Back in the day, Milwaukee was best known for beer, cheese and Happy Days, but the city has recently undergone a revival of sorts. Between its thriving art and live music scene and its killer culinary cred, you’ll find plenty to do on your visit to Milwaukee.
Mitchell Park Domes
Officially known as the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, the Domes are a local favorite. Each of three massive domes – which measure 140 feet across, 85 feet high and 750,000 cubic feet – features a different climate: desert and tropical plus a show dome. Species of birds, frogs, fish and lizards live in the desert and tropical domes, which are permanent exhibits, while the show dome rotates exhibits ranging from formal Japanese gardens to scenes from the Nutcracker Suite.
Milwaukee Art Museum
Santiago Calatrava – who went on to design New York City’s World Trade Center transportation hub – is one of the famed architects behind the Milwaukee Art Museum, which has become such a fixture in the city that it now serves as the logo of the Milwaukee tourism board’s website and appears on welcome signs at the city’s airport. The museum certainly holds impressive permanent and rotating collections, but what makes it so special is the glass atrium with retractable wings that open each morning and close each evening. It’s also a great photo op on the shores of Lake Michigan.
The city’s charming Riverwalk is fun to visit any time of year, but if you’re in Milwaukee in summer, you can try your hand at paddle boarding or kayaking on the river. Either way, don’t miss the Riverwalk’s most famous resident, the Bronze Fonz, a glistening statue of Arthur Fonzarelli, whose show Happy Days made Milwaukee famous in the 1970s and ’80s. The Riverwalk is located in the middle of downtown, so you can walk from here to other local attractions like Milwaukee Public Market and historic Old World 3rd Street. Quick note: Old World 3rd Street was recently renamed as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive but most people still refer to it by its former name.
Milwaukee’s brewing history
If Milwaukee is known for one thing, it’s the city’s brewing history. Even Milwaukee’s Major League Baseball team is called the Brewers. Beer aficionados will have their pick of craft breweries and beer halls, but for more context, take a brewery tour at the historic Pabst Brewery and plan a visit to the elegant Pabst Mansion, the home of the brewer Frederick Pabst, the company’s namesake. Downtown landmark Pabst Theater dates to 1895 and showcases the grandeur of the time. These days, the theater puts on live performances and concerts, so check to see who’s playing while you’re in town.
Explore Milwaukee’s German roots
While Milwaukee is a diverse city with sizable Hmong and Hispanic communities, a large percentage of the population is of German descent, which you’ll find reflected in restaurants and food purveyors around town. Many German restaurants, sausage shops and beer halls have been serving the city and its visitors for generations, and several are conveniently located along Old World 3rd Street downtown. A few places worth visiting are Usinger’s Sausage Shop, Mader’s Restaurant, Milwaukee Brat House and the Old German Beer Hall.
No visit to Milwaukee is complete without a trip to the Harley-Davidson Museum, where the company was started. Hundreds of motorcycles showcase how styles changed over the decades, and you can even sit on the saddle of various bikes and take photos. The collection of motorcycles and memorabilia are spread across a sprawling 20-acre park-like campus in an industrial building south of downtown.
Milwaukee Public Market
When you're hungry, it's time to check out a food-filled downtown attraction, the Milwaukee Public Market. Restaurants serving everything from Mexican to Middle Eastern dish up fantastic food to eat indoors or on the ample outdoor patio. The market is also a great place to pick up groceries and souvenirs, and you’ll find well-stocked cheese shops, delis and olive oil purveyors. Don’t forget to swing by one of the restaurants and bars serving one of the city’s signature over-the-top Bloody Mary cocktails, which could be topped with fried cheese curds, sliders, sausage sticks or maybe even an entire fried chicken.
Though the area is officially called Henry Maier Festival Park, everyone knows it simply as the Summerfest grounds. The nickname comes from Milwaukee’s largest festival, Summerfest, which is said to be the world’s largest outdoor music festival. But Summerfest isn’t the only big event held here. Throughout summer and fall, the grounds host events celebrating the cultural and ethnic diversity of the city, including festivities for the city’s Irish, African, German, Mexican and LGBTQI+ communities.
America’s Black Holocaust Museum
Started as a virtual museum, America’s Black Holocaust Museum is now an in-person experience founded by James Cameron, who survived a lynching at the age of 16. The museum tells the story of what it refers to as the “Black Holocaust,” beginning with the Transatlantic slave trade and continuing through the Civil War and Civil Rights movement. America’s Black Holocaust Museum is currently closed for renovations, but it is expected to open in early 2022.
Milwaukee’s public beaches
Wisconsin is known for its cold winters, but come summer, you’ll find half the population at one of the city’s fantastic beaches. Since the entire city of Milwaukee is bordered to the east by Lake Michigan, fantastic swimming spots can be found all over town. The Bay View neighborhood and suburbs of Cudahy, South Milwaukee and Oak Creek have smaller and quieter beaches, but if you’re looking for a lively beach experience complete with volleyball, kites and food vendors, head to Bradford Beach, which is accessible and offers free beach wheelchairs.
You might also like:
Midwest travel ideas: 8 under-the-radar destinations to visit in America’s Heartland
300 miles of beer, brats and cheese: a Wisconsin culinary tour
The best ballpark food around the US