So what if ESPN hosts think Milwaukee is 'terrible'? These are all the things we love about it.
With the Milwaukee Bucks about to begin their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Atlanta Hawks, some hosts at ESPN's First Take expressed that they don't think highly of Milwaukee as a city.
Given that the Bucks — largely a struggling franchise since the turn of the century — have now been to three conference finals since the last time a Knicks team got there, you'd think the NYC-based First Take folks would be used to seeing the other cities of the nation in covering elite playoff basketball. But we digress.
If our ESPN friends make the trip, we'll still welcome them to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with open arms and foamy Cheeseheads.
We like to think The Brew City is a jewel of the upper Midwest, thanks to our lakefront location, our many festivals, our little-town feel in the context of a bigger city and ... our bars, of course.
We didn't get to show off our city last summer for the Democratic National Convention, so we're taking this opportunity to talk up our hometown. Join us on this tour, and we'll have drinks in the lobby afterward.*
*You technically have to take one of the brewery tours to get a drink. Prost!
We have beer, obviously
You've probably heard the jokes about Wisconsin's proficient consumption of alcohol, but in Milwaukee, beer is part of the city's heritage as well.
Four giants of the beer world — Miller, Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz were still four of the 10 biggest breweries in the U.S. as late as 1950 — were based here, and many of the town's older buildings were once part of a brewery. It explains why you'll see a show at the Pabst Theater (which wasn't a brewery but was built in 1895 by Captain Frederick Pabst, who also owned the brewery), drive down Miller Park Way (well, it's technically Brewers Boulevard now in most places ... it's complicated) or even spend some time with nature at the Schlitz Adubon Center along the shore line — land that was once a farm for brewery draft horses.
You might walk by a building and spy a hop leaf decoration on the building facade. Those were "tied houses," or taverns that were purchased by breweries to exclusively serve their beer. Tied House bar at Erie and Water Street was with Pabst, for example.
There are 39 breweries in metro Milwaukee (and many of them have tours!). The most Milwaukee of the craft breweries is no doubt Lakefront Brewery (1872 N. Commerce St.), a legacy brewery housed inside a former Milwaukee city building with lighting from the old Plankinton Hotel. The famous Miller brewery (4251 W State Street) also maintains some of its old architecture and cobblestone roadways.
Drink outdoors in the sunshine at our many beer gardens in Milwaukee parks, tour breweries by boat or bike (seriously) with Milwaukee Pedal Tavern, and take in one of the many festivals if you find yourself in Milwaukee at other points in the summer.
When you drink, you've got to eat
Check out our list of the top 30 restaurants, but these are the Milwaukee basics:
Frozen custard. Just don't call it ice cream. Whether you're getting a scoop and a jumbo hamburger at legendary Kopp's Frozen Custard or sticking to the more familiar Culver's brand that was born in Wisconsin, we've got a litany of delicious offerings. The famous Leon's just added a new flavor for the first time in 30 years!
Fish fry. It's a Friday staple in Wisconsin, and you can find options both in bars and more traditional restaurants. The aforementioned Lakefront Brewery provides one of the area's most famous. And guess what, Game 2 is on a Friday.
Old fashioned. Oh, we're back to drinks again. Although depending on the garnish, you could probably make a meal out of it. We love our brandy in Wisconsin, and if you belly up to the bar and order an old fashioned, you're going to get the best.
Foodies will love it here. You won't find many restaurant chains in downtown Milwaukee. It's a pretty diverse foodie scene, in fact. Some of the city's chefs and bakers have even competed on TV food competitions, including, Adam Pawlak, owner of the Egg & Flour Pasta Bar locations and E&F Pizzeria; Kimberly Hall, owner of Signature Sweets, and Dan Jacobs, co-owner of Dandan.
We're the city of festivals
We've got Polish Fest, Bastille Days, Bronzeville Week, Festa Italiana, German Fest, Irish Fest, Mexican Fiesta, Milwaukee Dragon Boat Festival, Hunting Moon Pow Wow and Asia Fest of Milwaukee. We also just had a pretty wild Juneteenth celebration.
Then there's Summerfest, billed as the world's largest music festival, typically right around this time of year but bumped to September in 2021. We've got Megan Thee Stallion, Chance the Rapper, Dave Chappelle, Zac Brown Band, Luke Bryan, Chris Stapleton, the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus and a whole lot more headed to town this year. Not to mention noted Bucks fan Sheryl Crow.
