The gorgeous peninsula known as Door County, Wisconsin has entertained Milwaukee and Chicago residents for over a hundred years. Amazingly it has avoided national acclaim and remains a bit of a secret. This surprises us because there are so many beautiful things to do in Door County WI.
Some call it, “The Cape Cod of the Midwest.” Others refer to it as, “Martha’s Vinyard of the Great Lakes.” Those who know better will tell you that’s selling it short. Whatever you call it, this place draws you in and makes you feel right at home. Door County is a place to lose yourself in farmer markets, lighthouses, idyllic towns, and mid-western beaches.
The peninsula is 70 miles long, 18 miles wide, and projects into Lake Michigan like a thorn. Picture three hundred of miles of rocky shoreline surrounding five hundred square miles of idyllic farmland.
There are 2,000 acres of cherry blossoms in Door County, Wisconsin. Between eight and fifteen million pounds of cherries are produced annually, making it one of the largest producers in the country. If you love cherries then you’ve found your Graceland. If not, well, read the ingredients of what you eat because they sneak those buggers into everything.
Our primary objective in writing this article is to help you prepare the most memorable trip of your lives… TO WISCONSIN! Its crazy. We think everyone should get used to Wisconsin blowing their minds.
1. A Brief History
2. The Weather and When to Visit
3. Five Charming Towns to Visit
4. The Ten Best things to Do in Door County WI
5. An Honest Conclusion
We absolutely loved our time spent in Door County WI. It is one of the most delightful places we’ve visited in our travels. There are enough fun and interesting things to do in Door County, Wisconsin that we were fully entertained for a week. And we want to go back.
Our family typically measures experiences by whether we would consider moving to the place. When we take the additional step of researching the cost of houses, we know its special. Most houses cost between $500-800K in Door County WI.
Door County gets its name from the dangerous straight between the tip of the peninsula and Washington Island. This straight is known as Porte des Morts, or “Death’s Door.” Many ships have wrecked in this notorious straight, but the legend of death’s door actually comes from waring Native American tribes and a savage battle at this location.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw the settlement of pioneers, mariners, fishermen, loggers, and farmers, and the county was formed in 1851. From 1865 through 1870, three resort hotels were constructed in Sturgeon Bay and Fish Creek, giving birth to Door County’s tourism industry. In the late 1800’s the cherry industry arrived, and fruit husbandry became a more viable career than timber.
May through September are the best times to visit Door County, WI, with average temperatures between 62-78 degrees.
The cherry blossoms typically bloom in mid-May and crowds will be smaller at this time. Sounds great, right? Well, we visited in late-May and experienced frequent gray skies and rainfall.
When we return it will be in June or July. Summer weather is ideal for playing on the lakes. The downside is more bugs, crowds, and higher costs. We believe warmer weather would enhance the Door County experience, even with the downside of bugs, people, and people that bug us.
The autumn temperatures are mild, yet the crowds hang around for festivals and foliage.
Winter is cold, with high temps in the upper-mid-20’s. Great for ice photography and staying inside.
Our Best Advice: Book you lodging, tours, and excursions early if visiting in the summer or on weekends. Door County, Wisconsin is popular!
Door County’s recipe for success has several ingredients: picturesque farmland, rugged coastline, waterways, ferry boats, islands, etc. In addition to the vast natural beauty every direction you look, whimsical towns bring tremendous allure to the region.
The largest of the towns is Sturgeon Bay. It’s a fine town, but problem is, its pretty far south of most tourist features. It is also larger than the quaint hamlets for which Door County is known.
Gills Rock and Ellison Bay are smaller towns at the north end of the peninsula. Nice towns and all; just not much there.
The character of Door County is personified best within the triangle of Sister Bay, Bailey’s Harbor, and Egg Harbor. These three towns, which encompass the towns of Ephraim and Fish Creek, are located in the middle of the peninsula. We consider this the more lovely part of Door County, Wisconsin.
WARNING: Youthful adults in athletic condition have been known to behave like grandparents while exploring these pastoral towns and markets. You may feel the impulse to purchase honey products, lawn ornaments, and kitchen/bath decor with cute sayings.
