Cars are parked in a grass lot as the sun lowers over fields of green. A short distance away, crowds gather among the twinkle lights outside the century-old barn-turned-rustic-concert hall, home stage to the Birch Creek Music Performance Center. Inside, as the lights dim, the audience members come to a hush, their faces aglow from the stage lights. And what follows is a soul-stirring panoply of percussion instruments, wherein world-renowned musicians wield the power of humor, sorrow, love and unbridled joy through music. Together, the crowd rides the wave of laughter to astonishment, exhilarated by the music. A young boy in the front row comes unhinged at the grand finale, wildly and triumphantly flailing his “air mallets” in unison with the pro drummers onstage, compounding the elation and beauty of the experience for the audience behind him. Cacophonous applause ensues like a downpour on a tin roof.
This is the beating heart of Door County, Wisconsin — high art in the middle of nature is the magic that draws nationally acclaimed musicians, actors and artists to escape into the world of their art and nature. Surrounded by Lake Michigan on three sides, the peninsula, also known as Wisconsin’s “thumb,” attracts hikers, bikers, kayakers, boaters, fishermen, golfers, sightseers and campers with its 300 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, 53 public beaches, 34 outlying islands, 11 lighthouses, five state parks and many intriguing historical sites, rich in maritime history. Quaint hamlets are sprinkled throughout the breathtaking landscape, each with their own unique shops, historic inns and local eateries — many of which feature the popular outdoor fish boils and menu items with Door County’s signature tart cherries that earned it the nickname “Cherryland, USA.”
Step into a local joint in Door County, and regulars interact like family. The locals exude a genuine friendliness and a level of hospitality that can only be described as small-town Southern charm. And that is what Door County feels like: a collection of charming lakeside inlets that are just like old-school small towns of the South — take away the brutal Southern heat, add a heaping helping of fine arts and culture nestled among the grandeur of nature, and you’ve got Door County. Plus, there’s the bonus of breathtaking autumn seasons with the colorful leaves spread across the mountains, and quiet snowy winters with cross-country skiing, holiday festivals and polar plunges. Spring teems with life as cherry blossoms, apple blossoms, wildflowers and more than 2.2 million daffodil and tulip blossoms bloom throughout the county. Let’s explore all there is to do in this beautiful northern vacation town!
What to Do in Door County, Wisconsin
Culinary Adventures in Cherryland, USA
Upon waking in Door County, find yourself a piping hot cup of Door County Coffee & Tea’s top-of-the line products. This family-owned, artisan coffee roaster’s high-quality beans will have you hooked. For those looking for a home-run culinary experience, don’t miss Barringer’s, Chives or the Wickman House — they each embrace Door County food traditions while utilizing a farm-to-table approach and elevated epicurean techniques. Now, let’s focus on some of the other iconic and off-the-beaten-path epicurean experiences in Door County.
Authentic Fish Boil at Rowleys Bay Resort
Grab a specialty cocktail from Rowleys Pub inside this historic resort in Rowleys Bay, then head outside to gather around the large boiling kettle as storyteller “Peter Rowley” regales the crowd with tall tales and historical lore. Potatoes and onions are boiled along with freshly caught Lake Michigan whitefish in the flaming campfire. The feast is enjoyed inside, along with a 14-foot buffet of soup, salad, other entree options and, of course, cherry pie.
Lautenbach’s is a second-generation winery and market, boasting 100 acres of vineyards and orchards. The winery’s wines are made from a variety of estate-grown fruits, chiefly cherries, and are named after founder Bob Lautenbach’s grandchildren. The market boasts an impressive array of goods, including their popular dried cherries, cherry salsa, cherry juice, cherry pie and almost anything cherry. But all visitors love to try their hand at the Cherry Pit Spit, where the person to spit their cherry pit the farthest wins bragging rights.
You cannot miss this iconic eatery with goats grazing atop its sod roof and friendly waitresses clad in traditional Scandinavian dresses. Founded 58 years ago, this longtime favorite of the locals dishes up their super-popular Swedish pancakes and Swedish meatballs, as well as Pytt I Panna, Swedish roast beef hash served with housemade pickled beets and topped with an over-medium egg. One regular claims that the restaurant’s homemade pickled herring is what keeps him healthy as a horse. Other than the authentic and delicious eats, Manager Kit Butz says that the super family-friendly atmosphere is one of his favorite things about Al’s. “There are a lot of little touches we provide that make it easy to bring children here,” he says.
