In an era when many industrial cities are making comebacks by redefining themselves — Baltimore and Pittsburgh are among those that immediately come to mind — no transformation has been more swift and surprising than that of Chicago’s sibling city to the north, Milwaukee.
One need only look to its status on the professional sports stage to understand how quickly Milwaukee has changed.
In 1994, Milwaukee was cut out of the Green Bay Packers home schedule, ending a tradition that had dated to 1933. In the late 1990s, it came perilously close to losing its Big League status, when the Milwaukee Brewers were considered for contraction by Major League Baseball. The city — defined for many by 1970s TV sitcoms "Happy Days" and "Laverne & Shirley" — appeared as stuck in the past as the shows themselves. And as recently as three years ago, many professional basketball writers were certain the city would lose its NBA team, the Bucks.
But if it has been years since you visited the Cream City — so named not for the head of a perfectly poured beer, but for the cream colored bricks on so many city buildings — you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you’ll find today.
Milwaukee has taken big steps toward Chicago in the best ways — dining, cocktails and culture — while eschewing its most infuriating aspects, like horrific traffic and expensive parking. Milwaukee is a city that feels like a neighborhood, where you walk into bars expecting to see people you know, where you’ll need a day to adjust to the level of friendliness almost everywhere you go, and where you don’t need to use a traffic calculator to schedule your day.
The city’s massive festivals provide great excuses for a trip north, but if you don’t make it on those days, don’t worry, you’ll just have more time to explore a city offering more than you’d expect.
Start with baseball. The Brewers, of course, are still here, and Miller Park offers one of the best and most affordable experiences in baseball — the Cubs are in town July 22 - 24 and Sept. 5 - 7.
Start your day at the park by heading to the Old German Beer Hall and whet your appetite with a giant pretzel and Usinger’s sausage made fresh daily across the street — the bratwurst is a standard, but the Currywurst is worth a try, too. Wash it down with a giant mug of Hofbrau on draft, then catch the free shuttle to the ballpark (yes, free) that will deliver you back here after the game.
Admire Miller Park’s remarkable retractable domed roof that can be closed in inclement weather. The park offers the opportunity to walk around the entirety of the concourse without losing a view of play, with kid-friendly games and photo ops at every turn. Take in the famed sausage race in the sixth inning and a slide from Bernie Brewer in left field after each home run.
Better by the Lake
You’ll find a new favorite coffee shop on the lakeshore. Colectivo makes a great cup, but what it does better than any roaster in the country is create iconic coffee houses. Their flagship location rests below the bluff near the harbor in the old Milwaukee River Flushing Station, a beautiful brick building that dates to 1888 and is flanked by a sun-soaked patio.
From there, a stroll along the lakefront is a must, where you’ll be amazed to find a path comparable to Chicago’s famed Lakefront Trail with a fraction of the traffic. Take a long run or bike ride along the lake and then head up the bluff to the Oak Leaf Trail, which takes you along the Milwaukee River on part of a web of urban and suburban trails. Take a pitstop a few miles in at the Estabrook Beer Garden, modeled after the beer gardens in Munich, Germany and featuring beers imported from the Munich Hofbrauhaus.
Cream City Culture
One of the things you’ll notice quickly in Milwaukee is the ease of getting around. Your days need not be limited by geography, as even though the city’s attractions are spread out, it takes only minutes to get from one part of the city to another. And free or extremely cheap parking is readily available almost everywhere.
Though it’s easy to get caught up in the sausage, cheese and beer circuit, Milwaukee isn’t without its cultural attractions, highlighted by one of the most stunning buildings in America — the ground-breaking Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The building became the symbol of the city from the moment it opened in 2001, garnering worldwide acclaim and notoriety. Its defining feature is the Burke Brise Soleil, a sunscreen that opens and closes like the wings of a bird about to soar out over Lake Michigan.
