If you are looking for a lovely, relaxing weekend destination with fantastic food, beautiful scenery, and interesting places to visit, look no further than Door County, Wisconsin! This charming peninsula in Lake Michigan is home to fish boils, everything cherry flavored, and swimming and boating. It's packed with fun things to do for the whole family!
If you love to travel and explore new places, you might also be interested in my posts about the best things to see, eat, and do in Savannah, Georgia, Kauai, Hawaii, or Big Sur, California! Or if you are just here for the recipes, check out my dessert archives for inspiration!
Roadtripping across the U.S.A.? Make Door County a stop!
We recently did a 4-week roadtrip from California to Michigan and back and were lucky enough to stop in Door County for a long weekend. We wish we could have spent more time there though since there was so much to do and see!
If you find yourself driving across the country or you live in the midwest, Door County is less than a 4 hour drive from Chicago and 3 hours from the Wisconsin Dells. It's well worth at least a few days stay and we could easily have spent an entire week exploring and relaxing here!
These are some of our favorite things that we did during our 3-day stay.
Go for a scenic drive
Although this is the simplest activity we did while in Door County, it was one of the best parts! Every road was beautiful as they passed through forests and fields. The beautiful big barns are kept in pristine condition and we found ourselves pulling over frequently so we could stop and take photos of our favorites.
Some of our favorite towns that we bounced between were Bailey's Harbor, Sister Bay, and Fish Creek.
We can only imagine how pretty this area must be during the spring when the cherry trees are in blossom or in the fall when the leaves change colors. We were there in the summer when the fields were still green and the blue sky was filled with fluffy white clouds all day long.
Look for lighthouses
There are eleven lighthouses in Door County. With over 300 miles of rocky shoreline, these historic lighthouses are an important part of the history of the area and each one is beautiful and different.
If you only have time for one lighthouse, the Cana Island Lighthouse is possibly the most popular and most photographed one in the region. It's on a little island that you can sometimes wade across to, but other years you need to be driven over in a tractor pulling a flatbed trailer because the water has a tendency to wash out the rocky causeway.
Our kids loved seeing the tractor chug along through the water to come pick us up. And even though the ride across the causeway was short, it was definitely a novel way of getting from one point to another to drive through the lake!
The Cana Island Lighthouse was built in 1869 and wasn't automated until 1944. We weren't allowed to climb the spiral staircase inside the lighthouse during our visit because of social distancing restrictions, but it has 97 stairs and apparently you can get great views of Lake Michigan from the top when it's open.
There is a little museum and gift shop on the island, and you have to pay a small fee once you get there. The lighthouse itself is beautiful, but what we really found fascinating was exploring the rooms in the attached house where the lighthouse keeper and his family would live.
Be sure to walk past the lighthouse to the edge of the water. It was calm and clear on the day that we were there, but it was interesting to imagine what it must be like here during storms.
Some of the other more popular choices of lighthouses to visit in the area include Sturgeon Bay Canal North Point Pierhead Lighthouse (a beautiful red structure that was on our list but we just ran out of time to get to) and the Bailey's Harbor Range Lights.
While some of the nearly dozen lighthouses are accessible by land, you might want to consider a lighthouse and shipwreck boat tour so you can see more of them. It's one of the reasons we would love to go back for an extended visit!
Where and what to eat in Wisconsin
Wisconsin is home to so much delicious food! One of our favorite things about travel is trying new foods and making sure to experience local specialties!
Fresh or Fried Cheese Curds
Of course, cheese is a big one in Wisconsin. The state is famous for their cheese curds, which are fresh little bites of squeaky cheddar cheese. I loved the fresh ones that squeak between your teeth when you chew them, but my whole family loved the fried cheese curds best.
Door County Cherry Pie
My favorite thing in Door County though is their famous cherry pie! At one point, Door County produced something like 95% of the country's cherries. Their tart cherries are bright red and perfect for pie, which you can get by the slice at a lot of places around the peninsula.
Blue Moon Ice Cream
This electric blue ice cream is a favorite for kids who grow up in this part of the country apparently. Of course our 6-year old wanted to try it, so I took a taste but for the life of me can't put a finger on what it tasted like. Sort of like a mix of almond and citrus, perhaps? Although from my research it sounds like it's a little different everywhere you go and there is no one set flavor. In some cases, it may even just be plain vanilla ice cream dyed blue.
It is a travesty that I don't have a photo of the cherry kringle we picked up at Lautenbach's Family Vineyard. It's a cherry filled breakfast pastry that is shaped like an oval tire and it's absolutely delicious! Racine, Wisconsin is famous for it's kringles, which you can actually order online if you want to try one yourself but can't make the trip anytime soon!
