Travel

The Actually Cool Things to Do in Milwaukee Right Now

People have certain notions about Milwaukee, and they usually have something to do with hodunk Midwesterners or wishing we were actually Chicago (pro tip: don't talk about Chicago while you're here). But this city is having a banner couple years -- with championship sports teams, downtown revitalization, new murals and museums, and stupid good restaurants -- and this is the year to visit us. In fact, we're one of Thrillist's 20 places to go for 2020. So here's everything that'll make you love Milwaukee as much as the locals do -- and if you're a Milwaukeean and haven't done these things, get on that immediately.

Buy some quirky goods

$-$$$
Multiple locations
Whether you actually purchase anything or not, shopping at some of Milwaukee's wackiest spots will never get old. American Science and Surplus has everything from mannequin legs to surplus police tape, while you can purchase all your creepy religious items and communion wafers at T.H. Stemper. For something a little less out-there, head to a weekend Re:Craft & Relic show for upcycled and vintage items.

Go HOG wild at the Harley-Davidson Museum

$$
Menomonee River Valley
The Harley-Davidson company started here in Milwaukee in 115 years ago. Plan a pilgrimage to where it all began with a trip to the H-D Museum. You'll see artifacts from the company's history, plus plenty of sweet rides and exhibits on the history of motorcycles in America.

Road trip to one of Wisconsin's most beautiful places

Free-$
Various locations
In addition to being a great drinking town, Milwaukee happens to have the added benefit of being located in Wisconsin: a state packed with quirky small towns, weird roadside attractions, and incredibly beautiful scenic locations. So, why not pack up and actually leave town for a day to explore places like Morgan Falls, Mirror Lake, or Parfrey’s Glen? MKE will still be there when you get back, promise.

Try each of the best restaurants in Milwaukee

The food scene in our fair city has exploded over the past few years, and there are guaranteed to be at least one or two new spots you haven’t tried yet -- if you’re new in town, you’ve got even more catching up to do. Fortunately, our best restaurants page remains up-to-date and stacked with enough suggestions to please any palate. If you’re dying for recs and can’t be bothered to click, here are the Cliff’s Notes: Get boozy old-fashioned shakes and modern brunch fare at Don's Diner & Cocktails, xiao long bao at Momo Mee, traditional Syrian cuisine at Damascus Gate, and crab and pepperoni pasta with some of the best cocktails in the city at Goodkind.

Bike the Oak Leaf Trail

Free
Throughout Milwaukee
Get your bike out of the garage and get some air into the tires, because miles and miles of the paved Oak Leaf Trail running throughout the county are waiting. There are plenty of spots adjacent to the Trail to rent Bublr Bikes too, especially downtown, so you can take part even if you’re bikeless.

Make your own cheesehead

$-$$
Harbor View
The company that makes cheeseheads is right near the Third Ward, which means it’s super easy to book a factory tour at Foamation and learn that, yes, the first cheeseheads were worn at Brewers games, not Packers. You can even create your own cheesy headwear creation.

Share an iconic Wisconsin beer

$-$$
Anywhere in the state
We might lose sight of this sometimes, but it’s worth repeating: Wisconsin is a top-10 beer state, which means locals and visitors have access to some of the finest suds in the entire country. There are beers here that you won’t find anywhere else -- literally, in the case of Spotted Cow -- which means you owe it to yourself to drink up while you’re still in the promised land. 

Take a distillery tour

$
Multiple locations
Sure, we may be called Brew City, but the truth is we love all kinds of alcohol. A tour at Great Lakes Distillery isn't much more than walking around a big room, but you're really here for the hefty tasting of its delicious spirits at the end, anyway. Tours are even smaller at Central Standard and Twisted Path, but shouldn't be overlooked.

Explore Milwaukee's best bars

$-$$
Various locations
There’s nothing wrong with sticking with a favorite bar once you find it, but guess what? There’s also nothing wrong with checking out new spots -- especially if those new spots happen to come from our list of the best bars in town. Who knows, you might even find a new favorite bar!

