Summer in Milwaukee – What to Know & What to See

Milwaukee is having a moment, and, in the opinion of this proud Milwaukee resident, it’s about time.  We’re not a particularly boastful bunch, unless our hometown team wins the NBA championship (BUCKS IN SIX!), but we do know Milwaukee has more to offer than most people think.

Whether you’re a Bucks fan soaking in the magic of the Deer District, planning to partake in the festivals, looking for a beer garden with a view, or want to get to know your backyard, summer is undoubtedly an ideal time to appreciate this lovely lakeside city.

Affectionately referred to as Brew City, Cream City, and Mil-town, Milwaukee is a transforming and diverse city shaped by immigrants and industry where local businesses strengthen our communities and reflect the character and culture of those that call this city home.

If you aren’t as familiar with the Milwaukee’s history, the high-level overview below may be a helpful start, but is by no means all-encompassing.

  • Indigenous People have lived in the area of Milwaukee for centuries, likely originating with the Mound Builders civilizations’ occupation of the area (see plaque in first photo below). The Potawatomi, Ojibwe, Odawa (Ottawa), Fox, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sauk, and Oneida have all called Milwaukee home at some point throughout history. It was these Native peoples who referred to the area of Milwaukee as the “gathering place by the waters,” the “good land”, or simply the “gathering place”. The Native communities of Wisconsin have faced challenging circumstances, in part because of treaties of dispossession with United States government that significantly reduced their land holdings, but in recent years, Native Milwaukee has seen a resurgence in culture and rights. One such example is the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in the Menomonee Valley of Milwaukee. More detailed information on Native Milwaukee history and current presence can be found here.
  • The city of Milwaukee was founded in 1846 by three “founding fathers”: Solomon Juneau (first to arrive), Byron Kilbourn, and George Walker. Before uniting under one city name, each established their own town – Juneautown was on the east side of the Milwaukee River; Kilbourntown was on the west side of the river; and Walker’s Point was on the south side. The angled bridges that cross over the Milwaukee River today are a product of the particular animosity between Kilbourn and Juneau; it was the former of the two who built streets that didn’t line up with those of Juneautown.
  • Since its founding, Milwaukee has been a city influenced by its immigrant and migrant communities. Germans have constituted Milwaukee’s largest immigrant group and their influence on the city can be found in its reverence for beer and bratwursts. Evidence of Italian immigrants can be found in the bakeries on Brady Street, while much of Milwaukee’s South Side was inhabited by Polish immigrants who were instrumental in the commissioning of the notable Basilica of St. Josaphat, modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica. Historic Mitchell Street on the South Side is now home to Syrian, Serbian, Mexican, and Pakistani restaurants.

The Great Migration of the early to mid-20th century brought African-Americans north to Milwaukee where they settled in Bronzeville (see plaque in last photo below). It was an important commercial and cultural hub for its residents until the construction of the North-South I-43 and Park East freeway uprooted the community. Remembering Bronzeville is a highly recommended documentary recounting life in the neighborhood and its subsequent destruction.

Milwaukee’s Latinx community has had a strong influence on the city, particularly in recent years, as the population grows and contributes to the cultural diversity and vibrancy of this now majority-minority city.

  • Milwaukee’s location on the western shore of Lake Michigan and its excellent natural harbor fostered the creation of a strong shipping industry followed by robust manufacturing in the later 19th century. Two of the city’s most recognizable manufacturers and current Fortune 500 companies, Rockwell Automation (f.k.a. Allen-Bradley) and Harley Davidson, were both founded in 1903. By the 1970s however, the city was dealing with the impact of de-industrialization and an economic downturn resulting in a significant loss of jobs, particularly within the central city. Renewed economic development in Milwaukee in the 21st century is evidenced by the evolution of buildings and landmarks and, more recently, a construction boom that is reshaping the skyline.

