Milwaukee's friendly and unpretentious citizens personify its touted spirit of gemutlichkeit
, a German word loosely translated as "enjoying good times with friends." The bonus in Milwaukee is that great food and entertainment vary more—and cost much less—than you might imagine. Whether your idea of a good time is golfing, theatergoing or biking beside lakefront mansions, a day in Cream City will drain your energy long before your bank account.
Thanks to the generosity of residents and businesses, fine arts flourish in Milwaukee. It is home to Skylight Opera Theatre, as well as the Milwaukee Art Museum, with its unusual sunshade. Watching the roof extend and retract is also a fun pastime at the Miller Park baseball stadium, known for comfort and great sightlines.
Or you could spend the morning strolling through the largest stand of crab-apple trees in the U.S. (Boerner Botanical Gardens), lunch on authentic Wiener schnitzel, and then tour the factories that make Harley-Davidson engines and Miller beer. Microbrew fans could round out the afternoon with a cruise that shuttles passengers to tours at three Milwaukee River craft breweries.
Milwaukee's character is strongly linked to its past as a haven for immigrants. Many of the city's pre-eminent restaurants originally catered to diners homesick for the flavors of the old country. And Milwaukee's many summer ethnic festivals celebrate the dozens of cultures that make it such a vibrant melting pot. Rock 'n' roll fans who time their travel for late June or early July get to experience Summerfest, one of America's best music festivals.
NASCAR fans are happy at the Milwaukee Mile speedway, and motorcycle enthusiasts are ecstatic about the huge Harley-Davidson Museum. The fabulous Pier Wisconsin complex, a lakefront education center, serves as the home for Discovery World, the tall-masted schooner S/V Denis Sullivan and an attraction focused on freshwater ecology and maritime history—the Great Lakes Aquatarium.
Wisconsin Avenue is the city's main street. It runs west from the lake through downtown, passing the Pfister Hotel, the convention center, the Milwaukee Public Library, and farther west, Marquette University, the Pabst Mansion and the Tripoli Shrine Temple. Visitors can easily catch a ride between sites on a trolley. The area known as the RiverWalk includes both banks of the Milwaukee River as it flows through downtown, from Highland Avenue south to Clybourn Street. North of downtown and east of the Milwaukee River is the neighborhood known as the East Side, the city's oldest area, with some of its most interesting architecture. Downtown, the East Side and the RiverWalk are all easily explored on foot.
You'll need a car to see the rest of Milwaukee. The city's streets are laid out in a grid pattern, and the numbering system is refreshingly rational. Within the city, numbered streets run north-south, and named avenues run east-west. The division between north and south runs roughly along Interstate 94, and the division between east and west is the Milwaukee River. Thus, 3000 N. 50th St. is 30 blocks north of the freeway and 50 blocks west of the river. This system continues into the inner suburbs, but newer areas in Waukesha County have their own mazelike systems.
Milwaukee's Native American name, Millioki
, means "gathering place by the waters." For centuries, the Potawatomi, Menomonee, Chippewa, Winnebago and Sauk peoples lived together peacefully where three rivers (the Menomonee, the Kinnickinnic and the Milwaukee) empty into Lake Michigan. The first European immigrants to Milwaukee were French traders and trappers who arrived in the late 1600s and early 1700s. By the 1830s, three different settlements competed vigorously: Juneautown on the east bank of the Milwaukee River, Kilbourntown on the west bank and Walker's Point to the south. They eventually merged to form Milwaukee.
Milwaukee's distinctive ethnic character dates to the 1840s, when thousands of Germans, attracted by the New World's religious freedom and affordable land, settled there. Milwaukee became known to some as the German Athens. German immigrants brought their language, their culture and—most significantly—their methods for making beer. Brewing became Milwaukee's trademark and helped make the city an industrial powerhouse. Well-paying jobs attracted new waves of immigrants from all across Europe. The 1910 census found more than 40 different nationalities that called Milwaukee home.
World War I dimmed the city's multicultural atmosphere, however. German was no longer taught in the public schools, and German culture lost its predominance. The Prohibition era that followed the war closed many breweries for 13 years but precipitated the development of a more diversified economy, which grew to center on precision manufacturing.
