Wisconsin’s largest city welcomes visitors with lake views, stellar food, never-ending brews and a hearty dose of Midwestern niceness
There’s always something to celebrate in Milwaukee. And I’m not just talking about the music, food and art festivals that fill the summer, or the azure views of Lake Michigan, or even the city’s beer-steeped history. I’m talking about the jovial bands of people walking the streets of downtown every time I visit — bachelorette parties (so many bachelorette parties!), bachelor parties, wedding parties, father-daughter dances. Really, any occasion is good there to pack the flask and break out the party gear.
I understand why they choose the Brew City. My husband and I love making weekend trips here from our home in Chicago. It’s small enough that it’s easy to get around and feels safe, but big enough that we discover a new neighborhood, quirky shop, restaurant or bar every visit. While the drinkingand-dining scene has long moved beyond its beerand-brats reputation, you can still find plenty of that beer and those brats (including in craft and artisanal forms), along with frozen custard and squeaky cheese curds galore. (It’s the Dairy State for a reason.) Plus, it’s affordable (compared with Chicago prices) and there’s truth to that whole Midwestern kindness thing. Don’t put on airs, and it’s likely that you will be welcomed with open arms.
Go Local Faves
When in Brew City, do as the Brew Citizens do and raise a pint. A quenching place to start is 1 Pabst Milwaukee Brewery and Taproom, which is one of the newest craft breweries to open in the city and sits in an old Gothic Revival Church that also formerly served as a Pabst-owned bar and restaurant. “New” and “Pabst” sound contradictory, considering that the Pabst name has deep history in Milwaukee, dating to the 19th century. But it moved its brewing operations out of town in the 1990s. And the latest incarnation isn’t brewing hipster PBR (although you can buy that here), it’s creating small-batch beers with more depth and intrigue than the canned redwhite-and-blue classic. For a DIY Pabst tour, take a stroll around the block and you’ll see Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, which walks visitors through the history of Pabst; you’ll pass the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, a hotel built inside the old Pabst plant. About a mile from there, you might get a deeper feel for the family’s history with a visit to Pabst Mansion, where Frederick and his family lived.
For Frank Lloyd Wright, it wasn’t all Fallingwater and Taliesin. The Wisconsin-born architect believed that beautiful homes should be affordable at all income levels, and in the early 1900s he created a series of designs for small homes, known as American System-Built Homes, the pieces of which could be cut in advance and assembled on site to save on waste and cost. You can see six of them on W. Burnham Street, and docents with the nonprofit organization 2 Wright in Milwaukee lead tours of one of the homes. (The tours are offered on Fridays and Saturdays in the summer and early fall but become more sporadic as winter sets in.) Travel tip: One of the privately owned Wright-designed homes on the street is beautifully restored and available for overnight stays via VRBO.com.
Is it meta that the buildings that house the 3 Milwaukee Art Museum are works of art as well? My favorite is the white pavilion designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, which looks like a modernist bird, a cathedral or maybe a yacht depending on the time of day you see it and whether its wings — which are actually 72 steel fins that act as a sun screen — are open or closed. Save a couple of hours for exploring the museum’s wide-ranging collection, which includes dark portraits from Baroque Europe and brighter pop pieces such as one of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup paintings, as well as extensive Georgia O’Keeffe collection (she was from Wisconsin), swanky furniture by Herman Miller, vintage cameras — and continual natural art in the form of sparkling Lake Michigan views through the museum’s floor-to-ceiling windows.
The double-decker 4 Milwaukee Boat Line Sightseeing Cruise toots along the Milwaukee River out to Lake Michigan, alerting bridge operators to raise ’em up and let it pass. During the 90-minute cruise, the guide regaled us with stories of Milwaukee’s industrial history while passing old brick tanneries, brick masonry factories, and cold storage warehouses; architectural history via the skyline and especially that winged Milwaukee Art Museum; and Great Lakes insights such as the fact that the five lakes hold about one-fifth of all the freshwater on Earth. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to hear some traces of lovable Midwestern awshucks earnestness. Our guide was talking about a lighthouse there that’s now powered by solar. “Which,” she said, “I think is pretty darn neat.”