Know:

  • Wisconsin’s largest city, but not its capital, has a population of nearly 600,000 and is comprised of neighborhoods with distinct characteristics and identities that blend the old with the new. When visiting Milwaukee, you’ll likely be spending most of your time in East Town, Lower East Side, Westown, Historic Third Ward, Walker’s Point, and Menomonee River Valley, all of which are “downtown” or adjacent to it. For engaging profiles of these and more of Milwaukee’s (and Wisconsin’s) iconic neighborhoods, I’d recommend episodes of Around the Corner with John McGivern.
  • In a list of iconic Milwaukee foods, the bratwurst, frozen custard, cheese curds, and fish fry all top the list, but it’s beer that “made Milwaukee famous”. You can’t talk about Milwaukee without recognizing its storied history of brewing that was shaped and made famous by the German Beer Barons of Pabst Brewing Company (founded as Best and Company), Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, Valentin Blatz Brewing Company, and Miller Brewing Company. Evidence of how beer brought communities together and shaped the city’s identity is found in the beer gardens and taverns that offered music, dancing, and sport to their patrons. These gathering places remain important spaces today even though brewing has evolved, and along with it, Milwaukee’s culinary scene. Along with the classics, you’ll find brunch with a fully-loaded Bloody Mary, craft cocktails, plant-based fare, food markets and collectives, farm to table focused eateries, and globally-inspired menus.
  • It had been 50 years since the Milwaukee Bucks last won an NBA Championship so we’ll be talking about the 2021 history-making performance of our beloved hometown team led by the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, for a long time. This sports-loving city is also fiercely loyal to their Brew Crew and the tradition of tailgating in the stadium parking lots. Don’t be surprised to hear locals call American Family Field by its former names, Miller Park and County Stadium… it’s a hard habit to break. While the Green Bay Packers don’t play in Milwaukee, you’ll see green and gold around town on Sundays… and every other day of the week. Milwaukee sports fans are a welcoming bunch, if not a little intense.

Prepare:

  • If you’re looking to experience all four seasons, Wisconsin can help you with that… sometimes all in one day! Considering this guide is intended for those visiting Milwaukee in our warmer months, you’ll find that summer in Wisconsin is mostly comfortable, albeit on the more humid side. As Milwaukee sits on Lake Michigan, there is usually a pleasant lake breeze on even the hottest of days, while evenings can get a bit cooler and therefore may necessitate a jacket.
  • Milwaukee is very easy to navigate and get around in by all means of transportation, including with your own vehicle. If you’re driving your own vehicle and looking for day-time street parking, use the City of Milwaukee Mobile Parking Payment App, MKE Park, to pay the meter from your phone. General Mitchell International Airport is about a 15-minute drive from downtown and the Intermodal Station (find Amtrak and bus lines here) is less than a mile from the Historic Third Ward District. Uber and Lyft are readily available and reasonably priced.
    • Public Transit
      • Milwaukee’s streetcar, The Hop, is currently free for all riders – a great reason to utilize this easy to navigate transit option. Find the route and schedule here.
      • Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) buses are your go-to for covering longer distances on public transit. The cost of an Adult Regular ride fare is $2 on the MCTS App Ride, $2.25 in cash, or $4 for a one-day pass. Bonus: the MCTS drivers regularly make the news for their outstanding customer service and acts of kindness across the city.
    • Ride
      • A personal favorite way to get around Milwaukee is by bike. Bublr Bikes is Greater Milwaukee’s nonprofit bike share program that charges $.25 per minute for a single ride (no unlock fee) and $24 for a 24-hour pass. Bublr is expanding their stations in summer 2021 – keep an eye out for the blue bikes and docking stations across the city.
      • From June through mid-November 2021, you’ll be able to use Bird, Lime and Spin electric scooters as part of the city’s dockless scooter pilot program. Scooters don’t exceed 15 mph, but riding on sidewalks is not allowed and scooters should be parked responsibly.
  • When it comes to deciding where to stay, you’ll find the most hotel options in the East Town and Westown neighborhoods, near to the Milwaukee River. There are numerous, more affordable Hilton and Marriott branded hotels, along with a couple notables that have unique aspects but come at a higher price.
    • The Pfister Hotel, built in 1893, is an icon of the city – stay here to increase your odds of crossing paths with visiting sports teams.
    • The Westin Hotel is only two blocks from the lakefront and offers excellent dining at Stella.
    • The Plaza Hotel on the East Side is a reasonably-priced boutique hotel recognized for its Art Deco style and on-site restaurant with a fantastic breakfast/ brunch option.
    • Find the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel in the Third Ward and don’t miss the views from their rooftop bar.
    • The Iron Horse Hotel in Walker’s Point offers a different perspective of the city and a chance to appreciate original Cream City Brick and industrial chic décor.

See:

Must See Milwaukee sites will encourage you appreciate what makes this city unique.