This is what happens when we age. The Hoffmann’s would encourage you to accept your inner fogey. We did, the children mocked us, and everyone had some fun.
Located on the Green Bay side of the peninsula, Sister Bay is the most visited town in Door County WI. This gorgeous, seaside community presents abundant shopping and restaurants on a long, strollable strip, as well as a sandy beach and large marina. Still, perhaps Sister Bay is known best for the rooftop goats that live at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik. That’s “boutique,” not “buttlick,” in case you misunderstood. There is a lesson to be learned here: If you want to be king of your town put goats on your roof.
Fish Creek is the other best town for shopping and strolling the strip. Here you will find an assortment of gift shops, candy stores, art galleries, and charismatic restaurants, all along the water’s edge. Be sure to stop at Not Licked Yet Frozen Custard! We plan on staying here on our next visit because of the town’s charm and central location. If you’re looking for something less touristy than Sister Bay, Fish Creek offers great access for all the things to do in Door County.
The town has an assortment of shops, good restaurants, and a large grocery store (the best in Door County). Egg Harbor tends to sprawl, which makes it feel less organized than the first two towns. We consider it to be in the same tier, nonetheless, and consider it a premium spot to base your vacay. Harbor View Park lends big views of the marina. A hyperactive restaurant, One Barrel Brewing, is a great place for family dining.
Bailey’s Harbor is smaller than the first three towns, and it is located on the other side of the peninsula. It has a locals feel with a half-dozen restaurants, scattered shops, and a beautiful lakeside presence. Good proximity to Whitefish Dunes S.P., Cana Island Lighthouse, and a trio of popular RV Parks: Bailey’s Woods, Bailey’s Grove, and Beantown (Door County MAP). We stayed here. It got a little old driving to the other side of the peninsula every day, but it was reasonable.
Ephraim is one of those towns that you will pass through again and again as you drive around Door County WI. The town rests on a beautiful bay and is wonderful for active tourists who like to get their steps in while they see the sights. Peninsula State Park is right next door, which is a boon. Wilson’s is a well-established restaurant/goodie parlor that draws a crowd in the warm months.
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By this point it should be clear that Door County WI is a beautiful place to visit. What might be less clear is what you should do with your time.
The above-mentioned towns are a highlight of the region and comprise a fair portion of the Door County experience. Each of these towns could be considered a “best thing to do in Door County.”
Still, lazy days rolling through shops and eateries might not be for everyone. To some it may sound like death by boredom, on par with tickets to the Regional Knitting Championships. If that’s your case, what other fuss is taking place around Door County WI?
Well… first of all, settle down. The pace is slow here and there’s no way around it.
Secondly… take it easy on the knitters. They aren’t saying anything to you. They just wanna knit.
Third of all, these are the best non-town attractions we found during our Wisconsin getaway.
Here is a Door County map of all the best things to do: Door County MAP
Must-Do attractions are typically the reason we’ve decided to visit.
Al Johnson had a good idea: Put sod on the roof of his restaurant and employ a herd of goats to manicure it. Every visitor to Sister Bay gawks at the peculiar sight, and after taking a few photos they mosey into the gift shop to drop a little coin. You’re a genius, Mr. Johnson. He’s even scheduled an annual “Roofing of the Goats” parade and ceremony where he swaps out the goats. Sister Bay carries a strong “goats on roofs / Al Johnson” vibe. It adds to the charm of the town.
It would be a shame to visit Door County and not take the ferry to Washington Island. It is a pleasant boat ride, short but eventful, with scenery galore, (although outrageously expensive). Once you are loosed on Washington island the possibilities are numerous. Most folk head to Schoolhouse Beach, (mentioned further down). The Albatross Drive-In has delicious burgers and fries — we wouldn’t skip it. Art galleries, gift shops, and markets are abundant — Washington island is a fine place to wander… if you have transportation.
When it comes to hallowed sporting venues in the United States of America, Lambeau has very few peers: Fenway Park, Wriggly Field, and that’s about it. The facility is grand and beautiful, and The Tour is fantastic. You can easily spend a day doing all the Packer things around the stadium. Everyone must visit the Mecca in their lifetime — Even Cowboy fans pay fealty at Lambeau Field. It is one of the best things to do in Door County.
