Milwaukee surprised me with its arts, outdoor adventures, dozens of tours, and eclectic food scene. No matter if you’re into arts or food or history or shopping, Milwaukee has it all and in a much more manageable way than its big brother, Chicago. Not knowing much about this city, I was overwhelmed and pleasantly surprised by all there is to see and do in “The Cream City,” named after the creamy yellow bricks many of the buildings are made from.
In late September, I bundled up against the cold breeze as I walked from the art-filled luxury of the Saint Kate Arts Hotel to the nationally acclaimed Milwaukee Public Market in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward.
Too many people had recommended this new central marketplace filled with artisan goods and freshly prepared foods by local merchants, and I was starving already for some good, creative Wisconsin fare.
My head pounding from enjoying too many craft beers at numerous local breweries the night before, I wandered through this two-story public market that mixed local goods and groceries with dozens of food vendors whipping up everything from traditional brats to Mediterranean gyros and Indian tandooris.
This public market hosts a convenient second floor to hang out and enjoy your meal. Armed with a bag of famous Wisconsin cheese curds, I stuffed my stomach, grabbed a local beer for a little hair of the dog recovery, and walked back to the St. Kate along the famous Milwaukee Riverwalk.
I still had the entire day of exploring ahead of me, and frankly, I was stymied on which adventure to choose.
Even walking the RiverWalk — which weaves through the heart of the city and different historic neighborhoods along the Milwaukee River — brings you face to face with German heritage, artistic exhibitions, and more brewpubs You could take an entire day just exploring the city by foot.
Without further ado, here are nine incredible things to do in magnificent Milwaukee!
1. Tour The City By The River
As noted above, the Milwaukee RiverWalk is one of the best ways to explore the different parts of this city that grew from the bones of the foundry, machinery, and metal-working industries, as well as brewing and grain.
Today’s RiverWalk winds more than 20 blocks from north to south through three distinct neighborhoods — The Historic Third Ward, the downtown district, and the Beerline B.
Throughout the entire walk, which is roughly 3 miles, you can enjoy the RiverSculpture Initiative, which includes both permanent pieces and temporary installations, while watching kayakers, tour boats, and barges go by.
The Historic Third Ward has been named Wisconsin’s “SoHo” for its artistic atmosphere. Home to more than 20 galleries and art studios, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), and boutique stores and restaurants, the Third Ward is home to the famed Milwaukee Public Market and Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival.
The RiverWalk continues into the Downtown RiverWalk, which includes the city’s largest theater district and Old World Third Street, a three-block historic German heritage neighborhood just north of downtown.
Being of German descent, I loved the Old World Third Street, which looks as if it stepped right out of turn-of-the-century Milwaukee. Home to Usinger Sausage, The Spice House, the Old German Beer Hall, and The Brat House, this cobblestone-lined street contains European-style buildings that make you feel like you’re in a small village in Germany instead of the heart of one of Wisconsin’s biggest cities.
The RiverWalk continues down into the Beerline B district, a former industrial rail line that is now a charming mix of residential and commercial. Mostly, unless you love looking at redeveloped neighborhoods and condos, you’ll likely find yourself at Lakefront Brewery, housed in a 1908 coal-burning power plant and made into a fun, neighborhood hangout with great beer, food, and a view of the river.
Pro Tip: Though 3 miles doesn’t sound like much, it’s a long walk to do the entire RiverWalk. Be sure to bring good, sturdy walking shoes, and don’t be afraid to call a cab or rideshare if it gets too much. I carry a foldable backpack on walks like these to carry back all the food, items, and beer that I end up buying!
If your timing is right, you can watch all the bridges over the river lift to allow the boats to go under.
2. Tour Around History And Architecture
Milwaukee is known as the “Cream City” for the creamy yellow clay that was used for the foundations of many of Milwaukee’s famed buildings and theaters. Luckily, you can tour all the stunning architecture in and around Milwaukee through a variety of guided and self-guided tours.
If you want to see the downtown area by the air, you can scroll the Skywaukee skywalk system to learn about historic downtown landmarks.
An easy way to see all the city’s landmarks is with the Milwaukee Historic Streetcar Tour which includes in-depth guided information on various neighborhoods.
