Hit List: Top Things to do in Door County, Wisconsin

By: Shelley Seale

There are few places in the Midwest more delightful than Door County, in the upper peninsula of Wisconsin. With 300 miles of shoreline, you can watch a sunrise and a sunset over the water without leaving the county.

You can also stroll through acres of orchards, explore art galleries, devour cherry pie, sip on local wines and brews, splash in the lake or paddle along the bluffs, stroll through five state parks, visit 19 unique communities and tour 11 historic lighthouses. Here are my Top Picks of Things to Do in Door County!

Take a Boat Ride

You’re at the lake — so you gotta get on the lake! Board a cruise along Lake Michigan or Green Bay, and you may even be able to see some of the shipwrecks from the boat (supposedly there are some 400 shipwrecks in these waters!). You can also take the Washington Island Ferry to Washington Island from the mainland, crossing “Death’s Door” as you do so. The French bestowed that name on the treacherous waters that sent so many ships to the bottom. Other great ways to get on the water are to go sailing, rent kayaks or try your hand at stand-up paddleboarding.

Then congratulate yourself on being part of the mere 1% of visitors to Door County who ever get off the mainland! The Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay is the perfect place to learn about the history of the area lighthouses, shipbuilding, shipwrecks and more.

Canal Station N Pierhead Lighthouse & Boat
Canal Station N Pierhead Lighthouse & Boat. Photo Credit: DoorCounty.com/Door County Visitor Bureau

Take a Lighthouse Tour

There are 11 lighthouses in Door County, many of which were built in the 1800s, and a semi-annual festival celebrates their history (including tours to some that are rarely open to the public), held in the early summer and fall. The Chambers Island Lighthouse has the most interesting history, in my opinion, while the Cana Island Lighthouse is the most unique. You have to be ferried across the ankle deep water by tractor just to get to the lighthouse! Another worth visiting is the “Bird Cage” – the old Baileys Harbor Lighthouse, with 150-year-old range lights and a new boardwalk that’s been built between them.

Enjoy Tastings at Local Wineries and Craft Breweries

There are 8 vineyards and wineries in Door County, and there’s even a Wine Trail with maps, festivals and other events. My favorite is Door 44, where husband-and-wife team Steve Johnson and Maria Milano left their legal careers behind to realize their dream of winemaking. If you might be surprised, as I was, to think about wine growing that far north, Steve told me that the climate here between June and October is almost exactly what you find in Bordeaux, France. Harbor Ridge Winery is another enjoyable stop, also run by a husband and wife team.

Steve Johnson (on the bottom right of the pic above), co-owner of Door 44 with his wife Maria, says that the key to successful winemaking is just to let the grape be the grape. “If you let the grape just do what it wants to do, you’ll have a good wine.”

There are also many local brews and craft master brewers around here, so it’s easy to find tours and tastings, as well as great choices for local beers on the menus. And for something different – not wine and not beer – check out Island Orchard Cider. Here they make a variety of ciders from their own 40 acre orchard on Washington Island. My favorite was the pear….mmm, delicious!

Visit Artisan Cheesemakers

What goes with wine better than cheese? And the state is well-known for its dairy farms and cheeses, so you won’t want to miss visiting some of the world’s best cheesemakers. Wisconsin is home to every single licensed cheese master – 6- of them to be exact. At Wisconsin Cheese Masters, you can find an exclusive selection where many cheeses are not available anywhere else.

Owner Jim Pionkoski has a personal favorite: Marieke Golden, made by Marieke Penterman, whom Jim calls the best cheese maker in the U.S. and maybe even the world. Originally from the Netherlands, Marieke mainly produces gouda cheeses. The Golden is her only non-gouda, and Jim eats it every single day. “It’s the only cheese I never get tired of,” he says.

Another don’t-miss cheese stop is the Door Artisan Cheese Company, run by Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Mike Brennenstuhl, who has been making cheese all his life. This “one stop shop” includes a beautiful market, extensive underground cheese caves where the magic happens, and an amazing restaurant, Glacier Ledge. You can take tours to learn how the cheeses are made and see the caves. Mike uses only local dairy farmers, and only buys milk for the process from farms that are certified AHA, meaning they are hormone free and humane.