Eat Local Faves
Tubular meats — including some vegan versions — are the draw at 5 Vanguard. Go global with the Guzman, which is seasoned Yucatan venison with pork fat, sour orange and achiote. Or keep it local, like I did, with a jalapeño cheddar bratwurst topped “Milwaukee-style,” slathered in cheese spread, shredded cheddar cheese and squeaky fried cheese curds. It’s nap-inducingly delicious. This isn’t your average corner bratwurst joint; it’s also a bustling craft cocktail bar, and specialty sausages come with beer/cocktail pairing suggestions.
Frozen custard isn’t the exception in the Dairy State. It’s the rule. Ask someone to name the best and you may spark an all-out war (which this recommendation also could lead to), but I stand firm in my love of the butter pecan frozen custard at
6 Leon’s Frozen Custard — with its rich, creamy base and crisp, salty pecans — handed to you from a neon-covered walkup joint that dates to 1942. This custard, alone, is worth the 90-minute drive from Chicago. As you are waiting in line (and you are likely to be waiting in line), you can watch as machines gurgle out reams of the frozen confection while staff in white caps and bow ties scoop it up to serve.
My three Chicago companions and I were blown away by 7 Braise, which creates its seasonal menus based on what’s available from Wisconsin farms using all parts, from “root to leaf” and “nose to tail.” Offerings change regularly, but what’s consistent is global influence, depth of flavor and alluring textures — such as the chickpea pancake made with summer squash and topped with salty whipped feta or the rich, steamed pork buns with chive vinaigrette and crushed, spicy peanuts. With a mix of shareable small and not-so-small plates, there’s an impressive variety for carnivores, vegetarians and pescetarians, as well as an eclectic craft cocktail menu. I had a rum cocktail with strawberry, banana and, oddly, asparagus cream that tasted much better than it sounds and is served in a skull mug with a toasted nose. Fun fact: Braise even created a service to act as a food hub so that other restaurants and customers can easily access produce, baked goods, meats and dairy items from the farms and artisans it works with.
Milwaukee is a town that loves brunch, and the European-style 8 Cafe Benelux — named for Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — draws crowds for its alfresco seating (rooftop and street-level patio) and eclectic offerings such as the pretzel Benedict (pretzel bread, ham, poached eggs and hollandaise), bananas Foster liege waffles and a savory waffle made with hash browns and topped with steak. Breakfast is also served nightly, as are mussels, frites and burgers. Save some time to read through the 50-page “bierbook,” which is updated seasonally and highlights unique craft beers from Belgium, Holland and the United States.
Shop Local Faves
If you’ve ever thought, “Where in the heck do I get an owl pellet to dissect?” Milwaukee has your answer. It’s 9 American Science and Surplus, where you may also find dissection tools, including those waxy trays from middle school. This large, brightly lit suburban shop offers aisle after aisle of experiments, microscopes, telescopes, lab glasses, gyroscopes and just about anything a STEMloving person could want or need. Plus, there is a solid selection of toys, tools, military items, motors and even the occasional hatching dinosaur-egg novelty. Because it’s a surplus store, you never quite know what you’re going to find, so you’ll probably have more fun if you go without a specific need in mind (and just hope to walk out with that owl pellet).
Fedoras, porkpies, cadet caps, cloches, derby hats, church hats, intricate fascinators — the specimens are stunning at two neighboring hat shops: 10 The Hen House for her and 11 Brass Rooster Hat Company for him. Major brands are available, as are custom creations made with equipment that dates to the 19th century. You don’t hear the words “hatter” and “millinery” much these days, but these two shops will make you appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into a quality chapeau.
12 Mod Gen — short for Modern General Store — had me at “arugula candle.” This gift shop, located amid blocks of boutiques in the reclaimed warehouses of the Historic Third Ward, is packed with gifts and trinkets — artfully displayed stationery, stickers, birdhouses, handmade soaps, hundreds of houseplants and a section dedicated to items made locally — that maybe you didn’t need but suddenly realize you can’t leave without. Like the hedgehog trivet that came home with me.
Follow the giant red neon sign that says 13 “Milwaukee Public Market” and explore this gourmet/retail institution. There’s a seafood counter, restaurants, bakeries, purveyors of wine, cheese and sausage, kitchen accessories — and, one of my favorites, Brew City Brand Apparel, where T-shirts pay homage to insider Wisconsin tidbits. The “Call Me OldFashioned” shirt is a nod to the Badger State’s official cocktail, and the “Where’s the bubbler?” tee flexes a piece of whenin-Wisconsin vocabulary: bubbler means water fountain. (My mom is from Wisconsin, and now also happens to be the proud owner of a bubbler shirt.)
