Updated: Sunday, August 20, 2017, 3:01 AM
There's always something to celebrate in Milwaukee. And I'm not talking about just the music, food, and art festivals that fill the summer, or the azure views of Lake Michigan, or even the city's beer-steeped history.
I'm talking about the jovial bands of people walking the streets of downtown every time I visit - bachelorette parties, bachelor parties, wedding parties, father-daughter dances. Really, any occasion that calls for packing the flask and breaking out the party gear.
I understand why they choose the Brew City. My husband and I love making weekend trips there from our home in Chicago. It's small enough that getting around is easy and it feels safe, but it's big enough that we discover a new neighborhood, a quirky shop, restaurant, or bar on every visit.
Though the drinking-and-dining scene has long moved beyond its beer-and-brats reputation, you can still find plenty of that beer and those brats (including craft and artisanal forms), along with frozen custard and squeaky cheese curds galore. (It's the Dairy State for a reason.) Plus, it's affordable, and there's truth to that whole Midwestern kindness thing. Don't put on airs, and it's likely you will be welcomed with open arms.
Local faves. When in Brew City, do as the Brew Citizens do and raise a pint. A quenching place to start is the Pabst Milwaukee Brewery & Taproom, one of the newest craft breweries in the city, set in an old Gothic Revival church that formerly served as a Pabst-owned bar and restaurant. New and Pabst sound contradictory, considering the Pabst name has deep history in Milwaukee dating to the 19th century. But it moved its brewing operations out of town in the 1990s. And the latest incarnation isn't brewing hipster Pabst Blue Ribbon (although you can buy that here), but is brewing small-batch beers with more depth and intrigue than the canned red-white-and-blue classic.
For a DIY Pabst tour, take a stroll around the block, and you'll see Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, which walks visitors through the history of Pabst. You'll pass the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, a hotel built inside the old Pabst plant. About a mile from there, you might get a deeper feel for the family's history with a visit to Pabst Mansion, where Frederick Pabst and his family lived.
For Frank Lloyd Wright, it wasn't all Fallingwater and Taliesin. The Wisconsin-born architect believed beautiful houses should be affordable at all income levels, and in the early 1900s, he created a series of designs for small houses, known as American System-Built Homes, the pieces of which could be cut in advance and assembled on site to save on waste and cost. You can see six of them on West Burnham Street, and docents with the nonprofit organization Wright in Milwaukee lead tours of one of them. (The tours are offered Fridays and Saturdays in summer and early fall but become more sporadic as winter sets in.) Travel tip: One of the privately owned Wright-designed houses on the street is beautifully restored and available for overnight stays via VRBO.com.
Guidebook musts. Is it meta that the buildings housing the Milwaukee Art Museum are works of art as well? My favorite is the white pavilion designed by architect Santiago Calatrava that looks like a modernist bird, a cathedral, or maybe a yacht, depending on the time of day you see it and whether its wings - 72 steel fins that act as a sunscreen - are open or closed.
Save a couple of hours for exploring the museum's wide-ranging collection, which includes dark portraits from baroque Europe and brighter pop pieces, such as one of Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup paintings, as well as an extensive Georgia O'Keeffe collection (she was from Wisconsin), swanky furniture by Herman Miller, vintage cameras - and continual natural art in the form of sparkling Lake Michigan views through the museum's floor-to-ceiling windows.
The double-decker Milwaukee Boat Line Sightseeing Cruise toots along the Milwaukee River out to Lake Michigan, alerting bridge operators to raise theem up and let it pass. During the 90-minute cruise, the guide regaled us with stories of Milwaukee's industrial history as we passed old brick tanneries, brick masonry factories, and cold-storage warehouses; architectural history via the skyline and especially that winged Milwaukee Art Museum; and Great Lakes insights such as the fact that the five lakes hold about one-fifth of all the fresh water on Earth.
If you're lucky, you'll get to hear some traces of lovable Midwestern aw-shucks earnestness. Our guide was talking about a lighthouse now powered by solar. "Which," she said, "I think is pretty darn neat."
Local faves. Tubular meats - including some vegan versions - are the draw at Vanguard. Go global with the Guzman, seasoned Yucatan venison with pork fat, sour orange, and achiote. Or keep it local with a jalapeño-cheddar bratwurst topped "Milwaukee-style," slathered in cheese spread, shredded cheddar, and squeaky fried cheese curds. It's nap-inducingly delicious. This isn't your typical corner bratwurst joint. It's also a bustling craft cocktail bar, and specialty sausages come with beer/cocktail-pairing suggestions.
Frozen custard isn't the exception in the Dairy State, but the rule. Ask someone to name the best, and you might spark a war (which this recommendation also could lead to), but I stand firm in my love of the butter pecan at Leon's Frozen Custard - with its rich, creamy base and crisp, salty pecans - handed to you from a neon-covered walk-up joint that dates to 1942. This custard alone is worth the 90-minute drive from Chicago. As you are waiting in line (and you are likely to be waiting in line), you can watch as machines gurgle out reams of the frozen confection while staffers in white caps and bow ties scoop it up to serve.
Guidebook musts. My three Chicago companions and I were blown away by Braise, which devises its seasonal menus based on what's available from Wisconsin farms, using all parts, from "root to leaf" and "nose to tail." Offerings change regularly, but what's consistent is global influence, depth of flavor, and alluring textures - such as the chickpea pancake made with summer squash and topped with salty whipped feta, and the rich, steamed pork buns with chive vinaigrette and crushed, spicy peanuts. With a mix of shareable small and not-so-small plates, there's an impressive variety for carnivores, vegetarians, and pescetarians, as well as an eclectic craft cocktail menu. I had a rum cocktail with strawberry, banana, and, oddly, asparagus cream that tasted much better than it sounds and that is served in a skull mug. Fun fact: Braise even created a service to act as a food hub so other restaurants and customers could easily access produce, baked goods, meats, and dairy items from the farms and artisans it works with.
