If the words “beer” and “cheese” are the first things that come to mind when you think of Milwaukee… or Wisconsin, for that matter… you’re not wrong.
But you’re sort of only partially there – there’s a lot more to the beautiful city of Milwaukee than eating your weight in cheese curds and drinking growlers of beer. Just a quick drive or train ride away (so much time for activities!), Milwaukee is the perfect place for a weekend getaway, no matter what the season.
Our most recent trip to Milwaukee, over Labor Day Weekend with Riley’s brother and his girlfriend, was particularly special because we decided to forego the traffic headache and take the Amtrak train out of Chicago’s Union Station. It was amazing – especially because we didn’t have to deal with the insane northbound holiday traffic and I got to read a bunch of magazines without having to worry about feeling guilty for NOT doing any of the driving (to be fair, I’ve offered – but Riley likes to keep the captain responsibilities to himself).
Round trip tickets were $50 a person, but between the amount you’d spend on gas anyway and the fact that neither of us had the added traffic-induced stress, I’d say it was worth it. As a note, we took the Hiawatha into the Intermodal station (which is the one in downtown Milwaukee, as opposed to the airport).
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Aloft Milwaukee Downtown hotel and couldn’t have been happier with the location. It was just off of Old World Third Street, which is home to one of the coolest little strips of bars and restaurants in the city. It’s also one of the main settlements of some of the first inhabitants of Milwaukee and is home to a HUGE German population. In the 20th century, there were actually more German speakers and newspapers than English speakers and newspapers.
In addition to being proximate to a number of popular nightlife destinations, it was also very close to everywhere else we wanted to go in the city – just a 20-minute walk south along the riverfront to the historic 3rd Ward, and a 20-minute walk north to the Lakefront Brewery.
What to Eat and Drink and Do
Like I said, if you want to eat your weight in cheese curds (so guilty) and beer, you’ve come to the right place. But also as I have said, there is a lot more to Milwaukee than dairy and gluten-centric fare. However, I will be frank with you – as you know, Riley and I enjoy what I like to call foodventures – adventures centered around hunting down, traveling to and eating amazing food.
This trip was no exception. In fact, based on our itinerary, it was probably the most food-centric trip I’ve taken in quite a long time. Therefore, most of what we did also revolved around food – and thus I’ve lumped our itinerary into this one giant section. Enjoy!
For our first night, we opted to tap into our primal craving and treat ourselves to a steak dinner at Carnevor. The atmosphere was really cool – dark and mysterious, but also modern. We were seated in a smaller room, which was great for conversation. Our waiter was amazing and made all the right suggestions – I can’t believe I ate everything I did!
As I mentioned above, Milwaukee is home to a LOT of German culture. My dad had suggested we check out Mader’s restaurant and I put it on my list – little did I know we’d be staying right down the street from it! The atmosphere was SO cool – very authentic with lots of old world charm. Fun fact: the restaurant was founded in 1902, which was before the Wright Brother’s famous flight and even before Henry Ford’s auto-innovation. It started out as a pub, but during Prohibition, Celia Mader (the founder’s wife) made the establishment famous for its food. Definitely don’t miss the potato dumplings or pickled red cabbage. Pro tip: go for the German Sampler so you can try the best of everything.
As you can probably imagine, Milwaukee is home to a lot of breweries – 45 to be exact. (Surprisingly, so is Chicago! Check out my Lagunitas guide here!) Some of the most notable include Sprecher, Hamm’s, Miller and the Lakefront Brewery. Since it was a gorgeous weekend, we opted for Lakefront because of its proximity, outdoor patio and sinful cheese curds.
By midday Saturday, we needed lunch and I needed cheese curds all up in my mouth. I love fried cheese curds so much I talk about it in my media kit/blog resume… classy, I know. So when I put a poll out to some of the top Chicago foodie bloggers asking where the best curds in Milwaukee were and got an almost unanimous “Lakefront Brewery” – I knew it was absolute can’t-miss. If you go, be sure to take the tour – it’s definitely a good one and you get a lot of great samples. If you don’t have time (like us), a growler, sausage board and cheese curds in the beer hall will do just fine!
