In summer, this town of 11,000 draws up to 40,000 visitors for festivals such as Port Fish Day (July 19, 2014), which boasts the world’s largest outdoor fish fry. But cooler springtime days are wide open to explore the historical downtown and Ozaukee Interurban Trail at a leisurely pace.
Lake Michigan laps against the white rocks and weathered pier. The sky is silly with gulls, crying and competing with commercial fishermen examining rows of silver salmon lining the pier, quite possibly destined for nearby Victor’s Pier Street Shanty (if the gulls don’t have their way). At the restaurant, where Port Washington Breakwater Light is visible through the windows, diners sample salmon burgers on warm ciabatta.
On the north end of downtown, the 1860 Light Station and Museum flanks the Gothic Revival-style St. Mary’s Catholic Church, sitting at the top of a staircase that has almost as many steps as the lighthouse. Similar staircases dot this town dubbed the City of Seven Hills. (Early city planners resisted regrading the pretty coastal landscape.)
For a flatter journey, the paved, 37-mile Interurban Trail follows a former electric-train line from downtown out through woodlands, over Cedar Creek and past farmland. Guidebooks in hand, birders flock to the trail each spring to spot species thriving along Lake Michigan, in the various ecosystems filling Ozaukee County.
When spring rain drives adventurers off the trail, they return to town, where the state’s largest collection of pre-Civil War buildings houses shops and restaurants. Walking-tour maps hint at stories behind dozens of the facades, but the best tales come from the proprietors themselves.
Self-guided Historic Walking Tours point visitors to bluffs, beaches, lighthouses and a marina as well as past shops. Tours reveal settlers’ heritage, many of whom hailed from Luxembourg. Fishing has always played a big role in the local economy, and visitors can join charter fishing trips in hopes of hooking trout and salmon. (800) 719-4881; visitportwashington.com Duluth Trading Company provides outdoors enthusiasts with well-made gear sporting tongue-in-cheek names. (262) 268-1305; duluthtrading.com
At lunch, nautical-themed Newport Shores serves platters of tilapia, catfish, cod, lake perch or Canadian walleye battered with beer from Sprecher Brewery. (262) 284-6838; foodspot.com/newportshores Walk at nearby North Beach; on your way there, if you have kids with you, swing by Upper Lake Park to check out Possibility Playground, designed for children of all abilities.
If the weather is blustery, head for the cozy Baltica Tea Room and Gift Shop for a cup of one of its more than 60 loose-leaf teas. (262) 268-8832; balticatearoomandgiftshop.com Dinnertime selections in Port Hotel’s restaurant include a handful of German specialties, including sauerbraten with spaetzle; stay in the richly appointed rooms of the 19th-century hotel (from $175). (262) 284-9473; theporthotel.com Furniture crafted by the owner and his son fill the five restored guest rooms of Port Washington Inn (from $159). (262) 284-5583; portwashingtoninn.com
Feast on herbed omelets at the inn, or enjoy pastries on Smith Brothers Coffee House’s patio overlooking the marina (262/268-2767). Rent a bike by the hour or day at Zu Zu Pedals (zuzupedals.com), and grab a boxed lunch at Dockside Deli. (262) 284-9440; docksidedeli.com Then set off to bike the 37-mile Ozaukee Interurban Trail, which connects nine communities, no trail pass required. (800) 403-9898; interurbantrail.us
Vines to Cellar is part tasting room, part beer- and wine-making hobbyist supply store; fruity wines include Green Apple Riesling and Blueberry Pinot Noir. (262) 536-4544; vinestocellar.com For dinner, Victor’s Pier Street Shanty serves burgers and ribs. The massive Jon Boy burger features two beef patties, a hot dog, bacon and more. (262) 268-7875