Inside, more than 40 galleries spread over four floors feature more than 30,000 works of art, from antiquity to the present. Included in the collection are 15th to 20th century European and 17th to
20th century American paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, and folk and self-taught art.
The museum’s holdings of American decorative arts, German Expressionism, folk and Haitian art, and American art after 1960, are among the most extensive in the country. The museum also holds one of the largest collections of works by Wisconsin native Georgia O’Keeffe.
Another visually striking lakefront museum is Discovery World, a 120,000-sq-ft interactive science, technology and history center highlighted by the Reiman Aquarium and the S/V Denis Sullivan sailing ship. The aquarium features a number of separate tanks, based on geography or type of fish, including its centerpiece Caribbean Tank and the 75,000-gallon Lake Michigan Tank — home to native species like rainbow trout, lake sturgeon, buffalo fish, and largemouth and smallmouth bass.
The S/V Denis Sullivan is a re-creation of a 19th century three- masted Great Lakes sailing schooner, which provides a hands-on glimpse into the region’s rich maritime history. Two-hour day and evening rides — $45 for adults, $40 for children — are offered on which participants can help set the sails and take a turn at the helm, or simply sit back, relax and enjoy the great views of the city from the water.
Lovers of nature can turn their sights inland and head to the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, better known simply as "The Domes." These three mammoth domes are visible from the interstate and house three distinct worlds of plant life — a tropical jungle, a desert oasis and a floral garden.
For those who enjoy fauna as much as flora, another worthwhile stop is the Milwaukee County Zoo, home to more than 2,000 mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles, all housed in specialized habitats spanning 200 wooded acres. This summer, the zoo will feature "Bugs! Larger than Life," a special exhibit featuring 13 animatronic bugs that swoop, flutter, crawl and spray water.
If you’re a motorcycle buff, the Harley Davidson Museum is a must. Featuring more than 450 motorcycles and artifacts, plus interactive exhibits that share the story of one of America’s most iconic brands.
A short walk away is the Milwaukee Public Market in the Historic Third Ward, considered one of the best public markets in America. Grab a cup from Anodyne coffee bar if you’re here in the morning, or wine from Thief Wine Bar in the evening, to sip as you stroll and load bags with more cheese, sausage and Wisconsin specialties than you ever thought you needed.
Work off your sampling with a stroll up Water Street to get a picture with The Bronze Fonze statue on the north Riverwalk, which portrays the famous character from "Happy Days" played by actor Henry Winkler.
America’s Best Brewery Tour
In a city synonymous with beer, you’d be remiss not to take a brewery tour. The Miller tour offers a look at more than a century of brewing history and is more than worth the time. But you won’t find a better brewery tour than the one offered at Lakefront Brewery, located near the Milwaukee River in the aptly named Brewer’s Hill neighborhood.
For $9, you can try four 6-oz pours of beer and leave with a Lakefront Brewery pint glass and a card good for a free pint at a number of Milwaukee area bars. You’ll learn a lot about Lakefront Brewery and even more about the brewing process and the history of the industry in Milwaukee. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a spot in the tour lead by brewery co-founder Jim or Russ Klisch, hilarious guys who love their beer and this city.
And at the very end of the tour, a thrill awaits for baseball fans, as the original Bernie Brewer chalet from the old Milwaukee County Stadium lives on in the brewery. The brothers bought the chalet and barrel when the stadium closed after the 2000 season, preserving a piece of city history in the most appropriate place possible.
If you stop in on a Friday, try the fish fry, one of the best in the city, and the cheese curds are fantastic.
Classic Pub Crawl
Taverns don’t come any better than those in Milwaukee, which boasts more bars per capita than any city in America. If you can get comfortable around Packers and Brewers hats, you can be comfortable at a Milwaukee bar, for few waste breath on pretension.
Tucked into a jagged side street where it blends into the homes surrounding it, Wolski’s is the definition of a Midwestern neighborhood bar with great bartenders, free popcorn and real dart boards. If you’re still around at closing time, you’ll take home the iconic "I closed Wolski’s" bumper sticker from a bar repeatedly hailed as one of the best in America.
