When I told people that I was headed up to visit Milwaukee, I was met with an overwhelming “Why?”
I kind of get it. Nobody just goes to Milwaukee on vacation (at least not over here on the East Coast). Maybe you might head up for a day or two if you were visiting Chicago, or if you had friends in the area, but otherwise, why bother? What’s even there?
I also believe that there is something of interest in almost every city, especially in this vast and varied country I call home. I didn’t know much about Milwaukee, but what I did know sounded pretty great: cheese and beer, basically all I need to be happy anywhere. I was excited to see what else the city had to offer.
What I found out was that Milwaukee is actually a really pleasant place. Not just pleasant, but cool and interesting too, with yes, awesome beer. There are actually a lot of other cool reasons to go out of your way for Milwaukee
The beer in Milwaukee is freaking fantastic but I’ll be talking about that in another post. What surprised me though was the emphasis on cocktail culture. I don’t know if it’s some Midwest throwback to the fifties, but Old Fashioneds, a whiskey and citrus drink, are definitely a Thing here.
I sampled a couple different kinds, but the best by far was the gorgeous one at Dream Dance Steak (yes, it’s in a casino). Southern Comfort, Contrieu, brown sugar, blueberries and a cinnamon stick. It was almost too pretty to drink!
Al Fresco Dining
Summer is a long time coming in this part of the world, so when the weather does get warm (it was around 80 degrees and sunny most of our late June week), the locals definitely take advantage. All along the River Walk were brew pubs and restaurants with outdoor seating and lots of people outsie enjoying the sunshine and beer.
Surprisingly though, nowhere seemed packed, like outdoor bars in DC often are. Actually nowhere in Milwaukee seemed terribly busy, aside from Summerfest. I think it’s true about there just being more space out in the Midwest.
I had no idea Harley Davidson was from Milwaukee, but they have whole-heartedly embraced their biker heritage. Even if you’re not super into bikes (I’m certainly not), it’s worth visiting the massive and modern Harley Davidson Museum. Here you can see one of the first Harley’s ever made in 1904 (essentially an electric bike), the various incarnations and attitudes towards the company over the years and even some famous Harleys from movies.
Oddly my biggest take-away from Harley Davidson was how wholesome it all seemed. From the cute old men visiting wearing Harley gear head to toe, to wall full of pictures of people across the world on their bikes, it all gave me a warm fuzzy feeling I never expected to get from a motorcycle. The Museum even does weddings.
Our first afternoon in town, Mike and I wandered around the city, taking in all the interesting looking buildings. Mostly built during the 1860’s-1880’s, and are a mix of different styles from German inspired to Romanesque and Baroque. Many are made of the areas iconic Cream City white bricks.
Even our hotel, a Hilton Garden Inn was a Natural Historic Landmark. The building was actually a restored old bank built in 1886. It was enough to make me wish I actually knew something about architecture.
The Milwaukee Art Museum
The standout building in the city though is the beautiful and modern Milwaukee Art Museum. I’m actually planning to write a whole post on this weird and beautiful building, was designed by Santiago Calatrava and somehow resembles a ship, a church and a giant bird.
One of the must-do activities in Milwaukee is to witness the opening and closing of the art museum’s giant metal wings. The wings open in the morning, flap at noon, and close in the evening.
As an East Coaster with honestly very little knowledge of the Midwest, this was most intriguing to me. Milwaukee was one of the major destinations for German (and later Polish) immigrants in the 19th and 20th century. Their cultural legacy is still very apparent today, from German architecture to customs to the food (beer and sausage of course). There’s even a pretty big German fest in July and of course, Oktoberfest.
Finally, there was the real reason we came to Milwaukee: Summerfest. Milwaukee has nicknamed itself the City of Festivals (yes, they have a bunch of nicknames) and Summerfest is definitely the king. It’s the largest music festival in the world, lasting 11 days and involving close to a million visitors each year. I’ll be writing more on this later but it’s definitely a festival worth going out of your way for.
You know, I’m able to find something interesting and worth seeing nearly everywhere I go, but in this case I feel like Milwaukee is actually really cool, and really overlooked. I know nobody goes out of their way to visit Milwaukee, but I think they should, and not just for the cheese (although oh-my-god the cheese).
Have You Been To Milwaukee?
I visited Milwaukee as a guest of Visit Milwaukee. All enthusiastically mis-informed opinions about the Midwest are my own.