Published: September 2006 Milwaukee Destination Guide

With a new science museum and lively Riverwalk, lakefront Milwaukee creates a buzz.

In the September 2006 issue of National Geographic Traveler, Margaret Loftus reveals the city of Milwaukee, where 600,000 residents enjoy vast parkland, expansive museums, and funky boutiques. But shh, they don't want you to tell.

48 Hours in Milwaukee
Text by Margaret Loftus

With a new science museum and lively Riverwalk, lakefront Milwaukee creates a buzz.

Milwaukee's image has been defined by its most famous exports: Bratwursts and beer, Laverne & Shirley. But lately the buzz from Brewtown has been more hip than hokey. A $126-million addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum by superstar architect Santiago Calatrava put the city back on the map a few years ago. This month marks the debut of Discovery World, a 120,000-square-foot science and technology museum on the Lake Michigan waterfront. And in 2008, the Harley-Davidson Museum will open its doors in the Menomonee Valley, the city's former industrial backbone.

Meanwhile, what started as an initiative in the 1980s by former mayor John Norquist to lure more residents to the ghost town that was downtown has become a full-blown renaissance. Neighborhoods from Walker's Point to the Historic Third Ward are in various stages of revitalization, with 19th- and early 20th-century buildings being gutted and restored as restaurants, shops, and loft spaces.

Milwaukeeans have always had an underdog's sense of civic pride, having spent the better part of two centuries in the shadow of Chicago's big shoulders. There's more parkland here per capita than most other cities in the country, anchored by the waterfront Lake Park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. The population of 600,000 supports an annual public sculpture exhibit and a total of 24 theaters. And for nearly 40 years, the city once known as the German Athens has celebrated its gemütlichkeit with Summerfest, an 11-day bacchanalia featuring musical acts from polka to pop.

Culture & History

A grace note on Milwaukee's lakefront is the elegant addition that Santiago Calatrava designed for the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). With its swooping white wings, the "Calatrava" (a movable sunscreen that opens and closes with the museum), as locals call it, has garnered worldwide attention for the museum since 2001. "Architourists" find that there's some pretty neat stuff in the museum, too. Its permanent collection includes works by Georgia O'Keeffe, Winslow Homer, and Pablo Picasso.

Another soon-to-be lakefront icon, the seven 26-foot-tall sculptures that make up "Wind Leaves," by environmental artist Ned Kahn, draw you farther south to the massive complex that is Pier Wisconsin, home of the new Discovery World. A double-helix-shaped staircase welcomes visitors to the museum that will eventually house some 200 interactive exhibits, like the Rockwell Automation's Dream Machine with which you can build your own 3-D object. Two aquariums—freshwater and saltwater—will feature exhibits that re-create the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean environments. And when it's not in port, the Wisconsin tall ship S/V Denis Sullivan, a replica of an 1880s-era three-masted schooner with modern research capabilities, will beam back its findings to a lab at the museum.

It was the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that gave Milwaukee's beer barons—Valentine Blatz, Frederick Pabst, Joseph Schlitz, and others—a leg up on their competition to the south: Milwaukee brewers produced more than one million barrels of beer in 1885, nearly 20 times the output of 1865. Today, Miller is the only original brewer left in the city, with an annual output of nine million barrels in the Milwaukee plant alone. It's worth the drive up State Street for a tour (and a cold sample).

After Frederick Pabst's death in 1904, his heirs sold the family home, a grand Flemish Renaissance Revival mansion built in 1892 with state-of-the-art electricity, heating, and plumbing. A preservation group saved the Pabst Mansion from demolition in the 1970s and has recently unveiled its restoration. Now it's a museum that offers a glimpse into life during Milwaukee's industrial go-go days with exhibitions, like the latest, "My Dear Children," that explores the lives of the Pabst heirs through letters and photographs. On what could be the best chunk of real estate in town, the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum and gardens are perched on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Built for the Lloyd R. Smith family in 1923 in the style of a 16th-century Italian villa, the interior has some exquisite workmanship.

Shops & Markets

Oscar Wilde reportedly said, "If what you want isn't on Brady Street, you probably don't need it." A century later, Brady Street, on the city's East Side, is known for its funky flair with clothing shops such as Detour, denim specialists featuring all the top blue jean brands and more. Miss Groove has accessories, like Matt & Nat handbags, and for tasteful lingerie from Cosabella and Arianne, the new Miss Groove Intimates has moved in across the street.

The Third Ward, the industrial blocks south of East St. Paul Street, are booming with warehouses that have been converted into sidewalk cafés and one-of-a-kind shops, thanks, in part, to the Riverwalk, a promenade that stretches along the Milwaukee River connecting the neighborhood to downtown. Stationery junkies should make a beeline to Broadway Paper, where the selection of designer paper and pens rivals those of New York stationers. Across the street, Private Gardener is chock-full of unique home and patio furnishings, plant containers, and various accoutre-ments for green thumbs and wannabes.