If you are following my American Eats series where I visit the famous foods of each state, you will definitely be seeing this one recreated in my own kitchen as it was Paul's favorite thing of the whole trip. If you stop at Lautenbach's for a cherry kringle, I recommend picking up the cherry donuts as well because they were super delicious!
Wilson's for ice cream
This was one of our first stops the night we arrived in Door County. The historic building with it's signature red and white striped awning has stunning views of the lake if you can sit outside on the patio to enjoy your ice cream. Wilson's is a restaurant and you can get dinner here too, which we did. The food was pretty standard - burgers, fish sandwiches, salads - but the ice cream and cherry pie was excellent!
Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant
Be sure to hit up this iconic restaurant for Swedish pancakes or Swedish meatballs! The Danes and Swedes settled large parts of Wisconsin and it has had a big influence on the food and culture of the region. A big part of my ancestry is Danish and Swedish (my grandparents were Johnsons too, actually), so obviously we had to stop at Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant and Butik for breakfast one morning!
It's famous for more than just it's delicious pancakes served with lingonberry jam . A highlight is seeing the goats grazing on the grass roof of the building. It's quite an unusual site and so fun to see!
Go to a fish boil
This was another experience my friend Melissa recommended. Think of a fish boil as a Scandanavian take on a chuck wagon dinner or a Hawaiian luau. Everybody gathers around a large kettle filled with boiling water set over a fire. Potatoes, onions, and salt are added and cooked first, followed by corn on the cob, and finally a big basket of fresh white fish caught from the lake that morning.
Then once the fish has cooked and everything in the pot is done, they do what's called a "boil over" where they pour fuel over the fire underneath the kettle to cause the liquid to spill over the top of the pot. That top layer of liquid is loaded with grease that has cooked off the fish, and the reason for boiling it over is then you can remove the baskets of fish, potatoes, and corn without pulling them through all that grease since it has literally boiled over!
It's quite something to see and you can feel the heat wave from the fire as it surges 10 feet high or more! Oohs and ahhs and applause obviously ensue and there is relieved laughter as everyone goes to find a seat at their table.
The food was actually really quite good - it comes with some brown bread and applesauce as well, along with a slice of cherry pie (of course) for dessert.
There are multiple fish boils in the area that happen on different nights of the week, and most places do a few different boil overs each night. You will want to make a reservation ahead of time because they have limited seating.
Test your skill at cherry pit spitting
Cherries are a pretty big deal in Door County. If you are there at the right time of year, I would definitely recommend going cherry picking at a U-pick cherry farm. We were there just a little bit too early, but still enjoyed stopping by Lautenbach's Orchard Winery & Market.
Every year there is a cherry pit spitting contest is held at Lautenbach's. But you can test your skill any time by picking up some free cherries from the market to give it a try. It was fun and hilarious teaching the girls how to spit their pits!
Stroll around the towns
If you love window shopping and quaint historic downtowns, then Door County is definitely the place for you. Each of the towns we stopped at had yummy ice cream and candy shops, plenty of kitschy souvenir shops, and great home decor type shops to look through. Not to mention loads of fantastic restaurants to eat at when you get hungry.
Watch the sun set over Lake Michigan
If you are on the bay side of the peninsula, be sure to stop and spend some time enjoying the sun as it goes down. The colors of the sunset over the lake are just magical.
Visit a state or county park
We spent an afternoon hiking around Cave Point County Park, followed by swimming in Lake Michigan at the neighboring Whitefish Dunes State Park.
If you have a kayak, you can see limestone caves from the water at Cave Point County Park. Or sign up for a kayaking tour to get the equipment you need and go with a guide. But from the land there is an easy hiking trail along the cliffs.
We actually saw quite a few people cliff jumping, but there are no lifeguards on duty and it wasn't something that we were interested in with the kids.
The beach at Whitefish Dunes State Park was absolutely wonderful. We were surprised at just how warm the water was! Unfortunately, we didn't come prepared for such nice temperatures and had left swimsuits at the hotel thinking the water would be too cold.
So after wading further and further, our girls ended up swimming in their clothes! Thank goodness for warm July afternoons!
The water was beautiful, clear, and warm. And it was surprisingly shallow for quite a ways out. We easily could have spent the whole day just playing here. I highly recommend packing a picnic lunch and beach towels.
We hiked out wet, sandy, and happy at the end of the day. It was the perfect finish to our last night in Door County.
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