Nobody ever brought up Milwaukee, Wisconsin as a “must see” destination when I started traveling around the country. Maybe that’s because Milwaukee has been keeping a secret from the rest of America – it’s a really cool place to live and visit.
“Cool” is an appropriate adjective in more ways than one. During my visit in late June, Lake Michigan was still partially frozen from the harsh Winter most of the country experienced. As I arrived, residents were all too eager to mention “Day 17” — the number of days fog had covered much of the city, even during the warmest part of the afternoon. To say that people were a bit freaked out would be an understatement.
Perhaps it’s part of the “fly-over country” mentality, but who thinks of Milwaukee when you picture beach front property? Yet, there it is! The beautiful western shores of Lake Michigan are both put to good use and protected. The stunning Milwaukee Art Museum and it’s next door neighbor, a children’s science museum called Discovery World, enjoy stunning backdrops with the lake behind them. Not even a mile down the road however, land is set aside for the sole purpose of preservation and recreation. Sunbathing, beach volleyball and swimming (if you can brave that cold water) seemed to be keeping people busy.
While enjoying a lunch break at the Milwaukee Public Market, one cashier told me about moving to the area from the East coast. She said she loved the small town feel while having all of the perks of a big city. That’s not to say Milwaukee is necessarily small. It’s still one of the 50 most populated regions in the United States. It’s the biggest city in the state of Wisconsin. But, the girl was right – it has all the makings of a small town. Traffic was not horrible, people seemed generally friendly and never once did I not feel safe as I explored the area.
Milwaukee is also a town that loves festivals. There’s a party during the year for everything you can think of. Germans, Italians, gay pride, Mexicans, Indians, Arabs, Polish and oh yeah – music. Milwaukee hosts the biggest music event you’ve probably never heard of. I’ve covered my share of music festivals in the past and had an idea of what to expect when Summerfest was added to my agenda. For years, I traveled to Nashville, Tennessee for their massive 4 day country music festival called CMA Fest. (Aka: “Fan Fair”) Let’s just say, Summerfest made the popular country music gathering look like a high school battle of the bands competition.
I was completely blown away and downright stunned as I walked the grounds and passed stage after stage of concerts. And I don’t mean like 4 or 5. There are 11 stages, many of them big enough to be housed in a venue of their own. All types of music for any taste – notables, locals, classic and bizarre — but, all music. The event goes on for 11 days, features over 800 acts and 1,000 shows. This year’s lineup included major acts such as Bruno Mars, Bonnie Raiit, Dave Matthews Band, Brad Paisley, Usher and Motley Crue.
As I checked into the hotel, my phone rang with an invitation to join the ladies of Visit Milwaukee at Summerfest for that night’s headliner – Lady Gaga. Of course, I accepted the invitation knowing that none of my friends or family would actually believe that yours truly stepped foot into a concert to watch this freak show. While freezing cold (remember the frozen lake) there I stood in my “summer” clothes (I mean it is called Summer Fest, right?) I watched as a jam packed amphitheater sang, shouted, danced and stood for nearly two hours.
One of the most popular tourist destinations in Milwaukee is the Harley Davidson Museum. Even for someone that isn’t familiar with motorcycles – it’s fun seeing the progression of the bikes through the years – including the very first one. The timing couldn’t have been better as the world’s first all-electric motorcycle was being shown to the public on the day I stopped by. I spent some time with one of the engineers who helped build it and let him start the engine live on the radio during a call-in segment back in Saint Louis.
Milwaukee has lots of walkable areas. Touring downtown, there are many reminders that people here love two things: beer and cheese. Like most of Wisconsin residents, they do not care about your cheese jokes or farmland stereotypes – they embrace both.
We made a quick stop at the former brewery for Pabst beer. We were even granted a fun, behind the scenes tour of what’s soon to be a reception hall – that once were the administrative offices for Pabst Brewery. You can see in the photo the picture of what it looked like way back then and what it’s currently being transformed into.
Many of the old buildings downtown are being transformed into new living spaces and businesses. It’s so much fun to see cities like Milwaukee come back to life and re-purpose these beautiful structures. Walking along the riverfront on what could be described as a canal through town, you see plenty of activity – boating, kayaking, and a handful of overpasses that rise up for tall vessels passing through.
