I had always thought Milwaukee was just a grungy Midwest city with cheap beer, greasy food, and long bearded biker dudes.
Until recently, I never really explored Milwaukee, never considering it a destination in itself. Then last year I met with some of the girls on the Milwaukee tourism board and their enthusiasm made me question whether I might have this city all wrong.
A couple months later, I planned a weekend in Milwaukee with my sister to see if two young internationally-minded travelers could have a good time in Wisconsin’s Brew City.
Those Milwaukee girls knew their city well. Milwaukee was actually cool?!
I had this city so wrong for so long. If I had misjudged it so easily, I thought other people must be thinking the same thing. I decided to write up all of my horrible Milwaukee myths, and then set the record straight!
Myth: Milwaukee’s beer scene is cheap and generic.
Truth: Milwaukee has a huge craft beer scene.
I had thought Milwaukee was all about the cheap, large production beers, but I was shocked to find out they have a huge microbrewery scene with over 3 dozen microbreweries in the city. That’s a lot of craft beer for one city! We toured Lakefront Brewery and heard some of the history behind the Milwaukee microbrew scene while drinking local brews poured from a tap surrounded by fermentation tanks. I love a good story about a passion project started in someone’s garage that turns into a success!
There’s a great microdistillery in Milwaukee too, so if beer isn’t your thing there’s still something for everyone! Unless alcohol isn’t your thing. Then I guess you might be out of luck. We hit up Great Lakes Distillery for their extensive tasting and a quick tour. Don’t come on an empty stomach!
Myth: Milwaukee is too bland for foodies.
Truth: Milwaukee restaurants are getting creative.
I was not excited for the food in Milwaukee, anticipating a diet of repeated cheese curds and brats at brewpub after brewpub. But that wasn’t the case at all! The Milwaukee food scene is really growing, with a focus on quality ingredients, local sources, and unique flavors. Our brunch at Wolf Peach featured local ingredients and super fresh herbs and veggies from their on-site garden. The food was amazing and I still think about their cinnamon rolls on a weekly basis.
We also visited Public Market, which was filled with artisan cheeses, deli meats, fresh juices, wine, baked goods, ice cream, and charcuterie, all made locally in Wisconsin (ok maybe not the wine, but that’s as it should be). It was basically food heaven.
When we went out for brats at The Vanguard, we weren’t met with the typical ball park brats and burgers, but instead they had a long list of internationally inspired sausages. They were all served on a freshly baked roll with lots of creative and sometimes wild options. From the Milwaukee (choice of sausage with cheese curds, cheddar cheese, and cheese whiz) to the Rikidozan (korean BBQ pork/gochjuang/garlic sausage with kimchi and chili soy) there was a ton of variety. They even had a couple vegan sausages that actually sounded good!
And to top it off, each sausage comes with a recommended beer pairing from their extensive beer list. Now that’s what I call upping your beer and brat game.
Myth: Milwaukee nightlife = sports bars and dive bars.
Truth: You can sip craft cocktails in unique spaces.
There’s no shortage of drinking options in this city! SafeHouse is the best worst-kept secret in Milwaukee’s nightlife scene. It’s a “secret” spy-themed bar with a maze of hidden rooms and booths ranging from cozy to creepy. Unmarked from the outside, you’ll need good directions and a password to get in. If you don’t know the password, you’ll be “interrogated” before they let you inside. It’s all in good fun of course. Just don’t say or do anything you wouldn’t want people to see, in case for some reason the entire bar happens to be watching on a closed circuit tv inside…
Here’s a sneak peak of the secret entrance to the bar.
Myth: Milwaukee isn’t for art and culture.
Truth: Milwaukee has a culture of its own.
Harley Davidson culture is huge in Milwaukee. At first, this was totally unrelatable for me, as I’m really not a motorcycle person. But I was really surprised by how much I loved the Harley Davidson Museum! True Harley fans go hog wild.
I loved looking at the old bikes from the first half of the 1900’s and how surprisingly artistic the designs were during that period. It’s a really cool museum and easily worth 2 hours of your time. I think you’ll be surprised.
The Milwaukee Art Museum, right on Lake Michigan is a great place to spend an art-filled afternoon. It is way bigger than I expected for a city of Milwaukee’s size. And the building! It’s easily the coolest work of art in the city. The building itself has giant wings that open up twice a day!
Myth: Milwaukee hotels are all boring chains.
Truth: You can sleep in an old converted brewery.
I can’t think of a more iconic place to stay in the city of Milwaukee than inside a brewery! We stayed at Brewhouse Inn & Suites, which has repurposed the old Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery into a steampunk victorian boutique hotel.
Elements from the old brewery highlight every aspect of the design, right up to the giant copper brew kettles that you can look up into from the lobby and look down on from the atrium. I want to go back and stay here so badly! The suites would be perfect for a bachelor/bachelorette party or a big family reunion!
Myth: Milwaukee is only a destination for Wisconsinites.
Truth: Milwaukee is a real destination city and it’s way more accessible than I thought.
This city really impressed me with it’s craft breweries, quality restaurants, creative bars, and unique hotels rivaling major destination cities in the US. There was so much to do and I really only scratched the surface. I’m kicking myself for ignoring this city for so long! And surprisingly, it’s really well connected to the rest of the US.
Milwaukee is an hour and a half from Chicago by car or train, an easy 5 hour drive from the Twin Cities in Minnesota, 4 hours from Indianapolis, 5 1/2 hours from Des Moines, 6 hours from St. Louis, 6 hours from Detroit, and a couple hours by ferry from Western Michigan!
I didn’t even realize you could ferry across so easily but that’s actually what I did. I was going to visit my sister in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so we decided to take the Lake Express Ferry across and see how it worked out. It was great not having to drive all the way around Lake Michigan – and we got to skip all of the Chicago traffic! Win!
Milwaukee also has a nice, well-connected airport with cheap round trip flights on Southwest, Frontier, Delta, and American to lots of US cities, even on the coasts.
It’s only been a few months and I’m already planning my next trip to Milwaukee in May! I want to bring Garren to the Harley Davidson Museum for sure, and check out another couple microbreweries and bars!
I would like to thank the girls at Visit Milwaukee for hosting me and showing me a great time. Thanks also to the Brewhouse Inn & Suites for hosting me and Lake Express Ferry for helping me skip the Chicago traffic on my way on to Michigan!
Have you been to MKE? Where should I eat and what should I do next time I’m there?