Big City of Little Neighborhoods

Most of us have probably traveled to a destination, planned or unplanned, not having high expectations, only to be pleasantly surprised. We recently had one of those “ah, this is so nice” moments when we visited the “big city of little neighborhoods” – Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We knew Madison, the state capital to be special, as Terry had lived there many years ago, but we weren’t expecting Milwaukee to charm us like she did.

We were doing a housesit for three weeks in one the smaller towns nearby and when our hopes of hiking and biking the trails were quashed due to the plummeting temps, a visit to the big city situated on Lake Michigan rose to the top of our sightseeing plans, and we found it so inviting that we kept going back for more.

In no particular order, here are our top 10 picks of Milwaukee gems:

1/ St. Josaphat Basilica

Built in 1888 by Polish immigrants, this beautiful church was designed after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and is in the Lincoln Village neighborhood, on Milwaukee’s south side. When the plans for this spiritual house were nearing completion, the priest at the time, Fr. Grutza, was told that the Chicago Post Office and Custom House was going to be razed, so he purchased it for the sum of $20,000 and had the salvaged materials brought to Milwaukee by flat cars. For this reason, many of the doorknobs today bear the seal of the U.S. Treasury. It was the third church in the United States to be raised to Basilica status.

2/ Milwaukee RiverWalk

The Milwaukee RiverWalk meanders through the heart of the city, tying together three riverfront neighborhoods – the Historic Third Ward, Downtown, and Beerline B. The RiverWalk extends more than twenty blocks from north to south and is sprinkled with permanent and changing art exhibits. It was a delight to walk on a warm autumn day when the trees were sporting their deep red and gold attire. It is a wonderful way to discover so much of what Milwaukee has to offer, lovely boutique shops, craft breweries, and award-winning restaurants.

3/ North Point Lighthouse

Perched on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan in Milwaukee’s Lake Park, the site of this picturesque lighthouse was chosen and built in 1855 to mark the north point of Milwaukee Bay. Located in the Historic Water Tower neighborhood, the height of its tower is not that impressive, standing at just 28 feet, but with its bluff-top perch, it hovers 107 feet over the lake, and its Fresnel lens projected out across the water 20 miles. Unfortunately in 1888 bluff erosion forced the government to build another lighthouse further inland. It stood vacant for years until the Friends of North Point Lighthouse brought it back to life as a museum in 2007.

4/ Historic Third Ward

The Historic Third Ward, a neighborhood onto itself, is one of Milwaukee’s more creative endeavors, home to studios and art galleries in former warehouses and performing arts venues like the Broadway Theater Center. Restaurants are trendy and boutique shops sell fashion and home accessories. The indoor Milwaukee Public Market, open all year, has a wide array of interesting shops, including the renown St. Paul Fish Company, where Terry had his first lobster roll and a long walk afterward to walk it off. 🙂

5/ St. Joan of Arc Chapel

In the Avenues West & Marquette neighborhood, tucked among a mix of modern and vintage architecture, a “sacred heart”, born of medieval France, graces the grounds of Marquette University. The oldest building in Milwaukee, dating back to the early 15th century, the St. Joan of Arc Chapel is the heart of this Catholic university community. In the 1920’s a railroad magnate and devotee of St. Joan of Arc purchased this chapel, had it dismantled in France, and shipped to her property on Long Island. Over the years she sold the property and the new owners in time offered it to Marquette University, where it now sits nestled among the towering trees. Today it serves as a spiritual community gathering place.

6/ Lakeshore State Park

Lakeshore State Park, situated in the East Town neighborhood, has a network of walking/jogging trails running along Lake Michigan. It is a great place to fish and has a marina where boats can be chartered on sunny days. For us, it was a great place to get some exercise while enjoying views of the city skyline.

 7/ Milwaukee Art Museum

Also in the East Town neighborhood, the Milwaukee Art Museum is one of the largest museums in the United States. The museum’s unique design, sitting near the bank of Lake Michigan, is like none that I have seen, looking more like a futuristic airliner ready to take flight. It was one of our favorite attractions in Milwaukee.

