This Coastal Destination Is Called the 'Cape Cod of the Midwest' — With Charming Small Towns and Beautiful Views

Wisconsin's Door County might just be the best-kept secret in the Midwest.

Fish Creek Harbor in Door County, Wisconsin
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Michigan may be most famous for the mitten-like shape of its Lower Peninsula, but Wisconsin's "thumb" deserves equal attention from travelers. Door County occupies a craggy peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan, boasting 300 miles of coastline, countless charming villages, an abundance of outdoor activities, and a flourishing food and beverage scene. But despite all these attractions, this little idyllic slice has remained largely under the radar for visitors from outside the region.

Just a four-hour drive from Chicago and under a three-hour drive from Milwaukee, Door County is poised to become a hallowed vacation destination, earning its longtime nickname of "Cape Cod of the Midwest."

Egg Harbor

Sailboat on Egg Harbor, Wisconsin
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Part of the area's charm is that each hamlet offers a distinct personality, providing numerous bases from which to explore the county. Egg Harbor is an artsy haven, with spaces like the Cappaert Contemporary Gallery and Plum Bottom Gallery stealing the show. The MacReady Artisan Bread Company shines as a culinary delight and is the best lunch spot in Door County. Madison-based One Barrel Brewing Company also has an Egg Harbor Taproom; be sure to stop in for a cherry lager, as cherries are a well-known Door County crop. For those who want a closer look at the beverage bounty here, the Door County Trolley holds a wine, spirits, and brew tour.

Fish Creek

Aerial view of marina in Fish Creek, Wisconsin
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Another mid-peninsula gem is Fish Creek, the shopping hub of Door County. Stop by Sister Golden, owned by a mother-daughter duo and known for its vintage rugs and cool foliage prints. There are many cute rentals in the area, too, but White Gull Inn and Thorpe House Inn & Cottages stand out. During your stay at the White Gulf Inn, don't miss a traditional fish boil — a Door County culinary rite of passage. For fine dining, consider visiting Gusto at the Whistling Swan, followed by a sweet treat at Sara's Artisan Gelato.

Ephraim

Harbor at Ephraim, Wisconsin
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Founded by the Norwegian Moravians in 1853, the pristine bleached buildings of Ephraim make for another pretty coastal stop. The dockside Hardy Gallery, often stocked with works from local artists, is a symbol of the town; residents and visitors alike have been signing the outside of its red warehouse for generations. Satisfy your sweet tooth with a stop at Wilson's, an ice cream shop and Door County stalwart that has been around for more than a century. Imbibe at the Pearl Wine Cottage, which offers an extensive wine list and inventive charcuterie pairings. As for lodging, The Water Street Inn and Hillside Waterfront Hotel are homey options close to all the action.

Sister Bay

Scenic Autumn harbor at Sister Bay, Wisconsin
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Northern Door County's Sister Bay boasts arguably the best waterfront in the county, with outdoor concerts and events right on the harbor shore. It's also home to the delectable Door County Creamery, with goat cheese and gelato at its brick-and-mortar shop. Speaking of goats, no Door County visit is complete without a look at the famous goats on the roof at Al Johnson's, a long-beloved Swedish restaurant and beer garden. (There's even an online goat cam.) Enjoy locally roasted coffee at Skip Stone Coffee Roasters, old-school supper club dining and bowling alley fun at Sister Bay Bowl, and English-style high tea at Tea Thyme. The Scandinavian-inspired Dörr hotel makes for upscale overnight accommodations right in the heart of Sister Bay, and it's walkable to most points of interest.

Ellison Bay

Ellison Bluff County Park, Wisconsin
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Further up the peninsula, on the Green Bay side, rests the small town of Ellison Bay. It's best known for the sustainable agriculture approach to fine dining at the Wickman House. Another cool stop is Island Orchard Cider, which excels at Normandy-style ciders crafted from locally grown ingredients; sample a cider flight to find your favorite. The Clearing Folk School, founded by the famous landscape architect Jens Jensen in 1935, also calls Ellison Bay home. Docent-led walks are available to view the property on the weekends, and educational programs are offered throughout the year to writers, artists, and creators.

