A Travellerspoint blog

October 2016

America's Northern Midwest: Chicago

I had been to Chicago twice before and the city had never left a great impression on me. In fact, my first visit suggested Chicago was unfit for human habitation. I was interviewing for medical school one February and staying on campus. When I walked out of my room into the street an Arctic wind hit me in the face full blast, wringing a stream of tears from my eyes. Seconds later the tears froze on my cheeks. I made it to the interview but I'm not sure if I listened to a word. There was no way in hell I was going to be moving to that tormented place. My second visit had better weather but a paucity of inspiring sights and experiences. I was hoping that with more experience traveling and all my Internet research that I could show my family a more exciting and interesting city than I remembered.

When we reached Chicago we drove straight for the Navy Pier, a popular entertainment complex which was providing a relatively inexpensive venue to watch the Fourth of July fireworks over Lake Michigan. It's probably a fun place on a regular day with carnival rides and exhibitions but as the evening set in the limited open space became more and more crowded and oppressive. The food options were awful and the breeze off the lake brought in cooler temperatures than we were dressed for. By the time the fireworks were halfway over I was pushing us towards the exits ahead of the rush. The view of the skyline was more impressive than the fireworks themselves.

In the morning we were eager to explore the third largest city in the country. We drove straight to Chinatown for brunch. The view from the traditional Chinatown Gate was encouraging with a long line of Chinese restaurants and other businesses but we soon discovered that almost everything was concentrated on this one street. At the end of the street was a plaza with several more restaurants including Joy Yee, a Pan-Asian noodle shop where we had a pleasant meal. Aside from the restaurants there was little sign of Chinese culture and few of the pedestrians and customers were Chinese. Unlike either of New York's Chinatowns or the ones in Boston or San Francisco, it wasn't the kind of place where you could suspend belief and imagine you had been transported to the other side of the globe.

People have many different images of Chicago but few think of it as a beach town. That's somewhat odd because I'm hard pressed to think of any American cities that have as many beaches close to the city center as Chicago. Even living in Miami we have to schlep across the bay to get to Miami Beach. People forget that Chicago is along the shore of a lake so large it might as well be an ocean and there are actually twenty-four public beaches within the city limits. We picked Oak Street Beach, not far from downtown, and I was surprised by how much sand there was. I would never have known I wasn't at the oceanside. The towering skyscrapers just behind the beach made the incongruous feeling of being at the beach and in the city even more acute.

One thing that we weren't expecting was that Chicago would have the most beautiful and impressive downtown of any American city. Naturally the first one anyone would think of is my hometown of New York City but I found Chicago's to have more interesting architecture, more space between the skyscrapers and therefore more sunlight, and a more energetic vibe overall. We walked up and down a long stretch of North Michigan Avenue that is known as Magnificent Mile. We ducked in and out of high-end boutiques and enjoyed amazing views of historic buildings and the Chicago River. The rippled, aquamarine surface of the water was a splendid accompaniment to the distinguished skyline.

South of the river a series of enormous parks occupies the space between Michigan Avenue and the Lake Michigan shoreline. Here we found the reflecting Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known to locals as The Bean. Artist Anish Kapoor has never provided a detailed explanation of the sculpture's meaning but the prevailing interpretation is that the reflection of the sky and clouds on the polished metallic surface is like a doorway from the ground into the heavens. It's a perfect sculpture for a public place as the distorted reflections make for awesome photographs and the curved underside invites pedestrians to walk beneath.

Bistro night was at The Girl and the Goat, a very buzzy restaurant whose owner had been featured on the Top Chef cooking competition. We had made our reservation weeks in advance and naturally the restaurant was packed and full of energy. It was a great night out after a long day of sightseeing although the menu wasn't quite as innovative as we were expecting.

We started the next day at a farmers market uptown before moving on to the curiosity shop Woolly Mammoth. The market was good-sized but unremarkable and Woolly Mammoth was mostly focused on taxidermy and the grotesque, which wasn't as fun for us as the offbeat boutiques we'd visited in Wisconsin.