Wander down Brady Street

Free
Brady Street
One of Milwaukee's most interesting stretches of businesses is in a compact little nine-block section of Brady Street. If historic Italian grocers, more bars and restaurants than you can count, and eclectic boutiques aren't enough, there's almost always some kind of art fair, festival, or other event going on.

Experience one of Milwaukee's farmers markets

Free
Multiple locations
There are all kinds of farmers markets in Milwaukee, including an indoor winter market that runs from November through March. Vendors there sell lots of handmade products from pasta to soap, but not a whole lot of fresh produce; if you're looking for that, you'll have to wait until the West Allis or Fondy Farmers Market opens.

Window shop in the Third Ward

The Third Ward, just south of downtown, is full of unique shops, galleries, and boutiques. Mod Gen is known for its modern housewares and houseplants, Broadway Paper specializes in stationary and related gifts, and if all that shopping makes you hungry, head to the Milwaukee Public Market for a snack.

Explore Milwaukee's best events of the season

Free-$$
Various locations
There’s always something fun going on in Milwaukee, but one of the curses of living in a city with so many events is that it’s hard to know what’ll be a bust and what’ll be a must -- which is why we keep a stocked, curated calendar of the best seasonal events. Check it out, and never be bored on the weekends again.

Try the best food trucks in town

$
Multiple locations
Food trucks have really exploded in the past few years in MKE. There's many weekly gatherings of trucks where you know you'll have a lot to choose from, like outside the County Courthouse Thursdays. There's also gatherings in parks, outside breweries and at festivals. Wherever people gather, you'll find some of the best; keep an eye out for Yellowbellies, Timber's BBQ,Gouda Girls, and Taqueria Buenavista.

Learn some overlooked MKE history at the Chudnow Museum

$
Marquette
This little non-profit museum of Milwaukee history is located in an old home near the Marquette campus. It's a jewel box of artifacts and treasures from the 1920s and 1930s, most with direct ties to Milwaukee. The Chudnow often gets overlooked for the bigger museums in town, but it's definitely worth a trip.

Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery
Courtesy of Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery

Take a brewery tour

$
Multiple locations
Brewery tours are the perfect activity with a group of friends, because chances are you'll learn something, be highly entertained, and drink beer all along the way. Lakefront has the funniest tour guides, while MKE Brewing gives you unlimited beer. There's a tour available for every type of beer drinker, and they're all cheap.

Bar hop along the main drinking strips

$
Multiple locations
If you're not into the brewery thing, don't worry, we are professional drinkers around here. There are a few great neighborhoods for bar hopping, all with different vibes. Water Street is practically frat row, 2nd Street is full of hot spot bars, and Riverwest is amazing dive bar central. Grab an Uber and take your pick.

Eat custard everywhere you can

While other cities have frozen custard, we're the only ones to really have an actual custard culture. Plan a self-guided tour of all the best spots, starting at neon-clad stand Leon's. Then head west to Gilles, the first stand in the area, and ending at Kopp's where you can experience the flavor of the day nirvana.

Smell the roses at the Domes

$
Mitchell Park
Our horticultural Domes, the three boobs jutting out of the landscape on the south side, are much beloved but also falling apart. Now's a great time to visit so they can shore up their repair budget and keep the Domes open. The jungle dome and desert dome are always the same -- minus new plant growth, obviously -- but the show dome changes seasonally, so you’re guaranteed to get something new and different.

 Landmark Lanes
Courtesy of Landmark Lanes

Go bowling

$
Multiple locations
Thanks to our German heritage, Milwaukee has a long tradition of bowling, believe it or not. And it's actually fun, especially when you do it at places like Landmark Lanes and Bay View Bowl that have great bars, too. And to experience the best bar+alley combo, head to Holler House, with the oldest sanctioned lanes in the U.S. in the basement.

