Home Destinations Charms of Door County in winter include sleigh rides, fish boils, gallery hopping

Charms of Door County in winter include sleigh rides, fish boils, gallery hopping

by Jan Schroder
door county shoreline in the winter

With 300 miles of shoreline, Door County, Wisconsin, is primarily known as a warm weather destination. But there are plenty of reasons to visit in the winter. When the snow comes, you can grab those cross-country skis, go ice fishing or snowshoeing. 

With no snow on my most recent visit, I enjoyed a glass of wine in a heated snow globe, went gallery hopping, took a horse-drawn wagon ride, toured a professional theater, went hiking in a nature preserve and got filled to the gills at a fish boil.

Read our story for 10 activities to enjoy in the winter. 

This charming illustration was on the back of our menu at White Gull Inn.

First, a note about the weather. While there are plenty of things to do, it is cold in the winter. Just be sure to bring your warm coat. And hat. And gloves. Better throw in that scarf too.

I found the warmest accessories from Heat Holders and highly recommend their hats, scarves, neck warmers and gloves. i wore these converter mittens that allow you to fold back the top parts to expose your fingers, great for using your phone or anything else you need to do without taking your gloves off. My hands were always toasty warm.

10 things to do in the winter in Door County, Wisconsin

Have a drink in a heated snow globe

snow globe at Harbor Ridge Winery
One of the two snow globes at Harbor Ridge Winery.

Is there anything cozier than being inside with a view of a frozen world outside? I guess it wasn’t technically a snow globe when we were there, due to the lack of snow outside, but it was lovely to step inside our heated igloo at Harbor Ridge Winery in Egg Harbor, a flight of wine in hand.

Harbor Ridge has two snow globes where you can also enjoy Sunday brunch, and features live music in its loft on Saturday afternoons.

Take in a show at one of the theaters

jacob janssen at Third Avenue Playworks
Jacob Janssen, Artistic Director of Third Avenue Playworks, took us on a tour of the theater.

For an area of just over 30,000 people, Door County has a lot of theaters. Four, to be exact.

We got a tour of TAP, Third Avenue Playworks, a year-round professional theater that performs in Kane Theatre in Sturgeon Bay. Here’s a good place to point out that while Sturgeon Bay is the county seat, other small cities and towns in Door County include Sister Bay, Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Washington, Ephraim, Jacksonport, Bailey’s Harbor and Ellison Bay.

Artistic Director Jacob Janssen gave us a tour of the 124-seat theater, a former movie palace, that recently underwent a $2.5 million renovation. “We have a thriving theater community in Door County with four professional theaters,” he said.

These include Northern Sky Theater, Peninsula Players and Door Shakespeare, which performs in the summer on the banks of Lake Michigan. Fun fact about Peninsula Players – it’s the oldest resident summer theater in the country, claiming it began in 1935 with “two planks and passion.”

Jacob mentioned that Door County has been called the Cape Cod of the Midwest, “but without the sharks. We have cheese and cherries instead.”

Go shop hopping at art galleries

exterior of plug bottom gallery
Plum Bottom Gallery is loaded with beautiful pieces of art.

I was astonished at how many art galleries there are in Door County, housed in small log cabins and charming converted homes that are fun to poke around in.

I loved wandering the many small rooms at Plum Bottom Gallery, located on 20 acres and owned by Chad and Angela Luberger. Chad is a potter, Angela is a metalsmith and their gallery represents over 200 artists around the country in its three locations in Door County.

"Lilly," a ceramic sculpture by Stephanie Evans, at Fine Line Designs.
“Lilly,” a ceramic sculpture by Stephanie Evans, is at Fine Line Designs.

The dress sculptures by Stephanie Evans at Fine Line Designs were my favorites, although I saw dozens of pieces of jewelry I was tempted to take home. You wouldn’t know from its elegant, light-filled interior that it was once a 1950s chicken coop that was renovated in 1999. More than 90 artists are represented here.

BDH Studio
BDH Studio is in this adorable log cabin.

Blue Dolphin and BDH Studio is housed in an adorable little log cabin with several small rooms to wander through, filled with home décor items, paintings and jewelry.