We were more impressed by the greenhouses at the Garfield Park Conservatory in central Chicago. This was our third botanical garden of the trip even though I'm not particularly interested in botany. However there's something about greenhouses that I find impossible to resist. In the best ones I feel like I've been transported to a primordial Earth unsullied by human civilization. The Garfield Park Conservatory was particularly lush and aesthetically pleasing, a wonderful respite from the urban expanse.

We went directly from raw nature to one of the extremes of human audacity. The Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) was the tallest building in the world from its completion in 1973 until 1998 when it was surpassed by the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. I wouldn't call the tower ugly but its black, block-like composition doesn't carry the same gravitas as the New York City skyscrapers that held the title before it or the innovative and beautiful Asian buildings that surpassed it. The main attraction for travelers is the Ledge, a small glass-floored balcony that projects outward from the observation deck to give visitors the illusion of being suspended hundreds of meters above the city streets. It was somewhat annoying being forced to watch the painful social media antics of those in the line ahead of us once they took their places in the box. Exaggerated expressions of terror and handstands seemed to be the most popular choices, accompanied by low grumbles from the line once people had gone over their time allotment in search of internet-based validation.

We planned to have dinner in one of Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods. My research advised me there was a Little Italy just west of Interstate 90 in the center of the city, but once we arrived we didn't see much except for a couple of fairly low-end restaurants and pizza places. It seemed like a typical generic residential area with a lot of businesses catering to college students, unsurprising since the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago was a block away. There may have been a more Italian flavor to the neighborhood in the past, but to someone who cut his teeth on Little Italy in Manhattan and the North End in Boston it was pretty disappointing. Even The Hill in St. Louis would easily take the title of the best Italian neighborhood in the Midwest over Chicago's version. Instead of stopping we drove uptown to Little Vietnam, also known as Little Saigon. I was surprised to find out that Chicago had a Vietnamese neighborhood given that the vast majority of war refugees emigrated to California and Texas. However, Argyle Street was packed with authentic pho restaurants and Vietnamese boutiques. The only drawback was that the commercial part of the neighborhood was quite small, occupying only a few blocks of one street. It had begun pouring by that point and we couldn't have done much exploring even if there had been anything to see so we picked the most promising restaurant and were soon tucking into steaming bowls of delicious pho.

Our last full day in Chicago was centered around the Taste of Chicago, the celebrated food festival that had given me the idea to make Chicago the culmination of this road trip. One of my medical school roommates had told me about it and made it sound like the gastronomic experience of a lifetime. When I looked it up, it did sound good. Dozens of Chicago restaurants setting up booths in a park for samples of their specialties? Count us in. It sounded like a food hall on steroids.

On the way to the festival we stopped off at the Shit Fountain. The unusual sculpture was created by local artist Jerzy Kenar in response to all the dogs that have been allowed to defecate on his property without a clean-up afterwards. Surprisingly there was no outcry from the community or the city and the fountain has become one of Chicago's offbeat attractions.

We hadn't made it as far south as Grant Park on our long walk down Michigan Avenue earlier in the week, but we discovered it had one of the best views of the spectacular Chicago skyline we'd seen yet. Especially with the rococo Buckingham Fountain in the foreground, there couldn't have been a more beautiful setting for the Taste of Chicago.
Sadly, the culinary prowess of the festival failed to live up to the setting. It was far less a showcase for Chicago's bistros than a smorgasbord of fast foods, mainly dominated by every conceivable variety of sausage. It was reminiscent of a food court at the world's largest sports stadium. There was no shortage of patrons lining up for bratwurst, pizza, turkey legs, nachos, and burgers but I think we could have eaten just as well without paying the steep admission by walking up and down the block outside of Wrigley Field. I don't know whether there was a more restaurant-oriented selection when the festival started out in the 1980's or if I had just completely misunderstood the concept. Either way the food festival we'd chosen as an anchor for our road trip was one of the biggest disappointments. The funny thing was that by that point we'd had so much fun and seen so many amazing places in four states that it hardly even mattered.