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The Burke Brise Soleil, the museum’s signature movable wing-like sunscreen, can be raised or lowered to control heat and light in the glass-enclosed reception hall below it. Weather permitting, the wings open at 10 am when the museum opens and close at 5 pm when the museum closes. The wings also flap (open and close), at noon each day, to a musical accompaniment. The wingspan spreads 217 feet at its widest point, wider than a Boeing 747-400 airplane, and weighs 90 tons. It would be wonderful to see these wings from a sailboat on a warm sunny day on Lake Michigan.

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8/ Milwaukee Pierhead Lighthouse

Located in the Harbor District neighborhood, the Pierhead Lighthouse marks the location where the Milwaukee River flows into Lake Michigan. Built in 1872, the lighthouse had a keeper until 1926, and today is solar-powered and operates on auto-pilot. From the pier you can get a peek of the Breakwater Lighthouse as well, two for the price of one. 🙂

9/ Black Cat Alley

The Black Cat Alley had to be included on my top 10 list, due to my love of street art. Located in the East Side neighborhood, this alleyway was transformed from an unlit walkway into one of Milwaukee’s top photography destinations, thanks to the talent of a dozen local artists.

10/ Harley Davidson Museum

Located in the Menomonee River Valley neighborhood near downtown Milwaukee, this museum may well be the crown jewel of the city. Even if you are not a motorcycle fan, or not a Harley Davidson enthusiast, one cannot deny the rich history of this company, nor its staying power. This company most likely deserves its own post so I will leave you with just one photo to piqué your curiosity.

“Serial Number One”, the oldest Harley Davidson in the world, built in 1903, is a bit of a mystery and a Harley legend.

One thing that was for certain, we weren’t leaving Wisconsin without reconnecting with friends we met during our time living in Mexico, a lovely couple we haven’t seen in over seven years, who now live near Milwaukee. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at the historic Fox and Hounds Restaurant in nearby Hubertus and were thrilled to catch up with them. Theirs is the kind of friendship that neither time nor distance can diminish.

Although the photo quality may not be the best, the company certainly was. Thanks so much David and Les for taking the time to reconnect.

42 thoughts on “Big City of Little Neighborhoods

  • Hi, LuAnn – What a rich and fascinating city! I have never previously given any thought to visiting Milwaukee. It is now on my list!
    BTW – I look forward to reading more from you about the Harley Davidson Museum!

  • It was great seeing you and Terry again. Too long and yet it seemed like only yesterday. We’re glad you enjoyed our little slice of the world. We will continue to live vicariously through your adventures. Thank you for your many interesting and insightful posts. Most of all thank you both for your very special friendship.

    • When we decided to take this road trip we immediately about how we could reconnect with the two of you. So glad we made it happen! Love to you both.

    • Sadly much of the Midwest stayed below the radar for. We both grew up in small towns and were anxious to escape west. It has been great to explore places that were right in our neighborhood growing up.

  • Ahhh this is great!! We used to live in a suburb North of Chicago and one of our favorite things to do when we wanted a weekend away or Sunday outing, was to go to Milwaukee! Why? For the art museum of course. incredible architecture as you explain in your post, the opening roof and super modern design and as well the way the museum is laid out and the exhibitions which are always top notch quality.

    So fun to read your post and see how much else we missed hahaha by focusing only on the museum. Great city, a hidden gem to be sure.


    • My question to you Peta is where haven’t you lived or explored? 🙂 Had the weather not turned cold on us, we most likely would have gone back to Milwaukee a couple more times.

  • How blessed I am, to have friends who can, and like to travel, going to places, that I have never even dreamed of going, so I can see all of these great places you visit. Your great photography skills help a lot, also. Thank you so much, for sharing!

  • I’m ashamed to say that in 26 years of living in Chicago, we only made it to the actual city of Milwaukee once. We were nearby many times, but we never gave the city its due, as you did. With a daughter who has just moved back to the north shore of Chicago, we may get a second chance! Thanks for the nudge.

    • I grew up in Illinois and had never been to Milwaukee so I thought it was high time we did. I could have added some honorable mentions to the post but I thought I had already gone on long enough. 😉

  • What a nice discovery! Milwaukee is less than 2 hours flight from Toronto so I can definitely make a long weekend get-away to explore the city. Thanks, LuAnn, for sharing.