Eat lots, and lots, and lots of cheese

$
Various spots
Wisconsin’s cheese curds are legendary for good reason, and naturally, we have loads of great cheese to eat and learn about in this city as well. There’s an urban cheese factory, Clock Shadow Creamery, that gets its milk from the cows at the Zoo and offers tours -- or you can always head to the West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe or the Wisconsin Cheese Mart for mind-blowing selection.

Drink your weight in Bloody Marys

$
Various places
Milwaukeeans are obsessed with Bloody Marys, whether they're topped with whole fried chickens or not. You can get yourself a great version at any bar in our Bloody Mary guide, and at any time of day; start with County Clare where they top it with a pickled potato, Explorium Brewpub where it's made with a dash of their stout, or the Lobby Lounge in the Pfister Hotel where Val's recipe is as good as ever.

Go beer gardening

$
Multiple locations
Sure, there are lots of outdoor beer gardens in the Milwaukee County Parks, but we’ve got plenty of indoor versions too. The Bavarian Bierhaus has a large beer hall with plenty of live music, you can play hammerschlagen at the Old German Beer Hall, and Glass + Griddle is a reimagined beer hall that feels like a greenhouse near the new Fiserv Forum.

Lose yourself in the Milwaukee Art Museum

$$
Lakefront
With the gorgeous Calatrava-designed building and public atrium, you don't even have to go into the galleries to enjoy the MAM, but you should. The modern art collection is especially memorable, including that life size janitor statue that freaks out every school group.

Go to a classic Milwaukee brunch spot

$-$$
Various restaurants
Brunch is beloved here, as our often-updated brunch guide points out. Most restaurants serve it on Sundays (sometimes Saturdays, too), and we have plenty of brunch-only spots that serve it up all week long, like Mad Rooster and Engine Company 3. And don't be afraid to order multiple mimosas or bloody marys.

Root for the Bruisers

$
UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena
Roller Derby is alive a kicking in MKE thanks to the gals of Brewcity Bruisers. Everything is run by volunteers, so it's your duty to support those badass women. With names like VerucAssault, Holden Killfield, and Anita dGroin, how could you not?

Expand your live sports horizons

Just because there's no Brewers tailgating in winter doesn't mean you can't still root for the home teams. The Bucks are expected to have a great season thanks to Milwaukee's favorite Greek resident and MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. That makes game tickets pricey, but worth it. If basketball just isn't your thing, try an Admirals or Wave game, both of which play through April.

Take a cooking class at the Milwaukee Public Market

$$
Third Ward
Flip some shrimp around in a pan and learn about Korean barbecue while you do it. The Milwaukee Public Market offers cooking classes upstairs, and topics range from Thai food from scratch to a dad-centric Father's Day class. Afterward, head downstairs and purchase the ingredients you need to make it at home.

Go wild at the Milwaukee County Zoo

$$
West Side
It's totally OK to be an adult that's into zoos. Our zoo is pretty top-notch, with a free-flight aviary where you can get pooped on, a monkey island, and a mini steam engine train that adults do fit in. You can also hit up Zoo a la Carte, an annual event with food and drink vendors and live music set up around the place.

Visit the Milwaukee Public Museum

$$
Kilbourn Town
Though it often gets confused with the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Milwaukee Public Museum is just as worthy of a visit if you're into natural history. This is the place where you'll see huge dinosaurs eating each other, Egyptian mummies, and get to walk through the streets of old Milwaukee. Make sure you find the rattlesnake button.

Milwaukee Food Tours
Courtesy of Milwaukee Food Tours

Eat your way through the city on a food tour

$$$
Multiple locations
Milwaukee Food and City Tours runs group tours that drop you off at various locations for eating and drinking; the pizza bus, for example, makes three pizza stops, one beer stop, and a gelato stop for good measure. The stops remain a mystery for a little spirit of adventure.

