When I told friends that I was planning a trip to Wisconsin last summer, they nodded enthusiastically at the thought of cooler weather. Scorching temperatures drove many a Texan northward and I have to say, a week in Milwaukee and Madison provided both heat relief and fun. Known for its beer and manufacturing history, Milwaukee has surged through the recent economic downturn by modernizing and enlivening the city.
Visitors enjoy fabulous restaurants, museums, shopping areas and renovations of historic properties. The city boasts the Milwaukee Riverwalk, the Frontier Airlines Center, Miller Park, an internationally renowned addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Pier Wisconsin. Residents have returned to live in the city with much restoration of lofts and apartments near the lakefront.
The city has an enormous German population, as more than 1 million immigrants moved to the city in the mid 19th century. Polish, Italian, Irish and dozens of other populations who immigrated here also contribute to the diverse and rich atmosphere. There are more than two-dozen colleges and universities, that many museums, and hundreds of musical and art groups.
The city has several nicknames - “A Genuine American City” and “A Great Place on a Great Lake,” but in recent years, it has taken on a new one - the “City of Festivals." Each summer, along the lakefront, the city throws a long party called Summerfest. Different themed festivals stretch over long weekends celebrating French, Greek, Italian and Polish heritages, among others.
Every weekend, there is something new to do and best of all – the weather is so accommodating, being outdoors is a pleasure. Staying at the Pfister Hotel is a thrill. Saved just two days from a wrecking ball’s decimation, today the Pfister is glistening and golden. One of America’s true grand hotels, its art-filled spaces enchant with soaring mahogany, marble, gilded chandeliers, palms and a superlative collection of art from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Blu, the rooftop bar, offers spectacular views of the lake and the city. The Chicago Cubs filled the lobby one morning during our stay – with a long line of fans waiting patiently outside the lobby’s main door – so you know it is the place to stay!
The Café on the Plaza is tucked away inside an art-deco hotel. Sitting at the curved bar or in the jewel garden is a treat. Fresh, local, carefully prepared food; where funky diner meets deliberate elegance; breakfast and lunch only.
The Milwaukee Art Museum is located on the shore of Lake Michigan in downtown Milwaukee. This striking building features a $100 million wing designed by Santiago Calatrava includes a “brise soleil,” a moving sunscreen that unfolds similar to the wing of a bird twice a day. A must is going on a Milwaukee Food Tour. Owner Theresa Nemetz started her hugely popular company in 2008. We followed her in and out of a bounty of outstanding shops, bakeries and restaurants. Our Riverwalk, Old World Third Street and Brady Street Tour included the Wisconsin Cheese Mart, Usinger’s Famous Sausage, The Spice House, Mader’s Restaurant, Cempazuchi, Glorioso’s Grocery and Sciortino’s Bakery. Mader’s, open since 1902, served delicious sauerbraten. Three brothers, all in their late 80s, still run Glorioso’s. Admire the 60 varieties of olive oil and 30 kinds of red wine vinegar as you munch a hand-5cut deli sandwich made by 89-year-old Joe Glorioso.
Sciortino’s makes their own gelato – perfect with one of the dozens of homemade cookies in the cases. The Milwaukee Public Market, located in the historic Third Ward, is a fun place to shop and grab a tasty lunch or enjoy a food demonstration. You can spend several hours just looking at the vast array of fresh and local products. open daily.
You can’t go to Milwaukee without sampling some of the famous beer. Four of the world’s biggest breweries can trace their origins to Milwaukee (Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and of course, Miller) Today, Miller remains an important player in the city’s economy but there are hundreds of local brews to taste. Get a great list of breweries to tour and sample at milwaukeebrewerytours.com. Some of the more popular are the Lakefront Brewery, the Milwaukee Brewing Company and the Historic Pabst Brewery.
Many restaurants and bars have great local favorites to try, too. Step back into a more genteel time when you visit the Watts Tea Room. Since 1870, the Watts family has hosted society at their tea room. The bottom floor is a lovely and old-fashioned china and crystal store where thousands of young women have chosen their silver and china patterns.
Today, fifth-generation manager Sam Watts is stepping it up by hiring James Beardwinning chef Jason Stevens, who thoughtfully prepares classics like chicken salad alongside modern dishes. Don’t miss the top secret Safe House bar. Hilarious and fun – you must know the password to enter or be prepared to dance, sing or do fun tricks to get in. Then enjoy the view from above as the next guests ‘perform’ for entrance.
Spend a sunny morning enjoying locally brewed coffee (125,000 pounds a month!) and scrumptious scones, muffins, burritos and sandwiches at Alterra at the Lake. Housed in the former Milwaukee River Station, you can sit outside and watch the world go by at the lake. Operations manager Bill Suskey gives a great tour if you can get him from behind the counter.
This lovely city, capital of the state, sits on the isthmus between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. It is a progressive city, with a long and storied history of political activism. It is just an hour and a half from Milwaukee – a scenic drive. There are many nice hotels surrounding the capitol, a stunning building that is the second highest capitol in the U.S. Each Saturday, rain or shine, year-round, on every Saturday (except the last Saturday of December), Dane County Farmer’s Market, the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country, draws 500,000 shoppers each season. Carefully organized around the grounds (or at the Senior Center in inclement weather), vendors have been coming for years.
There is street entertainment, political expression, arts and crafts and lots going on. The waiting list for vendors is five years old and has more than 100 names on it. Larry Johnson, the market manager, says, “You can get everything but toilet paper here.” Do try the cheese curds, which ‘squeak’, they are so fresh. Frank Lloyd Wright spent a lot of his childhood in Madison; several Madison buildings reflect his influence. Monona Terrace, a meeting and convention center overlooking Lake Monona, designed by Taliesin Architect Anthony Puttnam, was based loosely on a 1938 Wright design. It took nearly 60 years to build. Tours ($3) are offered and the view is worth the price. Be sure to try a Madison tradition – the Friday Fish Fry. Dozens of local restaurants serve the popular meal. We tried the Avenue Bar, a fantastic local establishment that has been in business since the ‘50s. This is a perfect neighborhood place – a great bar and friendly waitresses. The food is affordable and great. Fried Icelandic Cod with choice of potato is only $13.95. Don’t forget a mug of Wisconsin beer! Other great places to visit include Fromagination, where hundreds of cheeses are artfully displayed alongside wines, crackers (get Potter’s for an authentic Wisconsin experience).
Handmade, lovingly crafted and politically correct chocolates fill the cases at Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier. Her caramel sprinkled with grey salt is amazing. Madison Sourdough Company features the finest ingredients and all are completely handmade. The National Mustard Museum, is one-of-a-kind, and offers plenty of tastings. Madison offers an abundance of places to sample great beer. Highly recommended is the Capital Brewery and the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company.
Madison is also home to art museums, sports teams, street fairs and festivals, There are numerous musical and theatrical performances, too. Plenty to do and plenty to eat! For complete information, visit and . More information can be found at .