  • The Lakefront is home to the Milwaukee Art Museum which was established in 1882 and is one of the nation’s largest art museums with nearly 25,000 works. Its Burke Brise Soleil sunshade, widely known as “The Calatrava” after its Spanish designer, Santiago Calatrava has a 217-foot wingspan and commanding view over the lake. The folding and unfolding of the mechanical wings of The Calatrava is an impressive sight even for locals and a can’t miss stop. If possible, plan your museum visit around the time that the wings open and close: Friday–Sunday at 10 AM, noon, and 5 PM, weather permitting. View from the Reiman Pedestrian Bridge (also designed by Calatrava).
The Burke Brise Soleil sunshade, known as “The Calatrava”, opens its wings on a beautiful Milwaukee day.
  • The Historic Third Ward is a walkable gem of Downtown Milwaukee. In this former warehouse district, you’ll find a high concentration of restaurants and shops, including the nationally acclaimed Milwaukee Public Market (see more on this under Sipping & Dining).
The Milwaukee Public Market in the Third Ward.
  • If you’re looking to be at the center of the action for sports and entertainment, there is no better place than the Deer District where you can cheer on the beloved Bucks at the Fiserv Forum or take in the action from a patio seat while dining at Good City Brewing, The Mecca, or Drink Wisconsinbly Pub.

The Bucks have announced that the Deer District will host a food market in the plaza outside Fiserv Forum eight times throughout summer 2021. The market will bring together small businesses, with a focus on minority-owned businesses. Find market dates and times here.

Old World Third Street is a block east of the Deer District and also has an abundance of great spots for a pre- or post-game gathering.

  • If a tailgate before a Brewer’s baseball game is more your style, head to the parking lots at American Family Field and fire up the grill. If you’re without a car (and grill) and wondering how to get to the game from downtown, bars like Milwaukee Brat House (Old World Third Street), O’Lydia’s (in the Fifth Ward), and Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub (on Brady Street) have you covered with a shuttle to and from the ballpark
  • When in the Brew City, one should embrace beer. The city has a proud history of beer brewing that goes back to before its founding. Brewery tours and taproom visits are the ideal way to understand what made Milwaukee famous.
    • Brewery tours are offered by two of the originals, Miller (tours remain temporarily suspended as of summer 2021) and Pabst, along with the newer but no less classic Lakefront Brewery. The Miller and Lakefront tours both recommend purchasing tickets online ahead of time.
    • Get a taste for the city’s ever-expanding craft brewery scene at one of the numerous taprooms across the city. Personal favorites are listed below under Beer & Drinks.
Take a tour at Lakefront Brewery
  • Perhaps the most appealing reason to visit Milwaukee during the summer is to partake in one or more of the seasonal festivals that could coincide with your visit. The City of Festivals lives up to its name with seemingly endless events scheduled throughout the summer.
    • Summerfest, promoted as the world’s largest music festival, is held annually at Henry Maier Festival Park across its 11 different stages. Expect both big names and local talent across all genres to perform from noon until midnight. In 2021, Summerfest is scheduled for the first three weekends (Thursday – Sunday) of September.
    • Also held on the Henry Maier Festival Park grounds are annual cultural festivals – Irish Fest and Mexican Fiesta are scheduled for 2021, while Festa Italiana, Polish Fest, and German Fest will return in 2022. PrideFest also takes place on the grounds and will be held in 2021.
    • Juneteenth Day is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. In Milwaukee, the festivities take place along King Drive, between Burleigh and North Avenue, with a parade, entertainment, and hundreds of vendors.
    • Bastille Days (returning in 2022), held in Cathedral Square Park, is one of the nation’s largest French-themed celebrations, complete with a Storm the Bastille 5k run.
    • Street and neighborhood festivals are plentiful. Two of particular note are Brady St. Festival in July (returning in 2022) and Bronzeville Week in August.
    • If you’re still in search of more beer, take part in unlimited sampling of beer, cider, wine, and mead at Milwaukee Brewfest along the lakefront in McKinley Park.
Summerfest music festival grounds
Summerfest music festival is held at the Henry Maier Festival Park grounds on the lake,

Iconic Milwaukee sites showcase the city’s industries, natural resources, and food culture.

