The Ultimate Guide to Door County's Charming Towns and Islands
A full moon hangs overhead as I drive toward the northern tip of Door County. I've come to spot stars—the real kind . One of only 195 places in the world designated an International Dark Sky Park, Newport State Park is one of the Midwest's prime destinations for catching constellations, shooting stars and other astronomical wonders. They're not kidding about the darkness.
Even with my car's headlights on, I have to strain my eyes to see the road. Once I arrive, I quickly park and kill the engine. The moon, shining like a stadium light over Lake Michigan, has technically sullied the view. But to my city-dweller eyes, the sky is still inky and clear. I walk a path to the lake and can tell the location of other people only by their voices.
Waves lap at an invisible shoreline as I approach the water; everything feels vast and boundaryless in the dark. I'm suddenly minuscule, sandwiched between the lake before me and the blinking stars above. This version of Door County is a world away from the one I entered earlier in the day, with bumper-to-bumper traffic stretching from Egg Harbor to Sister Bay, the peninsula's tourism epicenter. If you vacationed here as a kid, you probably remember Sister Bay because of Al Johnson's—the Swedish breakfast-lunch spot with goats grazing on a grass roof. In the last few years, the log-cabin restaurant has expanded its empire across an entire block facing the bay. A sprawling beer garden offers lawn games and bar food, and a polished gift shop sells Marimekko wares and hygge home decor alongside branded Al Johnson's hoodies. Visitors who haven't traveled to Door County since the early aughts might not recognize it today. You can still find the lace doilies and cherry pie, but you'll also discover businesses that cater to a new generation of vacationers— you're never too far from a hoppy IPA on tap, vegetable forward small plates or a stylish Airbnb.
Once-sleepy towns like Egg Harbor and Baileys Harbor buzz with cafes and breweries. Ephraim, a famously dry village until 2016, is now home to bars and restaurants serving natural wine and craft beer. You can escape into a remote oasis at rentals like the quirky Binkhaven property in Ephraim—a vintage Nordic cottage surrounded by 13 acres of hardwood forest. The northern outposts of Ellison Bay and Gills Rock remain blissfully quiet. But the beauty of Door County is that you don't have to choose between the charm of yore and the chic attractions of today, or between bustle and serenity. The taprooms and fine dining coexist with the sunsets, lakefront trails, clear night skies and moments that transcend time.
So pick your flavor: A farm-to-table feast on the patio of a restored farmhouse while you sip a handcrafted cocktail? Or stargazing with the crickets in the obscurity of Newport State Park? For me, that's easy—I'll take both.
Village by Village
Flanked by Lake Michigan on the east and Green Bay to the west, Door County stretches for 70 miles. Here's your guide to the towns along the peninsula's principal arteries—Highways 42 and 57.
The Vibe: The region's gateway has a more industrial feel—but also charming, old-timey storefronts.
Eat + Drink: Grab a cherry scone at 5&J Coffee House or a lavender latte at Lawlss Coffee and peruse the nearby art gallery. Bluefront Cafe serves the best lunch in town, with indulgent vegetarian options like the Portobello Reuben and the Brie sandwich with cherry jam.
Do: On Saturday mornings, the Farm and Craft Market pops up in Market Square with produce, baked goods and handmade items. Grab a pint at downtown's Starboard Brewing Company, Door County's first nanobrewery.
The Vibe: No longer just the town you pass on your way north, Egg Harbor buzzes with shops and dining.
Eat + Drink: One Barrel Brewing from Madison opened a taproom here with a massive beer garden and cozy firepits. Soak up your brew with a wood-fired pizza from Pizza Bros next door—pick from a menu of classic pies or build your own. Take your taste buds to NoLa at Big Easy Bagel and Beignet, serving sugardusted beignets. Or dine on traditional Spanish tapas like Patatas Bravas and garlic shrimp at Parador for dinner.
Do: Pick up a bottle of whiskey at Hatch Distilling Company or browse shops selling fine cheese, olive oil and gifts. On Friday mornings, shop the Farmers Market at Harbor View Park, a great place to later watch the sunset.
The Vibe: You're getting into the thick of things now, with scenic Peninsula State Park and a downtown full of bars, restaurants and boutiques.
Stay: The newly renovated motel rooms at Cedar Court Inn offer unbeatable proximity to downtown at a modest rate, or reserve one of their roomier suites or cottages for extra amenities like a fireplace or kitchen.
