Where I Went:
Wisconsin Cheese Mart, Pabst Mansion, Miller Brewery Tour, Kopp’s Frozen Custard, The Outsider Bar at Kimpton Journeyman Hotel, Harley Davidson Museum, St Paul Fish Company (Milwaukee Public Market), Purple Door Ice Cream, Summerfest, Leon’s Frozen Custard
Day 1: Beer History and Custard
I have been to nearly all of the large metro areas in the country, but somehow have managed to avoid Milwaukee for 26 years. This was due to the city’s unusually small airport, which only has 1-2 direct flights from LA and inconvenient times. In years of searching, I have yet to find a flight deal to Milwaukee.
Fortunately, my high school friend decided to get married in Milwaukee this July. After considerable flight research, I determined it was cheaper and easier to fly into Chicago O’Hare, which is only 1 hour 15 minutes from Downtown Milwaukee. To save money and to maximize my time there, I booked the return flight for 6am on Monday.
The flight landed at 11:30pm in Chicago on Friday July 6, 2018. After renting the car, I was on my way at 12:15. I got to the AirBNB in North Milwaukee at 1:45. For $33/night, I got a steal: private room in a beautifully decorated house with a super friendly host. If you’re looking for a stellar AirBNB experience, go to this listing: https://www.airbnb.com/users/show/186260733
The next morning, I knew I had to be on my game because the sightseeing was going to be cut short by the wedding.
My first stop was downtown to find some famous cheese curds, a local delicacy. I found them at the Wisconsin Cheese Mart- essentially a grocery store that only sells cheese.
Curds are the first thing created in the cheese-making process. The material hasn’t quite hardened into solid cheese. Instead, it is a squishy rubbery ball. That said, it tastes just like cheese except the texture is lighter. A good cheese curd squeaks when you chew on one. That means the curd is fresh. Cheese curds are a fantastic snack. Admittedly, they are not the best breakfast.
I then drove over to the Pabst Mansion. In the late 1800’s, Milwaukee was a major center for brewing beer due to its strong German heritage. Many of the largest breweries in America were located there including Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz- all founded by German immigrants. Today, only Miller remains (Pabst relocated to Los Angeles).
The Pabst Mansion was the home of Captain Frederick Pabst, the founder of Pabst Brewing Company. His 66-room mansion is a relic of the Gilded Age and the sole survivor of the 60-ish mansions that once lined Grand Avenue (now called Wisconsin Avenue. Most of those mansions were leveled to build Marquette University. This one remained because it was used as a residence for the archdiocese.
The tour lasted an hour and a half and was WAY cooler than I was expecting it to be. It was easily one of the largest and most ornate houses I have ever seen. Clearly the Pabst family had better taste in furniture than they did in beer.
The tour went through almost every room. In addition to explaining the history of the house and the furniture pieces, the tour did a wonderful job at explaining the painstaking restoration work that has been underway for the last 30 years. This one really surprised me for the best- I would highly recommend the Pabst Mansion.
After touring the house it was now time to drink some beer. So, I headed over to the Miller Brewery, just 10 minutes west of the Pabst Mansion (everything is 10 minutes away in Milwaukee).
The Miller Brewery tour is free and runs every 20 minutes. The tour itself last about 90 minutes. Probably 2/3 of the 100-ish people on the tour were here for one reason: 3 free beers, which are served at the end of the tour.
With a group of 100, it is very difficult to explain a whole lot. The video explaining the history of the company was broken, but we were able to visit both the massive canning/packaging line and the brewhouse. Yes, they explained the brewing process it out of order, but heck it’s a free tour. Then we went into the historic caves where Frederick Miller kept his beer cold before refrigeration. In the caves, they projected a bizarre video of a fake Frederick Miller toasting you for drinking his beer and keeping his dream alive.
At long last it was finally MILLER TIME! We walked into the historic Miller Inn and drank a cold Miller High Life. We were then shuttled across the street to a beer garden that served a few better Miller products including Blue Moon and Leinenkugel Summer Shandy.
It was now 1pm and I needed to eat something before the wedding. I hopped across town to Wisconsin’s most famous frozen custard stand: Kopp’s. Having spent 4 years in St. Louis, the home of Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, I consider myself somewhat of a frozen custard expert.
Unlike Ted Drewes, Kopp’s has a very modern feel to it. They are not going for any nostalgia. Inside, they have 2 different lines: one to order cones and pre-packaged custard and another line for everything else which includes sundaes and burgers. Unfortunately, the staff was also confused and I had to wait in line 3 times to get my sundae and burger. Also, they only have 3 types of custard available at once: vanilla, chocolate and the custard of the day. Ted Drewes only has one type of custard, but you can mix things in to create many different flavors.
To be honest, I was really disappointed by Kopp’s. The ordering system was confusing and chaotic. And while my custard was good, it was not as delicious as a concrete from Ted Drewes where they mix the toppings into the custard. My burger had a lot of mustard and was fine, but nothing to write home about.
