A few minutes into the riverboat tour of the city, as we moved slowly past row after row of beautiful historic buildings—some reborn as condominiums and apartments— past leafy trees and shaded parks and then on out to the edge of the vast expanse of Lake Michigan, I turned to the woman sitting beside me.
“How did I not know about all of this?” I asked her, with a wide gesture that took in Festival Park, white-sailed boats skimming the surface of the lake and the distinctive architectural wing over the art museum.
“I know, right?” she said, laughing. “Welcome to Milwaukee.”
The city of Milwaukee’s past is storied and diverse. Long known for its German heritage and beer-brewing legacy, and the pale brick buildings which gave it the “Cream City” nickname, the once-industrial hub has become a vibrant, culturally diverse destination that reflects the best of MidWest hospitality and contemporary urban sophistication.
Milwaukee is surprisingly walkable and has more than 150 miles of bike trails. There are 17 museums in the city limits. And then there’s that beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline.
I spent a week in Milwaukee but following the tips below you could hit the highlights in a weekend.
Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport is just a short drive from downtown. Amtrak offers service to and from Chicago.
Historic: Milwaukee’s landmark hotel is the historic Pfister Hotel. Built in 1893, the opulent downtown Victorian masterpiece was hailed as the “Grand Hotel of the West.” The Pfister Hotel holds the largest collection of Victorian art of any hotel in the world and offers a unique artist-in-residence program. The Pfister Narrator, another in-residence program, puts local writers in the lobby and around the premises to capture and record the words and impressions of hotel guests.
Contemporary: With a total revitalization of a historic 100-year-old warehouse into a luxurious hotel with 100 loft-style room and an upscale vintage/industrial vibe, the Iron Horse Hotel draws business travelers and is especially popular with Harley Davidson enthusiasts coming to Milwaukee to tour the Harley Davidson Museum.
Take a Milwaukee River Cruise Line tour. The company offers a variety of themed cruises from the City Skyline cruise to the Beer and Cheese cruise to the Hip Hop Margarita Cruise. For a more personal experience, rent a kayak from the Milwaukee Kayak Company and float the river at your own pace.
Rent a Bublr Bike and see the city on two wheels. Bike stations are located across the downtown area and make it easy to explore.
Milwaukee’s food scene is vibrant and diverse. I ate a lot of good food while I was there, but my favorite was my dinner at Braise. Chef David Swanson—a multiple James Beard Award
nominee—created the Restaurant Supported Agriculture program to make fresh local produce easily accessible to area restaurants. The restaurant also holds regular classes through its culinary school.
You can’t go to Milwaukee without dipping into a cup of frozen custard. Try Kehr’s chocolate swirl custard at the MilwaukeePublic Market.
The Milwaukee Art Museum is undergoing an expansion but the current exhibition is “From Van Gogh to Pollock” —running through Sept. 20— is one that should not be missed. The exhibit explores features more than 70 pieces 20th Century art collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.
I have never been on a motorcycle but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the Harley Davidson Museum. The history of the world-renowned Milwaukee-based motorcycle is intimately tied to American history and the exhibits create a timeline of popular culture.
The classics like Miller and Pabst, are still around, but for a taste of the new generation of the Milwaukee beer, stop by Lakefront Brewery. Long tables fill the tasting room and the patio overlooks the Milwaukee River. and both are great spots for hoisting a few.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes about travel for Spokesman.com