If you’re in the mood for a classic cocktail, you’ll have plenty of options. Bryant’s is Milwaukee’s oldest cocktail lounge — dating to 1938 with a feel to match — and offers $5 Old Fashioneds and other specials from 5 p.m. - 8 p.m. on weeknights.
Boone & Crocket is just four years old but is already established as one of Milwaukee’s best places for a drink. Be prepared for the hipster vibe amongst the taxidermy, but like all of Milwaukee, you’ll be welcomed into the fold quickly, especially after sipping on brandy Old-Fashioneds oak-aged in barrels suspended above the bar. If you come here hungry, you’re in luck, as Mitch Ciohon is outside at Gypsy Taco, a food truck built into the bar’s patio.
Palm Tavern wears the look of a 4-tap dive bar but inside feels anything but, with red textured walls warming the room. You’ll find an extensive selection of rare beers and liquors you won’t know what to do with, but the bartenders will.
If you do hit the tavern crawl, plan on a hefty morning-after breakfast. For this, you can’t do better than Comet Café and Blue’s Egg. Expect to wait for a seat, but know it will be worth it.
Another favorite is Honeypie, tucked into a quiet corner of Bayview, where you can dart across the street for coffee at Fuel Café while you wait for your seat to open up.
If breakfast isn’t your thing but you need a greasy fix, head to Solly’s Grille and plop yourself at the counter for the Solly burger — a third pound of ground sirloin mixed with butter, cooked in butter and placed on an onion roll with butter.
Finally, before you leave the city, make a pitstop for a Wisconsin must-have — frozen custard. Some will point you to Gilles, others to Leon’s, and those are both fine choices, but the recommendation here is Kopp’s, where you can watch the custard ooze out of the machine like concrete, teasing you into thinking you can eat more than is possible.
THE CITY OF FESTIVALS
Milwaukee calls itself the City of Festivals, and for good reason. With Chicago’s summer barrage of street festivals in full force, it wouldn’t seem there would be need to head north to experience outdoor drinking, street eats and live music, but Milwaukee’s festivals are worth the trip, especially these three stalwarts.
June 29 - July 3, July 5 - 10
The world’s largest music festival, Summerfest hosts more than 900,000 visitors checking out more than 800 acts on 11 stages over 11 days. Don’t think muddy fields or even Lollapalooza-ish
scenes, but rather more of a huge music tailgate. This summer’s headliners include Paul McCartney, Selena Gomez, Alabama Shakes, Ray LaMontagne, The Decemberists, The Roots, Blake Shelton, Weezer, Sting and Pitbull. But it’s not the headliners that make the fest so much fun. Stroll the grounds with a general admission ticket ($20) and take in sounds from great local and regional bands on smaller side stages.
July 29 - July 31
Held on the Summerfest grounds since 1981, this all-ages, lakefront festival celebrates German culture, featuring hoards of authentic German food, tons of children’s activities and entertainment, and enough authentic music and attire to fill your annual quota and then some.
Highlights include the Glockenspiel, Model T and Volkswagen displays, Dachshund Derby, parades and fireworks. Oh, there’s a little beer to enjoy in huge mugs, too.
Aug. 18 - 21
Also held on the Summerfest grounds, Milwaukee Irish Fest is billed as the world’s largest celebration of Irish music and culture, though one would think Ireland might quibble with that claim.
The festival’s 16 stages feature traditional Irish music and dance throughout the day, with fiddlers, pipers, folk singers and Celtic Rock around every bend. You’ll find plenty of opportunities to tip back a pint or sample whiskey, but you’ll also find dozens of chances to learn about Irish culture, hear from authors and experts, and dabble in some traditions yourself.
Other Great Festivals
Polish Fest, June 17 - 19
Wisconsin State Fair, Aug. 4 - 14
Bastille Days, July 14 - 17