We didn't stay at Taste of Chicago as long as we'd expected but we had a back-up plan. Two days earlier we'd spotted the Crown Fountain just south of The Bean but couldn't let the kids play in it. This time we'd come prepared with bathing suits for the kids. As soon as they saw the water they plunged in and had a great time while we watched the faces change on the singular LED monoliths from which the water spewed.

That was pretty much the end of the trip. We had a little time the next morning to stop at a couple of Polish and German grocery stores on our way to the airport but didn't encounter anything very surprising. Chicago had shown us an amazing downtown but had batted well below its size when it came to ethnic diversity. Overall I left with a greater appreciation of the city than on my previous visits but I didn't get the impression that Chicago was a world class city on the scale of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even Boston. Nevertheless it had been a great itinerary and there's nothing I would have changed. Minneapolis, Madison, and especially Milwaukee had been unique and fascinating cities as well and the experience had recharged my determination to visit all the remaining major American cities.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:16 Archived in USA Tagged chicago midwest tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (1)

America's Northern Midwest: Cedar Rapids


We made the three hundred mile trek from Minneapolis to Cedar Rapids in one day, but we gave ourselves the luxury of a detour to La Crosse, Wisconsin. There were several interesting things to see in this mid-sized town on the Mississippi. Grandad Bluff is a six hundred foot cliff that overlooks the town and has views that extend as far as Iowa. From the parking lot there was a paved path to the viewpoint and a refreshing summer breeze at the top of the bluff.

Downtown La Crosse looked like it hadn't changed much since the 1950's There was even an ice cream parlor that looked like a throwback to a post-war soda shop. We braved the long line to get refreshments for the kids. La Crosse was one of the most beautiful American towns we've passed through. The residential neighborhoods were really well kept with large, interesting houses. We looked up the home values later and were pretty amazed how inexpensive they were. Wisconsin's climate isn't to our taste but we found it to be one of the most pleasant and interesting states we've visited, probably only equaled by Oregon.

Close to the river it's hard to miss the World's Largest Six Pack, six enormous beer storage tanks that have been covered with giant LaCrosse labels. It was another reminder of Wisconsin's whimsical and creative character.

There's a nice highway that follows the Mississippi downstream along the western edge of Wisconsin. Once we turned back inland there was nothing but farms and fields as far as the eye could see. I've always been horrified by the prospects of long-distance drives through the American midwest but there was something hypnotic about all the flat, green expanses.

For some reason I couldn't recall I'd chosen an Airbnb in Iowa City instead of Cedar Rapids. It was a perfectly fine little house but it was a full half hour south of where we wanted to be. By the time we arrived we were way to exhausted to drive all the way back to Cedar Rapids so we had a local dinner and crashed.

We started our full day in Iowa at a local farmers market. So far we'd had a market on every weekend day and a couple on weekdays as well. As it turned out, a farmers market in the state synonymous with farming wasn't much different from anywhere else.

Despite its relatively small size Cedar Rapids had its very own food hall called NewBo City Market. It was a lowkey place without a lot of options but we were happy to have it. Eating at food halls has become an important tradition for us when we travel.

After lunch we drove southwest to Amana, the largest of seven villages in a cluster called the Amana Colonies. The Colonies were established in the mid 19th century by a group of German emigrants who wanted to live a religious communal life. Although the villagers no longer live a communal existence, they have maintained many of their traditions and the historic appearance of the villages. The villages' handicrafts and wineries have helped Amana develop into a tourist attraction with a theater and a museum.

On the way back to Iowa City we kept our eye out for the perfect cornfield close to the road. Eventually we found it and got everyone out for a close inspection of the beautiful plants that are so intricately entwined with the history and economy of Iowa.

After an early dinner we went to a fireworks show at the shore of the Iowa River. It was still one day before Independence Day but presumably the organizers decided they would get a better turnout on a Sunday evening than Monday. There was a beautiful community of houses built on floating platforms in the river, and a large park where we could run around and play Frisbee.