Get filled to the gills at a fish boil

White Gull Inn. It gets dark very early in Door County!

Cooks get creative when they have to feed large groups of people. In Door County 100 years ago when large groups of Scandinavian lumberjacks and fisherman needed to be fed, the fish boil was created to feed the hungry men fast.

Whitefish caught in Lake Michigan were cooked in a giant vat in water over an open fire. When the water boiled over the fish was done. It became a Door County tradition and now many restaurants offer it.

In the winter your choices are fewer as several restaurants are closed, but you can’t go wrong at White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, which offers a fish boil year-round, although only on Friday nights in the winter months.

Get there early to watch the entire process, standing safely behind the large fire ring, then go inside to chow down on the fish, served with boiled potatoes, cole slaw and delicious homemade cherry pie.

Take a leisurely ride in a horse drawn wagon, sleigh or a trolley

With no snow, we took a ride in a wagon rather than a sleigh.

Our ride with Mayberry’s Carriages was supposed to be in a sleigh, but when there’s no snow it’s time for a wagon. Our group cozied up on the long benches on either side, snuggling under the blankets provided as it was a cold, gray day. Our driver, John, took us on a leisurely ride and showed us some gorgeous homes in Egg Harbor.

Relax with a warm beverage and local treats

exterior of Sip
Sip, where we enjoyed a delicious breakfast. And a bit of shopping.

I fell in love with Sip in Ephraim before we took a step inside, just from its whimsical sign outside and cute exterior. The inside, a cascade of color, made me want to redo my whole house with a more fun design. Everything inside this food, coffee and wine bar is for sale.

With my passion for all things blue and white, I fell in love with one of the mugs and had to make space for it in my suitcase. I drink tea from it every afternoon.

Avocado toast with smoked salmon at Sip.

The avocado toast with a poached egg and salmon was delicious as was the cheddar and heirloom tomato sandwich.

When you walk into Door County Coffee in Sturgeon Bay you’ll find a cozy room with a large fireplace and a display case with delicious looking baked goods. What you won’t find? The smell of grease.

Door County Coffee.

“Everything is baked,” Vicky Wilson, the enthusiastic and fun-loving founder told us. “We want you to smell baked goods and not grease when you come in our doors.”

Vicky Wilson, Door County Coffee
The enthusiastic and hospitable Vicky Wilson, who founded Door County Coffee.

Vicky started the business 30 years ago and now it has grown to the point they roast 7,000 pounds of coffee a day. She ships her class 1 Arabica coffee to every state and internationally from her 40,000-square-foot facility.

The coffee, muffin and quiche were outstanding.

Eat Swedish meatballs for breakfast, French gougeres for dinner

swedish meatballs at Al Johnsons
Swedish meatballs for breakfast. I also had Swedish pancakes with ligonberries.

I can get an omelet anywhere, I figured. Why not go for the Swedish meatballs for breakfast?

It was our last stop in Door County and a light snow had arrived overnight, a delight for this girl from the South who rarely gets to see it. And made me more excited for a hot breakfast at the family-owned Al Johnson’s Swedish Breakfast & Butik in Sister Bay, which has been serving since 1949.

Swedish meatballs and pancakes served with lingonberries, strawberries or maple syrup are the star here. The meatballs, made from Grandma’s 100-year-old recipe, are wildly popular – more than 309,000 are served each year.

Stop at the shop for gift items that include woven slippers, Swedish design housewares and Door County products like coffee and cherry butter.

gougeres at cloverr & zot
The gougeres at Clover & Zot.

We also enjoyed delicious gourmet pizzas, pastas and Italian desserts at Sonny’s Italian Kitchen and Pizzeria located on the waterfront in Sturgeon Bay and dinner one night at Hill Street in Fish Creek, a lively spot where I couldn’t resist getting a delicious corn dog. It had a happening bar scene and turns into a noodle bar from 9:00 to midnight.

Our first night we dined at Clover & Zot Public House and Craft Kitchen, located on the waterfront in Bailey’s Harbor. The outdoor area is popular in the warmer months but we were seated nice and cozy inside the European-style brasserie, where we dined on items like curried tempura artichoke hearts, arancini and heavenly French cheese puffs called gougeres.

