We were in Wisconsin recently to take my wife’s parents up to see family — Alix’s dad grew up in Milwaukee, and they have lots of kin in and near the city. It was the first time I’d been there for more than a day or two. Milwaukee is a gorgeous old city, mostly because it didn’t tear down its brick and stone in favor of glass and steel. Downtown has dozens of buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Milwaukee was a national center for beer, meatpacking and tanneries. It must have smelled terrible back then. But it’s beautiful now.
We hit the lottery with our hotel. I picked the downtown Hilton Garden Inn because it was the cheapest hotel in the center city the week we were there. I checked to make sure it had good reviews, but I didn’t actually read the reviews, so we didn’t know until we got there that the hotel is a National Historic Landmark called the Loyalty Building. Among other things, the hotel used to be the headquarters of the Northwestern Mutual insurance company. The safes are still there on the first floor, with beautiful artwork on the doors.
Across the street from us was Downtown Books, one of those used bookstores where they had ladders in the aisles because the stacks are so high. We spent a couple hours (and 50 or 60 bucks) in there one morning while one of the regular customers came in and sprawled on the floor to play with the resident cat. We were also three blocks away from the Milwaukee Public Market, which resembles Seattle’s Pike Place Market all the way down to the big red sign outside. We had two good lunches there — one at the Green Kitchen inside, the other at Cafe Benelux catty-corner from the main market building. Our food highlight in Milwaukee, thought, was ice cream at the Purple Door. We tried lemon cardamom (interesting) and salted caramel (world-class).
Two favorite sights: The Grohmann Museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering is devoted to art about the evolution of work. There’s a sculpture garden on the roof and three floors below, mostly paintings, that depict farmers and weavers and carpenters and steelworkers and such. The paintings are mostly Dutch and mostly stunning. Not far away, in the old Pabst Brewery complex, the Brewhouse Inn incorporated a lot of the old brewery structure — including the tops of the copper brewing barrels.
There’s also a restaurant where, as you might imagine, you can get PBR on draft.
But we spent a lot of time just strolling the Riverwalk downtown, where the Milwaukee River heads toward Lake Michigan. We took pictures with the Bronze Fonz, and Alix’s dad told the story of Gertie the duck right before we ran into a statue of her. I’d love to live in one of the condos overlooking the river — at least from May to October.
There’s a lot we didn’t do. We had already been to the Milwaukee Art Museum, so we skipped it this time. We didn’t go to the classic old German restaurants like Mader’s and Karl Ratzsch’s. The Brewers were on the road. But we filled the days without all those things. Milwaukee is a cool town.
Side notes from the road:
– On the way up we stayed in New Harmony, Indiana — one of those small towns where people tried to form a Utopian community back in the 1800s. Utopia didn’t take, but New Harmony is a beautiful small town, and the New Harmony Inn is simple and lovely and close to everything.
– Some of Alix’s family lives south of Milwaukee in Racine, where the traditional pastry is the kringle — a ring of crumbly layered goodness about as big around as a football. We tried kringles from Larsen’s Bakery (one apple and one pecan, if I remember right) and O&H (cherry, I think). Every bite of every one was heaven. They ship.