My colleague Kea recently kicked off a new series sharing Strong Towns travel guides to favorite cities and I’m going to continue that today with a guide to my current hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As it so happens, Vogue magazine just published a piece dubbing my town, “the Midwest’s Coolest (and Most Underrated) City.”
If you want a glitzy, touristy look at Milwaukee, you can head to the Vogue article. But if you want a local’s perspective with a Strong Towns angle, I’ve got that for you today.
1. Save room for lunch… and happy hour and snack and dinner.
If you’re visiting Milwaukee, you’ll need to bring your appetite. I feel confident that Milwaukee’s heartland region could answer a solid Yes to Question #8 on the Strong Towns Strength Test: If you wanted to eat only locally-produced food for a month, could you? Visit Milwaukee and you’ll get a definite taste of that.
First, the basics: beer and cheese. The city is known for them and you’ll be missing out if you don’t indulge. (Apologies to my lactose-intolerant, vegan and non-drinking friends.) There are dozens of breweries in Milwaukee, most of them delightful in their own ways. My personal favorite is a classic: Lakefront Brewery. If you visit in the summer, grab a pint and head to the riverside patio. It’s the best place to take in the city and people-watch on a warm day. If you’re visiting in winter, opt for a brewery tour, which will not only educate you on the finer points of beer-making but also tell you about the history of Milwaukee neighborhoods and industry.
For cheese, you can get an array of tasty local items at almost any grocery store, but if you want the full experience, I have two recommendations: First, Wisconsin Cheese Mart on Old World Third Street downtown. It’s full of samples and options from around the state. Second, the Iron Horse Hotel, where you’ll find my #1 fried cheese curd choice in the state of Wisconsin. They’re a bit on the pricey side, but well worth it for the perfect ratio of fried coating to curd. Plus, the cheese is just about as local as you can get: it’s made just a few blocks away at one of the nation’s only urban cheese factories.
Beyond the beer and cheese options, here are some of my other favorite neighborhood spots: For a casual atmosphere, hit up the Riverwest Co-op, Transfer Pizza, Café Lulu or Comet Café. For a classier night out, try Balzac or Centro Café. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Milwaukee Public Market, a lovely indoor food bazaar offering lots of meal options, deli items, wines and (surprisingly) the best lobster roll outside of the East Coast.
All of these local eateries represent business opportunities for resident entrepreneurs who are building community wealth from the ground up — sometimes at a very small scale. Furthermore, nearly all of them prioritize the use of locally-made and grown ingredients.
2. Enjoy the outdoors.
Wisconsin may be known for its chilly climate but that hasn’t stopped Milwaukee from making the most of its natural amenities. From grassy parks to clear blue water, there are many ways to soak up the outdoors in the Brew City.
If you’re downtown, take a stroll along Milwaukee’s Riverwalk or, if you’re feeling adventurous, rent a pontoon boat or a kayak and experience the river that way. During the summer, it’s a very active waterway and anyone traversing the downtown is likely to be stopped — at least momentarily — by a lift bridge going up to let boats through. This is a city that has truly embraced and made good use of its downtown river.
Milwaukee is also bordered by Lake Michigan to the east. On the lakefront, you’ll find options to rent a paddleboat, fly a kite, or simply relax and enjoy the view. The lakefront is also home to two excellent museums: the Milwaukee Art Museum and the science-themed Discovery World. While I have my qualms with the way the area has been designed and utilized (with a ton of underused and ignored space), I still believe Milwaukee’s choice to keep the lakefront public and prioritize it for local events was a good one. It adds value for all of us.
Finally, I have to share one of the most unique aspects of this city: beer gardens. Name me another state where you can buy locally brewed beer and pretzels in a public park. Milwaukee’s beer gardens are open from April to October and take place in five different parks around the city, plus a traveling beer garden that makes its home in a different park every few weeks. Each features a different local beer and a beautiful atmosphere where you can plunk down at a picnic table, let your kids play in the playground or toss a ball with your dog. My personal favorite is Humboldt Park. Milwaukee’s beer gardens offer a unique example of a revenue stream for municipal services that also draws people to a local amenity and boosts the attractiveness of the surrounding neighborhood.
And of course, you can access all of these locations via Milwaukee’s bikeshare system, Bublr.
