Manitowoc, an essential port on Lake Michigan, offers a fantastic array of places to eat, historical buildings, the best beach on the Wisconsin side, and ferry transportation across the lake to Ludington, Michigan.
I planned my itinerary to depart from Wisconsin by car ferry crossing to Ludington, Michigan. Located on the eastern side of Wisconsin, along the western shore of Lake Michigan, Manitowoc is 81 miles north of Milwaukee and 40 miles southeast of Green Bay. It’s about an hour’s drive from Door County along the coast.
While I still have a problem pronouncing the name correctly, Manitowoc means the dwelling of the spirit or spirit-spawn in the Anishinaabe language. The native name for the region was adopted in 1838. Early immigrants included Canadians, British, Germans, Irish, and Norwegians.
A deep dive into the cold waters of Lake Michigan along the Manitowoc County coastline tells tales about history so significant that the area was declared a National Marine Sanctuary. The NOAA approved the designation last year.
Named Shipwreck Coast Marine Sanctuary, the watery museum conserves the collection of shipwrecks, some dating as far back as the 1830s and predating the railroads. The sanctuary focuses on cultural resources, heritage tourism, and research. It is perfect for history buffs, eco-tourists, divers, and outdoor enthusiasts. The Shipwreck Coast is one of only 15 national marine sanctuaries.
Best known for the submarines that were built here during World War II, Manitowoc is home to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, the largest maritime museum in the Midwest.
Things To Do In Manitowoc
History, art, golf, kayaking, bike rentals, farming, agricultural education, recreation trails, charter fishing, and nature centers are a few activities you can experience in Manitowoc and Two Rivers. You’ll need a long weekend to fit everything into your schedule.
1. Manitowoc To Ludington
I arranged my itinerary to make the journey from Wisconsin to Michigan by ferry, saving a significant amount of driving time, all the while relaxing and enjoying the calm waters of Lake Michigan. The SS Badger makes two crossings daily. The vehicle and passenger ferry takes about four hours to navigate the waters.
Pro Tip: The day I rode the ferry, Lake Michigan was calm and the sky was sunny. The lake can be treacherous, as witnessed by all the shipwrecks in the sanctuary. The ticket office sells little packets of Dramamine at the window for those who might get seasick.
2. Wisconsin Maritime Museum
The wealth of information, displays, and interactive exhibits at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum is a perfect introduction to the USS Cobia.
The museum began as a submarine memorial in 1969. Over the years, commemorating the maritime heritage of the Manitowoc/Two Rivers area, the museum is a leader in preserving the history of the Great Lakes region and Wisconsin.
3. USS Cobia
The USS Cobia is the most authentic WWII submarine in the world today and was restored to its 1945 configuration. You can experience the vessel just as the sailors did when she was on active duty.
4. Hamilton Wood Type And Printing Museum
Hamilton Manufacturing, located in Two Rivers, was America’s longest-lasting wood type maker. With the world’s most extensive collection of type and the tools to use it, Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum is a working museum and is a trip down memory lane. The art of wood type and old machines kept me entertained from the time I entered the building.
5. Ice Age Trail
Ice Age Trail is a National Scenic Trail that stretches 1,200 miles in Wisconsin. The Point Beach Segment is a ten-mile trail along the coast of Lake Michigan.
Pro Tip: Access the Ice Age Trail at the midpoint near the dunes at Rawley Point Lighthouse.
6. Mariners Trail
Renting a bike is one way to enjoy this 6-mile paved recreational trail. It’s the most extended, continuous, scenic view of Lake Michigan in the state of Wisconsin.
Parking is available along the trail with disabled access. I enjoyed sitting on a bench, viewing the blooming gardens, and looking through a telescope along the route.
Pro Tip: Rent bikes and kayaks at Manitowoc Marina. Also, there are no motorized vehicles allowed on the trail. It’s designed for walkers, runners, wheelchairs, dogs on leashes, bicycles, in-line skates, and skateboards.
7. Rawley Point Recreation Trail
Rawley Point Recreation Trail connects to the Mariners Trail through downtown Two Rivers for about a mile.
The trail is a hard-packed limestone base and connects Two Rivers with Point Beach State Forest. The picturesque trail winds through dunes, fields, hemlock, and pine forests.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see Rawley Point Lighthouse, which cannot be seen from the parking lot or the trail because of the forest.