Imbibe in an adult beverage, or two, at a distillery or winery

Chris Roedl at Hatch Distilling Company
Chris Roedl at Hatch Distilling Company.

“We have more barrels of bourbon that people in Egg Harbor,” Chris Roedl told us on a visit to Hatch Distilling Company where they describe themselves as “distillers, beekeepers, farmers & foragers.”

Chris, the founder of the company, grew up raising chickens but has transitioned to bees. They have 100 hives and use the honey to make their clear spirits. They also make single malt whiskey, bourbon, brandy and limoncello. The Old Fashioned is their most popular drink and others include the burnt rosemary paloma and a limoncello spritz.

You get two-for-one when you stop at Door County Distillery and Peninsula Winery in Sturgeon Bay, with the spirits and tasting room on one side and wine and tasting area on the other where you’ll also find a large retail shop with fun gift items and wine-related merchandise. Opened in the 1970s, the winery is housed in a renovated schoolhouse from 1864.

Take a hike at The Ridges, grab some cider at Natural Christmas

hiking at The Ridge
Hiking on a trail at The Ridges Sanctuary.

One of the most enthusiastic guides I’d ever had led us on a guided hike at The Ridges Sanctuary. A retired gentleman whose name I didn’t write down – it’s really hard to take notes when you’re wearing mittens – was full of passion for The Ridges, a 1,600-acre natural reserve that showcases “nature at its finest and what our planet would look like if we weren’t here.”

Wisconsin’s first land trust, it was founded in 1937. Guided hikes last around two hours, or you can hike the trails on your own. In the winter, rent a pair of snowshoes and set out snowshoeing on the trails.

natural christmas at The Ridges
Natural Christmas at The Ridges.

We hiked through the forested area over boardwalks and through the woods as a gentle snow began to fall. And then like a fairy tale with a happy ending, we saw a few small cabins in the woods where we heard live music and people were gathering to eat cookies, drink cider and roast marshmallows at a bonfire. It was The Ridges annual Natural Christmas Celebration, held one day in December each year.

Take in the Christmas lights, visit a Christmas market, grab some Christmas merch

bonfire at Christkindlmarket in Sister Bay Wisconsin
Visitors enjoying the bonfire at Christkindlmarket in Sister Bay.

The sun sets in Wisconsin in December shortly after lunch. Or so it seemed – officially it was at around 4:09 when I was there.

The positive thing about it getting dark so early in the winter is there’s time to enjoy the sparkling lights of winter. And no worries if you visit after Christmas – on my first visit in February one year I was astonished to see so many lights still up.

I figured that was due to two things: 1) They need the lights to cheer themselves up over the long winter days and 2) It’s too cold to take them down, or they’ve frozen onto the greenery!

You can also enjoy a European-style Christmas market held over three weekends from late November to early December in Sister Bay. Christkindlmarket features crafts from local artists and food vendors.

ornaments at Tannebaum holiday shop
Don’t you just love the sushi ornament at Tannebaum Holiday Shop?

We enjoyed a glass of traditional gluhwein while strolling around the shops. One vendor was selling adorable furry hats and we had fun trying them on but deemed them impractical for the warmer climes where we live.

You can buy Christmas items year-round at Tannebaum Holiday Shop, the place for all things Christmas including every kind of Christmas ornament from Santas to sushi.

Where to stay in Door County

pheasant Park resort
The morning I left we got this pretty dusting of snow so I ran out to get a photo of Pheasant Park Resort.

You have your pick of just about any type of accommodations in Door County. I stayed in the lovely Pheasant Park Resort in Sister Bay. With an indoor pool and two- and three-bedroom suites, it’s a great choice for a family or small group.

The inviting lobby has books, board games and a large fireplace where we warmed up one evening and enjoyed a bottle of wine from Peninsula Winery .

If you’re looking for a view of the water, try Edgewater Resort in Ephraim, a historic resort that dates back to 1900 and overlooks Eagle Harbor.

For more information, visit Destination Door County.

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