Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s largest city, and one of the biggest urban areas in the American Midwest. A culturally diverse city, Milwaukee takes its name from the indigenous Algonquian language and means ‘pleasant land’. Strongly influenced by waves of German immigration during the 19th century, the city is famous for its smoked meats and locally brewed beers, with the latter tradition giving its name to the city’s baseball team, the Brewers. The city benefits from being just the right size: large enough to boast a wealth of things to do, but not overwhelmingly big in the way the country’s largest cities could be said to be.
But what are the best things to do when exploring Milwaukee? What are the city’s most iconic things? Join us at City Tours MKE as we explore some of Milwaukee’s most iconic attractions. And if you find that we’ve piqued your interest, check out our very own Iconic Milwaukee Tour, which gives you the inside story on many of the best things MKE has to offer.
The Milwaukee RiverWalk
The Milwaukee RiverWalk stretches along the Milwaukee River from the Historic Third Ward to Caesar’s Park near Brady Street. This river walkway was developed in the 90s to give Milwaukeeans and visitors the opportunity to while away pleasant hours by the water’s edge. The RiverWalk runs to around 3 miles and makes for an excellent way to explore the city. Take in the art and sculptures that line the route and admire some of the 16 bridges that cross the Milwaukee River, before stopping at a riverside cafe or brewpub for refreshments. You can also look out for ‘The Bronze Fonz’, a statue depicting Arthur Fonzarelli, from the TV series Happy Days, one of the city’s most famous fictional inhabitants.
Milwaukee Art Museum
The Milwaukee Art Museum is unquestionably one of the city’s most iconic sites. Santiago Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavillion is the flagship building of the three entwined sites that house the museum’s collections of over 25,000 works of art. Inspired by the wings of a bird, Calatrava’s design features an enormous brise-soleil: two great fans rise from the building and each day (weather permitting) they open to protect the site from the sun. This combination of cutting-edge architecture and kinetic sculpture is a must-see for visitors to Milwaukee. Within the museum, you will find works from legendary modern artists, such as Picasso, Kandinsky, Rothko, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Degas.
Milwaukee has long been renowned for its festivals. The most iconic of all these events has to be Summerfest, which held the Guinness World Record for the largest music festival in the world for many years, with the festival welcoming an astounding 900,000 music fans annually. Previous headliners include music icons like Paul Simon, Whitney Houston, Prince, Pearl Jam, Dolly Parton, and The Rolling Stones. Elsewhere, the city hosts festivals that celebrate its cultural diversity, with food, music, beer, and fine wine being served up at Oktoberfest, Irish Fest, Festa Italiana, and Polish Fest. Be sure to check the city’s listings before your visit and join the party atmosphere if you can.
Perhaps the city’s greatest international export, Harley-Davidson was founded in Milwaukee in 1903 by William Harley and Arthur Davidson, two childhood friends with a passion for engineering and invention. The company continues manufacturing its bikes in the city to this day. All visitors to Milwaukee should consider making the trip to the Harley-Davidson Museum, a fascinating insight into the history of motorcycle manufacture and the city of Milwaukee itself. The museum displays over 450 bikes and hundreds of other associated artifacts. Even if you have no interest in motorcycles, you are sure to find a visit to this museum informative and entertaining. Harley-Davidson is just one of the iconic Milwaukee subjects we touch on with our Experience MKE Tour, a popular choice of tour for those wanting to know more about the city’s story.
Milwaukee’s City Beaches
With Milwaukee situated at the confluence of three rivers and on the banks of Lake Michigan, this is a great city for those who love being by the water. And where better to enjoy views across one of the Great Lakes than from the beach! There are nine public beaches in Milwaukee County, with Bradford Beach being the largest. Located just a 15-minute walk from the historic North Point Lighthouse, Bradford Beach is an excellent spot for relaxing, playing sports like volleyball, or just soaking up the atmosphere. Other good options for visitors would be McKinley Beach, Grant Park Beach, and Atwater Beach.
Milwaukee Foods and Beer
Milwaukee is known as the ‘Cream City’ on account of the light-colored bricks used for the city’s buildings. However, ‘Cream City’ could just as easily be linked to the city’s love of dairy! One of Milwaukee’s most iconic dishes is cheese curds: soft, young cheese covered with batter and fried. It’s not going to feature on any calorie-cutting diet plan, but, boy, is it tasty. Another dairy-heavy delectable is the city’s famous frozen custard, which is similar to ice cream but with the addition of eggs to the mix, giving this sweet, frozen treat a mouthwatering creaminess.
Finally, no talk of iconic Milwaukee can ignore the subject of beer. Waves of German immigration throughout the 19th-century led to the establishment of rich brewing culture in the city (the city had two dozen breweries in 1856), one that proudly continues to this day. All this beer led to the city getting its other nickname, ‘Brew City’, and to Milwaukee’s baseball team being given the name, the Brewers. Beer enthusiasts can join us as we dive headlong into this huge aspect of the city’s cultural history on our Milwaukee Brewery Tour.
Historic Architecture in Milwaukee
Our last entry on our list of iconic things in Milwaukee is the city’s historic built environment. The Basilica of St. Josaphat is the city’s largest church and just the third church in the USA to be honored with the name ‘basilica’. Completed in 1901, this grand building was modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome and features one of the largest copper domes in the world. Elsewhere, look out for the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower, which features the largest four-faced clock in the Western Hemisphere. Built within an area heavily populated by Polish immigrants, the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower was nicknamed, ‘the Polish moon’. Finally, architecture aficionados won’t want to miss Frank Lloyd Wright’s Burnham Block, a group of six small houses designed by the world-famous Wisconsin native. This is only a sampling of the beautiful historical buildings to be found across the city, which has done a terrific job of preserving its architectural heritage.
This brings to a close our list of just some of Milwaukee’s most iconic things. We hope we’ve inspired you to begin planning your visit! If you have any questions about this blog, or any of our tours, please feel free to contact us.