Historic Milwaukee offers a wide variety of tours ranging from walking tours of the historic German Old World Third Street to private guided tours of the North Point mansions.
In fact, there are more historic architectural tours than you could possibly squeeze into one visit, but some not-to-miss sites include a tour of the Basilica of St. Josaphat, which was built in 1901 as the largest church in Milwaukee; the historic Oriental Theatre, which is Milwaukee’s only operating movie palace; and The Pfister Hotel, home to the world’s largest hotel collection of Victorian art.
Other fun tours in the city include haunted gothic tours, seven-seat bike tours, and interactive tours of the city in an open-air MKE Cruiser.
3. Speaking Of Theater
If you love live concerts, plays, comedies, and performances, Milwaukee has plenty to offer. Milwaukee has some of the oldest and largest performing arts companies in the state, as well as a big live music scene in historic venues.
On any given day, you’ll find big Broadway hits, eclectic small independent theater offerings, ballet, major philharmonic productions, and small, local singers/songwriters.
Some of the most historic theaters and performing arts spaces in Milwaukee to check out include the Pabst Theater, the Skylight Music Theatre, the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, The Miller High Life Theater, the Marcus Center for Performing Arts, and the brand new Bradley Symphony Center, the new home for the Milwaukee Symphony, just to name a few.
4. Become A Cheesehead!
If you’re a Green Bay Packers fan, or you just like the “cheesehead” hats sports fans wear, then don’t miss out on a tour of the Original Cheesehead Factory, which makes the big yellow cheesy hats.
The Original Cheesehead Factory celebrates the history of the famous foam hats, revels in cheesy puns, and allows you to make your very own Cheesehead creation.
5. Museums, Museums, And More Museums
The Milwaukee Public Museum is Milwaukee’s museum of natural history while the Jewish Museum Milwaukee explores the history of the Jewish community in southeastern Wisconsin. Other notable museums to explore include the Pabst Mansion — originally the home of the Pabst family and then the archbishop’s residence and the center of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee for more than 67 years — the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University, and the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum.
America’s Black Holocaust Museum will re-open in Milwaukee in February 2022 and is a testament to the Black experience in America. The Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum also documents and preserves the historical heritage of African Americans in the state.
Of course, no trip to Milwaukee is complete without a visit to the Museum of Beer and Brewing!
6. Taste Milwaukee
From German favorites like brats and schnitzel to a sampling of Milwaukee’s vast ethnic cuisine, a food tour will give you a thorough “taste” of this city and its history.
Visit Milwaukee’s food tours offer unique looks at the food of each of the city’s neighborhoods as well as the history of delicacies found in the city.
Even better, mix up a food tour with a brewery and pub tour, and eat and drink your way through the city!
7. Get Festive
Milwaukee may be home to the largest music festival in the U.S. — Summerfest — but it excels with other festivals ranging from musical to cultural celebrations.
From Juneteenth celebrations, The Polish Fest, the Lakefront Festival of Art, and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to Art in Bloom, the Locust Street Festival, Croatia Fest, and the Dragonboat Festival, Milwaukee has earned its reputation as “The City of Festivals.”
For a calendar of events, click here.
8. Say Hi To The Bronze Fonz
For all you fans of the sitcom Happy Days, be sure to stop by The Bronze Fonz on Milwaukee’s RiverWalk for a quick selfie! After all, the popular sitcom took place in 1950s Milwaukee, and the statue — installed in 2008 — immortalizes Arthur Fonzarelli, aka “Fonzie,” who was the king of cool from Happy Days.
Pro Tip: The Bronze Fonz is located just south of Wells Street on the RiverWalk.
9. Drink Das Bier!
Milwaukee is known for its breweries and no trip to the city is complete without at least one brewery stop. From the historic breweries like the Miller Brewing giant to the Pabst Brewing Company to dozens of smaller craft breweries, Milwaukee earns its nickname of “Brew City.”
One cool way to drink up the malty fun is to get a Brew City Beer Pass through Visit Milwaukee. With this free digital beer pass, you can score buy one, get one beers from many of the best breweries in the Greater Milwaukee area.
No matter what your interest is, Milwaukee has something incredible for you.