Must-Visit Attractions in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Milwaukee is a city with many fun attractions to offer visitors
Milwaukee is a city with many fun attractions to offer visitors | © dbimages / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Kelsey Grace Pfeifer
15 September 2020

It doesn’t matter if you’re one or 100; Milwaukee is a city for all ages. This industrial hub may look bland to the untrained eye, but beneath its facade is a plethora of fun experiences just waiting to be had. Grab a beer, or plan a trip around Summerfest, and come see all that this Wisconsin city has to offer.

Visit the Milwaukee Public Museum

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The Public Museum is home to exhibits exploring world history and showing off some amazing scientific innovations, with a permanent collection covering everything from zoology to photography. There’s also a planetarium and theater equipped with a six-story screen. And for grown-ups who haven’t grown up, there is an adult sleepover where participants can experience their very own night at the museum.

Visit the Harley Davidson Museum

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A reproduction of the iconic Easy Rider chopper on display at the Harley Davidson Motorcycle Museum in Milwaukee.
© D Guest Smith / Alamy Stock Photo
For the hog lovers of the world, the number one place to visit is the Harley Davidson Museum. The museum is home to many one-of-a-kind objects, including the very first Harley Davidson motorcycle ever made, and one that was discovered – battered and bruised – on a beach in British Columbia in May 2011. You’ll need to pay this intriguing museum a visit to find out why.

Go to the movies at the Oriental Theatre

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Seeing a movie is always fun, but seeing a movie in one of the most iconic theaters in Milwaukee is an unforgettable experience. Opened in 1927 on the city’s East Side, the Oriental Theatre is famous for its ornate interior, as well as an antique pipe organ that’s played before certain films. There are three screens and a bar serving wines, beers and cocktails.

Visit the mansion of a local beer magnate

Historical Landmark
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Pabst Mansion, Milwaukee Wisconsin
© Frank Vetere / Alamy Stock Photo
Pabst Blue Ribbon beer – named after the ribbons tied around the bottlenecks during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – is universally recognizable, but not many know the history behind the name. Learn about the family who created the beer by visiting the historic Pabst Mansion. The Pabst family, who emigrated from Germany to America in 1848, practically helped build Milwaukee, so their home is a must-see on a trip to the city.

Visit a famous brewery

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The Miller Brewery is an integral part of Milwaukee’s culture and history, so be sure to explore the brewing premises while you’re in the city. The 80-minute indoor and outdoor walking tours run daily and include free samples, a souvenir glass and a trip to the Bavarian-style Miller Inn to enjoy the family’s speciality tipple. Over 21s are required to show valid ID.

Enjoy arts and views at Milwaukee Art Museum

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© Stan Gregg / Alamy Stock Photo
Commonly referred to as the Calatrava, the Milwaukee Art Museum is arguably Milwaukee’s most recognizable landmark. It was designed to blend into the harbors on Lake Michigan, and from a distance it can certainly pass as an elegant boat. The art inside is phenomenal, as are the uninterrupted views of the lakefront shore from inside.

Take a boat tour

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One of the greatest things about Milwaukee is its waterways, so what better way to tour the city than by boat? The Edelweiss Boat Tours pass some of Milwaukee’s most recognizable buildings, all from the comfort of a spacious vessel – simply grab a drink and a sun hat and settle in for a relaxing and informative outing. Another popular option is the Margarita Fiesta Cruise, on which you’re served freshly-made cocktails and tacos.

Be amazed at Discovery World

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© Stan Gregg / Alamy Stock Photo
Discovery World is housed in a striking building on the lakeshore, and it provides both adults and kids with some of the most fascinating and educational experiences in Milwaukee. Highlights of the permanent exhibits include a huge scale model of the Great Lakes and an interactive aquarium, in which visitors can learn about the marine wildlife of the world’s greatest rivers and oceans, as well as the surrounding bodies of water.

Meet the residents of Milwaukee County Zoo

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The Milwaukee County Zoo offers visitors the opportunity to meet over 2,000 animals from 354 species. Star residents include the Humboldt penguins, which can reach speeds of up to 20mph (32kph) in their 15,000gal (6,819L) freshwater tank, and some magnificent African lions and snow leopards. There’s also a carousel for kids and a daily program of feedings.

Shop at Milwaukee Public Market

Market, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Dessert, Seafood, Italian, Thai, European, Northern European, North American, Mexican
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© Kim Karpeles / Alamy Stock Photo
Seattle’s market may be more iconic, but Milwaukee is nipping at its heels to take the top spot as the best market in the United States. The market is home to a wide selection of homemade products, and the numerous independent vendors will keep you satisfied for hours, even if you’re only there for the free samples. Be sure to take all food to the second floor Palm Garden, and to grab a cold one from the Draft & Vessel beer truck.

Attend Summerfest

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Forget Coachella, Burning Man and Lollapalooza – Summerfest is the world’s largest music festival, showcasing the best local bands as well as big names such as the Eagles and Alice Cooper. With festival grounds specifically dedicated to Summerfest and similar events, there is no better venue in which to enjoy food and beer and listen to great music.

Visit North Point Lighthouse

Building
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© Buzzshotz / Alamy Stock Photo
This lighthouse is straight out of a Nicholas Sparks saga, so naturally it’s one of Milwaukee’s most picturesque spots. It was originally built to bring boats into the classic Milwaukee harbors, but now it houses an informative museum exploring the life of a keeper and the Great Lakes’ maritime history. It often has events, including tours and beer tastings.