Anchoring the ward is the Milwaukee Public Market, which opened last year. A mini version of Seattle's Pike Place, the market features local purveyors: The Spice House, Cedarburg Coffee, and West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe have outposts here. Sausage connoisseurs head downtown to Usinger's Famous Sausage on Old World Third Street, a slice of movie-set Germany. The link selection includes linguica, kielbasa, and 11 different kinds of bratwurst.

Where To Eat

When local celebrity chef Sanford D'Amato transformed his family-owned grocery store into the elegant Sanford restaurant 17 years ago, competition was pretty scarce. In the past ten years, however, things have heated up. "It's amazing how much growth there's been," notes Ann Christianson, who has been Milwaukee Magazine's restaurant critic for the past decade. Nevertheless, she says it's not easy to make a splash here. "Milwaukeeans aren't impressed by trends. The places that do well are the ones that have substance behind them." Having proven his mettle with Sanford, widely regarded as the best restaurant in town with dishes like caramelized wild sturgeon on green papaya salad, D'Amato went on to open Coquette Café, a cheery bistro in the Third Ward that regulars love for light fare and French comfort food.

Another hot spot that has surpassed Milwaukeeans' muster in the 2 1/2 years it's been open is Roots in the Brewer's Hill neighborhood. Inspired by Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, Chef John Raymond shapes his menu around what sort of organic veggies are popping up at the restaurant's own farm in Cedarburg. Nearby is Sake Tumi, whose Japanese-Korean menu ranges from sushi to bulgogi to Kobe tenderloin.

Other notables include the Bartolotta group of restaurants, with its second Ristorante Bartolotta, a local recommendation for upscale Italian fare, and Lake Park Bistro, for classic French dishes, such as boeuf bourguignonne, in the sublime setting of a park pavilion with a killer view of the lake. Old standby Zaffiro's is the place to go to for crisp pizza, and Mader's still serves up platters of sauerbraten and Wiener schnitzel.

Lodging

An 1893 landmark, the Pfister Hotel was long the one and only luxury property in Milwaukee. Despite the hotel's recent face-lift, its barrel-vaulted lobby, with dark wood and etched glass still conjures up the heyday of the beer barons. On the other end of the spectrum, there's the 64-room Hotel Metro, with an interior designed by Milwaukee legend Madame Kuony. Another art deco gem farther west has recently gotten a new lease on life. Once known for its less-than-savory clientele, the Ambassador Hotel has been meticulously restored to its 1928 prime and is now one of the best values in town.

Text by Husna Haq

Log onto these websites for advice on area restaurants, art, and entertainment from some of Milwaukee's insiders.

Blogs

Play in the City

Go along for the ride as media professional and Milwaukee maven Erin Leffelman explores her hometown, discovering tasty restaurants and cafés, dropping in on local events and homecoming galas (like one for a Great Lakes schooner at Pier Wisconsin), and trying out the city's other sports (Frisbee golf, kite-flying, or go-karting, anyone?). Check out the left-hand column of the site for great Milwaukee sites, links, and more blogs. This blog is funded by the Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Saucy Stadium Secrets

Sports are to Milwaukee what gambling is to Las Vegas, and if you want to understand the city (not to mention chat with the locals), brush up on Brewtown's ball scene. OnMilwaukee.com's senior editor, Drew Olsen, keeps locals up-to-date with crisp, no-nonsense entries on the Bucks', Brewers', and Packers' latest stats, draft picks, and injuries.

Podcasts

Socialist Walking Tour of Downtown Milwaukee

This 11-minute podcast walks visitors through Milwaukee's socialist history, which produced numerous members of City Council, three mayors, and the first socialist member of U.S. Congress, not to mention early advancements in the eight-hour workday, living wages, and public parks. Who knew? Download the podcast and hit the ground for a walking tour of Turner Hall, Milwaukee Area Technical College, and City Hall, among other sights.

620 WTMJ News Radio

Choose from a long list of WTMJ shows and commentators via podcast. Download one, or subscribe to a show. Check out Jeff Wagner's podcasts for intelligent news analysis and interviews, and Brewers Radio Network for sports coverage.

Newspapers

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The more you look, the more you find on this site bursting with practical ideas for visitors, from categorized event listings, to fun and handy tips (Wi-Fi hotspots, top dining picks, an hour in the life of an interesting Wisconsinite). Check out "Day Watch" for up-to-the-minute local news bulletins.

The Shepherd Express

Browse this alternative paper online for a funky, offbeat take on the city's news, events, and people. Check out "Best of Milwaukee" (Best Restaurant for Gluttons, Best Place to People Watch, Best Local Character), the "Dining Guide," "A & E" (picks on Arts and Entertainment), and "Calendars" (a browsable, searchable, exhaustive list of events).