Stay Local Fave
The smell from the wood-fire oven hits as I walk through the doors of 14 Kimpton Journeyman Hotel, one Milwaukee’s newest, and immediately scores on the cozy front. (The complementary wine happy hours in the lobby’s living room area add to that, as do a fireplace and pool table.) The rooms here have a playful residential feel. And wait until you see the bathtubs: Yuge! Beyond the rooms, the whole hotel is a winner. The firstfloor restaurant, Tre Rivali, is lucky to have chef Heather Terhune, who is a favorite of mine from her Chicago days working at Sable and makes pitch-perfect Mediterranean fare ranging from wood-grilled artichokes and pizza to handmade pastas and inspired seafood dishes. One of the best parts of being a guest: I didn’t have to stand in the 20-person-deep line to get up to the ninth-floor rooftop lounge, the Outsider (a.k.a. the it spot in town). I just hopped in the elevator using my key card, hit No. 9 and ducked through the tight crowd to take in the glimmering rooftop views.
Built in 1927, the art deco 15 Hilton Milwaukee City Center is bedecked in marble and chandeliers. Its lobby seating nooks are a great place to hunker down in the opulence with a laptop. Featuring more than 700 rooms, the Hilton is the largest hotel in the city, which means you can often nab a comfortable room for a bargain. But I have to say, the primary reason I’m recommending the Hilton over other hotels (there are some great ones in Milwaukee) is the service. I once fell ill after a long, hot cycling trip and I needed to go to the emergency room. The hotel’s cheerful shuttle driver transported me to the hospital at 2 a.m. and picked me up and brought me home the next day. That’s the kind of treatment you don’t forget when traveling.
Explore Local Faves
It took all of 10 minutes walking up artsy S. Kinnickinnic Avenue — the main drag in the 16 Bay View neighborhood — for my husband and I to nod and agree, “Yep, this is where we’d live if we moved here.” We wandered into Tip Top Atomic Shop eyeing the vintage clothing, peeked inside the historic Avalon Theater, considered a game at an old-school bowling alley and took in an array of tempting bars and restaurants (Sugar Maple, Odd Duck, Goodkind, Vanguard, Honeypie) as well as a solid mix of record shops, comic shops, tattoo parlors and tire stores along with places with words like co-op, collective and emporium in their names. It was a little bit hippie, a little bit hipster, and we’ ll be back next time.
The warehouse district, known as Milwaukee’s 17 Historic Third Ward, has found new, trendy life. Now, the old brick buildings — which are included on the National Register of Historic Places — are filled with boutiques, galleries, art studios, restaurants, bars and other versions of visitor catnip. With hundreds of businesses in about 10 square blocks, there’s an urban density and energy that I haven’t yet felt elsewhere in Milwaukee. Bordered by the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan, this neighborhood is an easy launching point for exploring the Riverwalk, attending the annual Summerfest (an enormous music festival that lasts 11 days and draws nearly 1 million people), hopping on a Bublr (the bike share program) or just taking in the sights of the old warehouse structures, some renovated, some a little spooky. Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter at @K8Silver.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Mod Gen — short for Modern General Store — in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward; the crispy chicken sliders at Cafe Benelux in the Milwaukee Public Market; a rooftop fire pit at the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel; a skyline view via the Milwaukee Boat Line Sightseeing Cruise.
FROM TOP: In Milwaukee, Kate McLaughlin puts her touch on a fascinator at the Hen House, part of a pairing of custom hat shops with its next-door neighbor, the Brass Rooster Hat Company. Ben Smith plays his saxophone for tips outside Leon’s Frozen Custard. A statue of King Gambrinus, the patron saint of beer (this is the Brew City, after all) stands in the courtyard of Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery. With its giant swordfish and inflatable crab, St. Paul Fish Company has a big footprint at the Milwaukee Public Market. Ron Miscavige is the man with the horn — a trumpet this time — outside Santino’s Little Italy in the Bay View neighborhood. Kacillia Jackson and Donelle Sims get in some bar time at Margarita Paradise inside the public market.
At the Brass Rooster Hat Company, John McLaughlin makes lids by hand at the shop he owns with his wife, Kate.