  • Milwaukee looks like just the kind of city experience we enjoy! Thanks so much for sharing your favorites—if you loved them, I know we will, too. That art museum is stunning. And we always like cities with beautiful walking paths and interesting neighborhoods.
    Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    • My pleasure Laurel. I think you and Eric would enjoy Milwaukee, if you ever found yourselves in the neighborhood. Happy Thanksgiving to you and Eric!

  • We wanted to visit Milwaukee when we were in WI but we took a different route so we missed it. But glad you visited it for us and took some great pictures of a vibrant city. That Burke Brise Soleil looks fascinating I would like to watch it open or close.I too like street art and get amazed at those creative and hard working souls that paints/draw them.

    • The art museum and the Burke Bride Soleil is certainly one of the highlights of Milwaukee. If we had been there earlier in the year, a boat ride on Lake Michigan, to enjoy the city skyline, would be wonderful. Happy Thanksgiving to you and Steve!

  • I’ll be looking forward to your post on the Harley museum. I’m not really a HOG groupie but I treasure an old photo of my grandparents (now scanned in to my computer) riding a Harley motorcycle in breeches and boots. They spent their honeymoon in the early 1930’s riding up and down the California coast visiting relatives. Thanks to this post LuAnn, you’ve changed my perception of Milwaukee. 🙂 Happy Thanksgiving! Anita

    • I will probably do a post on HD once I get home. I have a few old photos of when Terry and I were riders. I am going to try to dig up those photos. Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving. Do you celebrate it in Portugal? We are still planning to visit Spain and Portugal next fall. When we get back home next week I am planning to finalize our travel path. I will be in touch soon. I am still hoping to meet you and Richard. Hope that your absence from the blogging world is because you are having some great adventures. Take care Anita!

  • We definitely need to pay a visit to WI one of these days. Love the look of the trails along Lake Michigan, and the art museum. Jim was just saying the other day that we need to visit more museums in our travels.
    Look forward to seeing you soon! Hope you have a great Thanksgiving dinner.

    • We did have a nice Thanksgiving and hope you and Jim did as well. I think you would like Milwaukee. If the weather had been warmer we would have spent more time walking the trails along the lake and biking the Oak Leaf Trail, another rail-trails path. Looking forward to seeing you soon!

    • Hi Johnny! We were doing a housesit so we stayed about 45 miles outside the city. We enjoyed Milwaukee so much that the distance didn’t stop us from visiting several times.

  • So glad to hear you are finding so many neat places to visit in Milwaukee. I had to go back to our blog to remember what we did see…haha! I don’t remember seeing the museum with wings but, by golly, we did! I enjoyed the art museum slide show. I had to look at that guy twice. So different. He looked so real. How nice that you got to reconnect with friends after so long. Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Hope you and John had a nice Thanksgiving. It was good to spend ours with family, something we don’t get to do often. We really enjoyed Milwaukee and loved the art museum and the Harley museum.

  • Isn’t it great when what one could move over having missed opens a door to such unexpected discovery. I think the article could well be an essential guide for anyone visiting Milwaukee.

    • Thanks Sue. It really is an interesting city. I love how they have divided the city into so many neighborhoods, and each has its own culture.

  • I love Milwaukee! My husband is from there although his parents moved out east when he was in high school. We met in Madison and given that we ended up in Chicago we frequently visited all these great cities. I will have to check out some of these places that I missed.

    • I didn’t know that Nicole. Milwaukee definitely has a lot to offer. Given the change in weather, we didn’t make it to some of the neighborhoods on our list.

  • Hi LuAnn, I was reading Nancy’s post on Defining Third Age and I came across your site. Beautiful photos and really interesting content! I actually went into my Maps App to see where Milwaukee Wisconsin is in relation to the Great Lakes and to Canada. I really enjoyed the art museum photos and I scrolled through them a few times. Milwaukee is now on my list, along with that lobster roll! I look forward to reading more. 🙂 Erica

  • It looks like a great place with with lots to do but everything is better with good company. Like books, there are way too many places to travel too and enjoy in one life time.

Love to know what you're thinking.

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