Washington Island

Flowering lavender fields on Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin
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Only accessible by car or passenger ferry, Washington Island is another delightful Door County destination. It stands out for Schoolhouse Beach, a pristine turquoise cove with a shore comprised of smooth limestone rocks — one of only a handful of beaches like it in the world. Be sure to carve out some time for Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm & Shop, which boasts hundreds of products made with lavender grown on site (and the best croissants in the state). A great lunch option is Jackson Harbor Soup, a rustic yet pleasing soup and sandwich operation.

Baileys Harbor

Bailey's Harbor Shoreline, Door County, Wisconsin
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The lake or eastern part of the peninsula is known as the quieter section, since much of the population is focused on the Green Bay-facing portion of Door County. Baileys Harbor is a must-visit village on the Lake Michigan side. Grab a beverage at the kitschy Blue Ox. Stretch your legs at the nearby Ridges Sanctuary, the first land trust in Wisconsin. The Ridges is a year-round option with a nature center, boardwalk, and miles of hiking trails through the boreal forest. Architecture buffs will appreciate the 12th-century stylings of the Norwegian stave church, the Boynton Chapel, at Lawrence University's Door County campus.

Each of these main villages is connected by the Door County Coastal Byway, a newly designated National Scenic Byway. Meanwhile, road trippers will love the winding beauty of this picturesque drive all year long, though fall's changing leaves make it especially attractive for an autumnal getaway.

Sturgeon Bay

Sturgeon Bay Lighthouse, Door County, Wisconsin
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While the mid to upper peninsula towns are lovely, the prominent gateway to Door County, Sturgeon Bay, shouldn't be overlooked as a destination. The industrial, shipbuilding hub of the area has plenty to offer visitors. Its Maritime Museum features a colossal lighthouse with an observation deck right on the waterfront and 10 floors of interactive exhibits. Local shops like Bliss, Novel Bay Booksellers, and Door County Candy help make downtown an excellent spot for souvenirs. Additionally, bass fishing reigns supreme in Sturgeon Bay, with the city earning a national reputation from anglers. In terms of lodging, numerous condos and hotels are available. However, charming properties like The Scofield House, The Foxglove Inn, Chanticleer Guest House, and the Inn at Cedar Crossing offer some warm hospitality.

Outdoor Activities in Door County

Cave Point, Lake Michigan Coastline, Door County, Wisconsin
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Beyond the culinary and shopping delights of Door County, it excels as a nature lover's paradise. Public lands help preserve the area's beauty, with five state and 19 county parks welcoming visitors year-round. Standouts include the nearly 4,000-acre Peninsula State Park near Fish Creek, known as Wisconsin's most complete state park for its wide variety of offerings. Don't miss the view from the ADA-accessible Eagle Tower hundreds of feet up on Eagle Bluff.

The wilds of Newport State Park — the state's first International Dark Sky Park — allow for prime stargazing opportunities. Another exciting spot, especially for kayaking, is Cave Point County Park. This well-loved location features dramatic, water-worn limestone ledges. For the highest sand dune in Wisconsin, the "Old Baldy," look no further than Whitefish Dunes State Park. Potawatomi State Park is a hiker's paradise, serving as the eastern terminus of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. For those seeking a less crowded option, consider one of the least-visited state parks in Wisconsin, Rock Island State Park, which features an iconic Scandinavian-style boathouse. This park can only be reached via passenger ferry from Washington Island in the summertime.

Beyond the parks, Door County beckons visitors with hundreds of miles of shoreline, where paddling, swimming, fishing, and boating are area pastimes. There are even 11 lighthouses in the county, a nod to the region's maritime history.

It's clear that the "Cape Cod of the Midwest" makes for a beautiful getaway, complete with coastal clapboard villages, preserved natural areas, farm-fresh food, and locally crafted beverages.

Can't get enough of the magical Midwest? Check out our favorite drives in the region and its best small towns.

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