Since 1906, this Door County landmark exudes nostalgic feelings, even for younger generations, with its old-fashioned soda fountain and ice cream parlor vibe. Bright colors, vintage art and jukeboxes round out the decor. The house-brewed root beer served in a frosty mug is a must-have, second only to a root beer float or a root beer frosty (a blended root beer float). Enjoy it with a flame-broiled burger and fries. Old schoolers will love ordering a phosphate, and the younguns will be delighted by the Wilson’s tradition of a jelly bean in the bottom of ice cream cones, which was started to stop the ice cream from dripping. “Many of our customers have been coming to Wilson’s for decades and continue this tradition with each succeeding generation,” says Manager Sarah Martin. “It’s truly an honor to be a part of families’ annual traditions and vacation memories.”
Just around the corner from Wilson’s is a hidden gem: Trixie’s. Named after the owner and her grandmother’s shared nickname, this thoroughly modern eatery is pristine in white with touches of pink and gold. The menu focuses on ingredients and wines that are sustainably sourced, with a little extra love and attention given to women-owned vineyards. With its intimate size and personalized service, Trixie’s unforgettable dishes draw inspiration from a variety of cultures. Try the housemade burrata appetizer with confit tomatoes and gremolata vinaigrette; or the whitefish ceviche with roasted peppers, scallion-cilantro vinaigrette, fresh lime, pickled jalapeños and tortilla chips to share. But don’t miss the miso ramen, a house specialty with fried tofu, fermented scallions, quick pickles, soy marinated egg, pickled lobster mushrooms and shichimi. Trixie’s artfully marries a beautiful, laid-back atmosphere with a thoughtfully curated, responsibly sourced and utterly divine menu.
“The idea of our restaurant came about while visiting friends in the Florida Keys. Every night, it seemed like we ended up at a tiki bar watching the sunset,” says Co-owner Greg Sunstrom, a.k.a. “Fuzzy,” so-named for his full, frizzy head of hair. The concept was simple: casual dining with a great view. The setting sun is best enjoyed with Fred & Fuzzy’s original Door County cherry margarita and the housemade smoked fish pate.
Arts & Culture
Besides the aforementioned Birch Creek Performance Center, which has hosted nearly 7,000 music students in its 42 years of music education, the arts are alive and well throughout Door County with about 80 art galleries and a nationally recognized plein air festival. The Door County Auditorium attracts big-name musicians, each town on the peninsula has a live music series in the summer, and many bars hire musicians all year. Beginner visual artists can get their hands dirty in drop-in classes at the Hands On Art Studio, and more experienced artists can take classes at the Peninsula School of Art. Broadway actors, directors and theater technicians escape the hustle and bustle of city life to immerse themselves in nature and practice their craft. Isadoora and Rogue are both community theaters with performances year-round, while Door Shakespeare and Northern Sky are favorites among the beloved seasonal theaters. It is indeed a haven for artists of all talents and skill levels. Here are some of the world-class theater, art and music offerings to enjoy after a long day of exploring nature.
With its twinkling string lights, beer garden, waterside sunsets and meandering paths flanked by creative landscaping touches, this theater-in-a-garden could be the setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Returning loyal season ticket holders bring a pre-show picnic to enjoy at the water’s edge as the sun goes down, and everyone enjoys the intermission bonfire as dusk falls. The all-weather theater pavilion with overhead roof ensures that the Broadway-quality performances “play on” — rain or shine. “It’s the theater’s distinctive side walls, when open on warm nights, that enhance the evening’s romantic garden-like atmosphere,” says Audra Baakari Boyle, the theater company’s business manager. “The serene setting inspires many artists, including our company, who relish the escape and the creative rejuvenation.”
Located in the more metropolitan-meets-industrial Sturgeon Bay, the Steel Bridge Creative District includes the award-winning art of renowned artists Margaret Lockwood at her gallery, as well as the centuries-old glass-blowing techniques of a master glassblower at the Popelka Trenchard Glass Fine Art Gallery & Studio down the street. Or catch a play at the intimate 84-seat studio theater of acclaimed Third Avenue Playhouse, Door County’s only year-round professional theater company. Across the street from the Margaret Lockwood Gallery is the musician-owned Holiday Motel, a local venue that hosts the Steel Bridge Songfest in June, Dark Songs in October and Love on Holiday in February — week-long collaborative songwriting workshops featuring songwriters from across the nation and culminating in live music performances.
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Attracting students from all over the world, the Sievers School of Fiber Arts on Washington Island, north of the peninsula, has offered classes and workshops for adults in weaving, knitting, spinning, dyeing, quilting, basketry, paper and book arts, beadwork, wearables, surface design, woodcarving and more since 1979. “It’s my first time on the island, and I feel a sense of peacefulness, simplicity and community,” says one student. “We came for an experience and left with a passion.” Another returning student adds, “Each time I come, I learn more about the artistic elements — and more about myself.”
