Milwaukee boasts of hosting the world’s biggest music festival each summer, but during the winter a thriving food and art scene heats up.
Just before noon the pilot announced we’d started making our descent into Milwaukee -- and then, quoting Alice Cooper in the movie “Wayne’s World,” corrected himself. “Actually, it’s pronounced ‘mill-e-wah-que,’ which is Algonquin for ‘the good land.’” At that, I knew my trip to this very cool city would be epic.
With a population of 600,000, Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s largest city. It sits on the western shore of Lake Michigan and is but a two-hour drive or train ride from Chicago. The city boasts of hosting the world’s biggest music festival each summer -- not surprisingly when daily temperatures hover around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. But I was flying into Milwaukee when it was 22 degrees Fahrenheit.
I flew into Milwaukee on a frigid Friday morning hoping to sight see before going to a wedding for a close college friend the following evening.
Thankfully, the city is known for its brewing traditions, so I figured I could always hang out in the city’s many bars and breweries to keep warm. Today, Milwaukee is home to two major breweries, Miller and Leinenkugel, and two microbreweries, Milwaukee Brewing Company and Lakefront Brewery.
But the city’s latest draw is its emerging food and arts scene, which really revs up in the winter months.
After checking into my hotel, I headed to lunch at Cafe Benelux in the Historic Third Ward. The industrial-meets-rustic Cafe Benelux is mainly known for its mussels, frites and beer. The waitress suggested the Brussels pannekoeken: a fried, flattened sweet potato-tasting pancake topped with asparagus, fried eggs and pancetta, drizzled with a Belgian bier cheese sauce. I sampled the Lakefront White: a creamy local wheat beer with hints of berry and orange.
The city’s latest draw isn't just its emerging food. It also has a thriving arts scene, which really revs up in the winter months.
Of the dozen-plus museums in the city, Margaret Casey insisted I visit the Milwaukee Art Museum. “This is our Sydney Opera House, Our St. Louis Arch.” The museum is perhaps best known for its edgy winged pavilion designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava with a retractable sunscreen that resembles a bird flying over shore. The museum holds various collections including a post-1960 section with pieces by David Schnell, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.
Two hours later I realized I had just enough time to visit one more museum before my friend’s flight arrived from Dallas. My pick: the Harley-Davidson Museum located just south of downtown on W. Canal Street.
Harley-Davidson Motor Company was started in Milwaukee during the Industrial Revolution and the museum houses the oldest motorcycle in existence. Bikes are showcased in a chronological progression in the jet black and orange building. Visitors can opt to view it in order or break up the tour, popping into side galleries like a recreation of a 1920s wooden racetrack room.
When I was there, rally captains from all over the world were meeting ahead of a May gathering, which will bring in about 200,000 riders to Milwaukee. As I passed a rhinestone-covered 1973 Electra Glide, a biker from Arizona, Reynold Jerome, sighed and offered, “You style your bike to your personality.” His is a teal and cream 2009 Road King Classic -- uncomplicated to the core.
That night those of us not bound to the rehearsal dinner planned a mini bar crawl along Water Street (the trendy, high-brow college kid favorite) and Brady Street (the revamped, low-brow hipster hangout). At every bar they have local brews and spirits on tap. At Bar Louie, a hip sports bar located on Water Street, I sampled a Spotted Cow -- a local frothy wheat brew. Before going back to our hotel, we drove to Wisconsin Avenue to visit the Pfister Hotel -- a stately, ornate building erected in 1893 where many presidents and dignitaries have stayed -- and take in the panoramic view of the Milwaukee skyline in the top floor wine bar, Blu.
The following morning my friend and I had brunch at the Cafe at the Plaza Hotel, which is just north of downtown on N. Cass Street. Executive Chef Christopher Stoye -- a New York-trained chef who’s worked at the Gramercy Tavern -- greeted us when we arrived. We sat at the lunch counter in the art deco space and ordered, per Stoye’s suggestion, the ginger-stuffed French toast with strawberry rhubarb jam (which I inhaled in spoonfuls) and pellet eggs with turkey sausage patties and chive hash browns. Stoye, who favors the locavore movement, told us, “being able to choose the ingredients that are in line with the guests’ tastes” is what he likes best about working in Milwaukee.
We had a few hours before the ceremony, so we went to the Historic Third Ward, which was home to an open-air market before renovations in the 1980s, and which my friend likened to New York’s SoHo. Some of the original awnings still hang intact providing shade to the new crop of boutiques dotting the area.
Musician John Legend serenaded us from the speakers as we walked into Lela, a half-consignment, half-vintage shop. Two more shops we popped into were Flirt and Shoo, a shoe store tucked inside a gallery. From there we took refuge from the cold in the famed Milwaukee Public Market, which is the backdrop for the opening scene in "Bridesmaids."
I had two destinations in mind: The Spice House and Kehr’s Candies. We sampled specialty blends at the Spice House pop-up stand, including a very potent white truffle sea salt. The Spice House was established in 1957 by Ruth and Bill Penzey -- both it and Kehr’s Candies, founded in 1930, are staples of the Milwaukee culture.
We then walked to the Kehr’s Candies counter and sampled the candy maker’s most popular treat: Fairy Food. The burnt angel food cake dipped in dark chocolate treat tastes like bonfires and summer nights. I purchased several more pieces and a pound of chocolate gummies; my friend paid for a homemade pomegranate frozen custard cone for the road. We had to dash out to get ready for the wedding, but what a way to get a taste of the city.
So long, Milwaukee, see you soon, no doubt.
Follow Natalia Angulo on Twitter @natisangulorico.