MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- "Chicago's Little Sister" had little to surprise me -- or so I thought. I'd visited many times and figured I'd seen all it had to offer.
The Milwaukee Art Museum: Stunning as it spreads its wings on the lakefront. Brewery tours: Fun, and free beer. The Pfister Hotel and Pabst Mansion: Old World ambience. Karl Ratzsch's and Mader's restaurants: German heritage on a plate.
MilwaukeeGetting there: Milwaukee is about 75 miles from the Northwest suburbs.
Where to stay:
Ÿ Brewhouse Inn & Suites, 1212 N. 10th St., from $189 including breakfast, (414) 810-3350, brewhousesuites.com
Ÿ Milwaukee Marriott Downtown, 323 E. Wisconsin Ave., from $199, (414) 278-5999, marriott.com/mkedn
Where to eat:
Ÿ Braise, 1101 S. Second St., plates about $8 to $28, (414) 212-8843, braiselocalfood.com
Ÿ Bavette La Boucherie, 330 E. Menomonee St., salads and sandwiches about $7 to $12, (414) 273-3375, bavettemilwaukee.com
Ÿ Wolf Peach, 1818 N. Hubbard St., plates about $8 to $24, (414) 374-8480, wolf-peach.com
Ÿ Honey Pie Café, 2643 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., salads, sandwiches, entrees from $5 to $18, (414) 489-7437, honeypiecafe.com
Bloody Mary Brunch Tour: Milwaukee Food Tours sells this and more than a dozen other walking and bus tours, $45-$75, (800) 979-3370, milwaukeefoodtours.com
Milwaukee Pedal Tavern: $25 for a seat on a pub crawl or book the entire trolley for $145 to $185 per hour, (414) 405-6682, pedaltavern.com
Wisconsin Cheese Mart: 215 W. Highland, (414) 272-3544, thecheesemart.com
Clock Shadow Creamery/Purple Door Ice Cream: 138 W. Bruce St. Half-hour creamery tours are restricted to the observation room, $3, (414) 273-9711, clockshadowcreamery.com. Have a sample or purchase a cone or pint of Purple Door, (414) 231-3979, purpledooricecream.com.
More info: (800) 554-1448, (414) 273-3950 or visitmilwaukee.org
Been there, done that. So why go back?
But when msn.com called Milwaukee one of the "Ten Coolest Cities in the Midwest" and buzzfeed.com put it at No. 4 on its "Top 10 Incredible and Underrated Cities" I decided to give it another look. Turns out this little sister is still full of surprises.
Brewery becomes boutique hotel
The old Pabst Brewery came back to life when the Brewhouse Inn & Suites opened its doors in April. The 90-room all-suite hotel occupies two buildings in the former brewery complex, the mill house built in 1891 and the 1877 building where copper kettles once bubbled in the nation's largest brewery. Five gleaming kettles still squat on the mezzanine level, their curved pipes soaring through the atrium while King Gambrinus, the patron saint of brewing, looks down from a two-story stained-glass window. The whole building has a stylish industrial feel. I saw more than one guest raise a smartphone to snap photos.
All rooms have full kitchens and range in size from studios to two-bedroom units plus six Baron Suites with outdoor terraces and loft bedrooms. The exterior is Milwaukee's signature "Cream City" brick and sports battlements and crenelated towers in a German Renaissance Revival style. Inside, the décor is a hip mix of neo-Victorian and steampunk.
After the brewery closed in 1996, it sat vacant until developers began turning the 20-acre complex, called The Brewery, into a LEED-certified mixed-use site of apartments, offices and university buildings. A downside for hotel guests is the location -- well outside downtown Milwaukee.
Another new hotel, the Milwaukee Marriott Downtown, doesn't have the ambience of the Brewhouse, but is walking distance to many attractions.
Fit for foodies
New and unusual restaurants are putting a modern spin on Milwaukee's culinary scene with a big emphasis on local foods and farm-to-table establishments.
Braise made Bon Appetit's list of 50 Best New Restaurants last year thanks to Chef Dave Swanson. He created Braise Restaurant Supported Agriculture, a cooperative network of farms and restaurants that clears obstacles in obtaining locally sourced foods. When he opened Braise, the restaurant, in Dec. 2011 he put his network into practice working with more than 40 farms. His small menu changes often, depending on what's in season, and includes "Braise Bites," small and large plates. You might find summer squash tart, seared trout or grass-fed steak. Located in a former corner tavern and bowling alley in the gentrifying Walker's Point neighborhood, some of the individual and communal tables are made of wood from the old bowling lanes. Want to sit close to the action? Snag a seat at the counter facing the open kitchen.