At one point along the river -you’ll even stumble upon a popular picture taking spot – a statute of actor Henry Winkler as Fonzie from the hit show Happy Days. The sitcom wasn’t filmed in Milwaukee, but the show was in fact based here and Winkler is said to be a frequent visitor.
For a city that I had absolutely zero expectations for – Milwaukee turned out to be an overwhelmingly terrific stop.
**7/20/14 – An added note of thanks to the great people of Milwaukee for the INCREDIBLE response to this piece. I can’t even begin to count all of the e-mails, re-tweets and comments from readers with genuine gratitude. I always seek to find the positive in every place I visit – and it wasn’t tough to find plenty of it in Milwaukee. Keep being proud of your home town and many thanks for the heartfelt response. I’ll always remember this. -BC
You’re always welcome in Milwaukee. It’s a city that opens it’s arms and embraces new people as if they were old friends. Thank you for the wonderful review of my hometown.
Come back for ‘Doors Open’ September 20-21. It’s a great way to learn about some of the beautiful and interesting buildings of Milwaukee! My favorite is the Basilica of St. Josaphat’s. The interior is stunning!
You really did a great job highlighting the wonderful things that our city has to offer, and the quality of people who call it home!
I also forgot to ask; in your photo album, where was the “Siesta Motel” picture taken?
I am pretty sure it was taken at the Harley Davidson Museum – in one of their exhibits. Probably shouldn’t have included it – but it uploaded with the rest.
My wonderful mayor just posted this link about my Milwaukee on Facebook, so you are about to get an even larger audience and even more gratitude for appreciating my birthplace — and, decades later, despite many a trip to many wonderful cities and other places around the world, I’m still here. You captured well what we call “the biggest small town” there is (another favorite of mine is the Christian Science Monitor’s description of us as “a comfortable city”) — but, yes, there is so much more, as others have posted above, that we hope that you’ll come back to see us, again and again. I have seen a lot of changes in my long life here, but I can promise you that . . . yah, you betcha, there always will be brats, cheese, festivals, and fun awaiting you down by Milwaukee dere, ain’a!
Thank you so much for embracing and appreciating our city. You showed how we all feel about our wonderful part of the world.
Your article made me homesick. While I am now in Texas, I lived in Racine, WI, for 35 years, and worked in Milwaukee for 8 years. I made the 30-minute drive many, many times, to enjoy the Milwaukee County Zoo, the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Milwaukee Symphony, concerts and plays at the Pabst Theater, the Bradley Center, and the Performing Arts Center, major league Brewers’ baseball, Milwaukee Bucks basketball games, great shopping at stores and malls, all kinds of ethnic food restaurants, classic movies at the Oriental and the Downer, Summerfest (the world’s largest music festival), Irishfest (with the largest Irish market outside of the Emerald Isle)… I could go on and on. Thanks for spotlighting the part of the world I will always call home!
Great article. As an Oak Creek native, I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee County, and spent plenty of time in the city, from the Nutcracker and Christmas Carol every winter at the theatre, to Admirals and Bucks games at the Bradley Center, Summerfest, Irish Fest, Indian Summer, to spending my teen years hunting for Vintage apparel on the East Side. Let’s not forget Discovery World and the Betty Brinn childrens museum were childhood faves, one of my brothers first jobs was at the former. Then there’s heading down to the third ward, I could just go on, so lets just say, as far as midwest cities go, Milwaukee rocks!
Thanks for a great article! My husband and I are about to return to MKE after having spent 3 1/2 weeks in France, Wales, and Ireland. We have just had a conversation with our latest b&b hostess about swapping homes next August, so this gives me a great piece to introduce her to our area. Merci beaucoup!
We were relocated to Milwaukee from Portland, OR 10+ years ago. Our plan was to get back to Portland after a few years, but we fell in love with this place. Yep, the winter is long and cold but the city and the people are warm and welcoming. Visiting friends and family from Portland are always amazed at the architecture, restaurants, museums & festivals…and the beer!
Great article! I’m a native St Louisian & I lived in Milwaukee for 18 years. As a St Louis girl, of course I’m living back in “the Lou” now, but I do miss my 2nd home. I had some of the best times, met some of my best friends & met my husband there. It’s a fantastic place to go to college (We are Marquette!). And your description of Summerfest is dead on. Having “cut my (music festival) teeth” on Summerfest, I’m forever disappointed in most other music festivals (scale, venue, caliber of talent, etc). It’s truly underrated and I’m glad you gave it proper coverage.