See a concert at Turner Hall Ballroom

$-$$$
Kilbourn Town
Turner Hall is a relatively small, general admission venue located in a National Historic Landmark building. It's as well-known for it's creaky, bouncing floor as it is for it's huge, unusual bathrooms. It's a quality venue that sometimes gets overlooked.

Hop on The Hop

Free
Multiple stops
Though there were plenty of curmudgeons who fought the new Milwaukee streetcar at every step, The Hop has been quite popular. It's a great, free way to see downtown, the East Side, and a bit of the Third Ward. Have dinner at Cubanitas or Swingin' Door Exchange before Hopping to Shank Hall for a show.

Eat an uncomfortable amount of comfort food

$-$$$
Multiple locations
When you need to bundle up in a few extra layers, why not add some pounds for good measure? Wisconsinites are experts at comfort foods. Three Brothers, a family-run Serbian restaurant, is like a warm hug in atmosphere and hearty plates of braised meat. Fried chicken, mac and cheese, and grits are staples at Soul food icon Mr. Perkins, and if diner classics and pie cases are your jam, Comet Cafe has you covered.

Explore the Deer District

Free-$$
Kilbourn Town
The Fiserv Forum has rejuvenated Downtown's west side, and the neighborhood around the arena is called the Deer District. There are public spaces that hold all kinds of outdoor events, breweries, restaurants, beer gardens, and a giant outdoor TV screen. You can easily make an afternoon of exploring Good City Brewing, The MECCA Sports Bar (with another ginormous TV), the Beer Garden, and taking some killer selfies with the Bucks statues.

Eat through Milwaukee's food halls

$-$$
Sherman Park and Lower East Side
The food hall craze has officially hit the city, and there's two to nosh through. Sherman Phoenix aims to economically and socially uplift people of color, while Crossroads Collective on the East Side is a trendy spot to sip cocktails and slurp fresh pasta. While they feel very different, both have food worthy of a trip. 

Discover the city's new murals

Free
Various locations
Public art, and especially murals, have been popping up all over the city. There's a new headless six-story figure who honors the working-class women of our city's history, a bunch of fish jamming to underwater speakers, and an entire outdoor gallery called Black Cat Alley. Sure, you can drive around and check them out, but hopping on a bike will help you feel more connected to the neighborhoods.

Festa Italiana Milwaukee
Festa Italiana | Mark Mathu/Flickr

Get festive at festivals

Free-$$$
We're the City of Festivals, and there's no shortage to check out. The big one is Summerfest, an 11-day music festival that's super cheap compared to the big guys, with all the same acts. Then there's the cultural festivals like Festa Italiana, German Fest, and Irish Fest, all known for food and music. Church festivals have decidedly unholy amounts of drinking and gambling, street festivals are always quirky, and booze fests are notorious. We even have winter festivals like Mitten Fest, because fun isn't just for summer. 

Make your way down the Riverwalk

Free
Downtown/Third Ward
The Riverwalk is a pedestrian walkway that follows the Milwaukee River from Humboldt Boulevard on the north end all the way to the mouth of the river at Lake Michigan in the south. It'll take you past (or very near) many of the area's biggest attractions, provide some scenic urban views, and put you face to face with sculptures like Gertie the Duck and the Bronze Fonz. There are lots of restaurants and bars with patios on the Riverwalk, so stop wherever looks the most inviting. 

Experience Milwaukee's history

Free-$
Downtown
Get historical around downtown for a day. The Central Library is housed in a beautiful 1898 building that's on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a free tour, check out the Rare Books Room, or just gaze up at the rotunda. Then head to the Milwaukee County Historical Society, with free exhibits and Insta-worthy MKE pride signs. If that's not enough history, explore the St. Joan of Arc Chapel on Marquette's campus, a 15th-century French building that was moved here in 1966.

Sign up here for our daily Milwaukee email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in the Brew City.

Lacey Muszynski is a Milwaukee native. Follow her on Twitter @worthhersalt.