A Travellerspoint blog

America's Northern Midwest: Milwaukee

I've lived in several different parts of the United States thanks to the vagaries of educational and employment opportunities and over time I've come to appreciate the subtle cultural differences between regions. These differences are much more pronounced in the major cities and I've developed a fondness for the variegated character of American cities. Some time ago I set a goal of visiting every major American city and I've seen the majority of them. My favorites are New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon but I've been surprised how many others differed radically from what I expected. Houston and Atlanta were upside surprises while Seattle and Chicago were disappointments. 2016 was the year that Cleo told me she didn't want me to take her out of school for travel any more (she was four) so we wedged two trips into her summer break. We had a long road trip in central Europe planned for the end of the summer so we devised a two week itinerary for the American Midwest right after Cleo's school ended for the year.
large_03ff1e30-008a-11eb-8675-c7531dcd26ae.png

Every July there's a multi-day event called Taste of Chicago which bills itself as the world's largest food festival. I'd never been there, but word of mouth was that it was a big culinary event in which some of the best restaurants in Chicago served their food from stalls in a downtown park. As luck would have it the end of our two week time slot coincided perfectly with the beginning of the festival so we decided make Chicago the end of the road trip rather than the beginning. We flew into Chicago in the evening and crashed in a cheap motel, and then picked up our rental minivan the next morning. We had our nanny with us to help take care of Spenser, who wasn't even a year old yet, and watch the boys when we wanted to go out to dinner with Cleo. After loading up the minivan we drove straight to Milwaukee which was just an hour and a half away.
large_f9140980-02dd-11eb-b5d2-235c2203c20d.png

In 2016 the food hall movement was rolling along in American cities. It was lunch time when we arrived in the city so we headed to the Milwaukee Public Market even before dropping off our stuff at the Airbnb. The market was very busy and had a mixture of mini restaurants and delis. With six of us we were able to sample most of the restaurants that interested us and get a very satisfying lunch. It was a perfect way to kick off the road trip.
large_e2b3f4c0-00e4-11eb-a15a-f1fa003e60a3.jpglarge_e2c3ac30-00e4-11eb-9ea5-b3046ea5d166.jpg

Not many Americans, let alone international travelers, would think of going to Milwaukee on vacation. To the extent the city even has a reputation, it is as a boring midwestern nonentity with a lot of breweries. Fortunately I've learned not to pay much attention to those capsule summaries of American cities that are largely generated by media and people who've never been there. Los Angeles is not a shallow wasteland of surfers and celebrities, Boston is not a snobbish Brahmin enclave, and Portland is not overrun with hippies chomping granola. Nor did Milwaukee turn out to be a convocation of beefy Nordic types washing down sausages with cases of canned beer. Over the next two days we discovered that Milwaukee is quite beautiful, surprisingly quirky, and full of interesting things to do for families. Our Airbnb was a pleasant if undistinguished three bedroom house in a funky central neighborhood called Walker's Point. We made a brief stop there after lunch to drop off the bags and be sure we had a place for the night.
large_Apartment.jpg

Our first stop after checking in at the Airbnb was Brady Street, a nine block stretch in the bohemian Lower East Side neighborhood that's famous for restaurants and bars but also has eclectic stores, ethnic markets, and thrift shops. Art Smart's Dart Mart is the kind of store that every mid-sized city should have at least one of, a colorful collection of novelties and offbeat sports equipment that ultimately has something for everyone. If you can't find something at Art Smart's that you never knew you needed but now you can't live without, then I don't want to know you. Close by is another necessity of American city life, an authentic Italian market. Glorioso's has been an institution on Brady Street for seventy years and once we were inside it felt like we had entered a place where nothing had changed for decades.
large_fbbea810-01d5-11eb-a24b-1ff6edf9e5c8.jpglarge_fb5ed4d0-01d5-11eb-a24b-1ff6edf9e5c8.jpglarge_fb9c2bf0-01d5-11eb-82bf-f1c7272d55e3.jpglarge_fa4bde30-01d5-11eb-a24b-1ff6edf9e5c8.jpg

As the afternoon went on we continued to explore Milwaukee's cornucopia of unique attractions. Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory is known affectionately to locals as "The Domes". The cluster of three glass hemispheres sits improbably in a nondescript park like an outpost on a distant planet. Inside are elegantly landscaped plant collections that would be the envy of any botanical garden. It was one of the most beautiful and magical places I can remember seeing within the continental United States.
large_0130f070-01f2-11eb-8e80-3f73b1483f30.jpglarge_01d5e300-01f2-11eb-99ef-813f8df8e4af.jpglarge_0182b9f0-01f2-11eb-8e80-3f73b1483f30.jpg

