Manitowoc, a major port on Lake Michigan, offers a fantastic selection of restaurants, historic buildings, the best beach on the Wisconsin side and ferry services across the lake to Ludington, Michigan.
I planned my itinerary to depart from Wisconsin by car ferry to Ludington, Michigan. Manitowoc is located on the east side of Wisconsin on the west shore of Lake Michigan, 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 trouble pronouncing the name correctly, in the Anishinaaben language, Manitowoc means the dwelling place of the spirit or spawn of spirits. The native name for the region was adopted in 1838. Early immigrants included Canadians, British, Germans, Irish and Norwegians.
A deep dive into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan along the Manitowoc County coast tells tales of history so significant that the area has been designated a National Marine Protected Area. NOAA approved the designation last year.
Dubbed the Shipwreck Coast Marine Sanctuary, the aquatic museum preserves the collection of shipwrecks, some dating back to the 1830s and predating the railways. The sanctuary focuses on cultural resources, heritage tourism and research. It’s perfect for history buffs, eco-tourists, scuba divers and outdoor enthusiasts. The Shipwreck Coast is one of only 15 National Marine Protected Areas.
Best known for the submarines 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 just a few activities to experience in Manitowoc and Two Rivers. You need a long weekend to fit everything into your schedule.
1. From Manitowoc to Ludington
I arranged my itinerary so that I could make the journey from Wisconsin to Michigan by ferry, which saved a significant amount of travel time while I relaxed and enjoyed 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 water.
Pro Tip: The day I took the ferry, Lake Michigan was calm and the sky was sunny. The lake can be treacherous, as evidenced by all the shipwrecks in the sanctuary. For those who might get seasick, the ticket office sells small packs of Dramamine by the window.
2. Maritime Museum of Wisconsin
The wealth of information, displays, and interactive exhibits at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum is a perfect introduction to the USS cobia.
The museum was founded in 1969 as a submarine memorial. Over the years, the museum, which commemorates the maritime heritage of the Manitowoc/Two Rivers region, has been a leader in preserving the history of the Great Lakes and Wisconsin region.
3. USS cobia
The USS cobia is now the most authentic WWII submarine in the world and has been restored to its 1945 configuration. You can experience the ship as the sailors did on active duty.
4.Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum
Hamilton Manufacturing, based in Two Rivers, was America’s longest-lived manufacturer of wooden type. With the world’s largest collection of typefaces and the tools to use them, the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum is a working museum and a journey down memory lane. The art of wooden type and old machinery entertained me from the moment I entered the building.
5. Ice Age Trail
The Ice Age Trail is a National Scenic Trail that stretches 1,200 miles in Wisconsin. The Point Beach Segment is a ten-mile hiking trail along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Pro Tip: Access the Ice Age Trail at the midpoint near the dunes at Rawley Point Lighthouse.
6. Seafarers’ Path
Renting a bike is one way to enjoy this 6-mile (9.6 km) paved recreational trail. It is the most expansive, contiguous, most scenic view of Lake Michigan in the state of Wisconsin.
Disabled access parking spaces are available along the trail. I enjoyed sitting on a bench, looking at the blooming gardens and looking through a telescope along the route.
Pro Tip: Rent bikes and kayaks at Manitowoc Marina. Also, no motorized vehicles are allowed on the route. It is designed for walkers, runners, wheelchairs, leashed dogs, bicycles, in-line skates and skateboards.
7. Rawley Point Leisure Trail
The Rawley Point Recreation Trail connects to the Mariners Trail through downtown Two Rivers for about a mile.
The trail is a hardpacked limestone pedestal and connects Two Rivers to Point Beach State Forest. The scenic trail meanders through dunes, fields, hemlock and pine forests.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see the Rawley Point Lighthouse, which is hidden from the parking lot or hiking trail because of the forest.
8. Point Beach State Forest
Point Beach State Forest has six miles of sandy beaches along Lake Michigan for family camping, large group cabins, and an outdoor group camp.
Rawley Point Light
The lighthouse has been operated and maintained by the US Coast Guard since 1853 and is not open to the public. However, you have a clear view from the path near the parking lot and the beach.
Manitowoc Breakwater Light
Originally built in 1895, it was remodeled in 1918 and automated in 1971. The lighthouse is not open to the public, but you can walk 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 fishing village of Rogers Street, a small two-block neighborhood, is home to the Great Lakes Coast Guard Museum. It is 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 saloon, the kitchen and the interior of a fish tug.
11. Rahr-West Art Museum
Built between 1891 and 1893, the Victorian mansion was donated to the City of Manitowoc by the Rahr family in 1941. It houses some of Wisconsin’s finest artwork.
Part of the Russian spacecraft Sputnik IV crashed on September 5, 1962 near the front door of the Rahr-West Art Museum. View the impact point and NASA-made replica on display in the museum.
The best restaurants in Manitowoc
Lake Michigan’s shoreline and rivers offer entertaining waterfront views that enhance the dining experience. Many restaurants, breweries and pubs have created outdoor dining areas in the last two years. I experienced two recently on my long weekend.
When I was on the USS, the food smelled delicious as it wafted across the river from The Wharf cobia. If you arrive at this waterfront bar with your boat, they have a dock to park. They are open for lunch and dinner and have a huge outdoor terrace.
Water’s Edge Restaurant
Easy to find and park, Water’s Edge Restaurant is a popular destination with a large dining room and a regional American menu. There is no bad seat in the house. The picture window overlooking Lake Michigan made dining a real pleasure. Wisconsin is famous for its whitefish, so I ordered Water’s Edge Restaurant’s special – Great Lakes Parmesan Baked Whitefish. The green beans were perfectly cooked, crispy yet tender and flavorful.
Fish sandwiches on Friday
Many restaurants and supper clubs in Manitowoc and Two Rivers offer traditional fried fish dinners on Fridays. Dinners are served with coleslaw, potato salad and rye bread.
The best hotels in Manitowoc
There are many options for where to stay in Manitowoc and Two Rivers. From upscale bed and breakfasts, Airbnbs, economy motels and VRBOs to waterfront inns.
The Lighthouse Inn is a lakefront hotel with unparalleled views of Lake Michigan. Located on the Manitowoc/Two Rivers border, the Lighthouse Inn is convenient to many outdoor activities and museums.
Port City Inn
The Harbor Town Inn is a stylish hotel with a cozy lobby, guest laundry, art gallery, business center, fitness center, and free breakfast.
Red Forest Bed and Breakfast Inn
Red Forest Bed & Breakfast Inn is newly owned. This upscale bed and breakfast offers four comfortable rooms with notable names and a soothing atmosphere.
The Econo Lodge is a budget hotel that has been newly renovated and is close to attractions. Just five blocks from the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and car ferry, it’s a convenient choice for downtown convenience.
Bonus Rental Options
Spend the night on the USS cobia as part of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum’s rare opportunity to experience underwater life. Managed through Airbnb, guests have access to the entire submarine and museum from 5pm until checkout.
The USS cobia sleeps up to 50 people in sailor bunks and price includes the first five guests. The program is designed for private bookings of the entire submarine.
Understandably, this experience is not accessible like 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 home in Two Rivers. I made reservations on Vrbo and enjoyed living like a local.
For more information on traveling to Wisconsin, see these articles: