I had always wanted to visit Wisconsin. My grandparents lived in Milwaukee for decades, my dad was born in Milwaukee, and when I was growing up, Green Bay Packers great Bart Starr was a frequent house guest. Plus I have a lot of friends from the state. When Travel Wisconsin invited me to visit, I said yes immediately. And my 8-year-old daughter said yes just as quickly. She did her second grade state report on Wisconsin and knew a lot more about the state than I did! We opted to spend two days in Milwaukee and then two days in Door County, which I cover in this post.
Arrival into Milwaukee
We flew from Santa Barbara to Phoenix and then on to Milwaukee, arriving at 5pm. We quickly rented a car and drove 15 minutes or so to our hotel, the Springhill Suites Downtown.
At check-in I asked the front desk person for a dinner recommendation and she steered us to The Rumpus Room, a 10-minute walk from the hotel. The cheese curds were a perfect introduction to Milwaukee, but we loved everything else as well, from the roasted chicken to the pork shoulder to dessert – a s’mores soufflé. And a friend, Hannah from Getting Stamped, saw my Instagram Story from the restaurant and stopped by since she happened to be just down the street. The beauty of social media! She’s an expert on Milwaukee and gave us a lot of suggestions for our next couple days.
Milwaukee Day One
Milwaukee County Zoo
My daughter loves animals and wanted to start at the Milwaukee County Zoo. We drove 20 minutes from the hotel to the zoo, getting there just a little after they opened, and walked the entire zoo in roughly two hours. Her favorite exhibits: the aviary; the red pandas; the pottos; and the reptiles. And by the way, a Friday morning when local schools are in session is a very good time to go! We had whole exhibits to ourselves.
I brought along photos that my grandfather took of four of the houses where he and my grandmother lived in the 1940s, and we drove to each of the houses (all fairly close to the zoo) and recreated his photos. I loved standing in the exact same spots as my grandfather, posing my daughter where my grandmother was in two of the photos, and knowing that they had lived there.
Kopp’s Frozen Custard
Everyone we talked to recommended a stop at Kopp’s Frozen Custard. Given that Kopp’s was partway between my grandparents’ houses and our hotel, and it was right at noon, we stopped by for lunch (cheeseburgers) and custard of course. The flavors change daily. When we were there we could choose from Cookies & Cream and Kahlua Colada. We got one of each. Excellent!
The Mitchell Park Domes
From Kopp’s we headed just past our hotel to the Mitchell Park Domes – highly recommended by a friend who takes her kids there often. There are three large horticultural domes built in the 1950s, and the design is very much ‘50’s meets the future’. There’s one large dome dedicated to flowers, one with a rainforest theme, and one that’s a living desert. To make it fun for kids there are scavenger hunts (pick up a paper at the entrance), and there are things like dinosaurs hidden throughout the rainforest and archeological sites in the desert. We really enjoyed this stop.
We then returned to our hotel, parked, and walked along the Milwaukee River, which cuts through the middle of the city. There’s a lot of public art that my daughter loved, and I got to take a picture with the famous Bronze Fonz (yep, growing up I associated Milwaukee mainly with Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley). It’s not a perfectly seamless river walk, with several street crossings required, but it’s a nice oasis, and there are benches and places to relax all along the path.
Milwaukee Public Market
Our RiverWalk destination: the Milwaukee Public Market, with restaurants and local food stores, and a great vibe. If we lived nearby we’d be here all the time, purchasing produce, cheese, spices and baked goods. And what a great place to get coffee in the morning.
For dinner we walked back up the river to the SafeHouse, a spy-themed restaurant that was recommended by several people. There’s a secret entrance hidden off an alley (look for a sign that reads International Exports), and a password is required before the doorman will let you in.
We didn’t know the password. I had heard about some seriously long challenges that others had to complete in order to be let in, and I had no idea what to expect. The people in front of us had to run around holding things above their heads (I couldn’t quite see what was going on). When the doorman sized up my daughter, he gave us a challenge where she had to throw stuffed animals at my face and I had to karate-chop them out of the air. Fun! Well, I thought it sounded fun, and low-stress. My daughter did NOT want to do it, however, and immediately turned around and went back to the alley. So I followed. And we did not dine at the SafeHouse.
After my daughter recovered from the minor trauma, we walked to nearby Buck Bradley’s and had fish and chips and swordfish. Excellent dinner and excellent service. And the server commiserated with us on the SafeHouse and gave us the password, so when we return to Milwaukee we’ll give it another try without the entry challenge. Just don’t ask me for the password! That would ruin the fun.