Check out Mike at work and telling the story of Door Artisan Cheese Company:

Stuff Yourself at Incredible Restaurants, from Casual Dining to Chef-Driven Foodie Spots

As mentioned above, the Glacier Ledge restaurant is highly recommended; I had one of my best meals of the trip there. They serve an internationally-inspired tapas style menu that’s perfect for tasting and sharing.

Wilson's root beer floatFor an opposite end of the spectrum at a long-time Door County institution, seriously DO NOT miss Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream! This adorable diner and ice cream parlor has been around since 1906, and it’s located in what I personally found the most picturesque and explorable town in Door County – Ephraim. A mini jukebox adorns every table, and the burgers are honestly to die for. But be sure to save room for one of their old-fashioned ice cream treats like shakes, floats and sundaes. And if you’re a root beer fan like me, you will love their housemade root beer. Best root beer I’ve ever had in my life!

For breakfast or a coffee fix, my  pick is Skipstone Coffee Roasters in Sister Bay, my second favorite Door County town. Their breakfast sandwiches are hearty, delicious and healthy; and they make all of their flavor syrups in house. It’s pet-friendly, and if you’re in a hurry for your next adventure they have a quick self-serve bar with a pay station.

And no restaurant round-up of the Wisconsin peninsula would be complete without talking about Al’s. Maybe you’ve heard of it or seen pics on Instagram, but Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant is the place with the goats on the roof. Every morning, the goats are led up a ramp to the sod roof of the restaurant, where they graze all day. You can even adore them from the two webcam streams that are affixed up there.

Al’s has been an icon for nearly 60 years, and it really is an authentic Swedish restaurant. Now, I have to admit I didn’t eat there, but from everything I’ve heard the food is good. I just went for the goats – oh, and I also picked up a few things in the very nice little boutique there. Check it out!

Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant Goats
Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant Goats

Experience a Traditional Wisconsin Fish Boil

OK, so technically this could go under the above “Eating out” section. But make no mistake – a fish boil is as Wisconsin as it gets, so much so that the experience definitely deserves its own category! There are numerous places that put on a fish boil, but I recommend Pelletier’s. They serve a traditional fish boil every night of the week starting at 5 pm, along with a full menu of other items as well as lunch and breakfast service.

Owner & Boil Master Matthew Peterson has been doing this for decades, learned from his father before him. The boil consists of freshly caught whitefish from Lake Michigan, cooked outside over the open fire along with corn and potatoes. The tradition comes from the Scandinavian settlers a century ago, and is very much alive and well in Door County. The drama of the “boil over” is pretty cool ( advice: don’t stand too close to the pot!).

Go Gallery Hopping

Door County is home to an impressive number of galleries and artist studios. It’s a great place to discover everything from a small, emerging artists to high-end galleries and accomplished artists who have made a name for themselves.

Some of the places I would recommend making a stop would be:

  • Blue Dolphin House, set on four-and-a-half acres of beautiful perennial gardens, in a building that dates back to 1860. Run by Peg & John Lowry, they’ve been in business for more than 50 years.
  • Deanna Clayton Studios – you’ll need to make an appointment or check her website for opening hours. Deanna is an incredibly successful glass artist, using a centuries-old technique called pate de verre. With it, she creates some astonishing sculptures, which have been purchased and commissioned by patrons including many Ritz Carlton hotels around the world.
  • Fine Line Designs Gallery & Sculpture Garden features original paintings, custom wood furnishings, glass, jewelry, ceramics and fiber art more than 90 renowned artists. Stroll the two-acre sculpture garden that showcases sculptures in bronze, stone, metal, ceramic, copper, and stainless steel. Unique, collectible artworks and original gifts are found indoors and out.

Fine Line Designs Gallery

If you want more information on the art scene, check out the Door County Visitors guide!

Pick Your Own Cherries

Door County is the cherry capital of the U.S., and you can experience cherry picking yourself at one of the County’s pick-your-own cherry orchards. Many families make it a fun tradition every cherry season. Check out the listings of places you can do this, along with many other resources, at Wisconsin Cherry Growers.

Cherry picking in Door County, Wisconsin
Cherry picking in Door County, Wisconsin