I then went to the wedding and had a wonderful time. The night ended up with a beach bonfire.
Day 2: Motorcycles, Music, and More Custard
The next day, I headed over to learn about another one of Milwaukee’s most famous exports: Harley Davidson motorcycles. The company built a beautiful museum in downtown. The 20 acre campus sits right on the Menomonee River and includes a gift shop, restaurant, special events space, and of course the state of the art museum.
Harley Davidson had a lot of foresight- they made a decision to preserve one of each model of motorcycle ever made. Therefore, the museum has an incredible collection of bikes dating back to the very first Harley ever built- in 1903. The old motorcycles looked just like bicycles but with a motor. The designs have really come a long way.
A fun feature that the museum has is the ability to try riding a Harley. They have a setup where a bike is attached to a stand that elevates the bike and keeps it stationary. You the driver can turn on the bike and “drive” it up to 30 mph. Driving a motorcycle is much trickier than driving a car because you have to shift the gears and they are not intuitive. I’m sure that it becomes intuitive once you ride enough.
I next headed across the river to Milwaukee’s hottest neighborhood: the Third Ward. I conveniently found a parking spot right in front of the famed Milwaukee Public Market. Opened in 2005, this is Milwaukee’s food hall. Compared to other food halls, this one is very clean and spacious. I got lunch at the St. Paul Fish Company at the east end (look for the giant inflatable crab) and ordered their famed lobster roll. Unlike the lobster rolls of New England which have a simple butter flavoring, this roll had a mayo-like sauce with chopped lobster. Personally, I prefer the New England style, but this was very good.
The Third Ward has many historic brick ware-house looking buildings. In a tale that can be told in many other cities, the area was very busy in the early 1900’s then was relatively abandoned during the post-War era when suburbanization was at its peak. Then starting in the early 90’s, the buildings were refurbished and people started moving in. Now it’s the place to be and has all the makings of a thriving neighborhood for young professionals today: cool apartment buildings, good food (Milwaukee Public Market, Café Benelux), a swanky hotel (Kimpton Journeyman), bars (Milwaukee Ale House, the Outsider), thriving retail, jobs within walking distance and charm. A similar neighborhood to this would be Lower Denver (LoDo).
Adjacent to the Third Ward is the Henry W. Maier Festival Park. During the summer, this lakefront park hosts a festival every weekend. The weekend I was there happened to be Summerfest, the largest festival in the park and reportedly the world’s largest music festival. The annual attendance at Summerfest is around 900,000.
Summerfest has 11 stages and is open for 11 days. A general admission ticket is $18 and gets you into all the stages except for the largest stage where the headliner performs. The music starts at noon and ends at midnight. If you show up before 3, admission is free. To see the headliner (and one opener) at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, you have to purchase a separate ticket- which is essentially like going to a normal concert. Even if you don’t see the headliner, there are plenty of quality acts going on at the same time.
The Sumemerfest grounds stretch for nearly a mile along a cove on the shores of Lake Michigan. The overall feel of the place is more like a state fair than a large music festival like Coachella or Lollapalooza. This is probably because average people go to this rather than the “festival” crowd and because most of the buildings and stages are permanent rather than tents. Many of the vendors have been around for years.
I arrived at the festival around 12:30. Even though it was early, the place was busy. For the first slot of the day, about 7 of the 11 stages had kids from School of Rock, a school for rock and roll. The kids were aged 13-17 and played some awesome covers of rock songs. I was impressed.
I then wandered over to smallest stage, Jojo’s Martini Lounge, to hear a Neil Diamond cover band. Other fun performances were a band playing traditional Ecuadorian music, a punk band, a salsa band and a fake University of Wisconsin marching band featuring adults living in Madison.
In addition to music, there were a few fun side attractions including a chairlift that takes you from one side of the festival to the other, a tennis court, and my personal favorite: a driving range where you try to hit golf balls onto an artificial island in the lake.
Summerfest was spectacular and I wish I had more than 4 hours to spend here. I definitely think it belong up there in the ranks of the best music festivals in the country.
It was now time to head back to Chicago to catch my flight, but I had one more stop to make: Leon’s Frozen Custard aka the other famous frozen custard shop in Milwaukee.
Leon’s has the old school vibe missing from Kopp’s. While I had to wait in a line, it moved very quickly. I ordered a cone of strawberry custard that came out a mere 15 seconds after ordering.
The custard was delicious- but it melted unbelievably fast. Still, I liked the custard and the vibe more than Kopp’s.
I really enjoyed my time in Milwaukee. It reminded me a lot of Chicago, but smaller, more personal and more Midwestern. There is definitely enough to stay occupied for 2-3 days here.
If I had another day, I would walk down the Lakefront, visit the Lakefront Brewery and the Art Museum. I also would have liked to visit one of the old German restaurants such as Maders and go to a Brewers game at Miller Park.