Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Great Beer, Music Festivals and Art
What made Milwaukee famous and more
By Max Hartshorne,
Milwaukee is a city filled with festivals, outdoor activities, a remarkable art museum, and lots and lots of great beer. It is located right on Lake Michigan, and the shoreline is refreshingly devoid of the high rise hotels, casinos, and other attractions. Instead, Milwaukee offers rolling green space where in the warm months you can enjoy a different music festival practically every week.
The city’s Summerfest is the world’s largest music festival, taking place over 11 days with 13 different stages and all many styles of music. There is also a variety of food, shopping, and children’s activities all day and into the night.
A city of about 600,000, Milwaukee is home to Marquette University and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. It is also home to Miller Brewing, Sprecher Brewery, and dozens of smaller breweries, as well as Harley-Davidson and Miller Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers and the Bradley Center home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
The city recently tore down a few miles of interstate highway, and will soon be replacing this eyesore with shops and restaurants, parkland and more of the city’s ubiquitous “high-end condos.”
WHEN TO GO?
Milwaukee is a fun place to visit, but it can be chilly. I was there in late April and it was blustery and cool. The summer months when the festivals are taking place by the lake and the weather is warm would be best time to visit.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
There are many direct flights to Milwaukee, it is the hub for Midwest Airlines. I flew directly from Hartford CT. A new high-speed ferry called the Lake Express has recently begun transporting cars and passengers across Lake Michigan from Muskegon, in two and one-half hours. 800-554-1448. There are many rental car companies serving the Mitchell Airport, and the city is also served by Greyhound Bus Lines and Amtrak passenger rail service.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION
Milwaukee is full of bars, but this one has a special attraction. The Holler House, at 2042 West Lincoln Ave, is home to the nation’s oldest bowling alley. Two lanes can be found in the basement of this historic corner tap room. You have to call ahead so the owners can arrange for a pin-setter to be on duty. Marcy, the 75-year-old owner, can provide you with racy tales of the old days over cheap beers. 414-647-9284.
Milwaukeeans I met during my stay say that what they like best about the city is that there is so much to do. During the warm months, there are music concerts by the river, jazz in another park, and an array of ethnic street fairs and other activities to please anyone. They also talked about the friendliness of the city, that small town feeling even in a big city atmosphere.
When I was visiting, Elton John was playing at the Bradley Center, and the city’s nightlife was bustling on Brady Street. You can enjoy the cool atmosphere of a neighborhood pub, they are all over. I enjoyed a Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR, for those in the know) at the funky Nomad World Bar, on Brady St. This little bar is definitely worth a visit, it is filled with cool people and feels like a place where everybody goes.
Another worthy stop is the French inspired café, bar, tabac, Trocadero, on Water St. They offer a fine wine list, champagne by the glass, a selection of French ciggies, and a decidedly upscale European atmosphere on two floors. Another fun place is the high-ceilinged Lakefront Brewery, where on Friday nights you can enjoy their fish fry, a Milwaukee tradition as strong as their famous frozen custard.
While the bars are always fun to check out, the gem of the city is definitely the Milwaukee Art Museum. Located right next to Lake Michigan, the newest section of the museum is the most dramatic.
The collection includes one of the world’s largest number of paintings by Georgia O’Keefe, (a Wisconsin native) but the most impressive aspect of the museum is the building, designed by Santiago Calatrava.
It has a 90-foot high glass-walled reception hall enclosed by the Burke Brise Soleil, a sunscreen that can be raised or lowered creating a unique moving sculpture, with a fantastic wing-like roof bigger than the wingspan of a Boeing 747. Tourists and locals will line up on the sidewalk outside the museum at 10 am to watch the wings open, signaling that the museum doors are now open.
BEST ACTIVITY OR TOUR
Milwaukee’s population is about 37% African American, and the city’s race relations history is checkered. Jill Florence Lackey, a PhD in anthropology, studies the history of the city’s ethnicities and takes tours of the neighborhoods.
One such place was called “Bronzeville,” but it was destroyed in the ’60s when an interstate highway wiped out hundreds of businesses and homes of black people on East Walnut St. We walked through the former Bronzetown neighborhood with Jill and Ivory Abena Black, one of Urban Anthropology’s tour guides, and learned a great deal about the history here.
The community center we visited included many photos showing the vibrant neighborhood and stores that once graced this boulevard. You can arrange a tour and these and many other neighborhoods on walking tours. urban-anthropology.org, 414-271-9417.
There are more than 3600 hotel rooms downtown, from B&B’s to the upscale Wyndham Hotel. The Hotel Metro, in the historic East Town area, features retro furnishings and 65 suites with ’60s style furniture, free WIFI, two-line speaker phones, big desks and super smooth sheets.
The bathrooms are dazzling with mirrors and glass everywhere. The County Clare is an authentic Irish B&B with 31 rooms, and a lively pub downstairs where they also serve a hearty breakfast, (included with room rate). The CC is located right by the lake, and the rooms are about $100 per night.
Other choices are the Knickerbocker Hotel, (100 rooms) which is both a condo and a hotel, with old-fashioned rooms with kitchenettes and high ceilings.
Milwaukee is a city with thousands of good choices for dining. We enjoyed a fancy feast at the newly opened Roots Restaurant and Cellar, up on a hill overlooking the soon to be redeveloped Pabst City area. The farmer-chef-owner here uses many organic and natural ingredients, my halibut was excellent piled high in an artful display.
The place to go for very special occasions like anniversary dinners is Sanford, a 26-seat establishment in a residential neighborhood with a huge reputation. Friday nights in Milwaukee are known as Fish fry nights, when a cavernous place like the Lakefront Brewery fills up with folks thirsty for their homemade beer and fried fish. The family style seating here encourages conversation, though it can be a bit loud with the polka players cranking out the tunes. We enjoyed talking politics with our tablemates one Friday.
A fun splurge is brunch at the Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro, where you can enjoy French cuisine and a view of the whitecaps on the lake. It is the place where famous people come to be photographed with the chef, part of an empire of restaurants by the same name.
Milwaukee’s downtown highlight is the RiverWalk, ten city blocks with a walking/bike trail curving its way through the heart of the city. Microbreweries, pubs and restaurants grace each side of the walk, and you can view the neon sculpture “Dream with the Fishes” lit up at night. There are also gondola rides and river cruises during the warm months.