Today our fellow Midwest blogger, Janet from Go! Learn Things, will be sharing her favorite travel ideas for Milwaukee, Wisconsin in our latest Discover post. In the “Discover” series, we offer quick travel tips on things to do, what to eat and where to stay in cities throughout the world! If you’re interested in contributing to the series, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy!
We could have landed anywhere in the Midwest. When we came to Milwaukee in 1986 we did not have any family or friends in the area. So why and how did we choose Milwaukee? I admit, it was my idea and I do not regret it.
As I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Milwaukee and the further reaches of Wisconsin were “vacationland”. We would rarely venture into downtown Chicago from the west suburbs. I think it was scary and too much traffic for my parents. But Milwaukee was a different story. In 90 minutes we could run up to Milwaukee and enjoy the city.
As young adults, when it came time to choose a place to build a business, raise a family and live a great life, Milwaukee seemed the natural choice. Why not live in “vacationland” rather than always driving there? The hot spots we used to enjoy as kids are now either gone or outdated, but they have been replaced with vibrant and exciting choices. Milwaukee remains the perfect alternative to Chicago, with plenty of cultural and upscale options and without the crushing traffic and prices.
Do & Explore
Lake Michigan Shores
Summer and fall in Milwaukee are packed with festivals, colors, flavors, adventures and joyful citizens reveling in the wonderful weather. Milwaukee is a beautifully green city, abounding in parks and lakefront experiences. Lincoln Memorial Drive stretches for several miles along the lakefront. Anchored by the Henry Maier Festival Park to the south and Lake Park to the north, the city offers a string of places to enjoy and recreate on the Lake Michigan Lakefront.
City of Festivals
Milwaukee considers itself famous for summertime festivals. The Henry Maier Festival Park is 75 acres and 11 stages of music and food venues right on Lake Michigan’s shore. Summerfest, “The World’s Largest Music Festival”, kicks off the festival season in grand style. Spanning the last week in June and first week of July, Summerfest boasts an attendance of approximately 850,000 people enjoying the music industry’s hottest stars, up-and-comers and local favorites. The Henry Maier Festival Park continues to buzz all summer and into the fall with a different ethnic festival each weekend. Everyone can find a style of party that speaks to them. Polishfest, Germanfest, Festa Italiana, and Harley Davidson’s Anniversary are just a few examples.
Ways to Play
If people-watching rather than people-crowds is your cup of tea/coffee, head north 1.5 miles and find a table at the patio of Colectivo Lakefront Cafe. Colectivo says they are “a hip cafe chain serving locally roasted coffee and homemade eats”. They have several cafes throughout the Metro area and all are pretty hip. But the Lakefront Cafe is a special treat. It resides in the historic Milwaukee River Flushing Station built in 1888. Sitting directly across Lincoln Memorial Drive from McKinley Marina, Colectivo is in the center of the lakefront action.
Directly north of the festival grounds is Discovery World, an interactive museum for all ages. There are exhibits featuring every science field you can think of: physics, space, water biology, weather and zoology. The staff does an excellent job of teaching and maintaining all the exhibits. They describe their collection of interactive aquarium tanks this way:
“Begin in the fresh waters of Lake Michigan, moving past the Great Lakes and into the St. Lawrence Seaway, where freshwater meets the saltwater of the Atlantic Ocean. Finish your journey by going southward to the Florida Keys and finally to the Caribbean Sea.”
They also have their very own tall ship, the Denis Sullivan, that is a floating science lab available for day tours and week long research trips.
Further north is the Milwaukee Art Museum with its iconic Calatrava architecture. This structure has movable wings that open up to a 217 foot wingspan during clear days. The vision of this building and the lake backdrop is breathtakingly photogenic even if you are not an art connoisseur.
The next couple of miles along the lakefront are dominated by greenspace. Veteran’s Park, McKinley Marina, Bradford Beach and Lake Park offer activities such as water sports, walking/biking trails, piers, picnics, concerts, beach volleyball and even a historic water tower and lighthouse.
