A Local’s Guide to Milwaukee Part One: The Downtown

Milwaukee can be a strange place to visit if you’re from out of town. This handy, honest guide to the city will tell you what to expect on your visit, hot spots to hang, and maybe some places you’d like to avoid.

Why You Need a Guide to Milwaukee!

This gritty Midwestern city is an elusive experience for out-of-towners, be they the rare international tourist or the nearby townie, everyone can benefit from a guide to Milwaukee! If you’re looking to see the sights that make Milwaukeeans a fiercely proud set of people, without falling into the trap of blahness, then you’ve found the right article series.

Here as your advisor, I’ll share my knowledge from having lived in Milwaukee for a total of 8 years: 4 at Marquette University, 3 in the nonprofit sector, and (an overlapping) 3 years in the Casa Maria Catholic Worker community.

First off, the heart of Milwaukee is not it’s downtown. Despite everything the officials try (rather desperately) to tell you. The downtown is useful for sports, big concerts, the museums, and a few foodie spots. Oh, and Jazz in the Park during the summer. Downtown’s nightlife is where we contain the shwasted bachelor parties and kids with fake IDs.

Milwaukee dowtown

Downtown from up above

What if you do want to party in Milwaukee?

If that’s your jam, then head to Water Street and pack in with the crowds! There’s a series of bars equipped to handle your behavior and bouncers to keep the lines in check. You can even cross the bridge over to Old World Third Street for drunk pizza, Old German Beer Hall (tis legit), and more police horses.

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Just stay away from the river. Please.

What’s fun in Milwaukee during the day?

During the day (though sometimes also at night) the museums are dope places to be. Top on the list of from this guide to Milwaukee is Discovery World, Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Milwaukee Public Museum (with a live butterfly room!), as well as Betty Brinn’s if you have kids. They look at you weird if you go in sans children…

How about Milwaukee outdoor activities?

Anyways, if it’s winter, you can go ice skating at Red Arrow Park. If it’s summertime, then head to the lakefront for one of the bajillion festivals. There’s the one with kites, Mexican Fiesta, Indian Summer Festival, (yesyes Summerfest), and just SO. MANY. FESTIVALS!

YES you can go watch sports in the Bradley Center arena. Listen though, this is a point of contention for many locals. Imagine if your city regularly ignored your neighborhood’s basic needs and then dropped a ton of taxpayer money into an arena that barely gets half-filled. Frustrating to say the least.

guide to Milwaukee

Does Milwaukee have a good music scene?

Yes! On a more positive note, if you’re looking for big-name music, the downtown concert halls have you pretty well covered. Riverfront and Pabst Theater are the classier duo, what with a domed ceiling and chandelier. Turner Hall, on the other hand, is grunge class. Still high ceilings, but with the addition of netting to catch falling drywall when you’re moshing—I think you can tell which I prefer!

How about a chill night out?

A short, uphill walk from Water Street is Cathedral Square. This classy AF area has a bar that bought the sidewalk just to make it shiny. More importantly, there’s Whiskey Bar—with it’s huge dance floor—and a nearby Dog Haus for late night fried cheese curds located right by the other cute, trendy, slightly over-priced bars. Better yet! If you’re visiting in festival season, the previously mentioned Jazz in the Park is every Thursday, Bastille Days at some point, and plenty of other events for chillaxin. Lebowski fest is one of my personal favorites.

Milwaukee River

Milwaukee River from downtown bridges…hint: you can kayak here

What about great places to eat in Milwaukee?

Fun Fact: Milwaukee has a lot of really tasty food options! So I’m just going to be lazy and list a few resources.

  • Downtown Dining Guide – wooo, that’s comprehensive! Favorites on the list are Cubanitas, Water Street Deli, Sake Tumi, and AJ Bombers
  • This Thrillist list of 15 Essential Milwaukee Restaurants is making me drool. Not all are necessarily downtown, but oh so worthwhile!
  • Serious Eats covers a good amount of ground with their recommendations, too
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Seeing a trend? The really good stuff isn’t centralized into the downtown! And that, my friends, is why the next part will talk more about seeing the real heart(s) of the Cream City, Mil-Town, The Brew, Great Place on a Great Lake—Milwaukee.

Stay tuned for this Wisconsinite’s guide to Milwaukee part 2!

Visiting Milwaukee

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