Milwaukee lost much of its industrial base in the 1970s and '80s, so it made a transition to a service economy. Key industries included automation, medical technology, banking, printing and consumer goods. At the same time, an ambitious building campaign began, including projects such as the Performing Arts Center, Grand Avenue Mall, RiverWalk, the Miller Park baseball stadium with its retractable roof and the futuristic addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Historic neighborhoods such as Brewers' Hill, Walker's Point and Bay View are being redeveloped, creating vital residential areas within the city. Milwaukee also launched a building frenzy of high-rise condominiums that overlook Lake Michigan, the Milwaukee River or downtown.
Developers have favored mixed-use commercial/retail/residential buildings in the trendier areas, such as the East Side and the Historic Third Ward. Although these neighborhoods are still perceived as artist-friendly, many residents fear rising housing costs are diminishing their diversity. Slowly gaining ground again is the downtown office market, encouraged by the return of several large employers from their self-imposed exile to the suburbs.
Milwaukee's sights are not easily organized. Unlike many cities, Milwaukee lacks a man-made focal point. Instead, it's a collection of neighborhoods, each having its own flavor, history, sights and sounds.
Downtown, the oldest sights rub shoulders with the newest. Historic buildings such as City Hall, the Plankinton Arcade in Grand Avenue Mall and the Pabst Mansion line up along Wisconsin Avenue, the city's main street. Look up as you walk and you'll see a catalog of vintage architectural styles, from pompous Flemish Renaissance to airy art deco. In striking contrast are the innovative designs of the Milwaukee Public Museum, Discovery World and the Milwaukee Art Museum with its futuristic twin sails. Nearby are several areas seemingly made for exploring on foot: Lake Drive's row of mansions, the immigrant neighborhoods along Brady Street and the historic landmarks in the Third Ward—all within minutes of downtown. The Milwaukee Trolley is the best way to tour the central area. Its route links many of the main tourist sights.
Milwaukee expanded tremendously in the 1950s and '60s, and sights from this era are located in the outlying areas—the Milwaukee County Zoo on the west side, Boerner Botanical Gardens and the Mitchell Park Domes on the south side. Any one of these could fill an enjoyable day, and each is worth a half-day at the very least.
Milwaukee's nightlife isn't as diverse as that in some other U.S. cities, though there are plenty of dance clubs and music venues. The city's heritage has left it with a plethora of German-inspired beer gardens and corner taverns. In the past, the city literally had a tavern on every corner. Though many have disappeared, Milwaukee still has an extraordinarily high number of bars for a city of its size. Many of the old taverns serve as neighborhood social centers.
Nightlife is concentrated in two main areas: The pubs lining Water Street downtown and the RiverWalk draw an after-work crowd of young professionals, and East Side bars (many around the Farwell-North intersection) attract a colorful mix of students, trendy types, businesspeople and neighborhood regulars.
From Sunday to Thursday, most bars close at 2 am; Friday and Saturday, closing time is 2:30 am.
According to one old joke, a seven-course dinner in Milwaukee means a bratwurst and a six-pack. These days, that seven-course dinner is likely to feature pad thai, prime rib, mole or moussaka.
Many of Milwaukee's most enjoyable restaurants have venerable roots in old-world cuisine. That isn't to say you can't find fine dining there—the city has its share of trendy award-winners, most of them in downtown hotels or on the East Side. You'll find elegant dinner cruises plying the waters of Lake Michigan. But what Milwaukee does best is ethnic food, particularly home cooking from around the globe. Transplanted chefs from Serbia, Mexico and Thailand have brought their grandmothers' recipes home to Milwaukee's grateful citizens. German restaurants, in particular, serve hearty schnitzels, sauerbratens and Black Forest tortes that make no concession to cholesterol counts.
One Wisconsin dining experience not to be missed is a Friday fish fry. The custom originated with the Catholic prohibition against eating meat on Friday, leading the city's myriad of corner taverns to serve up dinners of fried fish, potato pancakes, coleslaw and buttered rye bread. Today, even the most upscale restaurants offer their own version of this hometown favorite, but the truly authentic fish fries are still found in neighborhood taverns and church halls. Check Milwaukee Magazine or the Friday Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for listings—or better still, ask a Milwaukeean for a recommendation. For dessert, try some frozen custard, another distinctive Milwaukee treat.
Milwaukeeans generally eat lunch between 11 am and 1 pm. Dinner is eaten between 6 and 10 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for dinner for one, not including tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$18; $$$ = US$19-$27; $$$$ = more than US$27.
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