  • Head to the Menomonee Valley, a historically industrial area of the city, to visit the Harley-Davidson Museum which honors the history and culture of this American motorcycle manufacturer founded in Milwaukee. There are more than 450 Harley-Davidson motorcycles at the museum thanks to the company’s founders pulling one bike from the production line to be preserved in an archive since 1915. The museum sits on a 20-acre park with a restaurant, Motor, and river walk.
  • Three rivers – the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic – flow through the heart of the city and into the harbor of Milwaukee creating plentiful public access to these valuable resources. The Milwaukee RiverWalk is a 3.1-mile-long pedestrian walkway adjacent to the Milwaukee River that connects the city from Humboldt Avenue on the north end, to the Third Ward, and further on to the south end of the Henry Maier Festival Park grounds. Keep an eye out for the statue of notable Milwaukee resident “The Fonz” from Happy Days, recognized as the Bronze Fonz, and signage along the walk that explains some of the history of the area.
  • For a different view of the city, rent a kayak from or take a guided tour of Milwaukee’s waterways with Milwaukee Kayak Company. They offer morning and sunset tours, along with history tours and an introduction to kayaking class.
  • Alternatively, use your leg power to travel the river aboard the Milwaukee Paddle Tavern Ideal for groups of up to 14, you’ll bring your own beverages and snacks for a nearly two-hour tour with a quick stop at a bar along the way. Groups not keen on paddling in the water may prefer pedaling on the street with a drink in hand on the Milwaukee Pedal Tavern. While exploring the Third Ward and Walker’s Point, groups can pick what bars to go to, or let their onboard guide make the decisions. The party bike can hold up to 16 people, and while some leg power is required, you can take a break at the 3-4 bar stops during your tour.
  • Another activity great for groups looking to get to know Milwaukee and its excellent food is a Milwaukee Food & City Tour with Milwaukee Food Tours. You have the option of walking or a bus tour that can be booked private or public. Reserve your spot for a Brady Street Lunch Tour, a Bloody Mary Brunch Tour, Tacos & Tequilla Tour, or others online ahead of time.
  • When in Wisconsin on a Friday, a fish fry is a must. It’s a tradition tied to the role of Catholicism in the city, the Prohibition era, and the state’s proximity to freshwater fish. You’ll likely be eating beer-battered and fried or baked perch, walleye, haddock, cod or bluegill, with side of potatoes – fries or pancakes – and coleslaw with rye bread. A couple of personal favorite fries are at County Clare, Good City Brewing, and Estabrook Beer Garden.
  • What better way to finish your fish fry than with a stop at one of the city’s open-air beer gardens. The Traveling Beer Garden is run by Milwaukee County Parks concessions staff, with all revenue used to improve the parks. The tour includes at least one stop downtown at Juneau Park, which overlooks Lake Michigan. A bit further from downtown are the beloved beer gardens at Estabrook, Hubbard Park, South Shore Terrace, and Humboldt Park.

Walking and running in Milwaukee are enjoyable thanks to a clean downtown and an abundance of excellent paths. Below are some suggested routes to take in the city.

  • A newer addition to Downtown is the Sculpture Milwaukee walk in which public art has been installed “as a catalyst for community engagement, economic development, and creative placemaking”. You’ll find most of the art along Wisconsin Avenue from 6th Street east to the Art Museum but there are a few pieces near City Hall and in the Third Ward as well – find more information here.
  • One of my favorite views of Milwaukee is from the McKinley Park Government Pier. Head through the parking lot south of McKinley Beach to the marina boat ramp where you’ll find a fenced entrance from which the concrete pier extends for a half mile in Lake Michigan’s harbor. Come in the evening to see beautiful sunsets over the city from the Hoan Bridge to the south to bluffs along the north shore.
  • From Downtown, head north to Bradford Beach or south to Lakeshore State Park for excellent running routes and a particularly popular city view from the later of the two.
  • Milwaukee’s murals tell stories about the city’s residents and their culture both in the past and present. New murals are beautifying the city every year, in both hidden and easily discernable spots. Use this mural map to help you locate some of them and then keep an eye out for more while you’re out.

Biking is an excellent way to get around Milwaukee, particularly the lakefront which has bike paths aplenty. If you’re looking to go further, there are many options for longer bike routes outside the city which I detail in a separate post on Biking in Milwaukee.

Ride a bike around Milwaukee
The Wheel & Sprocket in Bay View knows biking is a perfect way to explore Milwaukee.

Sipping & Dining:

Of course you came to Milwaukee to take part in our incredible food scene. It’s more than just beer and cheese, and summer is the perfect time to do as the locals do and dine outdoors on a rooftop or patio.