You also can sit at the counter at Bavette La Boucherie, which opened May 1 as a modern take on an old neighborhood butcher shop that sources whole animals raised responsibly on local farms. Patrons walk in to buy custom cuts of meat while diners find tables inside and on the sidewalk overlooking Catalano Square where fruit peddlers once pushed carts through what is now the upscale Historic Third Ward. You might try a steak sandwich with kale and sun-dried tomato pesto or a glass of wine with pate grandmere from a shared-plates menu.
Wolf Peach takes its name from an early European translation of the Latin term for a tomato. Chef Daniel Jacob's menu has a rustic European feel and is divided into veggie, fish and meat categories, plus wood-fired pizzas, spreads and charcuterie and cheese. Dishes, with ingredients from local purveyors, are meant to be shared. Depending on the season, there's gnocchi, a spread of smoked bone marrow and pasta with pork ragu and pecorino. Situated on historic Brewer's Hill where brewery managers once occupied Victorian homes, the restaurant has two levels and outdoor seating overlooking the downtown skyline.
Honeypie Café in the south side Bay View neighborhood is all about locally sourced Midwestern, made-from-scratch comfort food: fries covered in shredded pork, cheese sauce, pickled jalapeńos and bacon; a mac-and-cheese entree made with white cheddar, Gruyere and Parmesan; a grass-fed burger topped with a fried egg; and a braised short rib sandwich. Don't miss the homemade pies and cupcakes. Sit inside the humble storefront or a patio at the back.
Pub-crawl on foot or pedals
Milwaukee is crazy for Bloody Marys, and not just the ordinary vodka and tomato juice cocktail garnished with a stalk of celery. Restaurants and bars seem to compete for the most outlandish accoutrements in their quest for the best Bloody in the city.
Take Milwaukee Food Tours' Bloody Mary Brunch Tour on Sunday mornings and you'll sample four, 6-ounce Bloody Marys on a 2˝-hour walking tour of the Historic Third Ward. At the Wicked Hop, the drink is a meal in a glass garnished with cheese, shrimp, a beef stick, olive, pickle and mushroom. Swig makes its cocktail with vodka infusions done on site and Rustico tops its drink with cheese, artichoke, salami and peperoncini. At The Irish Pub, you have the option of a Bloody Molly made with Jameson instead of vodka.
At each stop, samples of brunch items are served, such as a breakfast pizza topped with egg.
Between stops, the tour guide spins stories about the neighborhood, an Irish and Italian immigrant enclave that deteriorated into a dangerous place a generation ago. Commercial and community development brought back restaurants and boutiques, condos and lofts, transforming the Historic Third Ward into one of Milwaukee's hottest real estate markets. The tour ends at a neighborhood gathering spot, the Milwaukee Public Market, for samples of chocolates at Kehr's Candies.
But if it's only the booze you want, get your best buds together and book a night ride on the new Milwaukee Pedal Tavern. These 16-passenger bicycle-operated trolleys, first popular in Amsterdam and German cities, scurry around the streets of Walker's Point and the Historic Third Ward on pub crawls.
The driver/guide steers and brakes while those seated at 10 spots along the side do the pedalling. Stops are made at three or four of the 23 taverns ranging from hip spots to classic Wisconsin dive bars. Riders get vouchers for free drinks at some stops.
To keep you legal, the Pedal Tavern will arrange a shuttle or designated driver on request.
Tastes of the Dairy State
This is Wisconsin, so dairy products are naturally part of the scene.
The Wisconsin Cheese Mart, an institution on Old World Third Street since 1938, sells the world's largest selection of Wisconsin cheese, and its Uber Tap Room blends 175 artisan cheeses with more than 36 Wisconsin beers.
But a new cheese shop is drawing customers on Milwaukee's south side. Clock Shadow Creamery opened last year near the iconic clock tower on the old Allen-Bradley building, now Rockwell Automation. At Milwaukee's first urban cheese factory, you can not only taste and buy artisanal cheeses but watch them being made from an observation room on a guided tour. Using rBGH-free milk from Wisconsin farms, the creamery produces fresh cheeses, including cheese curds and quark, a German-style spreadable cheese. The creamery does not have space to age cheese, but its shop sells a variety of aged cheeses from other providers.
Purple Door Ice Cream shares production space in the creamery, turning out premium, handcrafted artisanal ice cream made from Wisconsin dairy products. Sold to local restaurants and grocers, the creamery is the only place in the city where you can walk in and buy a cone. Start with a free sample of one of eight flavors, including whiskey ice cream made from local Great Lakes Distillery's Kinnickinnic Whiskey.
• Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by Visit Milwaukee.