Like Chicago, Manitowoc shares its name with a river that divides the town into northern and southern parts. Manitowoc also has a Lincoln Park Zoo on its north side, a Division Street, a State Street, and a parkway along the lakefront. But the similarities end there. The Manitowoc River runs out of town in a hurry, and so do most thrill-seeking visitors. Indeed, as you come into town (take I-43 north from Milwaukee about 75 miles to exit 149), winding past the Penquin Drive-In and the Wal-Mart on Calumet Avenue (highway 151), you don’t realize you’re in a city until Calumet spills into Washington Street. There a giant bottle of Bud towers over the landscape, flanked by two huge beer cans painted on the side of a plant that processes barley into malt for Anheuser-Busch. This is downtown Manitowoc, just three Buds short of a six-pack.

But I rather liked Manitowoc and found plenty to see and do there. The city has been depressed over the past few years, but it’s taking steps to build outside interest. It has recently rebuilt its lakefront, attracted a huge but partly empty shopping mall, and just reinstituted ferry service to Ludington, Michigan. If you were going to Michigan from Chicago, it would be senseless to do it this way, but if you’ve always wanted to ferry across the lake, this is the place to go. It’s a four-hour crossing on the S.S. Badger, which comes complete with cocktail lounges, shops, a game room–even a cruise director. The ferry service has just returned after a ten-year hiatus; reopening ceremonies took place on May 15 with a parade and a polka band. You should call ahead before you cruise (800-841-4243). Adults 16 years old and over go round-trip for $50 or one-way for $30. Children 5 to 15 ride half price Tuesday through Thursday, and kids under 5 travel free. Vehicle fees are $40 for a car, $30 for a motorcycle, $10 for a bike, and $120 for a 40-foot bus.

No passenger train stops in Manitowoc, but the bus does. The downtown area is small enough to cover on foot, and there’s limited bus service between Manitowoc and Two Rivers. Still, there are places in the area you won’t be able to check out without a car. The town of Two Rivers is just seven miles down the road and is a worthwhile trip. Two Rivers calls itself the “coolest spot in Wisconsin,” a reference to its meteorological, not social, climate.

Manitowoc has a really nice 60-year-old candy store, Beerntsenf Confectionary (108 N. 8th St., 414-684-9616), oak-paneled and jammed with well-kept display boxes filled with candies of all kinds. There’s a small restaurant in the back with a very limited menu. The soup of the day is Campbell’s caliber, but otherwise it’s pretty good and lunch for three can’t cost much more than $10. For more substantial grub, the Harborside Restaurant is just around the corner (701 York, 414-684-0633) serving steaks, chops, seafood, and chicken. It’s also inexpensive.

You can get a decent burger at the aforementioned Penquin Drive-In (3900 Calumet Ave., 414-684-6403). Just look for the picture of the big penguin, or penquin, I guess. Or try Fatzo’s Sub and Pizza Shop (2001 Washington Street in Two Rivers, 414-794-1333). I can’t vouch for this place myself, but it’s now known to some Manitowockeans as the “Historic House of Fat.”

One of the more genuinely historic houses in Manitowoc doubles as the town’s largest museum. It’s called the Rahr-West (610 N. 8th St., 414-683-4501; hours are 9 AM to 4:30 PM Monday through Friday and from 1 to 4 PM on the weekends; admission is free). Within the walls of this historic mansion is a diverse collection of artifacts ranging from an antique doll and dollhouse collection to an elaborate Choctaw headdress and from primitive and modern paintings to a replica of a piece of Sputnik IV that fell on Manitowoc in 1962. (The real Sputnik fragment is somewhere back in the former Soviet Union; the placard that accompanies the replica notes that when the city fathers offered to return it, the “Soviets, who at first declined,” later changed their mind and took it back.) The Rahr-West is a charming place, not overwhelming in any particular way and rarely crowded.

The Washington House (1622 Jefferson St., Two Rivers; hours are 9 AM-5 PM Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 PM on Sundays; admission is free) is located across the street from the Hamilton Manufacturing Factory, a hulk of a building that stretches for blocks. This museum cum thrift shop was originally built for use as a boardinghouse in 1850, but its antique bar is now reserved for ice cream sundaes. You can cover the exhibits in about five minutes. A model called “Moving a Building” purports to show how the artist’s father was killed. The thrift shop is on the second floor, in what used to be a dance hall for the workers at the factory.

