Explore Wisconsin: A Long Weekend in Milwaukee

I found a new favorite city in Milwaukee.  When we had a four-day weekend with no plans, my husband and I did something that’s worked well many times before.  We looked at the map, evaluated the cities within six hours of home, and picked a new one to visit.  I’m so glad that we chose to drive north to the land of cheese curds, Packers football, and beer!

Our trip spanned Friday to Monday.  We spent most of Friday meandering through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, stopping along the way to see things that looked interesting to our party of five (two parents, one baby, and two dogs).  We found a park outside Indianapolis for a picnic lunch, enjoyed miles of windmill fields in northern Indiana, and learned about the wonders of the interstate “oasis” approaching Chicago (no-toll exits to rest areas filled with food and gas).  At the end of our travel day, I was so happy that we thought ahead and brought wine!  Cabernet and take-out cheeseburgers from a nearby restaurant were welcome comforts when we arrived at our hotel.

Rested and ready to explore, we began Saturday with my only must-see of the trip:  the  exterior of the Milwaukee Art Museum.  The Quadracci Pavillion is a masterpiece designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.  Often referred to as the Calatrava, its movable, wing-like brise soleil opens each day at 10:00 a.m. to a 217-foot wingspan, flaps open and closed at noon, and closes for the day at 5:00 p.m.  It is spectacular!  Set to music, the entire opening takes about two minutes.  (Tip:  There’s free parking next to the Museum on East Clybourn and East Michigan Streets if you arrive early enough.)

From the Calatrava, we walked on downtown’s East Wisconsin Avenue in search of the Riverwalk and the Bronze Fonz.  Less than five minutes in, we were surprised to learn that Milwaukee’s center has a vast collection of outdoor public art.  Sculpture Milwaukee began in 2017 as an initiative to revitalize Wisconsin Avenue and make “blue-chip sculpture” available to everyone.  In 2018, Sculpture Milwaukee installed 21 large works of art by 22 artists along the Avenue, beginning with Robert Indiana’s famed LOVE.  An entirely new collection will be installed in 2019.  Not to be outdone by newer works, the Bronze Fonz stands strong along the Milwaukee Riverwalk.  Portrayed by Henry Winkler, Arthur Fonzarelli was a beloved character in the 1970s television show “Happy Days,” about a family living in Milwaukee in the 1950s and 60s.

Growing hungry, we wound our way back to the car and drove a short distance to the Milwaukee Public Market in the Historic Third Ward neighborhood.  The sights, sounds, and smells hit me like a tonic when we walked in.  Seventeen small restaurants and grocers line the building, offering everything from coffee and wine to vegan fare and charcuterie to Thai, Mexican, and Italian delights.  The building is engaging and features two floors of warm colors, exposed beams and brick, and twinkling lights.  Our daughter loves lights and sounds, and she was in heaven!  I enjoyed a delicious toasted sandwich from The Green Kitchen, a “Bee Sting” latte from Anodyne Coffee Roasting Company, and dessert from C. Adam’s Bakery.   If you’ve ever been to Atlanta’s Ponce Market or Seattle’s Pike Place Market and loved it, you need to see Milwaukee’s Public Market.  

With full bellies, we took a drive to let baby girl take a nap and ended up at Miller Brewing Company.  Located in “Miller Valley,” the Company’s brewing complex covers 82 acres and 76 buildings, standing as testaments to the brand’s 160+ years.  One-hour tours of the brewing, packaging, and distribution facilities and the underground caves are available Monday through Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.  With the exception of beer sampling at the end, there is no minimum age for the tour.  It begins at the Girl in the Moon Brewery Shop, where you can snap selfies with the vintage Miller High Life Cruiser.


