Drink, Pray And Polka In Underrated Milwaukee

It’s Friday night and I’m at a brewery tour in Milwaukee drinking beer. Good beer – not the mass-produced crap that Milwaukee is famous for. Tom Martin, our guide at the Milwaukee Brewing Company, takes a moment to state the obvious for the benefit of out-of-towners like us.

“We have a drinking culture here in Wisconsin in case you haven’t noticed,” he says, standing beside an imposing stack of 50-pound barley sacks. “You can get caught driving drunk with a child in your car and it’s still only a misdemeanor here.”
He’s joking but the point registers. According to Trulia, Milwaukee has the second most bars per capita in the country, just a hair behind New Orleans, with 8.5 bars per 10,000 households. (And unlike the Big Easy, all the bars in Milwaukee cater to locals.) But Forbes named Milwaukee America’s drunkest city and, according to USA Today, the state of Wisconsin has the highest percentage of binge drinkers in the country and ranks fifth in total number of breweries with 112.

Perhaps the good people at the Milwaukee Brewing Company had these statistics in mind when they created their brewery tour. Brewers ordinarily make patrons suffer through long, boring tours before they deign to offer a chance to taste their product and even then, they might serve just one full beer or a few tastes.

But tonight, our tour started with free beers, and then there were two beer breaks during our hour-long tour before we were sent back to the bar for a half-hour long open bar to cap the experience. And did I mention that our $10 ticket also entitled us to two tokens that are good for even more of their beer at area bars? Welcome to Milwaukee.

If you want to compile a short list of America’s most underrated cities, start with the places that have lost population over the last 50-100 years. Philadelphia, St. Louis, Buffalo and Cincinnati all had a larger population 100 years ago than they do now. And Milwaukee and Richmond were more populous in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now.

These are seen as declining cities – yesterday’s news – but I think these are six of the most underrated urban destinations in the country. All of these cities are brimming with history, culture and style but none are overwhelmed with tourists.

A year ago, I opined that Richmond might be the country’s most underrated city, but after a recent visit to Milwaukee, I might be ready to change my vote and not just because I like beer. In the winter, the place has a vacant, almost haunted vibe. It would be easy to conclude that the place is dead but keep looking. The city is synonymous with bad beer and the television shows “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley,” but if you take the time to get to know this inviting city and the unpretentious people who live there, you’ll discover that it’s one of America’s best-kept secrets.

It’s a city where the Friday night fish fry is an institution, a place where sausage is elevated to an art form, a community where every neighborhood has a church that even an atheist would want to visit, a metropolis defined by its taverns and people who aren’t too cool to the do the Chicken Dance, and good, yes, good beer. Go ahead and tour the Miller and Pabst breweries if you must, but when you’re ready for the good stuff, check out the tours at Sprecher, Milwaukee Brewing Company, and Lakefront Brewery, which also has a killer Friday night fish fry complete with live polka music (see video below).

Start your Milwaukee tour at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, which opened in 1901 to serve the largely ethnic Polish community in the Lincoln Village neighborhood. The basilica is modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the interior is as beautiful as any place of worship in the country (see video below).

You can see the domed basilica from miles away but you could easily miss the St. Joan of Arc Chapel (see above), which dates to the 15th century but was moved to the campus of Marquette University in 1966. (The chapel was moved from near Lyon, France, to Long Island in the 1920s before its move to Milwaukee.) It’s worth the effort to find this place – as soon as you step through the big wooden doors and feel the bluish glow of stained glass, you’ll feel like you were visiting an ancient church in rural France.

If you want a flavor of old Milwaukee, the city, not the beer, take a stroll through the lobby of the Hilton City Center, which was built in 1927 and is still loaded with vintage charm. Check out the German bars and sausage shops on Old World Third Street and then, to get a feel for some of the outlying neighborhoods, cruise over to Brady Street or Murray Hill on the east side, or Bay View or Walker’s Point on the south side. Definitely have lunch at Milwaukee’s Public Market in the historic Third Ward and, if the weather is good, don’t miss the Estabrook Beer Garden. There are great neighborhood bars everywhere, but Wolski’s is one old-school watering hole that everyone washes up in at one time or another.

I think of Milwaukee as a venerable old town but the city’s premier attraction is modernity personified. The Milwaukee Art Museum has an impressive collection of art but the real attraction here is the Quadracci Pavilion, a stunning, futuristic annex built by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in 2001. Even if you don’t want to visit the museum, take a walk into the pavilion or dine at Café Calatrava downstairs for gourmet food and a sublime view. The building’s Brise Soleil wings open and close during the museum’s opening and closing hours and the wings also flap at noon each day.