Although dentist-turned-sculptor Dr. Rudy Rotter charges a $2 admission fee to his Manitowoc Museum of Sculpture (701 Buffalo St., 414-682-6671; hours vary), it’s well worth it. The place is inspirational. Dr. Rotter works there, and he’s tried practically every subject in almost every medium. More than 6,000 sculptures fill the museum, representing about 36 years of work. Dr. Rotter is 79, and the variety of sculptures he’s made over the years is astounding–it’s hard to believe the same two hands made them all. The sculptures reminded me of the possibilities you see in the buildings designed by Antonio Gaudi in Spain. Though there’s nothing quite like them, they seem familiar. And you won’t see them anywhere else. Dr. Rotter despises gallery politics and for several years has rejected every offer to show his work outside his museum. This place is worth a trip to Manitowoc all by itself.

There are other museums in the area, like the Manitowoc Maritime Museum (75 Maritime Dr., 414-684-0218; open daily from 9 AM to 8 PM, admission fees are $5.95 for adults, $3.95 for children); the museum’s best attraction is a tour of the USS Cobia, a WWII submarine moored in the Manitowoc River. Two whole villages attempt to re-create turn-of-the-century rural life: the Rogers Street Historic Fishing Village (2102 Jackson St. in Two Rivers, 414-793-5905) and Pinecrest Historical Village (924 Pinecrest Road, 414-684-5110). If the history portrayed in these places seems a little remote, go to Studio 8 (939 S. 8th St., 414-682-1191). Because of its disco decor, visiting Studio 8 is like boogying back to the mid-70s. Order a tequila sunrise and get down.

If you like your history to go, there are copious rummage sales every weekend, and the junk goes cheap. I saw a working slide projector, never used, walk for $10, and I got a colorful rug depicting Jesus in a holy pose, never stepped on, for a buck. The prices at these sales make Amvets seem like a boutique. Check the classifieds in the local paper, the Lakeshore Chronicle, for times and places.

A bit of old-fashioned bump and grind goes on nightly at the Music Bar (705 Chicago St., 414-684-5195). Manitowoc is a port town, after all. If you enjoy watching a little mutual exploitation, or have never visited a strip joint, this is a pretty safe place to go. For a quieter time, try Little Joe’s Bar and Grill (2014 Washington St. in Two Rivers, 414-793-1036) and ask for Grubby the puppet and a 30-cent beer. If that’s too homey you can try a fancy place like the Lighthouse Inn on the Lake (1515 Memorial Dr. in Two Rivers, 414-793-4524).

After all this history and revelry, you’ll probably want a place to stay instead of a three-hour drive back to Chicago. I recommend the Lakeview Motel (2702 Memorial Dr. in Two Rivers, 414-793-2251), where you can get a clean, single room with satellite TV and a view of the lake for $27. The Lakeview isn’t very big, so call ahead. Also in Two Rivers, the Village Inn (3310 Memorial Dr., 414-794-8818) is about two blocks north of the Lakeview, and the Cool City Motel (3009 Lincoln, 414-793-2244) has a great name. There’s a deluxe hotel in Manitowoc, the Inn on Maritime Bay (101 Maritime Dr., 414-682-7000), which has rooms with lake views. For rooms with views of another kind, bed down where dancers from the Music Bar do–at the Westmoor Motel (4626 Calumet Ave., 414-684-3374), just off the highway.

Next morning, if you’re still not ready to leave, you can go to a public beach in downtown Manitowoc at Red Arrow Park (S. 9th Street between Green and Jaycee), or you can tour the Natural Ovens of Manitowoc (4300 County Trunk Road, 414-758-2500; tours at 9, 10, and 11 AM, Monday through Friday except Tuesday), where the bread bakes. You can have a nervous breakdown in Manitowoc; the longest listing in the directory is under the heading “Mental Health and Well-Being,” where more than 50 service organizations are named, ranging from “Agoraphobia” to “Wisconsin Brain Trauma Association.” And you can get your picture taken in Manitowoc at any of the town’s 15 photo studios, a lot for a city with a population of 32,547. Most of these are family-portrait type places, a la “Photographs By Debi.” Manitowoc’s sole concession to the avant-garde is John Shimon and Julie Lindemann’s Neo-Post-Now Gallery (719 York St., 414-682-0337). It’s open by appointment only, so call ahead. Located just across the street from Kornely’s Drinkatorium, it has the potential to be the coolest spot in Wisconsin.