The picturesque peninsula of Door County is a top Midwestern destination. With its cute villages, rugged coastline, tasty eateries, and vibrant local beverage scene, this Wisconsin gem shines all year long, and it’s an especially beloved summer vacation spot.
But I’m here to say that, in an unexpected twist, Door County is particularly charming in the winter. I was able to experience both chill and cheer on a recent press trip to the area.
Read on to find out why the Cape Cod of the Midwest deserves your attention during its sleepiest season.
1. The Great Outdoors Beckon
There are a number of opportunities to explore the great outdoors in Door County, even during the winter season.
Consider a hike with a naturalist at The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor, the oldest nonprofit nature reserve in all of Wisconsin. There are more than 1,600 acres to explore! Winter visitors should consider a snowshoe hike or regular hike.
Whitefish Dunes is a less-than-1,000-acre parcel on the peninsula’s east side. Located near Sturgeon Bay, it is open year-round; the park contains Wisconsin’s highest sand dunes.
Peninsula State Park is located between Fish Creek and Ephraim on Door County’s west coast. This spot boasts stunning rocky cliffs with water views and miles of trails within its nearly 4,000 acres. The park is open year-round, and there are sometimes special candlelight skis and fat-tire biking options available during the winter season.
Visitors should pay extra attention to Door County’s 11 lighthouses. The area’s 300 miles of coastline are home to one of the highest concentrations of lighthouses in the nation.
2. It’s The Quiet Season
Just like many other tourist hot spots, Door County has a high season: summertime, of course. Winter is the exact opposite; it’s the sleepiest time of year. While some attractions and restaurants are closed during this off-season, there is still lots to do in the region.
One benefit of traveling to Door County during the winter is that accommodations are much more affordable. Some lodging options that are available at this time include the Hillside Inn and Eagle Harbor Inn in Ephraim, plus the Bay Shore Inn, White Lace Inn, and Chanticleer Guest House in Sturgeon Bay.
Numerous area restaurants are open through the winter, including Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay (you’ll learn more about this spot later), the divine MacReady Artisan Bread Company in Egg Harbor, and the low-key Julie’s Park Cafe in Fish Creek. Old-school steakhouse fans will appreciate the pretty water views and classic cuisine at Donny’s Glidden Lodge near Whitefish Bay; locals simply call the restaurant Glidden’s. Foodies should try Trixie’s in Ephraim for an inventive meal that highlights female winemakers.
It’s no secret that visiting a destination during its quiet season is a great way to experience it without crowds and chaos.
3. You Can Go On A Sleigh Ride
Another fun activity that is only available when there’s snow is Door County Trolley’s best winter offering, a festive sleigh ride. The event includes a fireside lunch at an old inn, multiple wine tastings to warm you up, and a scenic sleigh ride through a winter wonderland. It’s a fun and magical experience that makes a winter visit totally worth it.
Travelers can expect to stop at a couple wineries on this excursion, including Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market near Fish Creek. This spot features a perfect example of one of Door County’s iconic red barns and makes multiple varieties of fruit wine.
4. You Can Experience A Progressive Dinner
Another activity only available in winter is the White Gull Inn’s progressive dinner. These dinners generally occur on a handful of weekends in December and January.
In 2019, the dinners began with appetizers and wine at the Thorp House Inn & Cottages in Fish Creek. Then, guests were transported to the White Gull Inn via horse-drawn carriage through the festively decorated small town. At the White Gull, diners learned about the history of the inn, listened to live music, and were served the remainder of the multicourse meal (soup, salad, entree, and dessert).
If you can’t make it to one of the progressive dinner weekends or the experience is already booked, the White Gull Inn still hosts a traditional fish boil every Friday evening during this timeframe. The inn, the oldest operating one in Door County, is the only spot that offers fish boils in winter; it’s a very Door County experience with Lake Michigan whitefish. These fish boils are a Door County tradition, and they showcase the area’s Scandinavian roots.
5. You Can Have A Merry Time At The Maritime Museum
Sturgeon Bay’s Door County Maritime Museum also deserves a visit during the winter. During November and December, this quirky outpost transforms for the annual Merry-Time Festival of Trees. Local businesses and families sponsor decorations, and trees and wreaths line the usual museum gallery for a festive family-friendly activity. Visitors can also explore a shipwreck and learn about how the county got its nickname of Door County.
6. You Can Enjoy A Traditional Julbord
Perhaps Door County’s most unique winter offering can be found at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik. This famous Sister Bay eatery is known for its grass roof that features goats grazing on it during the warmer months.
But near Christmastime, the Swedish chef at Al’s goes all out, serving up a traditional holiday feast inspired by his native land. Offered just one weekend every December, the julbord is reason enough to visit Door County in wintertime. This multicourse meal is accompanied by glogg (warm Swedish spiced wine) and aquavit (a herby Scandinavian spirit). If you’re lucky, the chef might even sing you a traditional Swedish drinking song!
7. The Christmas Shopping Is Unbelievable
Bliss, a charming gift shop in Sturgeon Bay, transforms into a winter wonderland each year — December is the busiest time of the year for this cute store! The decorations change annually, but visitors can expect impressive birch tree installations, inventive Scandinavian Christmas items, and a ton of unique finds. Plus, the shop serves wine and coffee every day of the year!
Other great Christmas options include Door County Candy, which sells vintage-style candy like house-made candy canes; Door County Coffee & Tea Company, with seasonal artisan blends; Dancing Bear, which offers old-fashioned toys; and Plum Bottom Gallery, with locally crafted jewelry and artwork.
8. You Can Still Sample Wisconsin’s Favorite Export
Wisconsin cheese is never out of season! One place that travelers should check out is Renard’s Cheese, the oldest cheese store in Door County. Try the famous cherry Cheddar, the award-winning farmer cheese, the pizza with fresh cheese curds, or the signature grilled cheese sandwich. Renard’s is located in the south of the peninsula in Sturgeon Bay, the gateway of Door County.
9. You Can Warm Up With A Local Beverage
Door County is also known for its well-developed beverage scene.
Warm up in the winter with a visit to the Door County Distillery in Carlsville for its legendary artisan gin.
Toast to the new year at Ellison Bay’s adorable cidery, Island Orchard Cider. It was the area’s first cidery and grows its fruit on nearby Washington Island. Try the unique apple lavender cider; the lavender also comes from Washington Island.
Beer lovers should sample the Herbaceous Beast Hopped Brut Reserve for a unique twist.
Wine connoisseurs should head to Door 44 to get a sense of the style of Wisconsin Ledge wines; this region of the state even has its own American Viticultural Area, or federally designated area for grape production. Try the not-too-sweet Washington Island rosé, the flagship Frozen Tundra white, and the 100 percent Door Peninsula blend Marquette Reserve.
It’s clear that the Midwestern delight of Door County deserves some attention even in the deep winter. For even more about this cool region, read about its hidden gems here.