Eat: Highlights include Barringer's for a white-tablecloth dinner (don't skip the decadent layered carrot cake) or pizza at the original Wild Tomato location. In the morning, head to Fika Bakery and Coffeehouse for the drool-worthy case of pecan sticky buns and gooey cinnamon rolls. Order a custard sundae at Not Licked Yet Frozen Custard, where a secret sanctuary behind the parking lot offers excellent views of the herons and ducks in Fish Creek.
Do: Sprawling Peninsula State Park is one of the area's most popular destinations. Anticipate a crowd on the weekends—and for good reason. Attractions include a lighthouse, bike trails, a sand beach, an outdoor theater, an 18-hole golf course, kayak rentals.
The Vibe: A tiny bayside town of 345 residents delivers big with sublime sunsets and fine food.
Stay: Take your pick of many traditional B&B's, or book Binkhaven, a cabin that sleeps up to seven and is memorably adorned with Norwegian rosemaling—a floral, folkloric painting technique.
Eat + Drink: Put your name in for a table at Trixie's for natural wines and small plates like flaming saganaki cheese and chicken liver mousse. While you wait, sip a craft brew at nearby Bad Moravian. Or keep it classic and order carryout from longtime favorite Wilson's Restaurant and Ice Cream to eat at a picnic table across the street, overlooking the sparkling bay.
Do: On summer Mondays, the Evenings in Ephraim Concert Series features local musicians. BYO blanket or lawn chair and stick around to see colors paint the sky.
The Vibe: Little village, lots to do. The busiest strip in the peninsula draws families, couples and revelers with its quaint waterfront (and cute goats).
Stay: Make your home base in one of the minimalist-posh guest rooms at The DÖrr Hotel downtown. Nosh on a grab-and-go breakfast on your private patio, then pick up beach chairs and a cooler from the gear room before heading across the street for sunbathing and swimming in the bay.
Eat + Drink: Watch the goats munching on the grass roof at Al Johnson's before chowing down on Swedish pancakes with lingonberries. Build your own charcuterie board at the peninsula's newest wine destination, Twelve Eleven Wine Bar, where the back patio opens up into a bucolic wooded prairie. When you're ready for dinner, choose among steak, seafood, pizza, Mexican, bar grub and more—you've got many options.
Do: Play a game or two at Sister Bay Bowl, but brush up on the basics before you arrive; bowlers keep score by hand at this old-school alley. You'll feel like it's Christmas in July at Tannenbaum Holiday Shop while browsing ornaments on trees organized by theme (including zoo animals, sweets and snowmen).
The Vibe: Removed from crowds, this quietly cool village warrants the drive nearly to the end of the peninsula.
Eat + Drink: Pop into Island Orchard Cider for ferments made from local apples and pears. If you only splurge on one upscale dinner, do it at Wickman House. Seasonal dishes like Sunchoke Farroto, Blackened Carrots with tomato jam and spicy Fishmonger Stew will linger in your memory longer than they do on your plate.
Do: Get into the fresh air at Ellison Bay Bluff County Park, where a walkway leads to a scenic overlook and limestone bluffs. On a rainy day, browse the dense shelves at William Caxton Ltd. Books, complete with that irresistible old-book smell.
The Vibe: The tourism bug hasn't yet bitten this tiny commercial fishing hub.
Eat: Charlie's Smokehouse, a 90-year-old family fish business, sells some of the best smoked fish in Door County. Get there early before they sell out of popular options like Atlantic salmon and whitefish.
Do: Embark on a Shoreline Scenic Cruises and Charter boat ride that departs from Gills Rock. Themed excursions include a lighthouse tour or a shipwreck sail.
The Vibe: The place to be on the peninsula's east side swaps sunsets over Green Bay for sunrises over Lake Michigan.
Eat + Drink: Door County Brewing Company has an outdoor stage for live music and serves year-round favorites like Pallet Jack Cruiser and Vacationland. Book a table for the New England-style lobster boil at Harbor Fish Market and Grille, or enjoy Neapolitan pizza at Clover and Zot with yard games overlooking the lake.
Do: Drive south for a beach day and a hike at Whitefish Dunes State Park. On your way in, stop at Cave Point County Park to admire the limestone cliffs—a geological masterpiece created from erosion over the last 400 million years.
Discover Door County beyond the mainland.
Take a car ferry from the tip of the peninsula to visit Schoolhouse Beach, Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm and Stavkirke—an ornate church modeled after an ancient one in Norway built in 1150.
From Washington Island, catch another ferry to Rock Island, a remote state park with no cars and no bikes, but plenty of hiking, swimming and rustic campsites.
Outside of Baileys Harbor, take a wagon ride on the back of a tractor across the shallow Lake Michigan causeway. Visit a lighthouse and the new interpretative center, part of the Door County Maritime Museum.