Sometimes you take a long vacation to one city, and sometimes you just kind of drop in on one, to get a taste.
That was the case with me and Milwaukee, where I spent two nights recently. With plans to fly to the St. Louis area for a family visit, I decided to add two nights each to Chicago and Milwaukee, both relatively near.
Chicago I’ve seen multiple times, so two nights was merely a refresher. Milwaukee, only 92 miles farther on, was new to me, making two nights akin to dipping my toe in.
While I had no expectations, I had a positive impression based on travel articles a few years ago. But other than wanting to see a Brewers game, and scratch that ballpark off my mental list, I didn’t have any plans or expectations.
On the train from Chicago to Milwaukee, I asked readers on Facebook for recommendations.
“Get home as soon as possible is my advice,” Greg Wald said. “It’s Milwaukee.”
More helpful suggestions included the Milwaukee Art Museum (via Mark Givens, who said the architecture and collection are both fantastic), the Harley Davidson Museum and the Wisconsin Maritime Museum (Dave Lamb) and a collection of Frank Lloyd Wright houses (Kelli Shapiro).
Street sculptures, the Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee Public Market and the Pabst Mansion were among the tips forwarded by a Milwaukee friend of my former colleague Gail Wesson.
Evidently I should have booked seven nights in Milwaukee. Especially since a few of these attractions were closed on the Monday and Tuesday I was in town.
Lisa Raczok said she’d taken a tour along the river that passed by beautiful estates. And Steve Lustro pointed me to Lakefront Brewing, which uses the old Schlitz bottling line seen in the opening credits of “Laverne and Shirley.” It’s reported on the site Roadside America that the brewery tour includes the song and that “guests are invited to drop gloves over the moving bottles,” just like the two characters.
Do I hear eight nights in Milwaukee?
Well, two would have to do. I checked into my modest downtown hotel, where I recombobulated (it’s a local joke), then set off down the river walk. The Milwaukee River is a serene waterway lined on both sides by paths for walking or biking and by businesses.
Whimsical sculptures dot the walk. The most famous is probably one of Fonzie from “Happy Days.” Gold in color, it’s nicknamed the Bronze Fonz. I took a selfie.
Another sculpture is of Gertie. This is a mother duck who was nesting on the site of bridge construction in 1945. Construction was held up until her chicks hatched, and apparently the whole city was enthralled.
My walk took me past the unexpected: the Newsroom Pub, where the tables, visible through the plate glass, were covered in tablecloths resembling newspaper pages. My kind of place, but I kept going.
I passed near City Hall, an eye-catching pile built in 1895 and topped by a bell tower — more city halls should have bell towers — and wondered if there might be an observation deck or tours. There are, two days a month, and naturally not on the two days I was there. This was becoming a theme.
After a salad lunch — even on vacation, one must eat one’s vegetables — I hunted down Downtown Books, a used bookstore. This proved to be one of the larger and better used bookstores I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them.
One question about Milwaukee: Do pedestrians have the right of way? I ask because on several occasions when I was in a crosswalk, drivers made a right turn into my path, sometimes almost aggressively. Say what you will about California drivers, but we rarely do that.
The next day I ate a schnitzel salad at Mader’s, a castle-like German restaurant downtown. “Preparing to serve you since 1902,” a sign outside reads. This choice followed a tip from reader Mike Tanner, who had said: “You must 1000% eat at Mader’s.” Math like that could not be argued with. Between the food and the Bavarian decor, it was a worthy stop.
How to spend the next three hours before the ballgame? Lakefront Brewing didn’t open until 4 p.m., so that was out. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve gone to the Harley museum, or for that matter to the Newsroom Pub. Instead, I rode the free streetcar a few stops and walked the rest of the way to two record shops.
My route took me past the Charles Allis Art Museum, which is in a Tudor-style house. You won’t be surprised to hear that it wouldn’t open until after my departure.
After recombobulating at my hotel, I set off for the Brewers game by bus. My plan was to eat something at the ballpark and then get a bratwurst for a post-game dinner. Which is how things proceeded, starting with a cheddar burger (called a “Chedda Burger”) and a frozen custard, thus knocking off two Wisconsin favorites.
The gang at Corner Butcher Shop in La Verne (and Shirley?) had recommended Milwaukee Brat House, also conveniently near my hotel. I left the stadium wondering where I could catch a bus when I encountered a line of free shuttles, many run by businesses or hotels. One of the first I saw was for, yes, the Brat House.
Soon I was sitting at the bar, ordering a bratwurst with sauerkraut and onions on a pretzel bun, with a side of cheese curds, and, why not, a beer.
The ultimate Milwaukee meal? Possibly. (Reader Charles Bentley later tweeted at me: “You did yourself, the DeFazios and the Feeneys proud.”) And I enjoyed this repast while watching the remainder of the Brewers game on the TVs behind the bar.
Downtown’s sports bar and restaurants are almost entirely local, with no Yard House in sight. That’s a welcome level of local character, especially with the Milwaukee Bucks arena right there.
The next morning I was up before dawn, checking out of my hotel and taking a $2.25 bus to Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport for my journey west. (With no light rail to or from the airport, any Southern Californian will feel at home.)
I’d had just a taste of Milwaukee, but I savored it. I’ll have to go back sometime when everything’s open.
David Allen is closed Saturday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Email email@example.com, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.