Should-Do attractions receive a strong recommend.
Of all the places we visited, this one surprised me the most. The parks are next door neighbors, located south of Bailey’s Harbor on the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula (MAP). The coastline is simply gorgeous. And there are paths all along the shore to enjoy the incredible views.
Our Best Advice: Parking at Cave Point County Park is free, while there is an entrance fee at Whitefish Dunes State Park. So… park at Cave Point and enjoy the fantastic, lakeside stroll over to the beach at Whitefish Dunes!
Along with the goats, most people mention Peninsula State Park when Door County comes up in conversation. The is a popular place for golf, kayaking, boat tours, camping, and hiking. A famous lighthouse, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, is found on the tip of the headland. Nicolet Beach is popular for water sports and sunbathing. And artifacts as old as 400 BCE have been found here. The park has a great location, too, wedged between Fish Creek and Ephraim. One of the things to do in Door County is to climb to the top of the Eagle Tower.
The #1 thing to do on Washington Island is to drive to the other side and mess around on Schoolhouse Beach. Named for the one-room wooden schoolhouse that used to exist nearby, the diminutive beach is comprised of smooth, white, limestone rocks. It’s a thick, punishable offense to steal the glacier-polished treasures, (but skipping dozens into the bay is perfectly ok). So that’s what we do. We skip the rocks. We DON’T steal them. No sir. We skip them.
Because farmer markets are the lifeblood of this region, we won’t be remiss to mention them as top things to do in Door County. Wood Orchard Market has an excellent selection of jams, salsas, and all things cherry. Lauterbachs Orchard Country Market has more of the same, with a focus on wine. These two markets are about three miles apart near Fish Creek. Be sure to test your cherry spitting’ mettle at Lauterbachs — the pits are free in the wine shop.
Related Article: The Best Things to do in the Wisconsin Dells.
Could-Do attractions are worthwhile, but we don’t strongly recommend them for one reason or another.
The Cana Island Lighthouse is an out of the way attraction that requires visitors to roll up their pant legs and walk across a shallow channel. There wasn’t a soul to be found when we visited. It was surreal to wade across the channel into a state park-like-setting and find both a gift shop (with televisions, t-shirts, etc.,) and a public restroom. The lighthouse is cool, but… Does anyone know this is here? Half the fun was wading across the channel. The other half was feeling like we were trespassing. The third half, which was actually less than a half (mathematically speaking), was looking at the Lighthouse.
This crazy shack caught our attention while rolling through Ephraim. The art gallery sits on a dock. For locals it is a fine place to fish. What makes it special for tourists and photographers is the galaxy of graffiti on all-four-sides. Anderson Dock is a gentle distraction in a land packed with gentle distractions.
Sounds like a Door County slogan: The Land of Gentle Distractions.
Seaquist Orchards Farm Market is one of, if not THE largest farmer market in Door County. Are you looking for cherry corn salsa? How about a 20-lb bag of frozen cherries? Maybe a garden gnome sitting on a cherry? Or a sign that says, “Thank you Cherry Much”? These farmer markets are all along the highways. It is our recommendation that you visit them all because, why the hell not?
If we were perhaps younger, say, in our twenties, we might’ve found Door County WI a bit dull, for it is primarily a congregation of fogies in these parts. Regardless, as we enter our middle-40’s we’re clearly pointed in that fogey-direction, and we increasingly find these excursions to our liking. The idea of farms and markets might not appeal to everyone, but there’s also kayaking, golf, and hiking aplenty. And the beauty is undeniable to everyone but our teenage children.
We will definitely visit again. On a nine-week road trip with ten significant stops, Door County was one of the most memorable places we stayed, along with Grand Marais and Downtown Chicago. We hope you find the things to do in Door County as delightful as we did.
Thank you for stopping by our website! We are the Hoffmann family, a full-time RV family that has split residence in Seattle, Washington and San Antonio, Texas. We have special needs children that we homeschool, and work travel assignments for the Veteran Affairs Hospital. If you would like to learn more about us, check out our Start Here and Biography pages. In the meantime, God bless and travel happy!
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