Milwaukee is a city that loves brunch, and the European-style Cafe Benelux - named for Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg - draws crowds for its alfresco seating (rooftop and street-level patio) and eclectic offerings, such as the pretzel Benedict (pretzel bread, ham, poached eggs, and hollandaise); bananas Foster liege waffles; and a savory waffle made with hash browns and topped with steak. Breakfast is also served nightly, as are mussels, frites, and burgers. Save some time to read through the 50-page "bierbook," which is updated seasonally and which highlights unique craft beers from Belgium, Holland, and the United States.
Local faves. If you've ever thought, "Where in the heck do I get an owl pellet to dissect?" Milwaukee has your answer. It's American Science & Surplus, where you can also find dissection tools, including those waxy trays from middle school. This large, brightly lighted suburban shop offers aisle after aisle of experiments, microscopes, telescopes, lab glasses, gyroscopes, and just about anything a STEM-loving person could want or need. Plus, there is a solid selection of toys, tools, military items, motors, and even the occasional hatching dinosaur-egg novelty. Because it's a surplus store, you never know quite what you're going to find, so you'll probably have more fun if you go without a specific need in mind (and just hope to walk out with that owl pellet).
Fedoras, porkpies, cadet caps, cloches, derby hats, church hats, intricate fascinators - the specimens are stunning at two neighboring hat shops: The Hen House for her and the Brass Rooster Hat Co. for him. Major brands are available, as are custom creations made with equipment that dates to the 19th century. You don't hear the words hatter and millinery much these days, but these two shops will make you appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into a quality chapeau.
Guidebook musts. Mod Gen - short for Modern General Store - had me at "arugula candle." This gift shop, amid blocks of boutiques in the reclaimed warehouses of the Historic Third Ward, is packed with gifts and trinkets - artfully displayed stationery, stickers, birdhouses, handmade soaps, hundreds of houseplants, and a section dedicated to items made locally - that maybe you didn't need but suddenly realize you can't leave without. Like the hedgehog trivet that came home with me.
Follow the giant red neon sign that says "Milwaukee Public Market" and explore this gourmet/retail institution. There's a seafood counter; restaurants; bakeries; purveyors of wine, cheese, and sausage; kitchen accessories; and, one of my favorites, Brew City Brand Apparel, where T-shirts pay homage to insider Wisconsin tidbits. The "Call Me Old-Fashioned" shirt is a nod to the Badger State's official cocktail, and the "Where's the bubbler?" T-shirt flexes a bit of when-in-Wisconsin vocabulary: bubbler means water fountain.
Local fave. The smell from the wood-fire oven hits as I walk through the doors of Kimpton Journeyman Hotel, one of Milwaukee's newest, and it immediately scores on the cozy front. (The complimentary wine happy hours in the lobby's living room area add to that, as do a fireplace and pool table.)
The rooms have a playful, residential feel. And wait until you see the bathtubs: Huge! Beyond the rooms, the whole hotel is a winner. The first-floor restaurant, Tre Rivali, is lucky to have chef Heather Terhune, who makes pitch-perfect Mediterranean fare ranging from wood-grilled artichokes and pizza to handmade pastas and inspired seafood dishes.
One of the best parts of being a guest: I didn't have to stand in the 20-person-deep line to get up to the ninth-floor rooftop lounge, the Outsider. I just hopped in the elevator using my key card, hit No. 9, and ducked through the tight crowd to take in the glimmering rooftop views.
Guidebook must. Built in 1927, the Hilton Milwaukee City Center is bedecked with marble and chandeliers. Its lobby seating nooks are a great place to hunker down in opulence with a laptop. Featuring more than 700 rooms, the art deco Hilton is the largest hotel in the city, which means you can often nab a comfortable room for a bargain. But the primary reason I'm recommending the Hilton over other hotels (there are some great ones in Milwaukee) is the service. I once fell ill after a long, hot cycling trip, and I needed to go to the emergency room. The hotel's cheerful shuttle driver transported me to the hospital at 2 a.m. and picked me up the next day and brought me home. That's the kind of treatment you don't forget when ing.
Local faves. It took all of 10 minutes walking up artsy South Kinnickinnic Avenue - the main drag in the Bay View neighborhood - for my husband and me to nod and agree, "Yep, this is where we'd live if we moved here." We wandered into the Tip Top Atomic Shop eyeing the vintage clothing, peeked inside the historic Avalon Theater, considered a game at an old-school bowling alley, and took in an array of tempting bars and restaurants (Sugar Maple, Odd Duck, Goodkind, Vanguard, Honeypie), as well as a solid mix of record shops, comic book shops, tattoo parlors, and tire stores along with places with words like co-op, collective, and emporium in their names. It was a little bit hippie, a little bit hipster, and we'll be back next time.
Guidebook musts. The warehouse district, known as Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward, has found new, trendy life. Now, the old brick buildings - which are on the National Register of Historic Places - are filled with boutiques, galleries, art studios, restaurants, bars, and other versions of visitor catnip. With hundreds of businesses in about 10 square blocks, there's an urban density and energy I haven't yet felt elsewhere in Milwaukee. Bordered by the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan, this neighborhood is an easy launching point for exploring the Riverwalk, attending the annual Summerfest (an enormous music festival that lasts 11 days and draws nearly one million people), hopping on a Bublr (the bike-share program), or just taking in the sights of the old warehouse structures, some renovated, some a little spooky.
Read full story: Venturing beyond beer and brats in Milwaukee