3. Tour Milwaukee’s mistaken gambles and missed opportunities.
After all this frivolity and enjoyment, let’s take a more sobering look at Milwaukee in order to get a full picture of the city. At Strong Towns, we believe land is the base resource from which community prosperity is built and sustained, and that it must not be squandered. Furthermore, we think a transportation system should be a means of creating prosperity in a community, not an end unto itself.
In some neighborhoods, the powers that be in Milwaukee have failed dismally on both of these fronts. I invite you to hop on a bike or bus and take a tour of some of these spots.
First, there’s the infamous Marquette Interchange — a tangled web of interlacing highways that divides Milwaukee’s South and Northsides, which keeps getting more and more tax dollars poured into it, all to make fairly imperceptible (but very intrusive while they’re under construction) adjustments. I wish my city understood the value of #NoNewRoads.
Next, you can head south to a fast-changing neighborhood called Walker’s Point. There’s a lot of good going on here: tons of new restaurants are cropping up, some older buildings are being repurposed, and local leaders and community members are thinking strategically about the future of the area. On the other hand, the mistakes of the past — like the dangerous and unpleasant stroads that rip through this neighborhood — plus the mistakes of the present — see the highly auto-oriented grocery store that was just constructed — are still making their mark. Walker's Point offers valuable lessons in both what and what not to do.
Finally, the area that’s been tugging at my heartstrings lately: North Avenue. North is a major East-West street that runs, like a belt, across the waistline of the city. It’s got some successful pockets in the more affluent Milwaukee neighborhoods, but it’s also home to a long stretch of vacant, neglected commercial buildings.
Traveling westward on North from the lake out to the edges of the city, you’ll see the tragic impacts of disinvestment on a low-income, minority community. A trip along this street shows row upon row of beautiful, historic, mixed-use buildings, now in disrepair and abandonment. One can almost hear the mothers of decades past calling out second-story windows for their children to come to dinner, or shop owners sitting out on stoops peddling their wares and chatting with neighbors. Today, many of the buildings are vacant, and the few that are occupied tend to be filled with check cashing spots or fast food joints. Of all the neighborhoods in Milwaukee, this one could benefit, perhaps more than any other, from just a little attention: a few incremental steps to strengthen the area. There is so much untapped potential and so many residents who need someone to start caring about them.
4. Time to party.
Because Milwaukeeans live most of the year shivering and trudging through snow, we really embrace the outdoors when summer rolls around. Come here on a summer weekend and you are guaranteed to encounter at least three different outdoor festivals and one round of fireworks.
Milwaukee is known for its lakefront festivals such as Summerfest, a multi-week music event featuring hundreds of artists. On the same festival grounds, a number of heritage events also unfold throughout the summer including German Fest, Festa Italiana, Indian Summer and Irish Fest. These celebrations all make excellent use of one of Milwaukee’s best assets: Lake Michigan.
Personally though, I find the neighborhood festivals to be a lot more fun and laidback. They’re always free and they’re a perfect way to get to know Milwaukee’s unique neighborhoods. Two favorites include Brady Street Festival and Center Street Daze. These events bring out local businesses, artists, and neighborhood groups — true Strong Citizens showcasing strong communities.
Finally, there’s the Riverwest 24, which isn’t so much a street festival as an all-night, neighborhood-wide party combined with a bike relay race. It takes place from 6pm Friday to 6pm Saturday on whichever weekend is closest to July 24. Teams from around the city — ranging from serious cyclists decked out in spandex to goofy families in costumes — compete in a relay-style bike race around the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee. There’s a palpable sense of community at the Riverwest 24 that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Neighbors are grilling and sharing food out in their front yards. Local bands strike up on the sidewalk. And everywhere, people are delighting in a form of transportation and recreation that is fast-growing in viability and popularity in Milwaukee: bikes!
If you were to Google search all the destinations I’ve shared above, you’d see some distinct clusters of activity. I don’t own a car and I’ve fallen in love with a handful of neighborhoods, so this guide is by no means an exhaustive catalogue of everything that’s happening in this city. But it’s what I can speak to after nearly four years living here.
I'm leaving the city in just a few short weeks, so if you visit, raise a glass for me and let me know how your adventure goes. Milwaukee's got a long way to go before it's a strong town, but it's making progress little by little.