I am always up for a big adventure, so I thought visiting Milwaukee right before winter would be a good idea. Little did I know, winter comes early in Wisconsin. I was greeted with a small snow storm and below freezing temperatures, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. It was my first time visiting the city and I had lots to see.
Luckily, one of my lifelong friends, Steven Binko, is a Milwaukee resident so I had a permanent tour guide for the duration of my visit. Our first stop was the famous Miller Brewery Tour, where we learned about the ghost of Frederick Miller who haunts the historic Miller caves. Throughout the tour we were forcefully fed samples of Miller beer products. They weren’t stingy on the free samples either. As much as I don’t like snow, it was really cool to see a bit of snow atop the iconic Miller Brewing sign.
From there, head to the Milwaukee Public Market, located in city’s Historic Third Ward neighborhood. The two-story market isn’t as massive as Seattle’s Pike Place Market, but it features a nice selection of local fare. I sampled a cup of delicious tomato soup and coupled it with a serving of half a dozen fresh oysters from their oyster bar. The market also sells many regional products including artisan cheeses and creamy frozen custard.
Grab a cup of hot cocoa from Colectivo and explore the Historic Third Ward, which recently underwent a drastic revitalization and now boasts trendy boutiques, art galleries and specialty stores.
Not too far away is the iconic Milwaukee Art Museum, considered Wisconsin’s premier arts institution as well as Milwaukee’s lakefront masterpiece. The museum houses more than 30,000 pieces in its permanent collection which includes works by Monet, Warhol and Picasso, in addition to one of the largest Georgia O’Keeffe collections in the world. The museum’s breathtaking moveable brise soleil "wings" soar against the backdrop of Lake Michigan, spanning the width of a Boeing 747 when extended.
Milwaukee has a really great gay scene. It is always voted as one of the best gay cities to visit, so I decided to head out on the town for my first night in the MKE. My first stop was DIX, a trendy bar with some really cute bartenders and strong drinks. Not too far away is This Is It, the oldest gay bar in the city. The narrow space is warm and welcoming, although I heard the current owners are looking to expand. Walker’s Pint is the place for ladies to gather, while Kruz is the ‘daddy’ bar with really cool lighting and a nice patio space. If you’re looking to dance, head to LVL, but be advised there is a cover charge most nights.
Start your next morning by visiting the Harley-Davidson Museum. This spectacular one-of-a-kind museum celebrates the rich history of Harley-Davidson and has become the mecca for Harley riders throughout the world. More than 350 motorcycles are displayed, along with exhibits devoted to engines, racing, customized bikes and the company’s influence on American pop culture. As someone who has never ridden a motorcycle, I still found this museum interesting and one of the most Instagram-able places in the city.
Just a short drive from the Harley-Davidson Museum is the Pabst Mansion, constructed by Captain Frederick Pabst, founder of Pabst Brewing, in 1890. The Gilded Age mansion is located on Grand Avenue, just outside of downtown and was designed by George Bowman Ferry and Alfred Charles Clas. The mansion was nearly torn down to make way for a parking lot but after a three-year crusade for its preservation, it was spared demolition and went on to become an award-winning house museum. The Mansion was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 21, 1975.
If you have some time left, swing by the Milwaukee Public Museum’s butterfly exhibition. The two-story glass-enclosed garden was designed to provide the butterflies with a tropical environment despite Wisconsin’s frigid winter season. Hundreds of butterflies surround you as you walk through the exhibition. At one point, a butterfly landed on my head and made me the subject of many photos.
If you’re hungry, head to Balzac for a delicious assortment of tapas and flatbreads. Some standout items include Lamb Chops with hummus, garam masala aioli and paprika oil, Tuna Tartare with wasabi vinaigrette, fried wonton, sesame seeds and lime faulk salt as well as the Pork & Peach flatbread consisting of pork belly, red potato, manchego and garlic confit dressed with a balsamic peach glaze.
For some Happy Hour cocktails, I recommend SafeHouse, a downtown speakeasy that is quite fun from the moment you walk in the door. First-time visitors are asked for the password…and yes, most don’t know it. I had to hula-hoop for thirty seconds in order to gain entry. What I didn’t know is that everyone was watching me from inside the bar. It was quite embarrassing once I found out I had an audience, but once I was granted entry, the bar itself is incredible; filled with secret passageways and hidden items throughout.
While in town, try to swing by the Fiserv Forum and catch a Milwaukee Bucks basketball game. The new state-of-the-art arena is worth the price of admission. I got a private tour of the facility and was blown away by the amenities, especially the lounges located throughout the venue. The arena is also proud to have all-gender restrooms for their guests.
If you happen to be in town on a Sunday, Hamburger Mary’s hosts a fabulous buffet brunch complete with bottomless mimosas, and a cast of divine divas. The food was surprisingly good. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a brunch buffet, but there was a nice selection of both breakfast and lunch items to choose from.
One of the coolest activities this visit was taking part in a Milwaukee Food & City Tour. Privately owned by a husband and wife duo, the business idea was inspired while on a walking tour in SoHo 11 years ago. Today, they now run a total of 21 bus, walking, and neighborhood-themed tours that cover everything from Bloody Mary’s to pizza to tapas. For this visit, we participated in the holiday themed Ethnic Bakery Tour. Our guide was a hoot and knew a lot about the city as well as history of the businesses. Each of the six bakeries were privately owned (no chain establishments), so it was really nice to get a look at the hidden gems only the locals know about.
When I asked our tour guide Robert his favorite part of the job, he explained how he really enjoys incorporating Milwaukee history and comedy into the adventures. His knowledge of the city and its activities really put into perspective how much the downtown offers and how far the city has come in a short amount of time.
At one point, we drove by the Henry Maier Festival Park along the lakefront and briefly learned about the inane number of cultural festivals Milwaukee hosts - two in particular that draw people from all over the world. Summerfest is an annual music festival that lasts for almost two weeks and hosts over 1000 performances on 11 stages. Last year, they had artists from every genre of music ranging from Kesha to Steven Tyler. Then there’s PrideFest which is one of the largest LGBTQ festivals in the Midwest welcoming nearly 50,000 visitors annually.
This Summer in Milwaukee is going to be jam packed with events so book your room early at the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, located just outside of downtown, before it sells out. While there, try your luck at some slots if you’re so inclined.
Enjoy the Journey!
Joey Amato is the publisher of Pride Journeys, a website dedicated to LGBT travel. Joey has spent over a decade in LGBT media and public relations and currently resides in both Nashville, Tennessee and Indianapolis, Indiana. He can be reached at joey 'at' pridejourneys.com.