Next time you visit, make sure to check out the Mexican restaurants on 6th street. If you want to venture a little further up the Lake & hit Cedarburg or Port Washington. And we haven’t even started discussing “up north.” That’s a whole other series of articles!
[…] Milwaukee – “overwhelmingly terrific” […]
I was born and raised on the simple life of Wisconsin. While I lived in Milwaukee, my family traveled to Hartford in the summer for fishing and skiing. I spent many college years rocking out on the shores of Lake Michigan at Summerfest. I have been raising my family in Oregon so my boys were excited to swim in Lake Michigan when we visited recently. I still consider Milwaukee home in my heart and would love to move back should that be possible. Thanks for reminding me of many happy memories.
Great article, but it only touches on the greatness of Milwaukee. I was a transplant here 14 year ago and I fell in love with the city.
Also, don’t let the cold remarks fool you, this has been a really odd summer. However I do often joke that you only get winter and summer in Milwaukee.
Amazing food and music scene and always something to do.
Understood – I currently live in Saint Louis where it’s 75 degrees in the middle of July… where it would normally be 100 and 99 percent humidity. Thanks for reading. I’d love to come back and explore more.
We’d love to have you back in town! Be sure to check out beautiful Bay View and delightfully bizarre Riverwest if you can find people to bring you there. Milwaukee may be a secret to the world, but Riverwest is where its weird and wonderful collaborators go to dream up new things.
Who could turn down an invite from a “shotgun Ninja”?
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, moved to the twin cities (another great area also) for several years and moved back. Milwaukee is a great city and I absolutely love it here. It also has a great night life too for the younger 20 something crowd.
Also between 27th and 28th and Burnham there is an entire block of FLW American System Built Homes. Built in 1916 by Arthur Richards. Tours the second and third Saturday of the month. People come from all over the world to visit them.
Yes, I went through there – but when you only have a couple days to explore – you have to make choices! Glad you all have such a wide variety of things to see and do.
I was born in Milwaukee, and have lived my entire 52 years in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. I now live in Wauwatosa, a city on the western edge of Milwaukee. We have a wonderful quality of life here. We have memberships to our award winning county zoo, Discovery World science kids’ museum and to our phenomenal Wauwatosa pool at Hoyt Park. If we want to catch a Brewer game, it’s a 15 minute ride to get to Miller Park. If we want to go out and take in a play, a concert or a night at the symphony, downtown is within a 20 minute drive. Bradford Beach on Lake Michigan, newly revitalized in the last several years, is one of the cleanest, best beaches you will find in the continental United States; it, too, is within a 20 minute ride on the freeway. We have an excellent school system, outstanding municipal services, friendly and helpful coworkers, friends and neighbors……I could go on and on. Love, love, love my hometown!!!!
Milwaukee is totally awesome. I’ve lived here 10 years and when I got divorced, I chose to stay even though I did not grow up here and have no family here.
I have said from almost day one that MKE is America’s biggest small town. It’s hard to find a chain store, but you’ll still find local hardware stores, tons of corner bars, and even TV repair places. Sometimes it’s like time forgot us, and I love it.
That said, it can also be insanely expensive to live here if you are ever thinking about buying a house.
Thank you for taking the time to write this article. Sorry you came during such crappy weather. It’s funny to see any article written about Milwaukee without a picture of the The Milwaukee Art Museum or talking about the restaurant scene. Your article was able to get to the heart of Milwaukee. It’s a city about good people and good times.
No, the weather was fine! It was just a little chilly during Summer Fest. Still worth it!
I came to Milwaukee because I had to. I figure I would put a couple of years and then leave. Well it turned out to be 25 and I love all that time. Yes, I learned about the secret wonderfull place this is. I have moved to another country in the last 6 months but am and will be back every summer for the oustanding summer this city provides.
I am so glad Milwaukee is such a big share of my life.
THANK YOU MILWAUKEE!
Lived here all my life except for four years in the Air Force. Our past annual reunions have been in Rapid City SD, New York City, Myrtle Beach SC, and San Antonio TX. This year 2014 it will be Milwaukee WI. I am sure my fellow veterans will have a great time.