Each time I visit Milwaukee from my home base in Chicago – which was once called a “pompous” Milwaukee – I feel like the city is a less expensive, more laid back, and more manageable version of the Windy City. And I think that Badger state residents have more pride in their state than any other place in the country, with the possible exception of Texas. There’s a cohesive culture in Wisconsin that revolves around beer, brats, cheese, the Packers, the Badgers, fish fry, supper clubs and 1,000 other things that make this state unique. Milwaukeeans will tell you that they are content to keep their hometown a well-kept secret, but there’s always an empty barstool somewhere in town, so stop by the next time you thirst for something different.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Buffalo, New York: The Best Maligned Place

Every year around this time we return to Buffalo, our wonderful, maligned hometown like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. Buffalo is a city of exiles and I’m one of them. Up to half the people who grow up in the region leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere, but we remain fiercely loyal to the place. The rest of the country assumes that the Queen City is an armpit and treats us as such, but that only makes us love the place even more.

I’ve moved more than a dozen times since I left Buffalo for college at 17. I’ve traveled to more than 50 foreign countries and 40 U.S. States and have lived in five countries and seven states. But Buffalo is the only place that I return to at least once every year. My family keeps me coming back, but even if they skipped town, I’d still come back at least once a year. Why?

Since leaving Buffalo in 1990, I’ve been asked thousands of times where I’m from. When I tell fellow Americans where I’m from, I’ve never once had anyone say, “Buffalo, wow, you’re really lucky,” or “Buffalo, man, I have always wanted to go there.” Not at all. People often repeat the word “Buff-al-lo” slowly, as if digesting a chicken wing bone as a pained expression comes over their faces.

“It’s really cold there, snows all the time doesn’t it?” they’ll say.

This kind of response makes sense if you’re talking to someone from Arizona or Florida or California, but we get it from everyone. Chicago is my adopted hometown and it always astonishes me how Chicagoans, who endure long, miserable winters, somehow assume that Buffalo’s weather must be worse. I try telling people that while Buffalo gets more snow, Chicago is colder but no one believes me.

People who are trying to be nice will mention our weather but will shift focus to our other claim to fame: chicken wings. (We just call them wings.)

“Terrible weather but you’ve got good chicken wings, right?” they’ll say.

Men will also make some reference to the fact that our beloved Buffalo Bills lost in the Super Bowl four times in a row or the fact that we now have the longest playoff appearance drought in the NFL.

There is only one place I’ve been in the world where people were impressed by the fact that I was from Buffalo and you would have a hard time finding this place on a map. It’s a village in Sicily’s rugged interior called Montemaggiore Belsito. My mom’s family emigrated to Buffalo from this village and when I went there for a visit in 2005, everyone we met there knew about “Boo-fah-loh” and had a favorable impression of the place.

“Boo-fah-loh, that’s a beautiful place,” said a young man we met in a café. “My uncle owns Frank’s Sunny Italy restaurant on Delaware Avenue.”

I thought that this was a remarkable coincidence until we realized that everyone in the village had relatives in Boo-fah-loh, as they call it. But aside from Montemaggiore Belsito, Buffalo doesn’t get much love. In the ’80s we had a Buffalo’s “Talkin’ Proud” PR campaign (see video above) and before that we had “Boost Buffalo,” which audaciously suggested that Buffalo was “ideal in every way” with a “wonderful climate” (see video above), but in recent years many of us Buffalo natives have given up trying to convince others that our city isn’t so bad.

For years, I’ve tried to tell people that there is more to Buffalo than snow storms, failing sports teams and wings. Millard Fillmore, Grover Cleveland, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tim Russert and Mark Twain lived in Buffalo at various times. Buffalo was the 9th largest city in America in 1900 and Delaware Avenue, one of the city’s principles thoroughfares, once had more millionaires than any other street in America. Many of the city’s architectural treasures are still intact; including six Frank Lloyd Wright designed structures.

The city’s population has been declining for decades but there’s a flipside to that depressing trend too: very little traffic and no parking hassles. Buffalo has amazing restaurants, the terrific Albright-Knox Art Gallery, a lively bar scene, and the least pretentious city folk you’ll find in the country. You can buy a nice house in Buffalo for the cost of a mediocre parking space in Manhattan.

The Frederick Law Olmsted designed Delaware Park is one of the finest urban parks in the country and Buffalo’s Art Deco City Hall is a showstopper. We have Niagara Falls, the Niagara Wine Region, a bucolic Amish country and some good ski resorts right on our doorstep. But this is not a list of things to do in Buffalo, because the city’s charms can’t be visited and ticked off like a shopping list.

