Milwaukee can be hard to define.
The city boasts a European cultural vibe from the wave of German and Eastern European immigrants who brought beer, festivals and culinary customs. Some consider the city both hardworking and laid-back, as industries thrive in the city and, at the same time, beer gardens and sailboats provide downtime fun.
Add an architectural mix of historic and renowned modern buildings, and you end up with a city of unexpected charm. Milwaukee is now experiencing a downtown renaissance with an influx of new restaurants, shops and public investments.
Groups can try to define Brew City for themselves by visiting some of the town’s most iconic attractions, including the Milwaukee Public Museum, Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, Harley-Davidson Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum and Pabst Mansion.
Milwaukee Public Museum
The Milwaukee Public Museum walks guests through a thorough re-creation of 1800s Milwaukee. The Streets of Old Milwaukee transports visitors with a nearly life-size courtyard that features 30 historic businesses, restaurants and shops.
The exhibit uses realistic building materials, themed storytelling, smells, animatronics and darkened, gaslit lanes. Museum staff expanded and renovated the popular exhibit in 2015.
The museum goes beyond Milwaukee, with exhibits ranging from “Exploring Life on Earth” to the “European Village,” which displays re-created 1800s homes and shops from various European cultures.
“The Milwaukee Public Museum has everything from dinosaurs to rain forests to Native American culture,” said Kristin Settle, director of communications for Visit Milwaukee. “It is really something to see. They have a yearly interactive butterfly experience that everyone loves. Especially in the winter, it is great to be able to enter a tropical forest with butterflies flying around.”
The Puelicher Butterfly Wing contains the greenhouse-enclosed garden of butterflies as well as the pupae of other butterflies for guests to examine.
Dioramas allow guests to feel like they are walking around the world with scenes such as a Masai lion hunt in Africa; a market in Old Delhi, India; and a Native American buffalo hunt. “The Third Planet” examines the world’s largest known dinosaur skull and a life-size replica of Tyrannosaurus rex.
Potawatomi Hotel and Casino
Participants try their luck at Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, located minutes from downtown. The casino offers high-stakes bingo, 3,100 slot machines, a 20-table poker room and nearly 100 table games, including blackjack, craps, roulette and Ultimate Texas Hold ’Em.
“The Potawatomi Hotel and Casino welcomes about 6 million visitors each year,” said Settle. “It’s a great place for people to go and do their own thing for a while. They have wonderful theater and comedy shows for those that don’t want to gamble. They welcome groups and make sure they have the entertainment that the group is looking for.”
Sports enthusiasts can watch the latest game while chowing down on burgers and sandwiches at the Fire Pit Sports Bar and Grill. Other dining experiences include international eats at The Buffet, signature steaks at Dream Dance Steak and a variety of options at the Menomonee Valley Food Court.
A wide range of comedy and musical acts are presented at the Northern Lights Theater; acts have included Lewis Black and Tony Bennett. The 500-seat venue provides an intimate and exciting experience.
Visitors can relax and sample beer and wine at Bar 360. The venue sits in the heart of the casino floor and offers views of the surrounding gaming areas. Patrons can listen to live music while sipping spirits and signature cocktails.
Opened in 1991, the Native American-owned casino has announced a hotel expansion due to open this spring. The 180,000-square-foot addition will bring the hotel’s total number of rooms to 500, as well as add a spa and a meeting space.
Even people who don’t care to ever ride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle find themselves fascinated by the company’s importance in American history. At the Harley-Davidson Museum, visitors walk through exhibits detailing the company’s first motorcycles in 1903 to its current influence in pop culture.
The oldest known Harley-Davidson sits encased in glass at the Serial Number One gallery. The gallery sits inside the larger Harley-Davidson Journey, which reveals how the company progressed from a 10-by-15-foot wooden shack to the top U.S. motorcycle manufacturer.
The Custom Culture gallery illustrates the motorcycle company’s impact on culture, with replicas of the motorcycles used in the film “Easy Rider” and other Harleys featured onscreen. Visitors can sit on 10 motorcycles and learn the history behind some of the museum’s most famous vehicles, such as Elvis Presley’s Harley.
“One of the most moving exhibits is a Harley-Davidson from Japan that was washed away during the tsunami all the way to the Alaska-Canada border,” said Settle. “They tracked down the original owner, who dedicated it to the museum in honor of those who had lost their lives. They did not restore it, so you can see the damage the saltwater did. It is a touching story.”
To see the death-defying craziness of motorcycle racing, visitors can examine a replicated wooden board track suspended in the air at a 45-degree angle. The 1920s motorcycles that once raced these types of tracks at 100 miles per hour often ended in rider injuries or death, which led to the banning of wooden board tracks.
Groups can tour the museum on their own or take a guided tour for highlights and behind-the-scenes tidbits.
Milwaukee Art Museum
The Milwaukee Art Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion building makes a stunning impression on first sight, but admirers can’t truly appreciate its uniqueness until they see the building move. The structure features winglike brise soleil shapes that gradually open for a wingspan of 217 feet throughout the day and gradually retract in the evening.
This remarkable sight sets the tone for the standout works of art inside. Founded in 1888, the art museum contains 25,000 works of art ranging from the 15th century to the present. The museum holds a variety of European and American art, with impressive collections of German expressionism, Haitian and folk art.
“They have done a wonderful job of combining artists that everyone knows with local artists,” said Settle. “You see the gamut of artistic styles. These are all works of art that will take your breath away. The museum staff want people to really love art.”
Works by Winslow Homer, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and other renowned artists hang in the museum. Besides paintings, a wide range of art media, including sculptures, photographs and decorative arts, are showcased.
In 2015, the museum opened a $34 million expansion: the Shields Building. The building added 30,000 square feet for art display that includes a section devoted to light-based media, photography and video installations.
Groups can tour the museum individually or on a docent-led tour. Some tours focus on the building; others give insight into the featured exhibits. Packages can also include meals at the museum.
When groups walk into the study room at the Pabst Mansion, they can still smell a cigar, as if Capt. Frederick Pabst had just stepped out. Pabst’s study retains a cigar scent because the smell was infused into the wood. The rest of the house remains similarly faithful to when Pabst first moved into the mansion in 1892, down to the original paint colors.
Pabst, the founder of the Pabst Brewing Company, commissioned the architect of the Flemish Renaissance Revival house to outfit the mansion with electric light and an elevator, fancy additions for the time. Pabst’s early death precipitated the 1908 sale of the house to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. For 67 years, five archbishops, priests and sisters lived in the ornate mansion. The mansion had been slated for demolition to make way for a parking structure before a last-minute purchase in 1978 by Wisconsin Heritages Inc.
The organization opened the mansion to the public in 1998 after restoring it to its original condition.
“It is about more than beer,” said Settle. “It tells the history of the family. It is a true Victorian Gilded Age mansion. The woodwork and gold-foil details are breathtaking.”
Guides lead groups on a 60- to 75-minute tour through the home. The mansion staff works with school groups that want to incorporate specific curriculum into the tour or to choose from one of the already developed Learning On Site Tours.
During the holidays, groups can see how the family would have decked the Pabst Mansion’s halls for Christmas with period-specific decorations.