Beers, brats, and the Brewers: that was all I knew of Milwaukee before my trip there this summer. Even though all but one of my college roommates were Wisconsinites, I never went with them to visit the city they constantly cooed about. Everything they mentioned—the art museum! The cheese! That beer!—we have here, so why suffer the six-hour drive? Turns out, there are quite a few good reasons.
The first: downtown Milwaukee’s unpretentious yet distinctly cool vibe, to which I credit the surplus of century-old brick warehouses. The architecture gives the city an industrial-vintage-chic feel—especially when said buildings are occupied by such forward-thinking businesses as the Iron Horse Hotel and Braise restaurant.
The Iron Horse is a 100-year-old warehouse turned eco-friendly, luxury hotel. It caters to Harley-Davidson enthusiasts in town paying homage to the birthplace of their bikes, but the hotel’s exposed-brick walls, mod furniture, and wrought-iron décor create an edgy, rugged ambiance that anyone can appreciate.
Braise, too, is housed in an old warehouse, and uses the best parts of the original space—tin ceiling, wood floor, brick walls—to complement a new concept: restaurant-supported agriculture (think CSA, but on a large scale). Braise chef-owner David Swanson was the first to implement RSA in the United States in 2011, recruiting area restaurants to band together and mutually source all their produce from local farms.
At Milwaukee’s core are such deeply rooted establishments as Usinger’s Sausage (est. 1880), Mader’s German restaurant (est. 1902), and Glorioso’s Italian Market (est. 1946). At Glorioso’s, you can even see history in action: when I visited, one of the founders, Joe, age 90, was supervising that day’s meatball production.
As for the other things my roommates mentioned—well, they were right. The Milwaukee Art Museum is stunning in its lakeside location, and has everything from Picasso paintings to Haitian art. Lakefront Brewery is crazy generous with its samples. And even though I’m lactose intolerant, the award-winning cheeses at Wisconsin Cheese Mart made me want to down a handful of Lactaid and have at it.
So, roommates, consider this my years-late concession: you were right. Milwaukee is as great as you said it was.
MNMO’S GUIDE TO MILWAUKEE
WHERE TO STAY
The Iron Horse Hotel combines old-world charm (exposed-brick walls and beams) with modern comforts (Kohler rain-shower heads). Its restaurant, Smyth, is now led by chef Scott Pampuch, founder of Minneapolis’s Corner Table. Rates vary; theironhorsehotel.com.
WHAT TO EAT & DRINK
Get your Oktoberfest on with brats and beer at Mader’s (maders-restaurant.com). Support local farms at Braise (braiselocalfood.com). Venture outside downtown for beers at The Palm Tavern (2989 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-744-0393).
WHAT TO DO
Watch the wings of the Calatrava open at 10 a.m., then spend the afternoon browsing the four floors of exhibits (mam.org). Sample the day away at Lakefront Brewery (lakefrontbrewery.com) and Great Lakes Distillery (greatlakesdistillery.com). See everything from the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle to the bike from Captain America at the Harley-Davidson Museum (h-dmuseum.com).