Named “The Coolest City in the Midwest” (Vogue, 2018) and “Top 10 Places to Travel in 2020” (Wall Street Journal), Milwaukee is certainly one of the coolest cities in America. With its arts, outdoor adventures, beer and cheese culture, dozens of tours, eclectic food scene, and Happy Days residual love, the number of things to do in Milwaukee will impress you. And it is much more manageable than its big brother, Chicago.
This industrial hub on the shore of Lake Michigan may look bland to the untrained eye, but beneath its facade, you’ll discover the “Cream City,” named after the creamy yellow clay bricks that were used in constructing many of the buildings.
Milwaukee attracts large numbers of visitors who flock to its eclectic German, Polish, and Italian culture, captivating history and art museums, a plethora of breweries, golden sandy beaches, and trendy neighborhoods. I was surprised by the sheer number of things to do in Milwaukee and so will you.
Milwaukee at a Glance
- Elevation: 617′
- Population: 594,548 (2019)
- History: 1822 – a trading post was built by Solomon Juneau, a French Canadian fur trader and founding father of Milwaukee.
If it’s your first time visiting, here are some things to do in Milwaukee that you will not want to miss!
10 Harley Davidson Museum
Milwaukee is home to the 20-acre park of the Harley Davidson Museum which hosts more than 450 motorcycles and artifacts dating back to the very beginnings of the company, including the very first Harley ever made. The Museum houses a substantial collection of old motorcycles, memorabilia, and biking knowledge including drag racing, the prominent Terminator 2 film show.
You can even sit on the saddle of various bikes and take photos, which I admit was soooo tempting. But full transparency, I am not a motorcycle enthusiast, so I did not attend the museum during my trip but wanted to include it since it is a popular attraction.
9 Miller Park
Miller Park is the home of the Milwaukee Brewers professional baseball team. During the season, you can watch a game underneath the only fan-shaped convertible roof in North America. The park’s compositional outline will astound you.
This stadium offers more than just baseball games; you can also take tours, see concerts, and even attend movie premieres. Tailgating is popular in the parking lot and you’ll spot fans grilling brats and burgers, and eating cheese curds and other goodies before a game.
8 North Point Light Station
This lighthouse is one of Milwaukee’s most picturesque spots. It was originally constructed to guide boats into Milwaukee harbors, but it is now home to a maritime museum featuring the life of a keeper and the Great Lakes’ nautical history. It often hosts events, including tours and beer tastings.
7 Quark or Curds
Wisconsin cheese curds harken to the state’s heavy German influence, so I had to try them. I was told to make them “squeak” in my mouth which I did just once because I really did not enjoy the texture.
Quark on the other hand is a tasty spread which I did like much better.
6 Lakefront Brewery
Opened in 1987, waterside Lakefront Brewery has become the gathering place for lovers of craft beer in the city, receiving awards in most beer competitions. Lakefront Brewery was also the first certified organic brewery in America.
The 45-minute tours are fun (even for someone like me who does not like beer), packed with “facts, lore, jokes, and beer.”
Note: They did close during the pandemic, so be sure to call ahead to see if they are open.
5 The Fonz
If like me, you grew up watching Happy Days, a 1950’s-era sitcom, you won’t want to miss taking a selfie with the kitschy sculpture, The Bronze Fonz. Standing on the Riverwalk, it’s a life-size bronze statue of Fonzie, the character played by Henry Winkler in the 1970s. The popular sitcom took place in Milwaukee, and the statue immortalizes greaser Arthur Fonzarelli who was the king of cool from Happy Days, even displaying his trademark two thumbs up “ayy.”
4 Lake Michigan Beaches
Since the entire city of Milwaukee is bordered to the east by Lake Michigan, it is no wonder that the beaches are a popular pastime in the summer.
Bradford Beach is a popular party-lovers paradise located on the edge of the Upper East Side that features soft sands, chairs, and cabanas. The Blue Wave-certified beach offers a lifeguard, tiki bar, concession stand, and famous frozen custard. It was also named one of the top ten urban beaches in the country by USA Today in 2016. For brave cold-water swimmers, the beach is also the site of the city’s annual New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge.
When you first arrive at Atwater Beach, you’ll see a playground in the park overlooking the lake. You can take either by taking the five steep flights of stairs leading down to the beach, or a longer but more gentle winding path. Once there, you’ll find 800 feet of flat open beach. Even though the city is quite near, the wild foliage of the tall bluff behind you will make you feel far from the hustle and bustle.
To find the beach, look for the modern sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa of a man overlooking the beach.
Located within the city’s 103-acre McKinley Park, bay-shaped McKinley Beach is a smaller and less crowded alternative to neighboring Bradford Beach and is just a five-minute walk away. Showcasing more than 737 gorgeous feet of Lake Michigan shoreline, you can catch beautiful views of the boats in McKinley Marina.
If you’re up for a walk, adjacent Veterans Park, just south of McKinley Beach, provides opportunities for flying kites.
Or grab a delicious smoothie or fresh hot coffee at nearby Colectivo on the Lake.
3 Milwaukee Art Museum
Commonly referred to as the “Calatrava,” – the museum was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who went on to design New York City’s World Trade Center. The Milwaukee Art Museum is Milwaukee’s most recognizable landmark, and a sight to behold, inside and out. It was designed to blend into the harbor on Lake Michigan, and from a distance, it does seem to resemble a boat. Inside, the uninterrupted views of the lake are spectacular from the cavernous interior, as are the 217-foot retractable wingspans that unfold in the morning and close in the evening.
The museum houses over 30,000 permanent works of art, ranging from Monet to Winslow Homer to O’Keefe, not to mention an impressive array of ever-changing traveling exhibits.
The iconic Milwaukee City Hal is one of the most recognizable landmarks of the city and when it was completed in 1985 it was one of the tallest structures in the country. The Flemish Renaissance Revival style used in the City Hall has since been reflected in the nearby buildings to create a cohesive style and to reflect the wide German ancestry of the region.
Inside, the layers of balconies are a magnificient architectural sight.
The Historic Third Ward has been named Wisconsin’s “SOHO” for its artistic atmosphere. Beginning in the 1970s the area began to grow into what is now a revitalized warehouse district with more than 20 galleries and art studios, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), boutique shops, bars, and trendy bistros. It is home to the Milwaukee Public Market and Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival.
Moorish Revival Tripoli Shrine was completed in 1928 as a meeting place for the Shriners, a fraternal organization that is composed of Master Masons. The building was heavily inspired by the Taj Mahal, featuring minarets, intricate mosaics, and camels.
Old World Third Street looks like it just steps off the pages of history. It rests along a three-block historic German heritage neighborhood hosting several shops, restaurants, nightclubs, and bars. It is a busy gathering place and a great place to begin a walking tour of the city or enjoy the cobblestoned streets and Victorian, Gothic Revival, and Italianate architecture that make you feel like you’re in a small village in Europe instead of the middle of an urban city.
If you are a history buff there are more sites, like 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, The Pfister Hotel, home to the world’s largest hotel collection of Victorian art, and the Pabst Mansion where visitors can learn about the family who emigrated from Germany in 1848 to create beer — they were instrumental in building Milwaukee.
The best way to explore central Milwaukee on foot is by strolling along the charming Riverwalk through the heart of the city, especially in the summer. At three miles long covering, 20 blocks, the boardwalk connects three of the city’s most distinct neighborhoods – Downtown, the Historic Third Ward, and Beerline B. It’s lined with trendy bars and restaurants and also features open-air art exhibitions displaying works by local and international artists.
I hope you enjoy the diversity of things to do in Milwaukee as much as I did!
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.
She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the new few months.
Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.