12 Top-Rated Attractions in Milwaukee & Easy Day Trips
The city of Milwaukee lies just 90 miles north of Chicago on the west side of Lake Michigan, at the inflow of the Milwaukee River, which is joined within the city area by two tributaries, the Menomonee and the Kinnickinnic. It's here you'll find the splendid Riverwalk pedestrian path, a delight to explore day or night. Milwaukee has had its fair share of ethnic influences, and the area was once home to the Indian village of Melleoki. It was also visited by French missionaries, settled by Canadian fur traders, and finally welcomed numerous immigrants from Germany. Indeed, much of the city's population is of German origin, and it's often referred to as the "German Athens" of America. Perhaps the city's greatest claim to fame, however, is that it's the home of Harley-Davidson, the legendary motorcycle. And, of course, Milwaukee was the setting of the hit 70s TV show, Happy Days (a fun free thing to do is search out the famous "Bronze Fonz" statue of the series' leading character). Learn about things to do and best places to visit with our list of the top attractions in Milwaukee.
See also: Where to Stay in Milwaukee
1. Milwaukee's Lovely Lakefront
Milwaukee's Lakefront area is one of the prettiest downtown areas of any American city. Whether your interest is shopping in boutique stores and galleries; dining al fresco on the shores of Lake Michigan; or simply exploring the city's many pleasant walking trails (check out the Lakefront Trail), parks (yes, there's even a beach), and attractions, visiting here is time well spent. One of the most prominent landmarks is the War Memorial Center commemorating the dead of WWII and the Korean War. A newer landmark is the Milwaukee Art Museum, a striking building with collections that include American and European works from the 19th and 20th centuries. And as you walk around the shoreline to Discovery World, you'll also see the Denis Sullivan, a 137-foot replica of the tall ships once so common here.
Also of note are the Municipal Pier and the Henry Maier Festival Grounds, where the famous Summerfest is held. And just a short walk away from the lakefront and well worth visiting, the Historic Third Ward is one of the city's most vibrant creative hubs. Here, you'll find numerous old renovated warehouses with great art galleries and studios, along with fun boutique shops and craft stores, and great restaurants. There is also a regular indoor market selling fresh produce. You can visit this are and many of the others around the city on a hop-on, hop-off Milwaukee Sightseeing Bus Tour, which allows you to see the city at your own pace.
2. Editor's Pick The Harley-Davidson Museum
One of Milwaukee's oldest industries is also the city's newest attraction, the Harley-Davidson Museum. The iconic motorcycles came into being here in 1901 when William S. Harley, Arthur and Walter Davidson, and a German engineer produced their very first motorbike. Mass production followed in 1903, and the rest, as they say, is the kind of history now on display at the excellent Harley-Davidson Museum. All told, this superb family attraction boasts more than 450 motorcycles and artifacts, including "Serial Number One," the oldest Harley. Other highlights include interesting displays relating to the people behind the machines, a store, and a fun themed restaurant. If you can, be sure to visit during one of the museum's "bike nights," when often hundreds of Harleys - many of them customized - are put on display by their proud owners.
Address: 400 W. Canal Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
3. The Milwaukee Art Museum
Founded in 1888, the excellent Milwaukee Art Museum is home to more than 20,000 works of art dating from antiquity to the present day. The lakeside building itself is an architectural work of art and resembles a cross between a sleek ship and an aircraft, with a tall, retractable structure resembling wings perched atop its roof. Highlights are its many European, American, modern, and contemporary works, including fine prints, drawings, and photographs, as well as Asian and African collections. A good day to visit? At the time of writing, the museum has a free admission policy in place for Thursdays (be sure to check their website for further details).
Other city galleries of note are the Charles Allis Art Museum, with American and European art from the 19th and 20th centuries, housed in a lavish Tudor-style villa built in 1911; the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, built in 1923 in the style of an Italian Renaissance villa with decorative arts from the 15th through the 18th centuries; the Haggerty Museum of Art with a collection of more than 2,000 pieces, including many Old Masters; and the Grohmann Museum located at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, with its fascinating collection of art depicting the advancement and growth of human ingenuity related to work.
Address: 750 North Lincoln Memorial Drive, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Official Website: https://mam.org
4. City Hall
Despite being surrounded by numerous taller and more modern buildings, Milwaukee's City Hall continues to be an important part of the city's skyline. Built over a number of years and finished in 1895, the building, at 393 feet, remains one of the tallest 19th-century skyscrapers of its kind. Designed in a mix of Flemish and German Renaissance Revival styles, it was, when completed, the tallest habitable building in the country. Free tours of the building are available the second and fourth Wednesday each month during the summer and include a chance to climb the spectacular bell tower and view the beautiful interior.
5. Pabst Theater and Pabst Mansion
The Pabst Theater is one of Milwaukee's architectural gems. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the theater is built in a style reminiscent of Europe's best opera houses with a charming Baroque interior, including a spectacular chandelier and an Italian Carrara marble staircase. Included on the National Register of Historic Places, the theater is still used for stage and musical productions. A popular related attraction is the Pabst Mansion near the University of Wisconsin's Milwaukee campus. Built in 1893 for the wealthy Pabst family, it's notable for its Flemish Renaissance Revival style, with period furnishings and décor, and is beautifully decorated for Christmas events and celebrations. Free guided tours of the mansion are also available and are well worth joining.
Address: 144 East Wells, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
6. The Domes: Mitchell Park Conservatory
The Mitchell Park Conservatory in the western part of town has three very distinct gigantic glass domes containing plants from the tropics and from desert areas. They're impressive architecturally as well, each dome spanning 140 feet in diameter and standing 85 feet tall, and were the first of their kind when built in 1959. Numerous shows and festivals are held throughout the year in the Show Dome, including a well-attended Christmas event with an extensive garden railway, a farmers market, along with regular light shows at night.
Address: 524 South Layton Blvd, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Official Site: https://county.milwaukee.gov/EN/Parks/Explore/The-Domes
7. Milwaukee County Zoo
If you are looking for things to do in Milwaukee with kids, this is the place to come. The Milwaukee County Zoo is one of the largest in the US and has a variety of unique and rare animals among its 1,800 permanent residents (some of them even born here), including polar bears, gorillas, and cheetahs. Covering an impressive 200-acre site, the zoo offers an active educational program with numerous fun seasonal events. The zoo has earned a reputation for its bonobo breeding program, which has seen their collection of these delightful pygmy chimps become one of the largest in captivity.
There's also an impressive display of North American animals, including grizzly, polar, and black bears, along with moose and deer. For youngsters, highlights include an animal petting area; a raptor show; sea lion show; penguin viewing area; walk-through aviary; camel rides; and the fun Safari Train, an authentic mini-steam train, which runs throughout the complex. (Be sure to check their website for news of their seasonal "free days," when no admission is charged.)
Address: 10001 West Bluemound Road, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Official Site: www.milwaukeezoo.org/contact/email.php
8. The Milwaukee Public Museum
Don't be fooled by the rather simple name. The Milwaukee Public Museum is an excellent place to pass a few hours exploring its many collections and exhibits. Highlights include fascinating natural history displays of life-size dinosaurs and a reconstruction of a tropical rainforest, as well as a presentation of Milwaukee's past in the "Streets of Old Milwaukee" exhibit. Other popular permanent exhibits (the museum boasts 17 all told) include displays related to the continents of Africa, Asia, and the Arctic; a village with reconstructions of homes from Europe; and a variety of diorama scenes relating to the region's native populations. The six-story Dome Theater presents planetarium-type shows and is worth the additional admission cost (and check their website for news of special exhibits and "free days").
Address: 800 West Wells Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Official Site: www.mpm.edu
9. Discovery World
Milwaukee's Discovery World Museum, also known as the James Lovell Museum of Science, Economics, and Technology, has a variety of interactive exhibits sure to fascinate young and old alike. Located on the lakeshore and boasting a stunning architectural design, the museum also presents an ever-changing roster of traveling exhibits related to the disciplines highlighted in its name. Must-sees include the Reiman Aquarium; the tall ship Denis Sullivan; and the excellent Les Paul's House of Sound, which showcases the work and career of one of the world's legendary guitar makers. Big screen movie adventures and live theater experiences are also available.
The museum has also accumulated a great deal of artifacts and research related to the Great Lakes, with a special emphasis on conservation and education and a huge scale model of the entire Great Lakes area. Also of interest to families with youngsters (under 10 years) is the Betty Brinn Children's Museum with its fun interactive displays.
Address: 815 North James Lovell Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Official Site: www.discoveryworld.org
10. The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church
Milwaukee's Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church is famous for two reasons: first, it was built and designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright and second, it resembles either a spaceship or an alien with a very toothy grin, depending upon the angle from which it's viewed. None of this should stop you from visiting this unique circular structure with its large blue dome and gold cross on top. While visitors are welcome to attend regular church services, group tours are available outside these times with advance notice. The church is also the setting for the popular Greek Fest, an annual event celebrating Greek culture, food, and music.
Address: 9400 West Congress Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Official Site: www.annunciationwi.org
11. Boerner Botanical Gardens
Located an easy 20-minute drive from the downtown core, Boerner Botanical Gardens consist of five delightful formal gardens - peony, rose, annual, perennial, and a rock garden - that were laid out in the 1930s. These original gardens have grown to include a variety of others, most notably those dedicated to lilies, herbs, and shrubs. There's also an interesting test garden chock full of American hostas and other flower varieties. Also worth a visit is the adjacent arboretum, a pleasant place for a stroll after all that flower viewing.
Address: 9400 Boerner Drive, Hales Corners, Wisconsin
Official Site: https://boernerbotanicalgardens.org
12. Marcus Center for the Performing Arts
For those interested in cultural activities such as classical music and theater, the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts should be on your itinerary. This fine facility - known for its Brutalist architectural styling - was built in 1969 and is home to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Florentine Opera, both of which offer a regular season of performances, as does the Milwaukee Ballet. It's also home to the First Stage Children's Theater, which offers a variety of fun programming young and old alike will enjoy. The center also has a number of movie theaters, as well as an outdoor stage for seasonal performances.
Address: 929 N Water Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Official Site: www.marcuscenter.org
Where to Stay in Milwaukee for Sightseeing
Downtown Milwaukee, with an abundance of beautifully restored buildings, interesting attractions, and a lovely waterfront, is the best place to stay. In the southeast of downtown, close to the lakefront, are the family oriented Discovery World and Betty Brinn Children's Museum. For theatergoers and sports fans, the Pabst Theater, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, and the BMO Harris Bradley Center lie to the east. Below are some highly-rated hotels in convenient locations:
- Luxury Hotels: Housed in a 100-year-old historic warehouse, a short stroll from the famous Harley-Davidson Museum, the Iron Horse Hotel is one of the city's most unique boutique hotels. The elegant Pfister Hotel has been an iconic Milwaukee establishment since 1893. Only a couple of blocks from the lakefront, this hotel is in the center of everything. Well situated and connected to the Wisconsin Conference Center is the historic 1927 Art Deco-styled Hilton Milwaukee City Center.
- Mid-Range Hotels: With one of the city's trendiest addresses, the The Brewhouse Inn & Suites is a boutique hotel housed in a former industrial building and features rooms with exposed brick and an eclectic decor. Set in the late 19th-century Loyalty building, the Hilton Garden Inn Milwaukee Downtown is in the city center and offers rooms with a fridge and microwave. For an exceptional Art Deco experience combined with modern conveniences, the Ambassador Hotel is the place to stay. It is located slightly west from downtown but offers a free door-to-door shuttle to the main attractions.
- Budget Hotels: A good option in the center of downtown near the Milwaukee Art Museum, and ideal for families, is the Art Deco style The Plaza Hotel. Each room is outfitted with a full kitchen. Eight miles further out, near the airport, and offering spacious rooms and an indoor pool, is the recently remodeled Quality Suites Milwaukee Airport. In the same area and also featuring an indoor pool is the well-priced Sleep Inn & Suites.
Day Trips from Milwaukee
The Milwaukee Mile
At the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in West Allis, the Milwaukee Mile - also known as "America's Legendary Oval" - is the world's oldest active motor speedway. Dating back to 1903, the track has a rich history of hosting world-class IndyCar Series and NASCAR events and is one of only a handful of independently owned major league speedways left in the US. Widely regarded as a driver's track, this unique one-mile "flat oval" creates some of the best racing in the country.
Address: 640 South 84th Street, West Allis, Wisconsin
Old World Wisconsin
In Eagle, an easy 45-minute drive west of Milwaukee, is the Old World Wisconsin open-air museum. This fascinating tourist attraction includes a collection of 65 historic pioneer-era buildings constructed in styles reminiscent of the homelands of the area's first settlers, including Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Finland. It's a fun and very realistic recreation of pioneer life, complete with costumed staff and re-enactments. Other highlights include summer camps and workshops, as well as a chance to play vintage baseball using the original rules and equipment associated with the sport. The museum is also a popular destination at Christmas for its many festive events and displays.
Address: W372 S9727 Wisconsin 67, Eagle, Wisconsin
Racine and Kenosha: Great Art and Museums
The city of Racine has several key attractions. Two of the most popular are Wind Point Lighthouse, with its fantastic views, and the Racine Heritage Museum, where the history of the area is laid out in detail. For art lovers, the key reason to visit is the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, with its collection of contemporary art. The museum also hosts a variety of traveling exhibits and shows throughout the year. Another art facility worth visiting is the Anderson Arts Center in Kenosha. Housed in a restored 9,000-square-foot mansion, the center is divided into various sections according to art style. Another Kenosha attraction of note is the Kenosha Public Museum with its diverse exhibits, the best of which are The Wisconsin Story, The Ice Age, and the Native American Village. The museum also has a collection of art in its Fine and Decorative Arts Gallery including pieces by Picasso and Renoir.