8. Point Beach State Forest
Point Beach State Forest boasts six miles of sandy shoreline along Lake Michigan for family camping, large group cabins, and an outdoor group camp.
Rawley Point Light
Operated and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard since 1853, the lighthouse is not open to the public. However, you get unobstructed views from the path close to the parking lot and the beach.
Manitowoc Breakwater Light
Initially built in 1895, it was rebuilt in 1918, then automated in 1971. The lighthouse is not open to the public, although you can walk out and around it.
Two Rivers 1886 North Pierhead Lighthouse
You can climb the 1886 North Pierhead Lighthouse, which is the only publicly accessible pierhead light on the Great Lakes.
10. Great Lakes Coast Guard Museum
The historic Rogers Street Fishing Village, a small two-block area, is home to the Great Lakes Coast Guard Museum. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
Known as the “French” side of town, the fishermen from this district were French-Canadian. You can tour the parlor, kitchen, and the inside of a fishing tug.
11. Rahr-West Art Museum
The Victorian-style mansion, built between 1891 and 1893, was donated to the City of Manitowoc by the Rahr family in 1941. It houses some of Wisconsin’s finest art.
A piece of the Russian spacecraft Sputnik IV crashed near the front door of the Rahr-West Art Museum on September 5, 1962. View the impact point and the NASA-made replica on display in the museum.
Best Restaurants In Manitowoc
The Lake Michigan coastline and rivers offer entertaining water views that enhance dining experiences. Many restaurants, breweries, and pubs have created outdoor dining areas in the past two years. I experienced two on my long weekend recently.
The food smelled delicious wafting across the river from The Wharf when I was at the USS Cobia. If you arrive on your boat at this waterfront bar, they have a dock for parking. They are open for lunch and dinner and have a huge outdoor patio.
Water’s Edge Restaurant
Easy to find and easy to park, the Water’s Edge Restaurant is a popular destination with a large dining room and an American regional menu. There isn’t a bad seat in the house. The panoramic window overlooking Lake Michigan made dining such a pleasure. Wisconsin is famous for its whitefish, so I ordered the Water’s Edge Restaurants’ signature dish — Great Lakes Parmesan Baked Whitefish. The green beans were cooked perfectly, crisp yet tender and flavorful.
Friday Fish Fry
Many restaurants and supper clubs in Manitowoc and Two Rivers offer traditional fried fish dinners on Fridays. The dinners are served with coleslaw, potato salad, and rye bread.
Best Hotels In Manitowoc
You have many options for lodging in Manitowoc and Two Rivers. From upscale bed and breakfasts, Airbnb lodgings, economy motels, and VRBOs, to waterfront inns.
Lighthouse Inn is a lakefront hotel with unparalleled views of Lake Michigan. At the border of Manitowoc and Two Rivers, the Lighthouse Inn is convenient for many outdoor activities and museums.
Harbor Town Inn
Harbor Town Inn is a stylish hotel with a cozy lobby, guest laundry, an art gallery, a business center, a fitness center, and a complimentary breakfast.
Red Forest Bed And Breakfast Inn
Red Forest Bed & Breakfast Inn is under new ownership. This upscale bed and breakfast offers four comfortable rooms with notable names and a soothing atmosphere.
The Econo Lodge is a budget-friendly hotel that is newly remodeled and close to area attractions. Only five blocks from the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and the car ferry, it’s a practical choice for convenience downtown.
Bonus Rental Options
Spend the night on the USS Cobia as part of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum’s rare opportunity to experience submarine life. Managed through Airbnb, guests can access the entire submarine and the museum from 5 p.m. until checkout.
The USS Cobia sleeps up to 50 people in sailor’s bunks and the price includes the first five guests. The program is designed for private bookings of the entire submarine.
Understandably, this experience is not handicap accessible as the USS Cobia has seven bulkhead doors to climb through and stairs throughout the boat.
Lake Michigan Vrbo
I stayed in a comfortable and spacious four-bedroom vacation rental house in Two Rivers. I reserved on Vrbo and enjoyed living like a local.
For more information on traveling to Wisconsin, check out these articles: