Milwaukee is perfect for a day (or more) of family fun

Chinese Dragon at the Milwaukee Art MuseumPlease click on images to scroll through larger versions with captions.

I’m not sure why before this August we never spent a day playing in Milwaukee – we’ve flown in and out of there numerous times on visits to Matt’s family in Janesville, about 75 minutes away. After I met the lovely and dynamic Jeannine Sherman of Visit Milwaukee at a conference earlier this summer and heard her passionate advocacy for her home city as a great tourist destination I realized that we were really missing out. That’s why I’m so happy that when we visited Wisconsin in August she invited us (along with Matt’s sister Becky, her husband Tim, and their kids) to come early to Milwaukee on the day our plane left to see just some of what the city had to offer.

Outside the Milwaukee Art MuseumWe started out at the Milwaukee Art Museum on the shore of Lake Michigan. This museum is rightly famous for the Quadracci Pavilion building, a masterpiece of postmodern architecture, which includes a movable sunscreen with enormous “wings” that open and close daily. (Unfortunately on the day we were there the iconic wings were undergoing maintenance, so we didn’t get to see them open. But the museum itself is an amazing space that is worth a visit just for the architecture).

Inside the Quadracci Pavilion, Milwaukee Museum of ArtThe summer of 2011 was dedicated to China at the museum, and we spent a large amount of our time in the “Treasures from the Forbidden City” special exhibit, which is now closed. Judging by how excellent it was however, I’d recommend its replacement, “Impressionism: Works of Art on Paper” which is sure to include many subjects of interest to children.

The museum has impressive contemporary art holdings, which the boys enjoyed exploring – and interacting with, in the spare, open galleries.

Duane Hanson's Janitor at the Milwaukee Art Museum is so realistic!Chinese Contemporary Warriors laugh and laugh at the Milwaukee Art MuseumThe Folk and Self-Taught Art area fascinated them as well. Teddy wanted to take this bunny home with us.

Mom, I want this folk art bunny!Also fun was the Kohl’s Art Generation Gallery, which invites visitors to turn into architects by sketching and building their own houses.Building in Kohl’s Art Generation Gallery at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Making a house in Kohl’s Art Generation GalleryWe spent over two hours looking around and could easily have spent more; as art museums go, I’d say this one is definitely interested in accommodating younger visitors. All kids under 12 are free, and there are ongoing educational programs for families.

Outside the Milwaukee Public MarketAfter looking at art all morning, we had worked up a great appetite and headed over to the Milwaukee Public Market. This was an easy 15-minute walk from the Art Museum that gave us a sense of the city landscape (although if you prefer to drive, there is ample parking in a lot right next door – and the first hour is free if you get a validation from one of the vendors). Like the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, the Public Market includes food of all ethnicities – from sushi to falafel to pizza – making it a perfect spot for lunch or dinner with a larger group. Everyone can pick their own favorites and then head upstairs to grab a table. I highly recommend the panini from Rupena’s – I went for the muffaletta with a side of local Sprecher’s cream soda. Absolutely delicious.

MMM...muffaletta at Milwaukee Public MarketTeddy would also advise you get some homemade custard from Kehr’s Candies for dessert.

Homemade custard from Kehr’s CandiesAfter lunch we were all ready for some outdoor time, so we headed back toward the lake, this time going a bit north of the Art Museum to Juneau Park Paddleboats for a ride in the lagoon there. Open from May through October, this is a fun and relaxing way to get some lovely views of the city and maybe see a little urban nature (there are ducks, snapping turtles, and fish in the water). Rent paddleboats by the half hour and if you are so inclined, take a fishing rod with you.

Juneau Paddleboats near Lake Michigan in Milwaukee

Paddleboat in Juneau Park

We also loved the friendly staff, who are willing to answer lots of questions about Milwaukee.

The helpful and friendly staff at Juneau Paddleboats in MilwaukeeAt that point we had three hours before our flight, and two tired kids who really weren’t interested in more sightseeing. What to do? I’ll tell you what – in Milwaukee you head for the airport. I’ve written before about the virtues of smaller airports, and Milwaukee has one of the most family friendly. Not only is there an interesting little museum of flight, a large used bookstore (I know! At the airport!), and outposts of a fantastic local bakery and coffee shop, on our recent visit the lovely main public space also had a ping pong table that we made good use of.

Playing ping pong at General Marshall Airport  in MilwaukeeI can’t remember the last time I booked a flight into O’Hare in Chicago – between the crowds and the cancelled flights and the insane traffic, it’s just so much more pleasant to fly in and out of Milwaukee. And now that I know how much fun the city is, I’d suggest to anyone who is planning to fly in and then drive to other destinations in the Midwest (like Chicago) that they make a pit stop to see what the city has to offer.

What would I like to do on a return visit? In addition to returning to the Art Museum (a definite must since we only scratched the surface there), I’d like to go next door to Discovery World an eclectic center for science and technology full of interactive exhibits including Les Paul’s House of Sound – which not only houses many of Paul’s guitars and sound equipment but a sound studio where visitors can “play” a virtual jam session with the famous musician and Wisconsin native. Or maybe we’d head over to Veterans Park where we could buy a kite from the Gift of Wings store, and watch it soar over the water before renting bikes to ride the Lakewalk (and if we’re back in the summer, there’s pretty much always a festival to check out somewhere along the lakefront). Moving away from the lakefront area there’s the Milwaukee Public Museum, a human and natural history museum complete with life-sized models dinosaurs. For some nature fun, there’s the Milwaukee County Zoo, the Boerner Botanical Gardens and the Wehr Nature Center. And of course, we’re always up for a Brewer game

Today I’m dreaming of more family fun in Milwaukee. What about you? Feel free to share your post below. First time here? Check out About Monday Dreaming.

Many thanks to Visit Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Public Market, and Juneau Paddleboats for hosting us and covering our admission and lunch expenses in Milwaukee. You can always count on me to share my honest opinions and let you know when I’ve gotten something for free.

Reader Responses

5 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. I am ashamed to admit that the only things I know about Milwaukee come from old Laverne and Shirley episodes! Your descriptions made it sound like a fun family destination that I should add to my list should I ever be nearby!

  2. I have lived in Milwaukee all 57 years of my life..There are MANY MANY things to do here..Miller Brewery Tour, Miller Park, We have a fantastic zoo, There are so many things to do if you visit. Just have to check it out..

  3. I love Milwaukee! I lived there for about 5 years (a long time ago) and that’s where I met my husband. We have such wonderful memories there and try to visit when we can. We often pass through from O’Hare on our way to visit my husband’s parents north of Green Bay. It’s always been a great town and has just improved over the years. The festivals, food, lake, museums — lots to see and do!

  4. So good to hear you explored an area that was so close to family and enjoyed it! We haven’t been to Milwaukee yet- but I’m sure it is on the great road trip stop!

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