits next to Karfi Ferry, making it the ideal lunch spot before hopping to Rock Island.
Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream
While Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream in Ephraim is not a time machine, it does offer a trip into the past. The old-fashioned diner has a jukebox and a vintage soda fountain.
You can listen to classics while enjoying a burger, chili dog, or whitefish sandwich. Pair it with their home-brewed draft root beer. Order a side of cheese curds for an authentic Door County experience.
Try to save room for dessert. The diner carries a variety of tasty ice cream flavors, their specialty. Or, you can go straight for the ice cream. Either way, you will leave with a smile.
Island Popcorn Barn
While exploring Washington Island, visit Island Popcorn Barn for a snack. I am not a popcorn fan, but I readily admit their gourmet popcorn opened my eyes to a new snack. The Island Popcorn Barn uses fresh ingredients, handcrafting their popcorn in small batches.
Although light and fluffy, the popcorn bursts with flavor. The shop covers all taste spectrums, from salty and sweet to spicy and savory.
You will discover various flavors, including the famous Lenny’s Kettle Korn, Movie Theater Style, Oreo Delight, Birthday Cake, Door County Cherry, and Blazing Saddles. My favorite is Happy Spud.
Burton’s on the Bay
If you desire fine dining with a waterfront view, head to Burton’s on the Bay in Egg Harbor. The upscale restaurant sits within the Alpine Resort and offers delightful views of Green Bay, delicious cuisine, and a wide range of tasty cocktails.
You can choose from indoor seating and an outdoor patio. The menu includes ribeye, filet, sea bass, stuffed scallops, shrimp, stuffed pork chops, and Tuscan chicken.
Although a small town, Egg Harbor has a beautiful marina and an excellent selection of shops. So, you can make a whole evening of shopping, sightseeing, and dining.
Island Orchard Cider
Door County has its share of wineries and breweries. However, I found our visit to a cider taproom the most enjoyable.
Island Orchard Cider in Ellison Bay offers various hard ciders in a fun, friendly atmosphere. The cidery is aptly named since its orchard sits on Washington Island. Fruit is handpicked and ferried across Death’s Door to the mainland, where it is pressed and fermented.
Lambeau Field carries their best-selling Apple Cherry Cider. However, Island Orchard offers many other options, including oak-aged varieties, dessert ciders, a lavender-infused cider, and an ice cider.
I was able to sample the ice cider and two of their 2023 award-winning ciders, the Brut Apple Reserve and the Kingston Black. Although I was most excited to test the ice cider, I found it a bit sweet. The award-winning ciders both shined in balance and flavor.
Island Orchard uses flip-top bottles. The attached stopper ensures your cider is safe from contaminants and spillage when not pouring drinks. A clever approach, the cidery offers picnic-style snack packs to pair with your beverages.
Island Orchard has indoor and outdoor seating. They offer flight tastings, glass pours, and shareable pitchers. Between the tasty drinks, the relaxed atmosphere, and the friendly service, the whole experience is delightful.
Where To Stay in Door County
Choosing where to stay is always a challenge. Fortunately, Door County offers many excellent lodging options. However, I am partial to the Square Rigger Lodge in Jacksonport.
Did I mention people make all the difference? That is certainly the case at Square Rigger Lodge.
Mary Killenberg Riley and her three daughters and sons-in-law own the property. Mary vacationed in Door County as a child and continued the tradition with her family. They loved the region so much that they decided to purchase Square Rigger as a family and share their love with visitors.
Their passion and kindness are palpable even in simple conversation. Customer service still exists at Square Rigger Lodge, and it is top-notch.
Square Rigger Lodge Options
Regarding accommodations, guests can choose from cottages, suites, motel rooms, and a rental house. Although the most basic option, I stayed in a motel room and was elated.
The room was clean and comfortable. To my surprise, I could see Lake Michigan from my room. With a short walk across a grass lawn, I could sit on the sand beach for a closer view. Sitting in my room, on the back patio, or on the beach, I felt utterly relaxed.
As a bonus, Square Rigger Lodge has the only beachfront coffee shop in Door County. A tasty cup of coffee with that view is the perfect way to start your day.
You will also enjoy the proximity to natural areas, shopping, and restaurants. With a short drive, you can reach all significant Door County attractions.
Motel room amenities include a refrigerator, air and heat, shower and bath, TV, telephone, and free WiFi. Suites come with fully equipped kitchenettes and more living space. Please note the suites do not face the water but provide beach access.
Cottages sleep two to six people and come with a full kitchen and an outdoor grill. For a bigger group, the rental house comprises four bedrooms, three full baths, a spacious kitchen, a gas fireplace, and quick access to a private beach.
The accommodations, location, view, and service are excellent, regardless of your choice. You are in good hands with Mary and her family.
Plan Your Door County Vacation
Whether you want to relax, partake in water sports, or enjoy days of exploration, Door County offers the perfect Great Lakes getaway. Sandwiched between beautiful Lake Michigan and Green Bay, the peninsula provides charming coastal towns with stunning views of woods and water, delicious local cuisine, and the friendliest people you will ever meet. Open the door to Door County for your next vacation!
Scott and Julie blog at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, they took a leap of faith to leave the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. They hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.