Founded in 1851, Door County is named after Death’s Door, the water passage at the tip of the peninsula where the waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay converge and the site of many mysterious shipwrecks (although none in recent years, thankfully). The Door County Maritime Museum chronicles the peninsula’s rich maritime history and its tales of innovative shipbuilding, a storied fishing industry, lighthouse keepers and the 11 historic lighthouses that dot the county. Perhaps the most enjoyable is the tour of the John Purves tugboat, a pristine restoration of a once-working Great Lakes tugboat, complete with the crew’s living quarters, kitchen, captain’s deck and more. If you’re lucky, you might even get the tour from none other than John Purves’ son!
Situated on an island, this 140-year-old lighthouse gives a fascinating glimpse into the Old World profession of being a lighthouse keeper. It’s a mere 102-steps up a cast-iron spiral staircase to the watchroom, a journey that the lighthouse keeper would have to make carrying heated lard to fuel the Fresnel’s light. The view from the gallery deck is simply breathtaking, and the lighthouse keeper’s family quarters below stir the imagination to consider this unique lifestyle from a faded time. The surrounding grounds are just as beautiful to explore.
A 30-minute ferry ride from the peninsula takes you to Washington Island. This 35-square-mile island — population: 710, stop lights: 0 — is refreshingly quaint, harkening to a simpler time. The “islander wave,” you will soon learn, is the friendly, universal greeting of passersby across the island. After its founding in 1850, the town’s first official act was to establish a log schoolhouse in Washington Harbor, the current site of Schoolhouse Beach, one of the five beaches worldwide with perfectly smooth stones. If you’re looking for a well-rounded tour, take the Cherry Train Tours of the island. Here are some highlights of Washington Island.
French-born Martine Anderson had a lifelong dream of having her own lavender farm, just like the ones she grew up around in the South of France. So, after retiring to Washington Island for its “beauty and serenity,” she promptly came out of retirement to start her lavender farm. A shop and bistro soon followed, with the shop featuring its best-selling beauty products — lavender healing balm and vitamin C face creme. The lavender macarons and lavender-vanilla ice cream tie for favorites in the bistro. “During harvest season, our farm staff usually needs to take a nap due to the lavender’s intoxicating aroma,” says Martine. “It just puts them to sleep.”
Located in a clearing found down a winding path, the architecture and craftsmanship of this structure is utterly jaw-dropping. Although it appears to be ancient, the construction of Washington Island’s Stavkirke, an authentic reproduction of a Norwegian church built in 1150 A.D., began in 1991 as a nod to the island’s Scandinavian heritage. The ancient style of church construction was common in Norway during medieval times, made characteristic by its vertical poles and Viking shipbuilding techniques and carving and adornments featuring both pagan and Christian symbols.
This charming, old-school eatery was born of a successful fish processing joint for sport fisherman, but as that business died down, the fish processor, Kenny Koyen, turned his focus toward the restaurant, becoming famous for his “lawyer” fish. Originally called Burbot, these fish got their nickname from the local fishing community “due to the location of their guilty heart, which is in its ass,” explains owner Hans Koyen, adding simply, “True fact — that’s just the anatomy of the fish.” These tasty lawyers are overshadowed only by the community’s beloved fish boil at K.K. Fiske. “Not only does Kenny catch, clean and cook the fish himself, but he’s been doing it for 45 years. He actually invented a perforated steel plate system to hold boneless, skinless fish together in fillets and prevent it from boiling apart,” says Hans. And don’t miss the attached Granary Saloon, an old granary moved from a small farming community and converted to an uber-cool bar.
Danish immigrant Tom Nelsen built his saloon in 1899, and when Prohibition hit in 1920, Mr. Nelsen outsmarted the system. He went to school and earned his pharmacist license to dispense bitters as a “stomach tonic for medicinal purposes.” Since Angostura Bitters is 90 proof, one can only assume that it soothed more than achy tummies. Because of his ingenuity, Nelsen’s Hall is the oldest continuously operating bar in Wisconsin. Today, you can take a shot of Angostura Bitters and be inducted into the Nelsen’s Hall Bitter’s Club, an honor that entitles you to the status of “full-fledged Islander and entitled to mingle, dance, etc. with all the other Islanders.”
A 10-minute ferry from the other end of Washington Island takes you even farther into Lake Michigan and off the grid to Rock Island State Park, a beloved island for camping, where you are greeted by the stately, almost castle-like “boat house” built by Hjörtur Thordarson, who invented the world’s first million-volt transformer, thus cementing his wealth. It’s also home to the historic Pottawatomie Lighthouse, which is immaculately restored on beautiful grounds. Lucky volunteers from across the country vie for the opportunity to stay in the lighthouse in return for conducting daytime tours for the public. This primitive island with its stunning historical buildings makes you feel like you’re standing on the edge of the earth.
Whether you want to escape the Southern humidity, experience the fresh beauty of the changing leaves as they rustle through the Lake Michigan breeze or immerse yourself in the quietude and beauty of a Great Lakes winter, Door County has something for everyone all year round!
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