Check out Black Cat Alley

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Black Cat Alley is an open-air art gallery located off Ivanhoe Place, on the city’s East Side. Launched by residents and artists in 2015, its colorful walls are now adorned with over 20 murals by American and international artists. The managing organization calls for new work on an annual basis, and it arranges the well-attended Mural Festival every September.

Visit the Basilica of St. Josaphat

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© Jenny Bohr / Alamy Stock Photo
Found in the historic Lincoln Village on the south side of Milwaukee, the Basilica of St. Josaphat is one of the city’s key historical and architectural attractions. The exterior is defined by its large dome, while the ornamental interior, replete with magnificent stained-glass windows, rivals some of the grandest cathedrals in Europe. The church was built at the close of the 19th century for the city’s rapidly-growing Polish population.

Go and meet Bronze Fonz

Architectural Landmark
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The Bronze Fonz is Milwaukee’s premier kitsch attraction, the name of which tells you all you need to know. Situated on the Riverwalk, just south of East Wells Street, it’s a life-size bronze statue of Fonzie, the character played by Henry Winkler in the 1970s, Milwaukee-based TV series Happy Days. The smiley statue is giving two thumbs up, as the Fonz often did, and is always up for a selfie.

Tour the Great Lakes Distillery

Distillery
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Great Lakes Distillery
Courtesy of Great Lakes Distillery
Though Milwaukee is mainly known for beer, it also has some unbeatable craft distilleries to visit. The Great Lakes Distillery is one of the best; founded in 2004, it prides itself on making its liqueurs with the finest of Wisconsin ingredients. Must-sample offerings including its award-winning gin, the spicy Good Land Orange Liqueur and Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit, a caramel-y whisky made each fall for Halloween.

Ghost hunt at Shaker’s Cigar Bar

Bar, American, $$$
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Shaker’s Cigar Bar – a legendarily dissolute drinking den once frequented by the notorious Capone brothers – has been named as one of America’s Seven Most Haunted Bars by the Huffington Post. Located in the historic Walker’s Point district of the city, on the site of a former graveyard, it offers guests daily ghost tours of the premises (at night, obviously), and is simply a unique place in which to drink, eat and socialize – provided you don’t fright easily.

Visit the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory (The Domes)

Botanical Garden
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© Jon Mclean / Alamy Stock Photo
Milwaukee’s botanical gardens are housed in three iconic domes dating from the 1960s – the Tropical Dome, the Desert Dome and the Show Dome. They contain a colorful variety of flora from the world’s tropical and arid climates, as well as eight species of frogs, fish and lizards. Even if you’re not that into plants or wildlife, this is still the perfect place to enjoy temporary relief from Wisconsin’s brutal winters.

Visit an unusual-looking church

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Milwaukee’s Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church is located 10m (16km) northwest of downtown and is one of the most distinctive structures in the area. It was built between 1956 and 1961 on designs by the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and it resembles the kind of aircraft typically featured in tales of alien abduction. You can visit during Divine Liturgy on Sunday mornings or write to the church to arrange your very own private tour.

Catch a show at the Pabst Theatre

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© Serhii Chrucky / Alamy Stock Photo
The Pabst, as it’s known among Milwaukeeans, was built by the city’s wealthy beer-brewing family in the late 19th century, and is one of the oldest continually-operating theaters in the United States. It also houses a historic organ, which was once played to accompany silent films. Nowadays, this much-loved landmark hosts a busy calendar of annual events, including operas, concerts and ballets.

Drink with spies at the SafeHouse

Bar, Restaurant, Nightclub, American, Pub Grub, $$$
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For a daft but enjoyable evening themed around espionage, head to SafeHouse. You’ll find it by entering International Exports at 779 North Front Street and providing a password at a second door within (check the website for the latest one). If you don’t know it, you’ll be asked to dance in order to obtain entry. Once you’ve jived your way in, set yourself up at the bar, James Bond-style, with a Great Spytini, or a Spy Who Tequila’d Me.

Wander through the historic Third Ward

Historical Landmark
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© Don Smetzer / Alamy Stock Photo
Since the 1970s, ongoing development has seen the Historic Third Ward, Milwaukee’s oldest center of commerce and warehousing, become one of the city’s trendiest areas. HTW, as it’s known, is now home to the highest concentration of art galleries in Milwaukee, as well as dozens of boutique shops, pubs, cafés and restaurants. In acknowledgment of its importance to the city, HTW is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Visit City Hall

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When it was completed in 1895, Milwaukee’s City Hall was the tallest building in the city and one of the tallest inhabitable structures in the country. It was designed in the Flemish Renaissance Revival Style by Milwaukee-based German architect Henry C. Koch, and underwent significant renovation between 2006 and 2008. This arresting building is found at 200 East Wells Street, and free tours of its interior and bell tower are available during summer months.

Stroll the Milwaukee River Walk

Historical Landmark
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© Don Smetzer / Alamy Stock Photo
The best way to explore central Milwaukee on foot is by strolling along the Riverwalk, a 3mi (5km), 20-block-long boardwalk that connects three of the city’s most interesting neighborhoods – Downtown, the Historic Third Ward and Beerline B. It’s lined with trendy bars and restaurants and also features an open-air art gallery displaying works by local and international artists.

Go and see some bizarre sculptures

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The Mary Nohl House is one of Milwaukee’s most bizarre artistic exhibits, located 11mi (18km) north of downtown in the smart lakeside suburb of Fox Point. Over the course of 50 years, Milwaukee-born artist Mary Nohl filled her gardens with concrete statues of humans, fish and monsters, which she imagined living underwater in Lake Michigan. Unimpressed neighbors tried to get the surreal sculptures demolished after Nohl died in 2001, but her work was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

Additional reporting by Mark Nayler

These recommendations were updated on September 15, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.