  • Markets and Collectives
    • The Milwaukee Public Market was opened in 2005 and is a year-round favorite of residents and tourists in search of delicious local foodstuffs and goods. Personal favorites are the cookies from C. Adams Bakery (a MUST try) and salads at The Green Kitchen. Take your meal to the upstairs dining area or out on the patio along E St Paul Ave.
    • Zócalo Food Park is a diverse collective of food vendors offering delicious cuisine from their food trucks. There is also a spacious patio and full-service bar.
    • Crossroads Collective is a newer addition to North Avenue with eight individual vendors set up in a food hall geared towards customer satisfaction. The vendors offer local, made from scratch food across a variety of cuisines. Highly recommend!
    • Sherman Phoenix is a little outside of downtown but well worth the drive to support small businesses and entrepreneurship in communities of color. Find spring rolls, pizza, wings, and sweets – eat them on site or take them to go.
    • Milwaukee Night Market is an outdoor event with vendors, artists, and performers in the Westown district. There will only be one market in 2021 on August 18th.
    • The Deer District Night Market (referenced earlier) is new in 2021 but will be food-focused and take place in the plaza eight times throughout summer and fall.
  • Restaurants
    • Downtown: Sanford, Harbor House, and Carnevor for upscale dining; Buckley’s for its ambiance and good menu; Zarletti for excellent Italian; or Blue Star Cafe for fantastic casual East African
    • Brady Street: Dorsia for a flight of pasta or La Masa for empanadas
    • Third Ward: Café Benelux for rooftop dining or Onesto for homemade pasta
    • Fifth Ward: La Merenda’s back patio for globally inspired cuisine, Movida at Hotel Madrid for tapas, or Botanas for reasonably priced, delicious Mexican cuisine
    • Menomonee Valley: Sobelman’s on St. Paul for a burger and Bloody Mary
    • Bay View: Honeypie for Midwestern-inspired food and phenomenal pies, Odd Duck for upscale tapas, or Santino’s Little Italy for traditional Neapolitan pizzas
    • North of Downtown: Tavolino for pasta and Hacienda Beer Co. for brews and food are both on North Avenue or Café Hollander on Downer Avenue for European-inspired dining and beers
  • Cafés
    • Colectivo: local coffee roaster with multiple locations in Downtown Milwaukee, including their popular Lakefront store
    • Stone Creek: local coffee roaster with a café just across from the Intermodal Station and (my favorite location) on Downer Avenue
    • Anodyne: local coffee roaster with a store in the Milwaukee Public Market
  • Beer and Drinks
    • Good City Brewing on the East Side or Downtown in the Deer District
    • City Lights Brewing in the historic Milwaukee Gas Light Co. building in the Miller Valley
    • Explorium Brew Pub is conveniently located just across the river in the Third Ward
    • Indeed Brewing and Mobcraft Brewing in Walker’s Point both have fun and fresh menus
    • Milwaukee Brewing Company and Old German Beer Hall are both in Westown and a short walk from the Fiserv Forum.
    • The Outsider at the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel has an outstanding rooftop space but does get very busy on weekends.
    • Blu offers panoramic views of downtown from the 23rd floor of the Pfister Hotel.
    • Aperitivo is just two blocks west of the Milwaukee Public Market in the Pritzlaff Building and has a great drink menu.
    • Boone & Crocket’s outdoor patio with a view of the harbor and Hoan Bridge is a perfect spot to gather on a summer evening.
    • The skilled bartenders at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge will create the perfect cocktail for your mood while you enjoy the ambiance of this speakeasy lounge located in the Historic Mitchell Street neighborhood just south of Downtown.
  • Sweets
    • Ice cream from Purple Door in Walker’s Point is worth waiting in line, but you can’t go wrong with Scratch Ice Cream from stands at Crossroads Collective and Zócalo Food Park.
    • You won’t find Kopp’s in Downtown Milwaukee, but it will be worth the drive to one of their two locations to indulge in their creamy custard.
    • At the Milwaukee Public Market, you must sample any (or all) of the bakery at Adam’s Bakery. Be on the lookout for Pete’s Pops at a stand outside the market during the summer or at the festivals.
    • Blooming Lotus Bakery on North Avenue is the place to go for delicious grain and dairy free baked goods.
    • North of Downtown in Shorewood, you’ll find Goody Gourmets popcorn for your savory or sweet tooth, while south of Downtown on Historic Mitchell Street is Lopez Bakery and Restaurant where you’ll find traditional Mexican confections.
  • Zócalo Food Park
  • Crossroads Collective
  • Colectivo Foundry Store
  • Indeed Brewing in Walker’s Point
  • Ice cream from Purple Door in Walker’s Point

Now get out there and see for yourself all that Milwaukee offers!

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