Thank you for your kind words. As I have lived in the Milwaukee area for 9 years now finishing a doctorate degree, I will be returning to Colorado (home). I was really excited to go back to Colorado, yet every day that comes closer to moving, the sadder I get thinking about all the memories in this wonderful town. We don’t boast about Milwaukee and how great it is, we just enjoy it and know it. I’m going to miss the great cultural traditions and the old town feel of the buildings. I’m going to miss the riverboat cruises and looking out of my apartment every day to see the lake. I love seeing the improvements in Milwaukee, but also realize we have a long way to go. Milwaukee is not just the eastside or downtown or the riverfront. Milwaukee is also very segregated and there are a lot of people in poverty. I hope we make some changes to education and increasing the jobs here as well so all Milwaukeeans can enjoy everything this city has to offer. I wouldn’t trade this place for the world and I hope to come back and visit soon.
Thanks for such a great review of our city! Sounds like you need to come back for a few days to see more of what Milwaukee has to offer. We moved her (Wauwatosa) from Southern California less than 2 years ago and haven’t looked back. The city is a true hidden gem. There is so much to see, do, the people are friendly for the most part, there are beautiful neighborhoods all around and so much history. We love everything about living here, even the frigid winters!
Yes, I wish I had more time to explore. I’ll be back again, no doubt! Maybe with a moving van! 😉
Just a little correction needed to the otherwise wonderful article about our City. The Discovery World Museum is not the “Children’s Science Museum”. That would be Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, which is in close proximity to it. 🙂
Thanks for such a great article. I moved back to Wisconsin 3.5 years ago and have just loved living in Milwaukee. Coming here after living in Madison and DC I wasn’t super excited and it has surpassed everything. I can’t imagine living elsewhere. My friends who visit have been pleasantly surprised as well.
Thank you for reading!
I’ve been in the US Navy almost 8 years; did some awesome things, seen 15 different places so far to include countries, American territories, and combat zones. From Sydney to Singapore, Hong kong to Hawaii, Afghanistan to Japan, etc etc. I currently live in downtown San Diego. I’m damn proud to be from Milwaukee, and this article makes my heart soar. Take it from me, I still rate Milwaukee to be one of the best places on earth, and its about damn time the secret gets out.
I’m glad you liked the piece and thanks for your service! San Diego is probably my favorite city in America to visit — I used to live in So. Cal. But, Milwaukee is certainly a great spot!
Oh, and I forgot to add Holy Hill to the list!
I moved here quite unwillingly from the Gulf Coast. Our economy was in shambles and my husband took a great job with the huge casino downtown Being from the New Orleans area, I loved to ride my bike, but found the Coast in general to be very unfriendly to cyclists. Milwaukee is VERY bike friendly, the people are extremely nice to these Southern transplants, and we are gradually warming up to the area. The winters are brutal, but the summers almost make up for it. Summerfest is mindblowing- the first one I attended featured Peter Gabriel! I had been waiting my whole life to see him perform.
The small towns like Tosa, Cedarburg. and Whitefish Bay are great placed to get lost for a day. I’m in sales and on the road all the time in a 6-county area. It will be nice to visit back home, but I don’t see us moving back for awhile.
I love Milwaukee. I grew up here, left after college and came home 20 years later. I could have settled anywhere but Milwaukee has so many positives. Its a great place to raise children, really appreciates the arts, terrific festivals, top notch colleges, Lake Michigan which if you love sailing or fishing in addition to just the beauty of the Lake. Packers, Brewers, Bucks, Admirals…….into sports? its all here. And if you want a weekend getaway, drive north….the rest of the state has so much to offer. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Yeah, the Brewers weren’t really too kind to me while I was there so I didn’t include them in my piece. But, I know sports is big, too. Everyone was wrapped up in World Cup stuff while I was there – which was fun to see.
For those who like traditional and modern Celtic music, Milwaukee Irish Fest in mid-August is incredible. Held on the Summerfest grounds, it’s massive – I believe it’s considered the largest Celtic festival in North America, if not the world.
Also, Wisconsin State Fair.
Also, frozen custard! 1. Kopps 2. Gilles 3. Leon’s 4. All the others.
Bob, I’m from Saint Louis where I’m pretty sure we have the best frozen custard on the planet at Ted Drewes! But, I’d be willing to give it a test!