Milwaukee Day Two
Milwaukee Art Museum
The previous day was largely car-based, so we chose to leave the car at the hotel and explore on foot instead. Our first stop: the Milwaukee Art Museum, maybe 15 minutes from the hotel. I’m not someone to make kids spend hours in a museum, especially when the weather outside is nice, but I wanted to see the rooftop of the museum (large wings designed by Santiago Calatrava that open a couple of times a day), and I always like exposing the kids to art. We saw the majority of the museum (without many lengthy stops) in maybe 45 minutes, and then walked across the bridge to watch the wings open up at noon. My daughter does not recommend the museum, so I’d say that you should definitely stop by and see the public areas and exterior, but maybe don’t pay to go in unless your kids are a little older.
From the Art Museum we walked next door to Discovery World – much more to my daughter’s liking! We first stopped by the science/technology section and did a couple experiments, but the aquarium (the “Aquatarium”) was calling, and we spent most of our visit in that half of the building. She loved all of the fish displays, and especially the hands-on areas. Highly recommended!
Milwaukee is all about festivals in the summer – both Summerfest and weekly cultural festivals. Our weekend happened to be Mexican Fiesta, and given that it was taking place very close to Discovery World, we headed over.
It took us a while to get in. The ticket line was maybe 15 minutes – not a big deal since it was far longer later in the day. But when we attempted to go through security, we were stopped because of my camera – a standard DSLR with a 16-35 lens. Professional cameras apparently aren’t allowed, and I had nowhere to take it back to, since we were well over a mile from our hotel. So I went through the media approval process and was finally allowed in, but a heads up to other visitors that you should NOT try to take a DSLR in!
Once we were inside we watched some of the entertainment (music, roping, dance), got food from several stands, and enjoyed the atmosphere – kind of like a state fair, but with better food and a Mexican theme! No matter what festival is going on when you’re there, I’d head over. I heard particularly good things about the Irish Fest, which had taken place a week earlier.
After all of our walking we were ready to relax a little. We took an Uber back to the hotel, retrieved our luggage and car, and drove to nearby Bradford Beach. We parked, picked up Northpoint Custard (we liked the vanilla a little better than the chocolate) and then spent an hour at the beach. My daughter loved the beach and the (cold) water of Lake Michigan, and played until we had to leave – totally in her element. I’m so glad we added on this stop. Kids can only do city-based activities for so long, and Bradford Beach was an easy way to change things up.
A Braise Farm Dinner
The reason we needed to leave the beach by 5pm? A 6pm Braise Local Food farm dinner. A friend had recommended doing a farm dinner, given that Wisconsin has a lot of farms and a lot of great food, and conveniently there was a dinner taking place partway between Milwaukee and Door County on the night when we were planning to drive through there anyway. Four of Milwaukee’s top chefs would be cooking four courses for us.
We arrived at Golden Bear Farm in Kiel right at 6pm and took a farm tour with Steve and Marie Deibele, the owners of the farm. We got to meet their cows and pigs, learn about farm practices, and see how much pride they take supplying local restaurants with the very best meat. Then it was time for dinner. Everything was (predictably) excellent, and we both really enjoyed the experience. It was fun talking to the people we were seated near, the moonrise was stunning, and we have four more restaurants to search out next time we’re back in Milwaukee!
From the farm we drove on to Door County.
What We Didn’t Do
I had a lot on our to-do list, but with only two days in the city we didn’t get to several things. We wanted to do a kid-friendly brewery tour. We had heard great things about the Harley-Davidson Museum. And we were told to search out Ian’s Pizza, the Comet Café, Clock Shadow Creamery and Leon’s Custard. Plus we still need to go to the SafeHouse. A good list to start our next visit…
Milwaukee isn’t overly expensive. Our biggest splurge was on food – especially the farm dinner. The Rumpus Room was $79 for the two of us. Lunch at Kopp’s Custard was $21. Buck Bradley’s was $38. The farm dinner was $115/person, including wine and beer.
The Springhill Suites Downtown averages $160/night. Our rental car for five days, with a drop-off in Green Bay, was $523.
We paid $19 at the Milwaukee Art Museum for two of us, and $35 at Discovery World. The Mexican Fiesta was $17 for me and free for my 8-year-old. Mitchell Park Domes entrance was $14. The Milwaukee County Zoo was $40 including parking.
I’d love your thoughts too. What are your favorite things to do in Milwaukee with kids? What else should we have on our agenda next time?