Monday morning we began the long drive back to Chicago. It was a pleasant cruise through more lush, rolling landscape carpeted with corn fields and dotted with white farmhouses.

We took a slight detour north to see the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin. This is yet another multi-year labor of a solitary individual, in this case a German pastor named Mathius Wernerus. This ornate religious complex of concrete and stone is covered in colorful mosaics of semi-precious stones and shells that were sourced from all over the world, along with broken glass and other debris. The Grotto was part of a wave of construction of religious shrines and grottoes that swept the Midwest in the early 20th century.

We had one more stop planned in Galena, a small town in Western Illinois with a lot of preserved colonial buildings. When we arrived it was very crowded with holiday weekend trippers from Chicago and just didn't seem like it was worth exploring. We drove around the town a bit but eventually decided to just press on to Chicago and arrive in time to get comfortably settled and have dinner.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:06 Archived in USA Tagged family iowa travel_blog midwest cedar_rapids tony_friedman Comments (1)

America's Northern Midwest: Minneapolis

Minneapolis grew into a metropolis in the late 19th century on the strength of immigration from Germany and Scandinavia and the city still displays those strong cultural influences. In more recent years, however, Minnesota's welcoming policies for refugees have encouraged the settlement of tens of thousands of Hmong in the 1970's and more recently Somalis. Minneapolis has the highest concentration of refugees of any major American city, and their impact on the cultural fiber of the community has been dramatic. In addition, Minneapolis has a rapidly growing Latino population as well as a thriving gay community. As with other Midwestern cities, Minneapolis is far more complex than the white bread thumbnail sketch imagined by most coastal denizens.

Our Airbnb was a mid-sized house in the Sheridan neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis. It was a fairly typical residential neighborhood in the process of gentrification, with a seeming excess of coffee shops and brew pubs.

Downtown Minneapolis would be an ordinary cluster of business skyscrapers and low-end eateries if it wasn't for the enormous network of bridges between buildings known as the Minneapolis Skyways. The skyways have been proliferating since 1962 and now extend for a total of eight miles, allowing downtown workers to shuttle between destinations without having to brave the brutal outdoor elements of Minnesota winters. All the foot traffic has nourished an industry of ethnic restaurants and small boutiques that make the Skyway a tourist attraction in and of itself. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of the enormous complexes of interconnected skyscrapers and malls we explored in east Asia.

Minneapolis is the northernmost major city on the Mississippi River, which runs through the center of the metropolitan area. Minneapolis doesn't have a redeveloped RiverWalk like Milwaukee but there are some interesting attractions along the western bank such as the historic Gold Medal Flour sign and the Guthrie Theater. The architectural quirks of the innovative Guthrie include the Pohlad Lobby, an amber-tinted box that projects from the side of the building, and the Endless Bridge. The Endless Bridge is a cantilevered extension that hovers over the parkway and terminates in a balcony with amazing views over the river.

On the east bank of the river about a mile downstream of the Guthrie is the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum. The appearance of the museum is similar enough to Gehry's famed Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao that it has been affectionately nicknamed the "Baby Bilbao", although the Weisman was constructed years earlier.

Before visiting an American city I always research ethnic neighborhoods. Minnesota's German and Scandinavian heritage are well-known, as well as the more recent Somali diaspora, but few know that Minneapolis has a sizeable Mexican community who are largely the descendants of migrant farm workers. All of these different elements collide on Lake Street in the diverse Phillips neighborhood south of Downtown. Here one can find the historic Scandinavian market Ingbretsen's, Somali restaurants and markets, and numerous Mexican mercados and taquerias. The Swedish folk art murals outside of Ingbretsen's are a landmark in the neighborhood.

One of Minneapolis's most unique and beloved attractions is Minnehaha Falls. I'm hard-pressed to think of another major American city that has a sizeable waterfall within its boundaries. It's an easy descent down to the trail and the waterfall is a beautiful sight as the water pours thirty-five feet into the pool underneath and sunlight streams through the gap in the tree cover. The park surrounding the falls offers four wheel surrey bicycles to rent which are a fun way to experience the landscape. Although it was a weekday there were hundreds of people enjoying the park, either riding the surreys or getting their feet wet in one of the countless shallow areas of Minnehaha Creek.