Magazines

Milwaukee Magazine

Turn to Milwaukee's highest-circulation, glossy monthly for profiles, policy pieces, fashion, and some of the city's best advice on dining and arts and entertainment. Try "Milwaukee Events" for a look at events for the week, weekend, or month.

OnMilwaukee.com

Learn more about this beer-and-brat burg by clicking through this daily online magazine cum city guide packed into tidy categories like "Milwaukee Buzz" (100 Milwaukeeans you need to know), "Arts & Entertainment" (read about Milwaukee's fire performance troupe, Arson Etiquette), "Politics" (trouble brewing at Pabst Farms), and "Travel & Visitors Guide" (try Smashing Milwaukee Stereotypes). Come up for air before you dive in again for their "Archived Guides" ("100 Things to do Near Milwaukee," "Milwaukee Neighborhood Guide") blogs, podcasts, and forums. Whew.

Radio Stations

WMSE

Originally launched by the students of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, WMSE 91.7 today is the city's alternative radio station, offering an eclectic mix of jazz, alternative rock, and world music. Check out the website for a listing of Milwaukee's alternative music events, and tune in for entertaining shows run by some of the station's 100 volunteer DJs (WMSE schedule ).

WTMJ

The news, analysis, and banter offered on Newsradio WTMJ and its punchy, info-packed shows will leave you feeling like a local. Tune in for local, national, and world headlines and some of the station's commentators: Charlie Sykes for sharp news analysis, Jeff Wagner for justice and advocacy issues, and Jessica McBride for media commentary.

WUWM

The best thing about this station: You can tell its hosts and reporters love what they're doing. Tune in to Milwaukee's public radio station mornings and evenings for incisive local stories that go beyond headlines; AT10 for discussions with local politicians, businesspeople, and artists; and Café Tonight for local music.

Maps

Milwaukee Interactive Maps

Zoom around Milwaukee with these interactive maps detailing the city's downtown, Historic Third Ward, and greater Milwaukee areas. Search or browse from an extensive menu of attractions (including accommodations, dining, nightlife, shopping, and theater). With a click of your mouse, pinpoint your attraction on a map and pull up address, phone number, and description.

Books

Milwaukee Sketchbook, by Fran Bauer (2005)

The best way to experience the Cream City—and remember it after your trip—is with this radiant book, created by 16 Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design students who walked the city with sketchbooks in hand over the course of a year. The result: 123 captivating paintings of the city's landmarks, great and small—and a refreshing new perspective on a proud city and its people.

The Turk and my Mother: a Novel, by Mary Helen Stefaniak (2004)

Affairs, wars, and mysterious disappearances are just the beginning of the decades of family secrets unfurled in this novel that tells the story of Croatian immigrants who settle in Milwaukee after WWI. Stefaniak spans continents, generations, and emotions in this rich, tangled tale about Milwaukee's immigrant roots.

Red Weather, by Pauls Toutonghi (2006)

The year is 1989 and 15-year-old Yuri Balodis lives in Milwaukee's Third Ward with his working-class parents who escaped Soviet Latvia in a shipping container full of hogs. As his patriotic parents embrace country music and glossy American magazines, shy Yuri joins the staff of a socialist paper, quotes Marx and Lenin, and falls for the daughter of prominent Milwaukee socialists. "As Milwaukee as a novel ever has been," declares OnMilwaukee.com.

Little City by the Lake, Celia Wilkins (2003)

Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie-readers will love this sweet, charming tale about 15-year-old Caroline Quiner who leaves her Concord, Wisconsin, home in 1855 for the (relatively) great, bustling city of Milwaukee, to attend the Milwaukee Female College. The sixth book in the 'Caroline Years' series, Little City by the Lake follows the life of wholesome Caroline, who became the mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Movies

American Movie (1999)

When all is said and done, this is just another movie about one man's quest for the American Dream—but it's contemporary, clever, and roll-in-the-aisle funny. This independent film records the trials of shaggy-haired Milwaukeean Mark Borchardt as he faces the financial, family, and spiritual crises of making an independent film. Get an up-close view of the gray skies, rusty cars, and hearty characters of northwest Milwaukee in this 1999 Sundance Film Festival award-winner.

The Godfather of Green Bay (2005)

Two struggling stand-up comics from L.A. head to Green Bay when they hear a talent scout's in town for Tonight Show bookings. The real comedy starts when the L.A. comics encounter Green Bay natives in their beer-guzzling, mullet-wearing, Packers-rooting glory. Midwestern self-deprecation at its best.

Milwaukee, Minnesota (2003)

Albert's got an overprotective mother, a knack for ice fishing, and a brain that works slower than most. When his mother dies, this small-town Wisconsin kid's on his own against two con artists out for his ice fishing prize money. Midwestern wit and heart conquer their wily schemes—and perhaps viewers' stereotypes—in this light drama set in Brewtown's frigid suburbs (not Minnesota).