It’s true -- the beer and bratwurst are worth the trek. But you’ll find so much more in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: beautiful historic neighborhoods, a lively lakefront, and a muscular manufacturing heritage.
Once the winter chill has lifted, Milwaukee is at its best. The city’s lakefront is spectacular year-round but offers endless opportunities for walking in the spring, summer, and fall. If you’re arriving via Amtrak and going carless for a downtown weekend, plan to visit during the warmer months. While hardy Wisconsinites don’t shy away from driving in the winter, unpredictable prairie and lake winds sweep snow across the highways, complicating travel.
Orient yourself by remembering that Lake Michigan is always to the east. The downtown area is pleasantly walkable, with a cluster of museums anchoring the lakefront parks. The Milwaukee River bends through the city’s downtown and is partially walkable via a riverwalk that is occasionally interrupted by buildings and unfinished stretches. Pere Marquette Park, on the west side of the river at the intersection of West State Street and North Old World Third Street, is a good starting point.
On the east side of downtown, Cathedral Square Park is a popular venue for summer concerts. The park is surrounded by restaurants and breweries.
Immediately south of the downtown area are two historic neighborhoods -- the Third Ward and Walker’s Point -- each with a nucleus of attractions.
Thirty minutes north of downtown is Cedarburg, a village with an adorable downtown and pioneer-era buildings. If you are driving, plan to head to Cedarburg, which rolls out the wooden sidewalk for visitors in search of the cute and quaint.
What’s Milwaukee without a brewery tour? Fortunately, downtown abounds with craft breweries and old-fashioned dives. If you’re planning a car-free weekend, you can imbibe to your limit and recover at a downtown hotel.
Guided brewery tours are the best way to sample an array of beers and learn about their production and heritage. Fun Beer Tours offers themed tours of downtown and neighborhood breweries for about $30 per person. MobCraft Beer is the starting point for its brewery tours.
You can also load up on beer and brats in the festive shops and restaurants of Old World Third Street. Located on the western bank of the river, the street is a walking tour all by itself, and you can offset the alcohol with sausages from Usinger’s Famous Sausage. You’ll know you’ve arrived by the storybook elves decorating the storefront. Insider tip: Ask about "end pieces," which are unlovely bits that are just as tasty at half the price.
The small permanent collection is eclipsed by the spectacular addition designed by Santiago Calatrava, which carves air into space with its soaring curved walls. The Milwaukee Art Museum regularly hosts top-notch traveling exhibits. Its airy café is home to some of the best seats in town.
While hands-on museums are usually the purview of youngsters, this science and technology museum tackles environmental issues, too, linking current news and the scientific method.
Whether you thought you were wild for hogs or not, you’ll be a convert by the time you’ve been through the extensive collection of motorcycles and motorcycle memorabilia at the Harley-Davidson Museum. (Get it? Harley-Davidson motorcycles are sometimes called "hogs.") Plenty of hands-on exhibits let you try on cycles for size and effect. The gift shop is worth the stop all by itself.
Yes, the rich are different, as this lushly decorated monument to the lifestyle of the Victorian 1 percent amply demonstrates. Marvel at the intricate woodwork, textiles, and finishes of this spectacular mansion, which was once the home of the city’s most famous beer baron.
The nonprofit Historic Milwaukee offers walking tours of various parts of the city. If you want to tour Milwaukee without paying a fee, you can take a self-guided tour using the nonprofit’s printable walking guides to the city’s architecturally distinct neighborhoods.
In the very northeast corner of the city -- a 10-minute drive from downtown -- you’ll find this elegant restaurant perched on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Fish, duck, and lamb are highlights of the classic French menu.
Milwaukee is at its best when the sun glints off the Milwaukee River and a light breeze blows across Lake Michigan. If you’re lucky enough to be in town on such a day, grab an Asian chicken roll from the Milwaukee Waterfront Deli and find a bench along the riverwalk.
Start or end a long walk along the glorious Lake Michigan waterfront at this café, which offers light breakfast and roasted coffee in a Victorian pumping station.
Can you claim you’ve been to Milwaukee if you haven’t had sauerbraten, schnitzel, or anything wurst? Of course not. Mader’s is every German stereotype on steroids: The restaurant is decorated with steins and dark woodwork and staffed by dirndl-wearing waitresses.
Insanely popular since it opened about 10 years ago, the Milwaukee Public Market is an upscale food court that offers a smorgasbord of Wisconsin’s best, from cheese to European baked goods just like great-grandma used to make. This is the place to find Brew City-themed souvenirs, though hand-blended seasonings from The Spice House or chocolates from Kehr’s Candies make equally delightful mementos.
With its huge, shaded patio, Café Benelux is the perfect place to start or end your stroll around the Third Ward. View the city skyline from the café’s roof deck or take in the street scene from the sidewalk patio. One highlight of the modern German restaurant’s menu is a local sausage trio garnished with Wisconsin cherry chutney. The café serves brunch daily, and the menu is one of the most varied in the city. Be sure to try the blueberry waffles!
Live the burgher life in this historic hotel. Even if you’re not a guest, you should walk through the opulent lobby to see the building’s barrel-vaulted ceiling. The afternoon tea (reservations required) offers a luxurious break with fancy food and cushy surroundings. The Pfister tends to be pricey, so comb through its weekend getaway packages for deals that include tickets to attractions like the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Housed behind a historic façade, this reasonably priced chain hotel is located in the middle of the downtown action.
As macho as a hotel gets, this wood-and-leather behemoth is located just south of downtown and a short walk from the Harley-Davidson Museum. As you might suspect, it regularly hosts motorcycle enthusiasts.
Four-poster beds -- check. Patchwork quilts -- check. Fancy bathrooms -- check. Warm muffins in a cozy breakfast room -- check. If it’s the quintessential bed and breakfast you’re after, you’ll find it at the Washington House Inn in Cedarburg. The inn serves as an excellent home base for exploring Cedarburg and the northern suburbs.