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.
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]