With our limited time and the (finally) emerging sunny sky, we saved the brewery tour for our next trip so we could visit one of Milwaukee’s best-known secrets:  beer gardens.  Beer became a large part of Wisconsin culture in the 1830s, when many German immigrants moved to the area.  By 1860, the state had nearly 200 breweries, and Milwaukee was home to over 40.  Beer gardens were created to replicate gemutlichkeit, a German word describing a warm state of being when surrounded by good friends, family, and a relaxing environment.  They were especially popular on Sundays, when families would gather for music, dancing, and leisure.  Most of Milwaukee’s beer gardens closed after Prohibition in 1919, and Milwaukee County Parks is now bringing them back across the city.

Thanks to a recommendation from a fellow blogger, we chose Estabrook Beer Garden on the bank of the Milwaukee River.  A playground, dog park, live polka music for Oktoberfest, and waterfront view made it the perfect combination.  My husband and I enjoyed twin beer steins, pretzels bigger than our heads, cheese spread, and honey mustard, and baby girl had a blast dancing to the music.  Such a delightful end to a fun day!

We rose early Sunday to find a chilly, rainy day.  Lucky for us, the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory houses three indoor botanical gardens.  Better known as The Domes, the Conservatory is home to more than 1,200 plant species inside three domed buildings.  The Show Dome transforms five times each year with a unique, floral show.  The Desert Dome transports visitors to deserts of Africa, Madagascar, South America, and North America.  The Tropical Dome introduces visitors to an urban rain forest filled with birds, fish, and plants.  All three Domes are climate controlled and have interactive children’s exhibits.  Plus, there are dinosaurs!  

Eager to see the Lake Michigan shoreline, our next adventure was a drive along North Lake Drive.  Filled with stately homes and public parks, this area made us really fall in love with Milwaukee.  The lake is so big and the clifty shore so vast that it felt like we were driving along the ocean.  If you’re looking for a great place to sit and enjoy the view, I suggest Atwater Park‘s combination of a grassy cliff, sandy beach, sculpture, and a playground.


Lunch on a Sunday afternoon in Wisconsin had to include a sports pub, cheese curds, and Packers football.  We enjoyed visiting Stubby’s Gastrogrub & Beer Bar, where I happily discovered that the menu included an ahi tuna salad (my entree of choice at just about any restaurant) in addition to bar food.  Cheese curds, tuna, and local beer–sounds like a normal combination, right?


Because we visited in the fall and I love small-town festivals, we traveled outside the city  to visit Wehr Nature Center in nearby Franklin after lunch.  Its Cider Sunday event was lots of fun!  They had apple cider, apple butter, apple canapes (apple everything), plus hiking trails, kids activities, and bluegrass music (yes, we traveled from Kentucky to Wisconsin to hear bluegrass).  To those of you who live in my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, Wehr reminded me a lot of our Arboretum.  


Our last stop of the trip was Colectivo Coffee.  Its lakefront location drew us in, and the menu of sandwiches, desserts, coffee, and craft beer solidified our decision to stay for dinner.  Colectivo has several locations across the city, and the Lakefront shop is housed in the historic Milwaukee River Flushing Station (circa 1888).  What a treat to dine inside and enjoy the architecture!  I’d love to visit again in the summer, when Colectivo offers live music on its waterfront patio.

With nothing on Monday’s schedule, we took our time driving home.  As we approached Chicago, the sun came out and a glorious 80-degree fall day emerged.  We took one look at each other and agreed that we couldn’t drive by the city without stopping.  Because why shouldn’t we take a baby and two dogs into the heart of one of the busiest cities in the world the day after the Chicago Marathon?  We lucked into on-street parking right next to Millennium Park.  After a brief stroll in the Park (and learning that dogs aren’t allowed, sadly), we took our party across the street and walked toward the Riverwalk.  We had a great lunch at Protein (we need one of those in Kentucky!) and walked our motley crew along the water just long enough to take a few selfies before nap time.


Like all of our travels with our new little force of nature, I can’t say that everything was easy or always went as planned, but I’m so happy with the memories that we made!  I can’t wait to visit again and explore more of what Brew City has to offer.

Copyright © Amelia Adams 2019