Milwaukee Ale House
While my brother-in-law’s girlfriend and I popped into an adorable boutique called Free Bird during our morning jaunt to the Historic Third Ward, the boys distracted themselves by whetting their whistles at the Milwaukee Ale House brewpub. We surprisingly weren’t in the store very long and met them there, just in time to sample some of the tasting flights they ordered. Definitely a must-see when you’re there!
Hi Hat Garage
Wander down the well-known Brady Street in the East Side neighborhood and at some point you’ll come across the Hi Hat Garage. This little spot is a perfect place to spend a few hours relaxing on the outdoor patio after a morning of exploring. Don’t worry, it’s ideal rain or shine; the attached Hi Hat Lounge is a great indoor sanctuary in inclement weather. We just stopped for drinks, but they also have 2 great menus full of food – it’s also a great establishment for brunch!
A little cheesy (no pun intended) but a must-see nonetheless, SafeHouse Milwaukee is the original spy-themed speakeasy. (In case you didn’t know, I’m kind of a speakeasy freak. I wrote a whole post on hidden bars in Chicago – you can check it out here!) Though they did open a second location in the AC Hotel in Chicago, the first location has been a delightful destination full of espionage since 1966. There are no less than 3 spy-themed bars, hallways filled with dead ends and nooks and crannies for hanging out. If you don’t want to waste time on the way in, I suggest you try googling it (it’s not always easy to find, though).
Other Places to Stuff Your Face
Milwaukee Public Market
A fabulous addition to the Historic Third Ward, the Milwaukee Public Market is a great spot to visit for Wisconsin-specific treats and other eats. The sign looks somewhat familiar – almost exactly like the Pike Place Market’s in Seattle (you can check out my post all about that glorious place here). They also have a few spots you can stop for a drink or two (I highly recommend sharing a bottle of New Glarus Serendipity or Wisconsin Belgian Red, which is a fruity beer that drinks more like wine and is like nothing else you’ve probably ever tried) or eat a heavier meal. Definitely a great spot for a snack or food-centric souvenirs!
Peter Sciortino’s Bakery
This pit stop DEFINITELY scored me brownie points. My family used to have a lake house in Stoughton and occasionally we’d make a special trip to the Dane County Fair or art fest in Madison Wisconsin, which almost always involved my mom getting a cream puff. I didn’t understand why anyone would pass up ice cream at the time… but let me tell you, there is nothing like a flaky pastry with freshly whipped cream sandwiched between that is bigger than your face – especially when adulting (aka trying to eat healthy).
I figured there might be a place in Milwaukee, and lo and behold, Peter Sciortino’s Bakery, on Brady Street, popped up in my search while we were over in that neck of the woods. I started out with the best intentions to split one with Riley and ended up just ordering my own because yolo.
While we fit a LOT of foodtivities into a very short amount of time (37 hours, to be exact), we didn’t get to everything on my list. Below is a quick list of honorable mentions. But hey, we need a reason to go back, right?
- Water Buffalo – great spot on the river with outdoor seating, especially for brunch.
- Cafe Benelux – same as above, but in the Historic Third Ward, with a great rooftop patio.
- Cubanitas – an adorable Cuban spot with some of the best mojitos, empanadas and Cuban sandwiches you’ll eat in the Midwest.
- Screaming Tuna – great place on the river for delicious sushi.
- Purple Door Ice Cream – supposedly this spot has beer ice cream. You can only fit so much food in your stomach in 37 hours.
- Trinity Bar – 3 bars for the location of 1 – what’s better than that? And of course, just as it sounds, it’s an Irish bar.
- Milwaukee Art Museum – if you think this amazing cultural destination weirdly resembles the Oculus World Trade Center Transportation hub… you’re right. Santiago Calatrava designed both. A great spot to spend an afternoon – especially in the colder months!
- PedalTavern – exactly what it sounds like – a tavern on bike wheels. Burn and earn your pints!
- Milwaukee Brewers game – who doesn’t love to catch a baseball game? In a theme common to the city, the Miller Park stadium is actually all weather – it has a convertible roof that can open and close in 10 minutes!
Did I miss a spot? Have another favorite Milwaukee eatery or brewery? Leave a note in the comments!