Milwaukee was supposed to be Party Central in 2020. The Democratic National Convention was going to fill up the city, the Society of American Travel Writers was to open its readers’ eyes to the city’s charms, golf’s Ryder Cup was to be played only an hour away, and leisure groups aplenty were going to roll into town.
We know what happened instead.
However, the downer that was 2020 is in the rearview mirror. Group travel leaders now have the enviable opportunity to explore anew Milwaukee’s appealing mixture of art, history and pizazz as better times approach.
Milwaukee has no problem transcending its well-earned — and still enjoyable — reputation for beer and brats, and a solid starting point is the Milwaukee Art Museum, one of its best-known attractions. The museum began as the city’s first art gallery in 1888 and now contains 30,000 works of art, stretching from antiquity to today. It entices you to explore all its 40 galleries. Among the museum’s treasures is an extensive collection of works by Wisconsin native Georgia O’Keeffe.
Of special note this year is the 20th anniversary of the museum’s Quadracci Pavilion, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and featuring the building’s signature wings that gracefully open and close. The 72 steel wings, ranging from 26 to 105 feet long, take three-and-a-half minutes to open or close. The building is beautiful either way, and you can watch the wings in action when the museum opens, and again at noon and when the museum closes.
Art and the outdoors unite nearby when you stroll through Sculpture Milwaukee 2021, a new-every-year collection of three-dimensional public art primarily along Wisconsin Avenue. Some pieces are heroic in scale, some are whimsical, and some are just downright odd, but all are for sale, and several have been purchased and put on permanent display. Sculpture Milwaukee means the city has one of the most significant collections of public art in the nation.
The journey from the sublime to the ridiculous is only about one mile long when you climb the steps of an unassuming building to enter the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum. Yes, those plastic novelties that are perhaps most famous at minor league baseball parks have a Hall of Fame and a museum.
It’s the brainchild of Brad Novak and Phil Sklar, and their collection of jiggly-headed dolls numbers well beyond 11,000, including some from the late 1800s that far predate promotions for the Milwaukee Milkmen of the American Association or the Midwest League’s Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.
Who besides baseball players are shaking their heads here? Try Benjamin Franklin, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Helen Keller, Jesus, Marilyn Monroe, Mark Twain, Elvis Presley, Anthony Fauci and politicians galore. There will be no end because, as the museum’s Novak observed, “there always will be new sports figures and politicians doing something stupid.”
Only a couple miles in the other direction is the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, a cultural treasure that overlooks Lake Michigan. It was originally a home, built in the style of a 16th-century villa in northern Italy for industrialist Lloyd Smith and his wife, Agnes. It is famous for its Renaissance garden, and its holdings include the metal masterpieces of Cyril Colnik. Beer baron Frederick Pabst encouraged the Austrian immigrant to move to Milwaukee, where he became known as the “Tiffany of wrought-iron masters.”
Slightly farther up the lake is a museum from a different era and with a different mission. It is the North Point Lighthouse, built in 1888 and now on the National Register of Historic Places. You get a full-circle view of Milwaukee after climbing its 84-step spiral staircase. The museum has a special lunch and tour program for groups. The lighthouse overlooks Lake Park, which was conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park.
Remembering & Reflecting
More somber history is told frankly and startlingly at the American Black Holocaust Museum in the Bronzeville neighborhood. James Cameron, who survived a lynching, founded the museum on the belief that people should “forgive but never forget” injustices perpetrated against them. The museum’s themes are remembrance, resistance, redemption and reconciliation.
Through graphic photography and illuminating graphics, the museum explains the legacy of slavery in America while promoting racial repair and healing. The museum was founded in 1988 and had difficulties after the Great Recession and with the pandemic, but it is ready for a 2021 reopening, thanks in part to a $1 million grant.
Another piece of Black history is out in the countryside, the site of Paramount Records, distinguished as a point on the Mississippi Blues Trail. It was here that some of the early recordings of Louis Armstrong, Ma Rainey, Jelly Roll Morton and Ethel Waters were made.
The village of Grafton helps tell that story through the Walk of Fame at Paramount Plaza, where the sidewalk resembles a piano keyboard and honors the legends that recorded in Paramount’s studio. The Grafton walking tour is only a half-mile long and can be a prelude to more strolling around in nearby Cedarburg.
Cedarburg is only about 20 miles north of downtown Milwaukee, but it seems distant in time. Its walkable main street is an inviting mix of shops, inns, cafes, art galleries and historic buildings. Most impressive is an imposing woolen mill built in 1864 known now as the Cedar Creek Settlement, a site with multiple businesses that houses the Cedar Creek Winery. There as well are the Anvil Pub and Grille and the Cream and Crepe Cafe for meal options. The Anvil Pub’s specialty is freshly baked sandwiches from a stone hearth oven.
Barely seven miles west of downtown in suburban Wauwatosa are a pair of dining targets that could challenge a group to make a choice. One is Frank and Larry’s Buckatabon Tavern and Supper Club, which takes its theme from the family-run restaurants of Wisconsin’s Northwoods. With an emphasis on in-state food purveyors and traditions — Friday fish fries, prime rib on weekends and an Old-Fashioned with house-made brandy, for example — it’s a fill-you-up place.
Expect a fancier fill-up just across the street at Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993. It offers a culinary excursion through Italy set in a historic Pabst brewery building. See? You’re never far away from Milwaukee’s beer heritage.