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All eyes are on Milwaukee this summer. Here’s what you need to do there.

You could say Wisconsin’s largest city is having its moment. But that’s probably not accurate since it’s surely more than just a moment.

Milwaukee, with a population of about 560,000, is a city large enough to have world-class attractions, but small enough to be easy to get around. He is currently in the spotlight for several reasons.

The big news is the Republican National Convention, which will be held in Milwaukee from July 15 to 18 and will attract some 50,000 visitors, including international journalists, for the four-day event.

Shortly before the RNC, the city’s annual three-weekend music extravaganza, Summerfest, is likely to draw more than 600,000 people to the shores of Lake Michigan. And the week after the convention, 80,000 people are expected for Harley-Davidson’s annual Homecoming festival, July 25-28, featuring big-name artists.

And then there’s the TV show. The Bravo reality series “Top Chef” filmed in Milwaukee and other locations in Wisconsin last year and began airing its 14 weekly episodes on March 20. Viewers get a big dose of Wisconsin landscapes, history and culture along with food porn.

Yes, this city on the shores of Lake Michigan is getting a lot of attention. These are some of the reasons and ideas that might entice you to visit before, during or after these big events.

Beer

Long known as Brew City (that German influence), 27 breweries operate in Milwaukee. That compares to more than 40 breweries tapping barrels back in the 1860s. Of those 40, four still exist: Blatz, Pabst, Miller and Schlitz, once the largest beer producer in the United States and known as “the beer that made Milwaukee famous.”

Hanging out at Lakefront Brewery, especially after a stroll along the Milwaukee RiverWalk, is a great way to pass the time. Try the RiverWest Stein, a gold medal-winning lager, paired with some tasty fried cheese curds.

Head to 3rd Street Market Hall to check out City Fountain, a self-serve indoor beer garden where you can try as much or as little as you want of some of Wisconsin’s best beers. They charge you per ounce.

The Riverwest Stein, a gold medal-winning amber ale, at Lakefront Brewery.  (Visit Milwaukee)
The Riverwest Stein, a gold medal-winning amber ale, at Lakefront Brewery. (Visit Milwaukee)

There are all kinds of beer tours available in and around Milwaukee. Find the one that’s right for you at visitmilwaukee.org.

And if visiting breweries and taprooms isn’t enough to get your beer fix, consider this: Brewhouse Inn and Suites is a 90-room boutique hotel built on the site of the historic Pabst Brewery. The rooms are arranged around a central courtyard that houses huge copper teapots.

An aerial view shows Milwaukee's Third Ward neighborhood.  (Nate Nomhof)
Milwaukee’s Third Ward. (Nate Nomhof)

History

Milwaukee’s history is alive and exposed in many ways. When European immigrants began arriving in the United States in large numbers after 1850, Milwaukee was the destination for Germans. Today, the city’s brewing industry, its tradition of ethnic festivals and some Gilded Age mansions are part of that German tradition that visitors can explore.

It was in the 1890s when teenager William Harley met Arthur Davidson in a Milwaukee neighborhood. Shortly after the turn of the century, they produced the first Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Today, that history is examined at one of the city’s top tourist destinations, the Harley-Davidson Museum. It is a 20-acre complex with retail shops, restaurants and two floors of souvenirs.

Harley-Davidson's annual Homecoming festival is expected to draw 80,000 people.  (Harley Davidson)
Harley-Davidson’s annual Homecoming festival is expected to draw 80,000 people. (Harley Davidson)

A more traditional historical tour is the Pabst Mansion, where programs help tell the story of brewing, art and architecture of the era with the impressive Gilded Age mansion from which Frederick Pabst ran the brewery .

Food

Milwaukee has long been famous for brats, cheese, and frozen custard. That’s still true, and be sure to try some of those tummy-friendly treats. (Leon’s is my favorite for custard). But there’s a lot more to Milwaukee’s food scene, which is getting a lot of attention thanks in part to “Top Chef.”

Do your own research to find what tempts you most, but here are a few restaurants I recommend for dining experiences not to be missed.

DanDan, described as Chinese-American cuisine, is run by “Top Chef” contestant Dan Jacobs. His Happy Chicken is a dish to remember, spicy, crunchy and tasty. I would return just for that.

City Fountain is a self-service covered beer garden.  (Terri Colby)
City Fountain is a self-service covered beer garden. (Terri Colby)

At Birch, chef Kyle Knall’s farm-to-table menu caught the attention of the New York Times and ranked it as one of the 50 best restaurants in the US in 2023. The charbroiled walleye, the wood-roasted pork and ricotta. Stuffed pasta stands out.

The Diplomat, a cozy neighborhood spot where chef Dane Baldwin won the 2022 James Beard Award, offers approachable, shareable dishes. Exceptional ingredients and interesting combinations enhance simple dishes. The Knife & Fork Chicken and the Diplomac Premium Beef Burger are popular choices.

Art

Milwaukee isn’t shy in the outdoor mural category, but what might set it apart from other cities is that many pieces focus on beer and sports.

For architecture fans, a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Burnham Block is a must. It is the renowned architect’s collection of affordable housing units and is open to the public most Saturdays. Tours tend to sell out, so plan ahead.

The Milwaukee Art Museum was designed by famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.  (Visit Milwaukee)
The Milwaukee Art Museum was designed by famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. (Visit Milwaukee)

But the undisputed star in this category is the Milwaukee Art Museum, known as much for its collections and exhibits as its architecture. Designed by the famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the main building rises next to Lake Michigan like a bird, a ship or a sail, and has become a city landmark.

Four floors with more than 40 galleries display an extensive collection with pieces ranging from ancient decorative arts to Renaissance paintings and documentary photography. There is also a large collection of works by German artists.

Outdoor recreation

Although Milwaukee has the amenities of a big city, outdoor recreation is also plentiful.

During the summer, Bradford Beach is a popular destination. It’s a wide stretch of sand along Lake Michigan where volleyball leagues share the sand with beachgoers. It is a short drive from the center.

Summerfest is Milwaukee's annual three-weekend musical extravaganza along the lakefront.  (Visit Milwaukee)
Summerfest is Milwaukee’s annual three-weekend musical extravaganza along the lakefront. (Visit Milwaukee)

There are 135 miles of paved trails running through Milwaukee County. Check out the 2-mile Seven Bridges Trail in near south Milwaukee. Cross bridges and stairs built by the Works Progress Administration nearly 100 years ago through ravines along Lannon stone paths.

Veterans Park, also along the lakeshore, is a destination for kitesurfers, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders. There is a kite shop on site and a company that rents kayaks and paddle boards. Those water activities are also available in the city’s rivers.

Sports and festivals

Milwaukee is a great sports town and in the summer a trip to American Family Field to watch the Brewers play baseball is a must. New to the field this year is an annex to the 3rd Street Market Hall. So, along with your brats and your beer, you can eat empanadas and crab Rangoon while you watch the game and the sausage mascot races at the end of the sixth inning.

At American Family Field, the Brewers' sausage mascot race takes place in the bottom of the sixth inning.  (Milwaukee Brewers)
At American Family Field, the Brewers’ sausage mascot race takes place in the bottom of the sixth inning. (Milwaukee Brewers)

Milwaukee is known as the city of festivals, with nearly 100 on the event calendar in and around the city. Many celebrate the immigrant cultures that shaped the city. Others celebrate food and art. There’s even Weird Fest, which seems to be mostly about beer, so it’s not too foreign to Milwaukee.

Terri Colby is a freelancer.