If you haven’t spent time in Buffalo with a local as your tour guide, you probably won’t get it. A guidebook won’t help you. You’ll drive around in a fog and wonder what the hell to do with your time. You have to go with a local to Ralph Wilson Stadium for a Bills game in December. Sit in the end zone and share a gulp of whisky from your neighbor’s flask. Go ahead and hug some complete strangers when the Bills score – if the Bills score.

Go to a Tim Horton’s for donuts and coffee on a Monday morning and ask the guy at the table next to you how badly he thinks the refs screwed the Bills the day before. (We always get shafted, or at least think we did.)

Go to Gabriel’s Gate in Allentown, sit at the bar, order some wings and share a basket of popcorn and some conversation with the person sitting next to you. Break bread with us. Stay out until 4 a.m. with us at the bars. Commiserate with us about our sports teams. Ask us about our weather if you must. Help us push our cars out of a snowdrift. Spend some time here and you will like it. I swear. But if you don’t come, that’s OK too, because we don’t mind keeping Buffalo’s charms a secret.

[Photo credits: Elif Ayse, Yurilong, Jason Paris, and DMealiffe on Flickr]

Richmond: America’s most underrated city?

As the former capitol of the Confederacy, Richmond has long been one of the premier destinations in the country for Civil War geeks. But as I discovered on two recent visits, it’s also a young, vibrant city with architecture treasures, stunning parks, walkable neighborhoods, great food and perhaps the most elegant vintage cinema in the country.

For Yanks looking for a quick taste of old Dixie, it’s also the northernmost Southern city, making it an easy weekend getaway for Northerners in search of some Southern hospitality. I live in Northern Virginia, which is technically part of the South, but in reality, Southern accents and good biscuits are a two hour drive south in Richmond, which is on my short list for most underrated historic cities in America. Below are my suggestions for how to spend a memorable weekend in Virginia’s capital.

MaymontThe hilly grounds of this 100 acre estate built by Confederate tycoon, Major James Dooley, offer panoramic views of the James River and feature lush gardens, a children’s farm, and a nature center. There is a small admission fee to visit the mansion and nature center but you can explore the beautiful grounds and visit the farm for free.

St. John’s Episcopal ChurchBuilt in 1741, this handsome wooden church, located in Richmond’s historic Church Hill neighborhood, is where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give me liberty, or give me death,” speech to George Washington.

The FanIf you like Victorian architecture, this alluring neighborhood just west of downtown is a must see. Easily one of my favorite walkable neighborhoods in the country.

The Byrd TheatreBuilt in 1928, this may be the most beautiful old time cinema in the country. Even if you don’t plan to take in a $1.99 movie, stop in to take a look at this masterpiece theater, which is located in Carytown, a neighborhood with great shops and restaurants.

Virginia Museum of Fine ArtsA free-to-enter, world-class museum with more than 20,000 works of art, including a very impressive collection of South Asian art.

The American Civil War Center at Tredegar If you’re only going to hit one Civil War related museum in Richmond, this is the place to go for a terrific overview of the conflict. Opened in 2006, the museum offers a visually attractive, interactive user friendly experience that depicts the war from the perspective of the Union, the Confederacy and African Americans.

The Virginia State CapitolTake the time to explore this Classical Revival gem, which Thomas Jefferson modeled on a Roman era temple in Nimes, France.

James River BridgesTake the Robert E. Lee footbridge over to Belle Island for a great walk and then check out the unnamed, interpretative footbridge just off the Canal Walk for insights into the fall of Richmond during the waning days of the Civil War.

The Museum of the ConfederacyWhile the American Civil War Center offers a nicer overview of the conflict, this is a great stop to see Confederate memorabilia, like Robert E. Lee’s hat and tent and Jeb Stuart’s knee high boots. The gift shop sells lots of kitsch, including nylon Confederate flags for $39.

Children’s Museum of RichmondIf you’re traveling with kids, this is their reward for tolerating all the Civil War history.


Alamo BBQCheap and delicious, this is one of my favorite BBQ places anywhere, but I also love the tilapia burritos. Excellent pecan pie for $2.93 a slice. The only downside is that you have to sit in a tent, but it’s not as cold as you might think, even in January.

Edo’s SquidItalian fine dining in a hidden location at very fair prices. Arrive early to beat the crowds.

ComfortSouthern comfort food at its finest in a relaxed setting.

821 Bakery Café- Tasty food and a terrific beer selection in a cool old building with exposed brick walls and a vintage tin ceiling. Also wins my award for the most colorful bathrooms I’ve ever seen.