On a recent trip, however, I discovered that Milwaukee has evolved beyond beer and brats. Travelers often pass on this Wisconsin city in favor of Chicago, its more famous Lake Michigan sister less then two hours away. But in recent years, Milwaukee has taken on a newfound air of sophistication, with chic hotels, a beautifully designed lakefront, an art museum that’s a work of art itself, and intriguing eateries.
One evening, I sipped a glass of crisp chardonnay in the intimate, brooding lobby of the ultra-chic three-year-old Iron Horse Hotel, located next to the train tracks in downtown’s Fifth Ward. The 100-year-old former warehouse for a bedding company has all the trappings of an L.A. or New York boutique hotel: faux-zebra carpets, chocolate walls, an impressive minibar with Iron Horse’s own wine, an upscale restaurant called Smyth, and a comfortable outdoor lounge called the Yard, specializing in brick-oven pizzas.
But since this is Milwaukee, the birthplace of the Harley-Davidson, the hotel caters to both business travelers and motorcycle enthusiasts. Among the “rider amenities”: The rooms have entrances with hooks for hanging heavy leather jackets and a bench for removing and storing boots and helmets. (I parked my suitcase on it.)
The Fonz would have been amused.
Nearby is the Harley-Davidson Museum, which is also three years old. I must admit: The sound of a motorcycle revving is one of my least favorite noises. But the museum, modern-looking with exposed steel and a shiny black facade, is an impressive and imposing structure sitting on 20 acres along the Menomonee River. The centerpiece is a gallery exhibiting 400 motorcycles, most unrestored, dating back to 1903. There are also some celebrity bikes, such as the 1956 cycle that Elvis Presley bought before the release of “Heartbreak Hotel.”
The next day, I continued my culinary tour at the six-year-old Milwaukee Public Market in Historic Third Ward, a former dilapidated warehouse neighborhood now known as Milwaukee’s arts and fashion district.
More than 20 specialty food vendors inhabit this sprawling complex, which reminded me a bit of Manhattan’s Eataly. I almost made an entire meal of the free samples. At Breadsmith, I tried a piece of raisin cinnamon bread. At Kehr’s Candies, I picked up a bag of free popcorn. At West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe, I tried flavored cheese curds, a Milwaukee staple but a first for me. Let’s just say that they were . . . interesting.
It was hard to decide where to settle down for lunch. Diners at Margarita Paradise were happily scarfing down tacos. The build-your-own pita sandwiches at Aladdin looked appealing. But the seafood called out to me, so I devoured a delicious lobster roll at St. Paul Fish Company while sitting beside a fish tank. This was D.C. Lobster Truck quality.