(And if Milwaukee is so terrible, why is Shaq — aka DJ Diesel — doing a show here?)
Honestly, you cannot form an opinion about Milwaukee until you sample Summerfest. Or the Saz's sample platter at Summerfest.
Three other brands we're proud of
Harley-Davidson — The motorcycle manufacturer's headquarters are actually across the street from the Miller brewery. William Harley and Arthur Davidson developed their first motor bicycle to navigate Milwaukee's hills in the early 1900s, and their company survived two world wars and a Great Depression and celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2003. There's even an entire Harley-Davidson Museum (400 W Canal Street) dedicated to the brand's history.
Kohl's — One of the biggest department stores in the United States is headquartered in northwest Milwaukee. First started as a grocery chain in the 1920s, the Kohl Family opened its first department store in 1962 and developed into a powerhouse. Herb Kohl, the son of founder Maxwell Kohl and himself once part of the Kohl's ownership team, represented Wisconsin in the United States Senate from 1989-2013 and owned the Milwaukee Bucks from 1985-2014.
Northwestern Mutual — The newest structure on Milwaukee's skyline (the Northwestern Mutual Tower that opened in 2017) bears the name of this American financial services mutual organization, first founded in Janesville in 1857. At No. 90, it was the highest-ranked Milwaukee company on the Fortune 500 in 2032, with more than $33.5 billion in revenue.
Four other history nuggets you'll find interesting
Socialism! Milwaukee had Socialist mayors for 38 years during the 20th century – including during the 1950s Red Scare when Frank Zeidler held office from 1948-60. This is the birthplace of the term "sewer socialism" — first meant to ridicule socialists who bragged about a strong public works system (like sewers), then trumpeted proudly as an indicator of cleaning out corruption (and strong public works, for that matter).
Thank us for that QWERTY keyboard you're using right now. Newsman and politician Christoper Latham Sholes invented the typewriter here, patented in 1868. Milwaukeeans also invented Shrinky Dinks and, duh, the cheesehead hat. You're welcome.
Someone tried to shoot Teddy Roosevelt here. While running for president as a Progressive candidate in 1912, Teddy Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee before making a campaign speech. The written speech itself and his eyeglass case blunted the bullet’s impact, and the injured TR managed to give his speech anyway. What a gamer.
Fiserv Forum's address features a Civil Rights pioneer. Starting in 1967, protesters dismayed by discriminatory housing practices in Milwaukee insisted on stronger open housing laws in the city. They marched for 200 days, with Ald. Vel Phillips at the forefront of the movement. Today, the street on which Fiserv Forum resides is named for Phillips.
Federal Judge Robert E. Tehan barred a referendum or a city law restricting open housing: "Considerable evidence has been presented which convinces the court that the holding of the referendum would do irreparable injury not only to the plaintiff and his class (African-American) but to the city as a whole."
We love our sports (and our MVPs)
It's been a pretty great run for the two major pro sports franchises in Milwaukee, although let's be honest, the Green Bay Packers playing two hours north are still the No. 1 love for most of the city's sports fans.
But especially until we have some resolution in the Aaron Rodgers fiasco, the Bucks have our hearts right now. Led by the 2019 and 2020 league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee is looking for its first championship since 1971. Before the season, he signed the "supermax" contract extension to stay in Milwaukee for the next four to five years. In other words, Giannis likes this town.
More than that, it's hard to beat a Milwaukee Brewers game at American Family Field, where you'll see a lot of No. 22 jerseys in honor of 2018 MVP Christian Yelich.
That's not all we've got; the Milwaukee Wave indoor soccer team and Milwaukee Admirals pro hockey team affiliated with the Nashville Predators of the National Hockey League both play in the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena just down the block from Fiserv Forum (where the Bucks play). The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, a single-A affiliate of the Brewers, play a little less than two hours north in Appleton, just a little south of Green Bay. The Milwaukee Milkmen have a gorgeous field in Franklin and won last year's American Association of Professional Baseball title.
If you want to check out the beautiful lake front and watch baseball at the same time, head north to Concordia University in Mequon, where the Lakeshore Chinooks compete in a summer wooden-bat baseball league for college kids in the Northwoods League. Speaking of that lakefront ...