Minneapolis's twin city St. Paul tends to exist in the shadow of its larger neighbor despite being the state capital. Although the city has its own list of attractions we were mainly interested in HmongTown, a center for Hmong culture that has filled a former lumbar yard with a farmers' market, shops, and a food court. At the food court we had the most satisfying meal of our stay in Minneapolis, a delicious repast of stuffed chicken wings, pho, fried fish, and numerous other Hmong specialties. Hmong people began emigrating to Minnesota in the 1970's mainly as refugees from the wars that were ravaging their homeland in Southeast Asia.They and their descendants now number at least 75000 in the Twin Cities, which is probably the largest urban population of Hmong in the entire world. Being in Hmongtown was the closest feeling we had to international travel during the road trip.

In Minneapolis we were able to continue the offbeat theme we had established in Milwaukee by visiting the House of Balls, the studio and gallery of mixed media artist Allen Christian. The gallery takes its risque name from the the artist's favorite medium of bowling balls, from which he coaxes all manner of startling faces and alien shapes. Bowling balls are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this artist's original and entertaining body of work which ultimately defies categorization. We were expecting a tourist attraction of sorts and were taken aback to find no one present except for the artist himself, who graciously invited us to tour his studio despite the lack of advance notice. He told us that over time the House of Balls moniker had acquired a new meaning to him as a place where he finds the inner courage to explore new artistic territory. We were either too self-conscious or too overwhelmed to take any photos, but fortunately anyone can experience the gallery virtually on YouTube.

Restaurant night was at Spoon and Stable, the triumphant return of local culinary hero Gavin Kaysen from New York City where he was executive chef for Daniel Boulud. The farm-to-table style American bistro had an upscale setting and an unmistakable buzz in its second year after opening.

On the morning we left we stopped at the Minneapolis Farmers Market close to Downtown. This was an enormous daily market with hundreds of vendors offering virtually every variety of local produce as well as freshly prepared food. It was a fitting postscript to our three day stay in Minneapolis. We concluded it was an enjoyable city, at least in the summer, and worthwhile to visit but we didn't feel the same affinity for it as we had for Milwaukee. It was time to proceed onward to Iowa, a state I had never in my life expected to visit.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:51 Archived in USA Comments (0)

America's Northern Midwest: Madison to Eau Claire


The capital of Wisconsin has always lived in the shadow of Milwaukee, but Madison has its own character completely distinct from that of its far larger neighbor. Madison achieved its status as the state capital in a highly questionable fashion, in that the federal judge who purchased the land and built the city essentially bribed the territorial legislature with choice lots and buffalo robes. Given that, however, it is hard to complain about the capital's location in the south central portion of the state amid a chain of beautiful lakes. I hadn't realized until we were almost at our Airbnb that the city's downtown occupied a narrow isthmus between two large lakes. Thanks to the short drive from Milwaukee we'd arrived in plenty of time to explore the center of the city. The first thing we noticed is that downtown is designed such that the state capitol building can be seen from almost every intersection, thanks to the diagonal roads that point to every corner of the building. The capitol is one of the most impressive in the fifty states with a neoclassical design reminiscent of the US Capitol and the largest granite dome in the world.

We continued our walk until we found a Thai restaurant for dinner. Afterwards we saw a crowd in the park at the shore of Lake Mendota and realized we'd stumbled on a waterskiing competition. The jumps and other stunts were very impressive. It was a good reminder that it isn't just people who live on the coasts who can become adept at water sports.

There wasn't a whole lot to do in Madison on a Monday but we were armed with a long itinerary of sights outside the city. First we had breakfast at Ella's Deli, a locally beloved luncheonette with a carousel in front and all sorts of toys and displays inside. It was a kid's paradise that represented one couple's labor of love over decades and doesn't feel commercial at all.

