Beer and brats. Cheese. Polka music leaking out from bars on every corner. That’s what leaps into lots of people’s minds when they think of Milwaukee. Sure, these are partly stereotypes that make locals cringe, but they’re also the sorts of traditions that set the city apart from other cities its size. Of course, this city of roughly a million people has lots more that just that to offer, including some stunning buildings, an established arts scene, an enviable lakeside location, and RiverWalk, a redeveloped path that links together much of downtown. Here are five places worth knowing in Milwaukee, where it’s always okay to kick back and have some fun.
5… Art on the Lake
The Milwaukee Art Museum (700 N. Art Museum Dr., 414-224-3200, www.mam.org) doesn’t play it safe in the looks department. The main building, which brings to mind some sort of boxy spaceship about to take off, was designed in the 1950s by the architect Eero Saarinen, whose other works include St. Louis’s Gateway Arch and New York City’s CBS headquarters. The museum’s fame got a boost in 2001, when the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was given a commission—his first in the U.S.—to expand the museum with a swoopy, bright glass-and-marble entrance hall that capitalizes on the museum’s great lakefront location. At the hall’s top, 90 feet up, is a sunshade that resembles the prow of a ship. The shade moves like a pair of wings, unfolding when the museum opens and then closing at the end of day (it also does a quick “flap” at noon). As for the art itself, the museum is especially strong in German and Austrian art, including many Expressionist works. More surprisingly, perhaps, is its somewhat wilder collection of 20th-century Haitian works and American folk art.
4… Hogging the Road
If you have even the slightest interest in Harley-Davidson’s heavy, loud, and iconic products, it’s worth visiting the company’s slick museum (400 W. Canal St., 877-436-8738, www.h-dmuseum.com), which resembles a factory floor. The motorcycles on display here run from the 1903 “Serial Number One” on to the big bad boys of today. Nearly every motorcycle made by Harley still runs with a version of its famous V-twin engine, which gives them their distinctive “potato-potato-potato” sound.
Exhibits in the museum here cover Harley’s often tumultuous history, including the period in the early 1980s when it nearly took a plunge into bankruptcy. In recent days, it’s found the most success by targeting the high end of the market. Many of its 2010 models, for instance, cost well over $20,000, but its loyal, often upper-middle-class fan base is more than willing to pay a premium for its bikes. If even the extensive gift shop doesn’t satisfy your road-hog fantasies, then you might want to head to the Iron Horse Hotel (500 W. Florida St., 414-374-4766, www.theironhorsehotel.com), a half-mile away. This independently run boutique hotel, inside a former warehouse, has rooms that cater to motorcycle lovers, with hooks for leather jackets and benches for taking off your boots after a long day’s drive.
3… The Haus that Beer Built
To get a complete picture of Milwaukee’s past, you have to see how the beer barons once lived. Most of their massive houses were torn down long ago, but luckily Frederick Pabst’s mansion (2000 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414-931-0808, www.pabstmansion.com) was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1970s (it almost became a parking lot). Built in 1892, the mansion was an outward sign that Pabst and his company had truly arrived--it was the biggest brewery in the U.S. at the time. For over-the-top Teutonic flavor, this supersized house is hard to beat. Done in an ornate neo-Renaissance style, the elaborate brick building is covered in terra cotta scrollwork, rosettes, and gargoyles. Things aren’t any less busy inside, with hunting-lodge touches that include a wrought-iron-and-and-antlers chandelier and oak floors and walls covered with stirring landscape paintings, horns, steins, and tapestries. Be sure to spend a little time checking out what’s now the gift shop, on the right side of the building. This small addition was once the brewery’s pavilion at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (where Pabst got the “blue ribbon” that PBR is named for). When the Exposition was over, Captain Pabst had the building brought here, its copper roof, cupids, and carvings all still as intact and cheerful as ever.
2… Hop to It
It would be hard but not impossible to avoid beer in Milwaukee - but why on earth would you want to? A lot of the brands here are the same as everywhere else; to get something more local, you have to go small. Tours at the Sprecher microbrewery (701 W. Glendale Ave., 414-964-2739, www.sprecherbrewery.com,) in the north suburb of Glendale, explain the basics of brewing, as well as how its founder, a former supervisor for the Pabst brewery, went about reviving the tradition of small-batch beers - an unusual endeavor back in 1985, when he started. The tour’s fun and laid back, but it’s the final destination, the tasting room, that’s the true highlight. There you can try whatever brews are in season, along with the microbrewery’s old standbys. One tip: Sprecher makes tasty beer, but it’s their root beer that’s really worth the trip.
1… Roll Out the Barrel
These days, Milwaukee’s German ties aren’t quite as easy to spot as they were in the nineteenth century, when the population was large enough to support two dozen newspapers auf Deutsch. But signs do remain, both in all the heavily ornamented architecture downtown and on the menu of many of Milwaukee’s most longstanding restaurants. To taste some of what passed for standard fare a 100 years ago, head to the Karl Ratzsch Restaurant (320 E. Mason St., 414-276-2720, www.karlratzsch.com), where the stein-and-antlers look goes well with a hearty-verging-on-heavy menu of sauerbraten, veal meatballs in gravy, bratwurst, roast duck, and liver-dumpling soup.
If all that gemütlich (coziness) gets on your nerves, then there’s always the much more raucous option of a Friday-night fish fry. Although they first arose back when Catholics couldn’t eat meat on Fridays, fish fries remain popular; it hard to beat a plate of beer-battered fried perch or cod and serving it alongside rye bread, potato pancakes, and applesauce. One place that reliably draws huge crowds is the Lakefront Brewery Palm Garden (1872 N. Commerce St., 414-372-8800, www.lakefrontbrewery.com), where the deep-fried goodness comes with live polka music and the roar of one happy crowd. By the way, Lakefront runs its own tours of its brewing operations daily, so it’s especially handy for gluttonous multi-taskers.