I’d been in Milwaukee for three days, and I hadn’t yet had a sip of beer or a bite of brat.
Sacrilege, I know. After all, Milwaukee is beer city. Miller, Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz all originated here. And what goes well with beer? Bratwurst, of course. Thanks to Milwaukee’s German heritage, brats are a staple on local menus.
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.
Next, I headed down to the five-mile-long lakefront, which has been carefully developed over the past two decades. I stopped at the 120,000-square foot Discovery World aquarium at Pier Wisconsin, which this year opened a new water education lab with displays on “pointless pollution.” But I was more entertained by the S/V Denis Sullivan, a 137-foot replica of a 19th-century Great Lakes schooner. I waited patiently for my turn at the steering wheel, but since I was wearing a skirt and wedge heels, I opted against climbing down the ladder into the sailors’ quarters. Moving on, I was amused when I saw a little girl about age 5 trying to read a computer screen offering eco-friendly driving tips. (“Avoid idling,” the screen told her.)
When I’d had enough of reading about water, I walked down to the promenade to actually look at the water. Gorgeous. On my way back, I stumbled upon a group of mariachis performing. Apparently, Milwaukee, with its many outdoor venues, hosts countless festivals each summer, and a Mexican fiesta was just gearing up.
Farther down the lakefront is Bradford Beach, a slice of sand along the water. It was packed with families enjoying their last bit of freedom before school started. Denise Borsheim sat on a beach chair as her two granddaughters frolicked in the water. “We used to call this the stinky beach,” she said. “I’m very happy with what I see now.”
To cool down, I stopped for a chocolate and vanilla swirl custard at Northpoint Burgers and Custard Stand, a shack redeveloped by Milwaukee restaurateur Joe Bartolotta.
Then I made my way to the Milwaukee Art Museum, which residents say is a big reason for the city’s revitalization. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the “Calatrava Wings” of the Quadracci Pavilion, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who was also responsible for the Olympic stadium in Athens. Locals often refer to it as the Sydney Opera House of Milwaukee.
Inside, there’s just as much to admire, including an extensive Georgia O’Keeffe collection and works by Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso. The museum was about to close its “Summer of China” exhibition, but the fascinating installation “Chinese Contemporary Warriors” by artist Yue Minjun will reopen Sept. 20 and remain until December. Few visitors could resist posing with the large statues of wide-mouthed, laughing men with their hands over their ears. They evoke the famed terra cotta warriors from Xian, but they’re far more whimsical.
After my evening visit to the museum, I watched the sun set over Lake Michigan from a bar stool in the elegant Harbor House, which Bartolotta opened last year. The place was packed and loud.
With Chicago just a train or car ride away, I couldn’t resist making the trek on another night to have dinner with an old friend. We had a lovely time, as I always do when I’m in Chicago, one of my favorite cities. But this time, I found myself eager to return to Milwaukee.