When the wind is right in certain parts of Milwaukee--near the Miller Brewery on West State Street, for example--you can still taste the malt in the air.

That aroma is living history, a reminder of the city's prime in the 1870s, when there were 60 good-size breweries churning out suds by the barrel and seven daily newspapers published in German. There were plenty of other ethnic groups in the mix--Irish, Italians and Poles--but the Germans ranked first in numbers and influence.

Today, Wisconsin's largest city is also the state's primary commercial and manufacturing center, one of its busiest ports and a major grain market. The Harley-Davidson engine plant is here, as are factories cranking out electrical equipment, aircraft guidance systems, and construction and farm machinery. But of the city's two unofficial monikers, "Machine Shop of America" still runs a distant second to the blunt, apt name that recognizes the German influence: "Beer City."

Milwaukee was a natural for beer. Three successive waves of German immigrants, starting around 1831, meant you had a captive audience of beer drinkers. (Many of the immigrants were fleeing unsuccessful revolutions back home. As a result, labor unions were strong , and the city was the first in the country to elect a socialist to the state House of Representatives.)

The Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers brought brewing water right through the middle of town. In the winter, Lake Michigan was a ready source of ice, which could be stored for months in sawdust. Rich farmlands around the city produced malt and hops. And a rapidly developing network of roads and rail lines meant that what escaped the local throats could find a ready market elsewhere. By the time of the Civil War, there was one bar for every 90 residents, an astonishingly high ratio. During the war, beer production doubled, and Milwaukee boomed.

Frederick Pabst offers a convincing example of just how far a good glass of suds could take a former cabin boy. Born in Europe, he came to this country with his parents and signed on aboard a Great Lakes steamship. By 24, he had become captain of a steamship and a man of some repute. He became friends with a Milwaukee brewer, married the man's daughter and soon bought into the company, which was rapidly expanding production. By the 1890s, it was the largest lager brewery in the world.

When Capt. Pabst decided to build himself a house, he figured he might as well go whole hog. The budget was $75,000. The house finally came in three years later at $250,000.

The city had never seen anything like this Flemish Renaissance behemoth, done in the cream brick seen everywhere in Milwaukee (due to the magnesium and calcium in the local clay). The mansion has 37 rooms, 12 bathrooms, 14 fireplaces, the first electricity and central heating in town, carved panels spirited out of old Bavarian castles and the best ironwork and woodwork of its time. You walk in and realize this is how Graceland might have looked if Elvis had had a classical education.

There are 14 secret compartments in the captain's heavily paneled study, which has a different German platitude carved on each wall. The fireplace in the music room is done in Carrara marble. The chandelier over the table in the extremely rococo dining room features a triple-redundant lighting system that can be operated on electricity, gas or kerosene. Even the maid's kitchen has hand-painted Delft tiles.

After Pabst's death, the mansion was sold to the local Roman Catholic archdiocese, which painted over most of the woodwork. In 1975, a nonprofit foundation acquired the house, set about restoring it and opened it to the public.

The 20th century has proved less kind to Milwaukee, as it has to most industrial cities, than the 19th. The Great War tended to throw a bad light on things German, including Beer City. Prohibition was worse. The brewers switched to root beer, but the stuff simply didn't move like the real thing. (Somehow the brewers managed to have 15 million bottles of real beer ready to ship the day Prohibition was repealed.) As African Americans came north to get factory work after World War II, they eventually made up 17 percent of the city's population. But unfortunately, Milwaukee remained one of the most segregated cities in the country. By the 1970s, the downtown area, as in D.C. and many other large U.S. cities, was dying.

Milwaukee isn't exactly on the A-list of American hot spots. The city's convention and visitors bureau, having scratched its collective head in search of a slogan, finally opted for "Milwaukee: The Genuine American City." Having breakfast in a downtown cafe on a Saturday morning, I asked the waitress how she liked the city.

"Well," she said at last, "it's not New York, that's for sure."

A point well taken. And yet Milwaukee is clearly on the upswing and has done a better job of reinventing itself than a lot of cities in similar situations. It regularly scores high in "quality of life" surveys, with light traffic, good schools, and fishing and boating on Lake Michigan at its doorstep. The people are unpretentious and hospitable. Most of the sights are in a downtown area that's about a mile long and six blocks wide. Surprisingly, Milwaukee generates nearly $2 billion a year in tourist revenues, more than 30 percent of Wisconsin's total.

With an urban population of only 600,000, it manages to support professional baseball (the Brewers), basketball (the Bucks) and hockey (the Admirals) teams, as well as a symphony orchestra. There are well-preserved residential, commercial and industrial neighborhoods you can tour on your own or with groups.