So happy to see you discover what a hidden gem Milwaukee is. We moved here about a year ago and just love it. You did just scratch the surface of all there is to do and see here. Jazz in the park in Cathedral Square every Thurs all summer brings out families to laugh and play and listen to great music. The kite festival on the lakefront in the Spring was an unbelievable blast. Kites as far as you could see filling that lakefront. Everything from seasoned crews to little kids flying kites with their families while having a picnic. We have enjoyed watching the Riverwalk in all its seasons, watching it ice over in Winter then thaw out and start flowing again in Spring. We have a hard time deciding which is more beautiful walking along the bluff of the Lakefront, walking the Riverwalk, or walking among the city lights at night. How many cities offer that? The section we live in used to be a freeway they tore out to develop including carving out new neighborhoods. It is the opposite of the old song about paving paradise. We couldn’t be more proud of, or happy in, our adopted city.
How timely, thanks. I will share this fine article because my Milwaukee family is host for our 2016 Family Reunion and this is sure to be a good sell for attendance.
Thanks for such a great article! I grew up in Milwaukee and, after moving away for about 6 years, I moved back and lived in the “east town” section of downtown near the art museum. I absolutely loved it and grew an even bigger appreciation for my home town. Though I don’t live there anymore, I love love love going back home; this article was so well written and gives Mil-town the credit it deserves! Thank you!
I grew up in Milwaukee, but haven’t lived there since ’78, I still consider it home and visit it at least once a year. I had the privilege of taking my girlfriend there this year and she was blown away by it. She couldn’t believe how nice the people are as well as all the things the city has to offer.
After growing up in Norfolk VA and spending a few years in Indianapolis, a job transfer brought me to Milwaukee in 1993. When the company moved me to Atlanta a year later.. I only spent 3 months there. I quit my job and returned to Milwaukee. It is a wonderful place to live. Now I am in Elm Grove which is a village only 12 minutes from Downtown Milwaukee. You can be BIG CITY or small town in just a few minutes. Love it here.
When we first moved to Milwaukee our friends and relatives kept saying how nice it must be to be so close to Chicago. But we seldom get to Chicago because we never run out of things to do here. Milwaukee is a wonderful place and I hope you get to come back and see more of it. Thanks for the lovely piece.
If you ever make it back check out the Pfister on Wisconsin Avenue, it’s the City’s old grand Hotel and comes complete with an over the top bombastic Gilded Age lobby, lobby lounge, and a cocktail lounge on the 20th floor.
Also I recommend the 1) Basilica of St. Josephat down on the Southside, 2) the Wisconsin Cheese Mart and Uber Tap Room on Old World Third where you can get cheese boards of fine cheeses from Wisconsin and around the world as well as an outstanding selection of local craft brews. 3) Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, recently voted America’s finest cocktail lounge by Esquire magazine. 4) Lake Park Bistro an outstanding French Coastal Style restaurant up on the bluffs in Lake Park. I could go on but Im out of time for the evening.
Thank you for your kind review of my city. I have lived in Chicago, IL & Newport Beach, CA and always come back to Milwaukee. The list you described is truly only the tip of the iceberg of what’s available to do here. That is really just the downtown area and not the outer limits. We also have a wonderful county zoo, a great public museum, tons of great restaurants, lots of family friendly things to do throughout the city. It’s truly the best place I have ever lived and I’m happy to call it home.
I’m sure! I only had a day and a half though. 😉
Wish you had made it to a Brewers game. Maybe next time!
I tried to visit the stadium. They didn’t want me there. 🙂 So I didn’t include them.
Why’s that? Don’t tell me you’re Cards or Cubs fan? ;-)~~~
Ha. Yes, sir – a Cardinals fan indeed. Who knows – they just weren’t very nice. The only negative part of my whole visit! And since they probably will choke by October anyway, I wasn’t too hurt. 😉
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this extremely underrated town. I spent 4 years there while attending Marquette University and so far, it was the 4 years of my life. I go back at least once a year with college friends to relive our college days and visit our favorite place. WONDERFUL CITY!
It was my first visit – and while it is clear they are trying to re-vitalize a lot of it – I was very impressed and really liked Milwaukee. Thanks for reading.
Every time I go back to visit the campus, something is new. It almost is completely different! But ALWAYS a great time!
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