Beer legacy: bars and brewery tours
In the 1880s Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and 80 other breweries made suds here, and Milwaukee became known as the 'Nation's Watering Hole.' Miller Brewery is one of the few survivors of the era, with a popular free tour that's corporate and conventional but impressive nonetheless. Marvel at the futuristic packaging plant (that's 2000 cans per minute rolling off the line!), descend into 150-year-old storage caves, and then emerge into Miller's beer garden for three voluminous samples.
So, that's your historic brewery tour taken care of. Lakefront Brewery offers a newer model. Guides lead the way through the eco-friendly plant and ply you with fruity samples before, during and after. The liquid courage comes in handy during the Laverne and Shirley theme song sing-along at the bottling line. Visit on a Friday and you'll reap the bonus of Lakefront's fish fry. More on that later...
Milwaukee also has one of the highest bar-per-capita rates in the US. Friendly hangouts abound, such as Best Place in the former Pabst Brewery headquarters, where a fireplace warms the medieval-looking room and staff tell tales of days of yore. At kitschy Kochanski's, hipsters and old-timers alike twirl around the floor to live polka music and swill Polish beers on tap.
Favorite foods: from cheese curds to ramen
While a mod foodie scene percolates in the city, Milwaukee's traditional dishes get just as much love on local plates. First up: the bratwurst. The Milwaukee Brat House (milwaukeebrathouse.com) beer-boils a fine one that's heaped onto a pretzel roll and snaps at first bite. The meat comes from Usinger's (usinger.com), the famed butcher shop across the street, which has been making sausage since 1880. Uber Tap Room sits next door and wafts another specialty: cheese. The Dairy State's goodness is on full offer here, as the bar attaches to a large cheese shop stuffed with Wisconsin-made gruyere, buttermilk blue, limburger and beer cheddar. Hunks arrive on shared plates, along with baskets of squeaky curds and local microbrews.
For the city's most celebrated food, you'll need to be in town on Friday. That's when the fish fry occurs – a communal meal of beer-battered cod and coleslaw when locals mark the workweek's end. The Brat House and Lakeview Brewery both host festive fries, with the latter adding a polka band and bubble machine to the party.
Newer foodie haunts cluster around the Third Ward warehouse district, where the Milwaukee Public Market spills over with taco, spice, chocolate and wine vendors, and Bavette La Boucherie (bavettelaboucherie.com) stacks a meaty sandwich. By Brady Street, Ardent wins acclaim for its farm-to-table dishes. Late at night, it morphs into a wildly popular ramen noodle shop. Milwaukee Food & City Tours (milwaukeefoodtours.com) leads walking jaunts around these and other chow-worthy 'hoods.
Art and motorcycles
For a city its size, Milwaukee has a couple of truly world-class museums. The Milwaukee Art Museum not only drops the jaw with its architecture – including Santiago Calatrava's kinetic 'wing' that soars open and shut several times each day – but also with its newly expanded galleries. Fresh rooms dedicated to photography and design join the terrific trove of outsider art, German Expressionist works and Georgia O'Keeffe paintings. It's a lovely lakefront spot to while away an afternoon.
Nearby, the glass-and-steel Harley-Davidson Museum provides the most bad ass of browses. The iconic motorcycles were invented in the city. Local lads William Harley and Arthur Davidson revved up the first one in 1903, and leather-clad bikers go wild flashing photos of it. Hundreds of other bikes show styles through the ages, and there are exhibits displaying the sweet rides of Elvis and Evel Knievel. Visitors who arrive by hog – and many do – get special parking right by the entrance. Hard-core fans can continue the theme on a Harley Plant Tour, at the suburban factory where the company builds its engines.
Only in Milwaukee
No visit to town is complete without saying 'Aayy' to the Bronze Fonz. For the uninitiated, Arthur Fonzarelli (aka the Fonz) was a character from the 1970s TV show Happy Days, which was set in Milwaukee. He was known for being super cool and giving the thumbs-up sign – which is exactly what his life-size statue is doing. True fact: the Fonz is Milwaukee's most photographed sight.
The Racing Sausages rival Fonz for oddball star power. They're more elusive though, appearing only at Miller Park baseball stadium in the middle of the 6th inning. That's when five people in meat costumes – a Brat, Polish, Italian, Hot Dog and Chorizo – waddle onto the field and sprint around the ballpark's perimeter, vying for supremacy. For the record, Polish usually wins. The park itself is a beautiful place to catch a game, complete with a raucous tailgating scene.
Milwaukee's universities hold more unusual sights. Preservationists moved the 15th-century St Joan of Arc Chapel (marquette.edu/chapel) to Marquette University piece by piece from France. According to legend, the saint prayed at the altar, and when finished, she knelt and kissed the stone where she stood. Ever since, the stone has remained colder than those that surround it. The American Geographical Society Library (uwm.edu/libraries/agsl) contains marvels of a different sort. Captain Cook's hand-drawn charts and a 700-pound globe made for the US government during WWII are among the vast collection of maps and orbs hidden away on the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee campus.