There's a world-class zoo with more than 2,500 animals and five groupings simulating five continents. Unlike the National Zoo, Milwaukee's still has polar bears. There's a public museum of near-Smithsonian variety and depth, and a new riverwalk through downtown crowded with pubs and restaurants. The city's newest museum is America's Black Holocaust Museum, founded by James Cameron, the only man known to have ever survived a lynch mob attack.

At Marquette University, you can visit the St. Joan of Arc Chapel, a 15th-century French structure that was reconstructed on the campus in 1965. It's the only medieval structure in the Western Hemisphere where Mass is said regularly.

There are few products made in America that inspire customer loyalty like Harley-Davidson motorcycles. In 1903, William Harley and Arthur Davidson, two Milwaukee boyhood friends, rigged a single-cylinder engine and leather-strap drive chain onto a bicycle frame. They didn't bother with brakes. The original bikes were known as "Hardly Ablesons" for their tendency to break down. But the firm incorporated in 1907 and within 10 years was the world's largest maker of motorcycles.

Harleys with machine-gun-equipped sidecars chased Pancho Villa into Mexico. They were adopted by the Army in World War II and by the Postal Service. By the 1940s, two-thirds of all U.S. bikes were speaking in the throaty growl that only Harleys emit. Foreign competition, corporate mismanagement and a takeover by AMF in 1969 nearly killed the company. But in 1981, a group of 30 employees put together a bid to buy the company and turned it around. Today, most Harley-Davidson riders are married, college-educated and monied. All 75,000 produced each year are spoken for up to a year in advance.

The enormous engine plant a few miles west of Milwaukee is a must-see for diehard motor heads. I confess that I couldn't tell a knucklehead from a shovelhead (distinctive cylinder head profiles on different vintage Harleys) if my life depended on it. But it's fun to see the other folks who make the pilgrimage for the hour-long walk through the plant.

My group included several Chinese people, a gaggle of French boys and a couple of guys from Indiana who looked just like old ZZ Top roadies who became visibly excited talking about internal rocker boxes and magnetized rotor shells.

Milwaukee, like D.C., is a town that goes to bed early. Stroll the city's version of the San Antonio Riverwalk on a weekday evening in spring, and you may have only geese and gulls patrolling the Milwaukee River for company. Restored warehouses and newer skyscrapers loom along the shore. A little farther on, there are condos with motorboats tied up out front and music wafting on the wind from nearby brewpubs.

On the West Wisconsin Avenue Bridge, there's a bronze statue of a duck six times bigger than life shielding a duckling under her body. A plaque informs you that it's Gertie, the mallard that captivated the city and the nation in 1945. When the old bridge at this spot was being replaced, the pilings were slated to go right where Gertie had made her nest under the bridge. At the height of World War II, it was decided to postpone the construction until the eggs hatched. How could you not have a soft spot in your heart for a city that would stop construction for a duck?

America's Black Holocaust Museum is a squat brick structure in a rough section of north Milwaukee. It's the brainchild of James Cameron, 84, who still leads museum tours. In 1930, the 16-year-old boy was falsely accused of participating in the murder of a young white man in Marion, Ind. The Ku Klux Klan organized a lynch mob of thousands, who beat and lynched two of Cameron's friends in the Grant County Courthouse Square.

Somehow, Cameron, who was also beaten, escaped lynching. He served four years in a state prison for accessory before the fact to manslaughter. No one was ever accused, charged or arrested in the beatings or murder of Cameron's friends.

Cameron has had a long career in civil rights activism, publishing hundreds of articles on racism before founding the museum in 1988 in his native state. Sixty-two years after his conviction, he received a letter of pardon and a public apology from the state of Indiana. Cameron was also awarded the key to the City of Marion.

When I visited, the exhibit on view displayed artifacts from the Henrietta Marie, a slave ship that sank 35 miles off Key West in 1701 and was discovered again in 1972. The three-masted, square-sterned vessel was only 60 feet long at the keel, but it carried 200 enslaved Africans from New Calabar to Jamaica before meeting its end in the storm off Florida.

Not a great deal has been brought up from the ship: a bell bearing its name and the 1699 date of its christening, some spoons, an ivory tusk, timbers from the stout fence erected on the deck to protect the ship's officers in the event of rebellion by her human cargo.

The most disquieting artifacts are the many iron shackles that have been recovered, some of which still bear traces of hemp wrapped around them. There are two theories about the hemp: Either it was used to relieve chafing from wrought iron on bare skin, or it served to make the irons fit more snugly.

