The Milwaukee Public Market. Credit: Payton Chung via Flikr.
If it wasn’t for one of my relatives moving to Milwaukee several years ago, I probably would have continued to overlook this city as a destination all to itself. Before moving to downstate Illinois, I lived in Chicago or the Chicago region for about a decade. In my view, no other Midwestern city could match Chicago’s greatness (the Art Institute, architectural boat tours, underground music clubs, North Avenue beach, Wrigley Field). Aside from perhaps an occasional visit to the city’s massive outdoor music festival known as Summerfest or a tour of a brewery, my experience was limited mostly to driving through the Milwaukee region as quickly as possible on I-94 on my way to the northwoods of Wisconsin. But in the last couple years I’ve come to adore the “Cream City” more and more.
Milwaukee has several features similar to Chicago that I like–an artisan food market, outstanding museums, a lakefront with trails and beaches, a citizenry devoted to baseball–but it does not suffer from some of the downfalls of a mega city like Chicago, mainly the soul-crushing traffic. And because it’s just a smaller city, I have found Milwaukee to be easy to navigate on foot, car or bicycle. Even with kids in tow.
The highlights: a mini museum campus on the lakefront, kite-flying and paddle-boat-friendly Veterans Park on the lakefront, the hipster and hipsters-graduating-to-young foodie-families scene that is the Third Ward with its awesome public market, occasional chain store (Anthropologie) and surprising fun spots like the Susan Sarandon-backed ping pong social club! Milwaukee doesn’t have Hot Doug’s (Chicago’s famed sausage emporium), but it’s got Usinger’s over on North Old World 3rd Street near the riverfront. And you can’t leave Milwaukee without filling up on some summer sausage and cheese. Finally, I won’t get all judgey if you take the kids along on a tour of say, Sprecher Brewery. (They make root beer, too!)
Here’s my guide to two days with the family in the city, the summer version.
Day 1: Bikes, Kites, Tasty Bites
Start your visit with a tour of the Milwaukee Public Market, a vibrant indoor and outdoor market featuring produce, cheeses, chocolates, wine, beer, sausages, breads. In short, everything you need for a picnic. (We usually bring along water bottles on our travel adventures, but I’m sure you could find some organic juice boxes at one of the stalls.) Head east to the lakefront and specifically to Milwaukee Bike & Skate Rental in Veterans Park just off Lincoln Memorial Drive. There you can rent bikes, tandems, surreys or even a go-kart-like contraption called a skelter. Strap on your helmets and pedal north along the lakeshore bike trail. The extensive Oak Leaf Trail system can take you all through the city. A scenic and relatively easy route for families is the “lake loop,” about 6 miles in length. (If you want to put in more miles from the lake loop, veer northwest on the trail toward Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, or cycle back into the city and follow the trail along the Milwaukee River.
If you didn’t pack a picnic basket, refuel at Alterra, the regional coffee shop with a location in an 1888 pump house along the lakefront (by the yacht club, dahhhling). You’ll also pass Bradford Beach, where you can put in some time building sandcastles and noshing on your picnic items. You can also unwind at NorthPoint Custard, about two miles north of the museum campus, also just off Lincoln Memorial Drive and the bike trail.
After you return the bikes, check out Gift of Wings, the kite shop in the park. Or, if you didn’t work your quadriceps enough with your bike ride, you can always rent paddle boats at Veterans Park and toodle around the lagoon there.
Shop for (and then fly) kites on Milwaukee's lakefront. Credit: Beige Alert via Flikr.
Day 2: Hands-on museums, ping-pong, sausages, too.
Give yourselves about two hours at one of these three museums along Milwaukee’s lakefront near downtown. The Milwaukee Art Museum has a new educational center just for children, the Kohl’s Art Generation, where kids can create art by themselves and then bring their masterpieces home. Just south of the art museum is Discovery World, a hands-on science center and aquarium well-suited for kids who like to touch everything. The Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, also near the lakefront and within walking distance of the other museums, is good for younger tots, in my opinion.
By the time you’re done at the museum, you’ll all be hungry and cranky so I suggest tailing it up to Old World Third Street, part of the RiverWalk area of downtown Milwaukee. This is where you can get a sense of the German roots to this city. Check out the sausages and fresh brats at Usinger’s. Pop in at Wisconsin Cheese Mart where the selection goes way, way beyond cheese curds. Take in the sunshine at Pere Marquette Park just south of those shops. If you’re so inclined, you can grab a boat tour along the river here.
One other fun place to check out if you have older children is SPiN, a ping pong bar/social club in the Historic Third Ward neighborhood. Go before 6 p.m. and for $8, you can face off at one of the tables for 30 minutes. After 9 p.m. minors aren’t allowed and it becomes more of a nightspot.
If you and your little ones aren’t completely tuckered out, here are some other options to consider. On the far west side of town, the Milwaukee County Zoo is an extensive place where you can easily spend an entire day. We have a budding naturalist in our family so we usually hit up the zoo in any town we visit. I had never been to the Milwaukee Zoo until recently and was surprised how expansive it was and how so many of the animals were all within view (as opposed to hiding from humans in dark corners), such as the bonobos showing off their gymnastic moves, brown bears rolling around, yawning and scratching themselves, peacocks roaming around the park, and much more.
Over the years we’ve also explored the Boerner Botanical Gardens southwest of the city in Hales Corners (good destination in early spring for its tulip displays) and Mitchell Park Conservatory, otherwise known as “The Domes” (good for winter or rainy day).