Milwaukee hadn't finished amazing us for the day. Lots of American cities have a river snaking through their center and too many of them have no clue whatsoever how to incorporate them into the urban landscape. My hometown of Miami is one of the worst offenders. Fortunately Milwaukee got its act together in the 1990's and constructed a beautiful path that extends along three miles of river that pass through the city's oldest and most scenic neighborhoods. The RiverWalk provides a relaxing way to admire Milwaukee's river and historic buildings while enjoying a series of eclectic sculptures such as the Bronze Fonz.
large_f1b095f0-02b5-11eb-b52f-b5ff32fbbf2c.JPGlarge_f1234a10-02b5-11eb-b52f-b5ff32fbbf2c.JPGlarge_f0a36bb0-02b5-11eb-b52f-b5ff32fbbf2c.JPG

We topped our awesome first day in Milwaukee with dinner at Wolf Peach, which at the time was one of the city's most beloved bistros. The contemporary American food was pleasant if not particularly innovative, but what was most enjoyable was the restaurant's brick and stone farmhouse style and patio seating on a cool summer evening.
large_87d7b4b0-0297-11eb-9f11-a92c7baf35eb.jpglarge_40a467e0-028e-11eb-95b0-07df745f0ede.jpg

We kicked off our second day in Milwaukee at the South Shore Farmers Market, a large Saturday market in a beautiful residential neighborhood right at the shore of Lake Michigan. We never judge an American city until we've seen at least one farmer's market and once again Milwaukee passed with flying colors. The market was busy and energetic with live music, plenty of greenery, and a lovely park with a lakeside view for a picnic.
large_f05e9a80-02b5-11eb-b52f-b5ff32fbbf2c.jpglarge_f16709d0-02b5-11eb-8ec9-9babdbb734f6.JPG

Science museums are a great way to make sure the kids are having as good a time traveling as we are. Milwaukee's Discovery World has a great location on a short promontory into Lake Michigan. It is just a block away from the Milwaukee Art Museum whose Quadracci Pavilion was designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The pavilion is topped by a sculpture of enormous steel wings that opens and closes twice a day and we were able to time our visit to enjoy the spectacle.
large_5050dec0-02b7-11eb-9498-f9c7fd44e315.jpglarge_f714ddf0-02b8-11eb-b52f-b5ff32fbbf2c.jpg

Discovery World was one of the better science museums we've visited in the United States. There was heavy machinery to operate, a decent music lab, and a design workshop. One surprising display was a bed of nails that patrons were invited to lie on. Mei Ling took a go at it and discovered that they weren't fooling around. The nails were really sharp. Of course since her weight was distributed on all of them her skin didn't get punctured but they left some nasty marks that lasted most of the day.
large_76d51220-02ba-11eb-b52f-b5ff32fbbf2c.jpglarge_7745ae40-02ba-11eb-b52f-b5ff32fbbf2c.jpglarge_50161fb0-02b7-11eb-b52f-b5ff32fbbf2c.jpglarge_50c65ce0-02b7-11eb-9498-f9c7fd44e315.jpg

Milwaukee is a pretty large city but so far we'd spent almost all our time close to downtown. We ventured inland to the River Bend neighborhood to check out American Science & Surplus, another unusual hobby and curiosity shop that is like a nerd's paradise. It was the kind of store where one could have stocked up on a full year's worth of Christmas, birthday, and Tooth Fairy presents for a curious kid. I would have been happy to spend most of a day in here but it became exhausting trying to keep up with the kids as they tore through the aisles investigating all the colorful knickknacks. We didn't leave before selecting a few puzzles and games for the road trip.
large_3dd30980-02bc-11eb-af19-49dc8117a9cb.jpg

We had dinner at Circa 1880, a highly regarded small restaurant that had the added advantage of being walking distance from the Airbnb. It was nice to have a relaxing dinner with just us and Cleo without constantly having to keep an eye on what the boys were doing.
large_1880.jpg

On our last morning we had another farmers market to visit, much smaller than the one we'd been to the previous day. It was set in another pretty park surrounded by idyllic homes. In the center of the park was a cluster of colorful metal tree sculptures, yet another taste of that Milwaukee funkiness that we had quickly come to love. Afterwards we took a brief swing through the Milwaukee County Zoo before getting back on the road west to our next stop, Madison.
large_721dbe10-02da-11eb-8402-7d6c73dc30df.jpglarge_Park.jpglarge_72233c50-02da-11eb-a4de-436988a7e913.jpg

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:41 Archived in USA Tagged travel family blog milwaukee wisconsin

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.

Login