Surely, you noticed the lake
That big blue body of water you might've seen in overhead shots of the city? That's Lake Michigan, with all the perks of an ocean — sand beaches, sailing, kayaking, even surfing — without the drawbacks: no salt, sharks, jellyfish, tides or hurricanes. If you've never seen a Great Lake in person, go down to the lakefront and take in the world's fifth-largest lake at Veterans Park, Bradford Beach or the paved Oak Leaf Trail. You'll be blown away by the views of scenic Atwater Park in Shorewood.
You won't be able to see Michigan on the other side — that's more than 80 miles away — but you could catch a killer sunrise if you visit early enough.
Milwaukee has a few rivers, too. The Milwaukee River is the longest, running north to south through downtown before meeting up with the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers and turning east to dump into Lake Michigan. A three-mile RiverWalk runs alongside the Milwaukee River, from about N. Humboldt Ave. to where it meets Lake Michigan in the Third Ward. The sidewalk system is ADA accessible and passes breweries, restaurants and bars, many with outdoor patios.
Fonzie is a big deal, but so is our other art
The guy who may be Milwaukee’s favorite son (after Brewers radio broadcaster Bob Uecker) is actually a TV character.
The 1970s hit TV series “Happy Days” and its spinoff, “Laverne & Shirley,” were set in a sitcom version of Milwaukee in the 1950s and early 1960s. In both, Henry Winkler played Fonzie, a leather-jacketed tough guy with a dozen catchphrases (“heeyyyyyyy!”) and a heart of gold. Visit Milwaukee commissioned a statue to pay tribute to the Fonz; Winkler and others from the show came to Milwaukee for the dedication in 2008. Living on Milwaukee’s downtown RiverWalk, the Bronze Fonz has been a tourist attraction ever since.
OK, yes, we acknowledge that's kitschy. It's no museum of modern art or Central Park. You've got to enjoy the small-town randomness for a city with a fancy riverwalk within its skyline.
We've got lots of public art. Every summer since 2017, Sculpture Milwaukee has installed artwork around the city, such as Paula Crown's "JOKESTER" a giant, crushed red Solo cup in the Third Ward; "Gild the Lily (Caribbean Hybrid I, II, III)," the tropical flowers on the Chase Bank lobby; and a Robert Indiana "LOVE" sculpture, which can be found behind the Milwaukee Art Museum.
For some of the city's art, you have to dig a little deeper, like Black Cat Alley, an installation of murals, many by local artists, in the alley between East Kenilworth Place and East Ivanhoe Place.
In 2020, murals — including ones honoring medical workers, the late George Floyd and voting rights — changed the face of the city.
Do we have problems here? Of course
Also, yes, we have snow. So much snow. We ... have to try really hard to appreciate that detail, but it's summer, baby! Nobody's thinking about January!
11 things you can do in Milwaukee that you can't do anywhere else
Let's summarize some things you can do here that you can't do elsewhere.
- See the underground caves where beer was stored at Miller brewery.
- See the oldest known Harley-Davidson motorcycle in existence (and sit on a bunch of others) at the Harley-Davidson Museum.
- Visit the new building of the one-of-a-kind Black Holocaust Museum.
- Tour a cheese factory and taste cheese curds at Clock Shadow Creamery (you can probably do this other places, but it's very Wisconsin).
- Make your own Cheesehead at the Foamation factory.
- Watch the Famous Racing Sausages compete in the sixth inning of a Brewers game at American Family Field, or watch Bernie Brewer navigate down his giant slide after a home run.
- Meet a 100-year old South American River Turtle named Onassis at the Milwaukee County Zoo, which also happens to be the only place to stand face to face with elephants anywhere in the upper Midwest (you have to hoof it to St. Louis for the next-closest elephants).
- Sing the "Laverne and Shirley" theme song on the Lakefront Brewery tour.
- View the largest cluster of work from acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright on the "Burnham Block," constructed for working-class residents.
- Make a fool of yourself if you don't know the password to gain entry into spy-themed restaurant SafeHouse (779 N Front Street), but maybe you make friends with a Milwaukeean who knows the magic word? Those who don't know it will have to participate in some silly calisthenics ... for all to see, as it's broadcast on TVs to the bar inside.
- Watch the wings open (at 10 a.m.) or close (usually 5 p.m., but 8 p.m. on Thursdays) on the Calatrava sculpture at the Milwaukee art museum.
JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe. Contributors to this story include Kathy Flanigan, Chris Foran, Meg Jones, Hannah Kirby, Chelsey Lewis, Mary Spicuzza and Jen Steele.