About an hour to the west of Madison is Taliesin, the estate of the iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The combined residence and studio was designed by Wright himself and is emblematic of the architect's desire to have his buildings reflect the nature of the surrounding landscape. Personally I'm not attracted to the homes Wright designed, which look to me more like medical clinics than comfortable homes, but of course no one ever asked my my opinion about architecture. At the time we visited the architectural school Wright established at Taliesin was in session although it closed not long afterwards. The tour was rather dry even for us adults so once the group moved to the outdoors we remained in the fresh Wisconsin air after the others had returned to the interior.

Amazingly enough there is another unique architectural attraction just ten minutes away from Taliesin which has nothing whatsoever to do with Frank Lloyd Wright. In the 1950's an eccentric multimillionaire named Alex Jordan Jr. decided to build a sprawling Japanese-style home atop a rocky outcrop well above the surrounding valley. The fourteen rooms of the House on the Rock are filled with antiques, replicas, and eclectic artwork except for the Infinity Room, a cantilevered projection over the valley which uses forced perspective to create the impression of a never-ending corridor. The house is surrounded by gardens and pools that have a vaguely Asian character but would probably look like a nightmare to any Shinto temple designer. Jordan opened his house to the paying public in 1960 and the subsequent owner has continued to keep it open and even add to the collections inside. Some have described it as the "ultimate tourist trap", but we found our tour to be an enjoyable taste of American eclecticism.

Wisconsin still had more unusual sights in store for us that day. I had been eagerly anticipating a visit to Dr. Evermor's Forevertron since I had discovered it while doing my Wisconsin research before the trip. The park is in the middle of nowhere but fortunately fairly close to both Spring Green and Madison so it was the next logical destination on our day trip. Thank to the out of the way location, we were the only visitors when we showed up. Tom Every, the artistic genius who called himself Dr. Evermor, had already had the first of a series of strokes that eventually led to his death in 2020 and wasn't at the park. However his wife was there to explain the concept and direct us on our self-guided tour. The park is filled with whimsical metal sculptures of animals and improbable machines. The piece de resistance is the enormous Forevertron, en enormous construction in the center of the park that resembles a rocket launcher. The egg shaped capsule in the center is intended to be propelled into the celestial sphere via the collection of lightning energy from the surrounding devices. Ian was particularly awestruck by the sculptures and we had to watch him continuously to be sure he didn't wander out of our sight.

Back in Madison after an exhausting but exhilarating day trip there was just time for a leisurely dinner and some exercise before bed. When we're on the road we have to improvise when it comes to keeping in shape.

We had already experienced more in and around Madison than we had any right to expect from a relatively small American city, but we still had more ahead of us. On the morning of our departure we stopped at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a breathtaking collection of flora at the shore of Lake Monona. The peaceful gardens are filled with water features such as a creek, pools, and waterfalls and the landscaping is somehow meticulous and feral at the same time. The prize of the garden is a golden Thai pavilion, a present from the government of Thailand in recognition of the large Thai student population at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin.

About an hour north of Madison is an area known as Wisconsin Dells which has a concentration of water parks and other outdoor activities. The kids were just getting to the age where they could have fun at a water park so we decided to try out one called Kalahari. As I expected the kids loved it although it was nervewracking trying to keep my eye on both the older kids at the large splash park while Mei Ling entertained Spenser in the toddler area.

The drive to Minneapolis would have been quite long so we decided to break things up in Eau Claire. This was a typical midwestern town just large enough to have a downtown commercial district with a string of ethnic restaurants and small boutiques on the attractive main street. For an added bonus there was a decent-sized farmers market the following morning with a Vietnamese food truck to fuel us for the drive. We made one final stop at a very large and innovative city playground and then we were off to Minnesota. Wisconsin had been an amazing experience, one of the most fun and interesting states we've ever visited. We were eager to see what more surprises lay in wait for us in this unheralded part of our country.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:28 Archived in USA Comments (1)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:41 Archived in USA Tagged travel family blog milwaukee wisconsin Comments (0)

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