No visit to Milwaukee is complete without a tour of the Miller Brewing Co., an intimate little grouping of 72 buildings spread out over 82 acres. The tour begins with a film that starts as a kind of Ken Burns documentary about Frederick Miller, a German immigrant who started his own brewery in 1855. Miller, who was brewmaster at Hohenzollern Castle in Germany, cranked out about 300 barrels a year. Slowly the film gathers speed, with whiplash editing and pounding music. Today, the Philip Morris Cos. run Miller. Its six satellite operations crank out 45 million barrels a year, an operation that looks very much like a country gearing up for war against sobriety.

Once the film is over, you're whisked off to the high-tech packaging center, then the humongous shipping center that moves 500,000 cases of beer a day onto trucks and railroad cars. At the end of the hour-long tour, you are led to a mock Bavarian beer hall for free samples.

I found myself seated with five large guys from Georgia who had come all the way to Milwaukee to watch the Atlanta Braves play baseball with the Brewers. They downed their first sample, Miller Lite, quickly. They downed the second, Miller Genuine Draft, almost as fast. The third, a wheat beer the company is launching, was a cloudy brew with a smoky taste. The Georgia guys were unimpressed. Not one of them took more than a sip. When our perky young tour guide came by, she noticed.

"You guys don't like the wheat beer?" she asked. "We're just waiting for it to clear up," answered one of the guys. She giggled. "Would you rather have another round of something else?" she asked.

The five looked at each other, pushed their beers toward her and said, almost as one, "Miller Lite."

Bill Heavey last wrote about Cozumel for the Travel section.

Getting to Milwaukee

It's easier than ever to get from the Washington area to Milwaukee now that two airlines--Midwest Express and US Airways' MetroJet--have begun offering nonstop flights from Dulles.

Milwaukee-based Midwest Express, which already runs three daily nonstops to the Beer City from Reagan National, will begin twice-daily service from Dulles on Sept. 1. From Dulles, fares are $79 one way, $158 round trip; from Reagan National, fares are $99 one way, $188 round trip. All fares have restrictions.

MetroJet will fly Dulles-Milwaukee twice daily beginning Sept. 9, adding a third flight in October. Fares are $74 one way, $148 round trip, with restrictions (this is a sale fare, good until Dec. 17). Most other major airlines serve Milwaukee from the D.C. area airports, but not nonstop. Northwest and American had the lowest fares available at press time: $162 round trip.

So why the micro-rush to boost nonstop service? "Our typical service pattern is underserved business destinations from Milwaukee--and [the Dulles area] is really a growing corporate market," explained Midwest Express spokeswoman Lisa Bailey. A MetroJet spokesman said market analysis reveals the route as one that "can be served well now."

--John Briley

DETAILS

Milwaukee

GETTING THERE: See box at lower left.

WHERE TO STAY: The Milwaukee Hilton (509 W. Wisconsin, 1-800-445-8667) is the largest hotel in the city, done in 1920s Art Deco style and renovated in 1996, with marble interiors and an indoor pool. The Hyatt Regency (333 W. Kilbourne, 1-800-223-1234) features an 18-story atrium, indoor pool and has the city's only revolving rooftop restaurant. The Hotel Wisconsin (720 N. Third St., 414-271-4900) is an old standby, historic but not tired, with a fairly hip lounge.

WHERE TO EAT: Mader's on Old World Third Street (414-271-3377) is considered the German restaurant and has been there since 1902. Try the knudel and Rheinischer sauerbraten or Bavarian-style pork shank. Karl Ratzsch's Old World Restaurant (320 E. Mason St., 414-276-2720) is a bit more upscale and set on two levels. There are special strudels, rouladen and even vegetarian offerings. John Ernst (414-273-1878) is another upscale, casual German restaurant with a strong reputation. Featuring live music.

WHAT TO DO:

Miller Brewing Company (1-800-944-LITE or 414-931-2467). Free guided walking tour and samples in the Bavarian Inn. Open Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Sundays and holidays.

Pabst Mansion (414-931-0808). Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $3 for children 6-17.

Harley-Davidson engine plant (414-535-3666). Free hour-long tours vary from week to week, so call ahead.

America's Black Holocaust Museum (414-264-2500). Open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $2.50 for children under 12.

Milwaukee County Zoo (414-771-3040). Open daily. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for children 3 to 12.

Milwaukee Public Museum (414-278-2700). Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5.50, $4.50 senior, $3.50 children 3-17. Bring walking shoes. There are three extensive floors and you'll want to see all of them, especially the re-created, walk-through "Old Milwaukee" street life exhibit, showing the city around 1890. Separate admission to the Imax theater and Discovery World Museum next door.

INFORMATION: The Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau (1-800-231-0903) is an excellent source of information. For visitor information and hotel availability, call 1-800-554-1448 or check out www.milwaukee.org.

--Bill Heavey