There’s a lot to love about Wisconsin’s largest city. For starters, two of television’s most beloved sitcoms hail from here — “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” were both fictionally based in Milwaukee (in fact, Henry Winkler has a life-size statue in his honor, appropriately named the Bronze Fonz).
And this city has plenty of fun things to do for beer drinkers: Pabst Blue Ribbon was established here in the 1800s, and the legacy of the city’s original “beer barons” lives on today at places like Brewhouse Inn & Suites, Miller, and Lakefront Brewery.
Meanwhile, the city is laying a path for its future — a new 30-acre NBA arena is on the horizon, and 2018 marks the debut of Milwaukee’s first-ever streetcar transportation system, making it easier than ever to spend a vacation here.
Where is Milwaukee?
Set along beautiful Lake Michigan, this former manufacturing town in Wisconsin has easy access to sailing and windsurfing during the warmer months. In addition to the lakefront, a visit to Milwaukee always includes a scenic stroll along Milwaukee River, where a two-mile promenade is lined with public art. Milwaukee is an easy hour and a half drive from Chicago.
Milwaukee’s Top Attractions
Even if you only come to Milwaukee for the beer, the city’s unique museums and art venues are also compelling points of interest for travelers — not to mention the residents themselves. Zeroing in on Milwaukee’s easy-going, small-town vibe is a true pleasure.
“Everybody knows everybody here,” Theresa Nemetz, of Milwaukee Food Tours, told Travel + Leisure. “We’re all looking to see each other succeed.” In fact, as you weigh the options, it’s worth simply asking locals, who (like Nemetz) will jump at the chance to show off their wonderful city, offering suggestions on what to do in Milwaukee.
A proper visit to Milwaukee should of course start at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which has become a symbol of the city’s sophisticated cultural cache — specifically, the Calatrava annex. Its dramatic, free-flying design was the first U.S. project for the famous Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava. Inside the museum, there are more than 30,000 pieces including works by Picasso and Monet, as well as one of the largest Georgia O’Keeffe collections in the world.
Don’t let that serene lakefront setting fool you, though. Milwaukee is also home to one of the most rock ‘n roll exhibits in the Midwest: the Harley Davidson Museum. The 20-acre campus is set adjacent to downtown, and counts over 350 gleaming models in its artillery, plus an engine room that breaks down the mechanical parts into a visually stunning diorama.
For those looking to soak up the sights of Milwaukee’s skyline while appreciating good art, Wisconsin Avenue is the place to go. In 2017, the main thoroughfare began hosting Sculpture Milwaukee: an outdoor gallery featuring 22 sculptures by world-class artists like Sol LeWit and Alison Saar (plus a few Milwaukeeans). The installation, which ran from May through October, proved so successful that plans are already underway to make it a recurring annual event.
Best Beaches in Milwaukee
Tucked inside Lake Park is the gorgeous Bradford Beach, one of the top beaches in Milwaukee. Despite its close proximity to downtown, the beach is an oasis of golden sand and rippling blue waves. It even attracts a robust group of surfers. The beach comes alive during summer, when locals show up on weekends to sip tiki drinks at the bar and practice volleyball (these courts host national competitions, so expect to find yourself playing with pros).
Major Events and Festivals in Milwaukee
If you’re planning a summer visit to Milwaukee, be sure to carve out time in your itinerary for the Wisconsin State Fair, which takes place each August. Little can compete with this jam-packed, 11-day blowout, which features live performers (comedians, dueling pianos, bodybuilders) on the main amphitheater stage. There’s also plenty to eat: from maple syrup-black pepper bacon to cherry pie, and every local delicacy you can imagine (Wisconsin cheese, sausage, classic maple syrup) all housed under one tent.
While Milwaukee makes no secret of its strong German heritage (each July, German Fest takes over central Marktplatz with German nibbles and an unmissable Dachshund Derby), other nationalities are given top billing here, too. Irish Fest (August) is the world’s largest Irish cultural festival outside of the Emerald Isle, while Festa Italiana (July) brings gondola rides, Italian opera music, and fireworks (not to mention a mouth-watering series of cooking demonstrations) to the 75-acre lakefront Henry W. Maier Park.
Shopping in Milwaukee
Just south of downtown Milwaukee, historic Third Ward is a veritable treasure trove for shoppers seeking all kinds of fun souvenirs. Sandwiched between I-794 and the Milwaukee River, the tiny neighborhood only spans 16 blocks. But that hasn’t stopped creative business owners from making it the number one retail destination for everything from lumberjack-style menswear (Milworks) to locally made jewelry (Lizzibeth) and hand-made leather handbags (Bursajo Boutique), alongside well-known brands like West Elm, Restoration Hardware, and Anthropologie.
If you’re looking to do some heavy-duty shopping, drive 20 minutes west of downtown to get to Mayfair, one of the state’s biggest shopping centers. At this luxury mall, which borders the historic village of Wauwatosa, you’ll spend hours rummaging through the racks at Vans, Kate Spade, Eddie Bauer, and more than 150 other outlets, while also having access to a full movie theater with IMAX screens.