MILWAUKEE — “Arrived in Milwaukee. Found beer,” my social media post said. Because honestly, beer is about the only thing I knew about the city. And make no mistake, beer is big there. You can tour any one of more than a dozen breweries, see the mansion that Pabst built, the ballpark that Miller built. But to say Milwaukee is all about beer is to sell it short.
Milwaukee is like a smaller, more navigable Chicago, just as beautiful with its Lake Michigan shoreline. Just as trendy with its bars, hotels and restaurants. And just as artsy with its museums and public sculptures.
You’ll find many of those public sculptures along the RiverWalk, a two-mile boardwalk that runs along both sides of the Milwaukee River with storefronts, galleries, theaters, restaurants and breweries along the way. The highlight: The Bronze Fonz statue, installed in 2008 to pay tribute to the “Happy Days” icon. Take in the bridges along the river, which will lift to let boats through. You can even kayak the Milwaukee and other rivers that converge on the city.
WHAT TO DO
Milwaukee Art Museum: As you watch the seagulls flying over Lake Michigan, you can’t help but wonder if their white wings may have been the inspiration behind the design for the striking Milwaukee Art Museum, which sits on the shores of the lake. The 341,000-square-foot museum includes the War Memorial Center (1957) designed by Gateway Arch architect Eero Saarinen, the Kahler Building (1975) by David Kahler, and the Quadracci Pavilion (2001) created by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Its cantilevered wings will open on a nice day. The museum houses more than 35,000 works of art, including an impressive Georgia O’Keeffe collection, but the architecture alone is reason to visit. ($17 adults; mam.org)
Discovery World Science + Technology Center: While this science center may not be as grandiose as Chicago’s or as animated as St. Louis’, it captivated my 13-year-old’s attention more than either one of those ever has because it has found a way to turn science into games. Learn about aviation through a flight simulator, learn about technology with a (really realistic) virtual reality game, learn about music by making it. The light-filled building along Lake Michigan is really two attractions in one: a science center up front and an aquarium (or aquatarium as they call it) in back. And behind that, a tall ship you can set sail on for an extra charge. (Museum admission is $19 for adults; $16 for 3-17; discoveryworld.org)
Pabst Mansion: Walk around the campus area of Marquette University and suddenly you come upon a verdant lawn with a huge mansion rising from it. The Capt. Frederick Pabst Mansion is open for 75-minute guided tours daily. Originally the home of the founder of Pabst Brewing Co. (and magnificently restored to that late 1800s time period), the home was owned for years by the archdiocese of Milwaukee. It’s now owned by a nonprofit. I got a tour from Executive Director John Eastberg. He explained that the exterior is a Flemish Renaissance Revival style. The interior? For starters it has 10 bathrooms, but the decor is the best of 300 years of European style. “It was the 1890s idea of sweeping up the best of Europe and distilling it in their homes,” Eastberg said. ($12; pabstmansion.com)
Harley-Davidson Museum: Truth be told, I did not visit this (we ran out of time), but so many people told me I should that I thought I’d include it here. The 20-acre museum campus sits along the Menomonee River with plenty of free parking. Visit Milwaukee’s website says: “At the museum, you’ll see more than 450 motorcycles and artifacts, dating back to the oldest known Harley-Davidson motorcycle: Serial Number One, and learn stories of extraordinary products, people, history and Harley-Davidson culture.” ($20 adults; harley-davidson.com/museum)
Brewery tours: There is certainly no shortage of brewery tours in Milwaukee. The Lakefront Brewery tour often ends up on best-of lists, and the funny tour guides are often cited as why. Miller Brewery is probably the most akin to St. Louis’ Anheuser-Busch tours. You can tour Best Place at the Pabst Brewery, but there isn’t any actual brewing going on there anymore, so as Thrillist says, “It’s more of a beer history tour.” We had two 13-year-old boys with us, so we chose to tour Sprecher, which is known almost as much for its soda as its beer. In fact, our tour guide told us that its root beer outsells all its other beers and sodas combined. For $8 you get a 30-minute tour, four (or five, if the bartender is feeling generous) beer samples in the dark, indoor beer garden and unlimited soda. You do need to make reservations. (sprecherbrewing.com).
WHERE TO EAT
In 1996, Sandy D’Amato was the first Milwaukee chef to win a James Beard award. His restaurant, Sanford, is still around, and still hard to get into on a weekend night. Since then, restaurants such as Ardent and Braise have also received accolades.
If you want a quick taste of Milwaukee’s food scene, check out the Milwaukee Public Market, where independent restaurants, growers and artisans share space for convenient shopping and dining. Buy spices or handmade jewelry, shop a local wine seller or buy cheeses, sausages and fresh produce or grab a bite at one of the many restaurants featuring a wide range of food, from tacos to Thai to a fresh fish market and restaurant. There are plenty of tables on the second level or take your food to go to eat along the river, just yards away.
On our first night in Milwaukee, we showed up during a Thursday night Green Bay Packers game. The bars and restaurants up and down Old World Third Street had their doors and windows open, TVs blaring and beers flowing. We tried the Uber Tap Room, listed on several must-go lists for Milwaukee for its extensive Milwaukee beer selection. But its kitchen was inexplicably closed at 7:30. They recommended a sister restaurant down the street called the Valhalla Nordic Tap House. It was so new, it didn’t even have a sign. But the Nordic food (Swedish meatballs) was full of flavor, and they had beer and cheese curds, a Milwaukee staple; for good reason, they are delicious.
For my son, the highlight of the whole trip was probably dinner at the Safe-House restaurant. The food (and beer) were good, but I’m not sure he and his friend even noticed. First, to get into the restaurant you either have to know the password or do something a little silly. We had to put on disguises and do Charlie’s Angels poses. A camera captures it all, so when you enter the restaurant, you get a round of applause from the patrons who just watched it on TV. Our table was in a mini jail cell, the waiter called us “spies” and the boys got a card with riddles they had to figure out before their parents told them it was time to go. So it’s a little bit escape room, and a lot of fun (there’s even a magician!). After 8 p.m., it’s an adults-only nightclub. (safe-house.com)
WHERE TO STAY
Not to be confused with the Old World Third Street area, the Historic Third Ward district is also a hip neighborhood full of shops, lofts, restaurants and hotels. We chose the Kimpton Journeyman, a boutique hotel central to everything, where you can get a cup of coffee in the morning and complimentary drinks in the evening, borrow a bike for exploring, play billiards in the lobby or relax in one of the 158 well-appointed and quirky (ours had a dog statue and a yoga mat) rooms. (Rooms start at $219; journeymanhotel.com)
The best reason to visit this hotel has to be the indoor-outdoor rooftop bar and lounge. The night we were there, about 20 fire pits were roaring, and though it was full, it wasn’t so crowded you couldn’t find a place to sit back and chill with a glass of wine. It’s not always beer in Milwaukee.