This is why Milwaukee is a great pandemic travel destination
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and spent many summers road-tripping around the Midwest with my parents. One destination we visited frequently was Milwaukee — the largest city in nearby Wisconsin.
It's a quick drive or 90-minute Amtrak ride from Chicago to Milwaukee, and it transports you into a new world. Milwaukee has a bustling downtown, many great neighborhoods and plenty of attractions for families, couples and solo travelers.
Milwaukee has been on my mind a lot this summer. Midsize cities like Austin, Texas, and Nashville are on the rise for tourism — in large part because of their great bar, music and art scenes. Milwaukee has these, too — so it begs the question: Could it be the Midwestern equivalent of one of these great cities?
After taking a trip to the city earlier this summer, I think it is. Let's take a look at why Milwaukee should be on your fall travel bucket list.
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It has an incredible food and drink scene
Milwaukee has strong German and Central European roots, and much of that shows in the city's food and drink scene. So if you like beer and bratwurst as much as I do, you'll have no problem satisfying your appetite in the Cream City.
Here are the highlights.
There are endless dive bars and breweries
Milwaukee is a beer city — and that shows in its history.
Famous American beer brands such as Pabst Blue Ribbon, Miller and Schlitz all originated in the city. If you're craving one of these American classics, you can start with a tour of the Miller Brewery before making your way to one of Milwaukee's many incredible dive bars.
One of my favorites was Zad's, located in the city's near south side. It opens at an ungodly early 6 a.m. and is filled with lively locals and friendly bartenders — all of whom are eager to show you how to play bar dice. I'll save the specifics of the game for them, but just be prepared to buy your new friends a drink if you lose.
Another favorite was Just Art's Saloon. Art, the owner and bartender, lives right above the bar. He's an older gentleman with lots of stories to tell — trust me when I say it's worth stopping by just for a talk with the man himself. Plus, there's enough free popcorn for everyone at the bar.
If you find yourself on the north side of town, swing by Champion's Pub for a beer. It's a very low-key bar that I was introduced to by a friend in Milwaukee. It has a large backyard where they show baseball games, movies and other events on a large projection screen. And if bar games are your thing, you'll find them here.
Finally, if you're into craft beer, you'll be right at home in Milwaukee. The city's largest craft brewery — Lakefront Brewery — is located right on the RiverWalk. It has a huge beer hall and plenty of outdoor dining space where you can sample the latest beers. I recommend the brewery's classic Fixed Gear American Red IPA.
So in other words: If you like beer, book your ticket to Milwaukee ASAP.
Sample German food around the city
The city's German roots show in its food options too. While there's a little bit of everything in Milwaukee, one thing that stood out was its incredible selection of bratwursts. The first night in the city, I stopped by Milwaukee Brat House — and to be frank (pun intended), I was blown away by the selection and quality of the bratwursts.
Other great places for a bratwurst include the Old German Beer Hall, Mader's Restaurant and Usinger's. At each of these establishments, you'll find a great selection of bratwursts and other German delicacies.
There are high-end dining options, too
Of course, Milwaukee's food scene isn't all beer and bratwurst. Look around the city and you'll find great high-end eateries such as Sanford. Sanford is one of the leading restaurants in the city and features cuisine from around the world, all prepared with farm-to-table ingredients.
You'll also want to check out Bacchus, a contemporary fine dining experience on the Milwaukee Lakefront. You can sample the restaurant's signature three-course menu for $65 per person, which includes everything from grilled Spanish octopus for a starter to a Wisconsin cheese trio for dessert.
Related: 8 of the best food cities around the world — and what to eat when you get there
There's no shortage of attractions for adults and kids alike
Beyond breweries and restaurants, there are plenty of other great attractions to see. Here are a few of my favorites.
Milwaukee Art Museum
The Milwaukee Art Museum is a sight to behold — both inside and out. The museum contains more than 25,000 pieces of art, ranging from Monet to Warhol. The exterior of the building is beautiful, too. It's won multiple design awards and was designed by Santiago Calatrava, the same architect who designed the World Trade Center transportation hub in Manhattan.
Milwaukee Public Market
The Milwaukee Public Market is a must-see for any food lover. It's a huge food hall, stocked with delis, restaurants, bars and artisan grocery stores. I was impressed by the Mexican food from Margarita Paradise and coffee from Anodyne Coffee Roasting.
Milwaukee River Walk
The Milwaukee RiverWalk is the perfect place to start the day with a brisk walk. The Milwaukee River runs through the Historic Third Ward and Downtown districts, giving you a great way to view the city's sights on foot. It's a beautiful walk on a crisp fall day — just don't forget to bring a coffee from local-favorite Colectivo Coffee if it's a chilly morning.
The Brewery District
Speaking of Milwaukee being a beer town, you can walk through the original Pabst brewery complex. Now decommissioned, it's home to the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, Milwaukee Brewing Company and Best Place, a local coffee shop. It's an interesting place to see, especially if you're into the history of American beer.
The last must-see is the Harley-Davidson Museum in the Historic Third Ward. While I'm not a motorcycle guy myself, it was interesting to see all of the different models of Harleys that have been produced over the years. You'll learn the ins and outs of the company and the history that made it one of America's most iconic brands.
Related: 5 drives from Chicago every traveler will love
There are plenty of great hotel options
I stayed in a handful of different properties during my trip, and I'll have reviews posted on TPG soon. In the meantime, here are a few recommendations that you can book with your points and miles this fall.
- Hotel Metro, Autograph Collection: A historic art deco hotel in downtown Milwaukee that you can book with Marriott Bonvoy points.
- Hyatt Place Milwaukee Downtown: A no-frills Hyatt property situated just north of downtown, near the old Pabst brewery. Book with World of Hyatt points.
- Kimpton Journeyman Hotel: A modern hotel located right down the street from the Public Market with a rooftop bar, free daily happy hour and posh rooms. Book with IHG Rewards points.
- Westin Milwaukee: A new Marriott property located in the Historic Third Ward district and within walking distance of Lake Michigan.
Of course, there are plenty of great independent hotels, too. I spent a night at the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, located inside the old Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery. It's a comfortable hotel with large rooms, and the aesthetics are second to none — much of the old brewery equipment now acts as art pieces throughout the property.
My advice is to try and stay downtown or in the Historic Third Ward district. These locations put you in the center of the action and within easy reach of many of Milwaukee's attractions via public transit or Uber.
Related: Opening America: State-by-state guide to coronavirus reopening
It's getting easier to travel to Milwaukee
Getting to Milwaukee is easy, too. If you're based in the Chicagoland area, you can take Amtrak's Hiawatha service from Chicago's Union Station to Milwaukee's Intermodal Station, located right down the street from the Public Market. Or, you can jump in the car for a quick two-hour ride.
Those coming from farther away can fly into Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE). This airport has grown rapidly over the past few years, with service from all the major U.S. carriers including American, Alaska, Delta and United. United even has seasonal point-to-point service to cities including Charleston, South Carolina (CHS), and Portland, Maine (PWM).
Southwest operates a number of routes out of MKE as well, with year-round service to many American cities. Here's a look at its current year-round service from the airport.
Smaller carriers are bringing more service to the city, too. For example, JetBlue is starting service to MKE from its Boston (BOS) and New York-JFK hubs in March 2022. Likewise, Sun Country and Spirit are set to expand their MKE footprints by the end of the year. Spirit's route network will soon include these cities:
Related: Everything you should know before flying Spirit Airlines
Milwaukee is a great American city, with bustling food, drink and art scenes. Whether you go to visit the city's countless dive bars or to take your family to see the famous Public Market, you won't be disappointed with a long weekend in the city.