If Lake Michigan is a bit too large a body of water for you, Milwaukee also has a river of entertainment. Just a couple of miles inland is the Milwaukee River, and many venues are located along the Riverwalk. This waterway is perfect for an “amphibious assault”. Whether you approach on a booze cruise, personal watercraft or kayak there are breweries and eateries waiting for you to disembark onto their piers.
Eat & Drink
Milwaukee is the city that beer built. It has been known for beer since 1844 when Jacob Best and sons started their brewery, later joining with Frederick Pabst. Of course, MillerCoors Brewing still lives in Milwaukee. Today craft beer is trending hot in the valley of brewing. The brewery tours are abundant and suit every taste from the massive and historical MillerCoors to the irreverent Lakefront Brewing or the small Good City Brewing. There are tour groups such as Pedal Tavern, Riverwalk Boat Tours, or Hop Head Beer Tours.
If you like to enjoy your beer the traditional German way, many city parks host beer gardens during the summer. Estabrook, Hubbard, Humboldt, Hoyt and South Shore Park each offers a different beer style. Estabrook actually imports beer directly from the Munich Hofbrauhaus! Many additional parks have pop-up beer gardens with traveling craft breweries and food trucks. This is such a great way to kick back and enjoy Milwaukee hospitality.
With all this festival-going and beer-drinking, we need to find food occasionally and Milwaukee does not disappoint. If you are without a car and Uber-dependent, there are plenty of choices in the Third Ward and Fifth Ward/Walker’s Point neighborhoods. These are old warehouse districts that are repurposed and revitalized. The Third Ward has been around longer and has more to offer in boutique shopping, dining and nightlife, but the Fifth Ward is gaining ground.
In the Third Ward, try Cafe Benelux for European/Belgian style food and beer, sporting one of my favorite dining rooftops. Perhaps the Milwaukee Ale House or the Milwaukee Sail Loft for casual dining on the river. Tre Rivali is a newcomer with rave reviews of their Mediterranean food, or try Coquette Cafe for their French. Finally, check out Kanpai for all things Asian, from sushi to bibimbop. This barely scratches the surface and all are walkable in the Third Ward.
You can literally walk across the bridge to get to the Fifth Ward and more yummies. Stack’d has the best and most innovative burgers in town. Screaming Tuna is upscale sushi. Further south along 2nd St are several craft breweries and trendy restaurants. The Fifth Ward is less walkable than the Third Ward but worth the short Uber ride. La Merenda and Odd Duck are rivalry small plates venues. Movida has Sangria that keeps me happy through all the rest of their wonderful Spanish dishes.
H-D is the Ride
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Harley-Davidson. The Harley-Davidson Museum located on the river and the northwest corner of Walker’s Point is a very well done museum and surprisingly entertaining for all. The motorcycle manufacturer and Milwaukee have shared a long fascinating history. The museum gift shop is full of H-D clothing and souvenirs and their restaurant Motor is casual dining in a great setting.
Relax & Sleep
Continuing in the Harley theme is Milwaukee’s best boutique hotel, The Iron Horse. This remodeled 100 year old warehouse caters to motorcycle enthusiasts and upscale travelers alike. The loft-style rooms have distinctive designs to showcase the unique setting and theme. Welcoming and professional staff, a trendy bar, a farm-to-table restaurant and a sexy outdoor lounge make this the perfect spot to relax while exploring Milwaukee.
Anything you like to do in an urban setting can be found in Milwaukee, and you should consider a visit! But whatever you do, please do not think of us as “Laverne and Shirley”. We have moved so far beyond that stereotype! Milwaukee has embraced its industrial roots and grown them into a bucket list destination.
Thanks, Janet! Be sure to check out her blog at www.golearnthings.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram for more adventures! And for those that live in Chicago, be sure to check out Colectivo’s new location in Lincoln Park that features a HUGE outdoor patio, a full food menu, and of course, coffee!