Before my first trip to Milwaukee this summer, I had only a few references to help me get a handle on what makes the city tick. There was (and still is) beer, of course, a legacy of one of this country’s strongest German heritages. And there were the iconic TV comedies, “Happy Days” (check out the bronze statue of the Fonz on the walkway alongside the Milwaukee River) and its spin-off “Laverne and Shirley.”
That pretty much covered what I knew about Milwaukee. However, following a few days in this vibrant city, I have a store of new knowledge to add to my repertoire. I learned that the Wisconsin Cheese Mart on Old World Third Street has 200 varieties of cheese and that Cafe Benelux, a hot spot for rooftop dining, has 47 pages of beers.
I learned that the city, which became home to resourceful immigrants from Germany, Poland, Ireland and Italy, was known as “the machine shop of the world” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I learned that Milwaukee was once home to the Big Four of beers — Pabst, Miller, Schlitz and Blatz — and that during the 7th-inning stretch at Brewers baseball games, it’s not “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” but “Roll Out the Barrel” that fans still exuberantly sing.
But most of all, I learned that the city’s top two attractions are museums, which although polar opposites, provide visitors with a top-quality experience.
Milwaukee Art Museum
At the stroke of noon on a sunny day with springlike temperatures, I am standing — along with a throng of people — on the pedestrian bridge outside the Milwaukee Art Museum. We are reverently silent, as if awaiting a heavenly visitation, which, in a sense, we are.
One feature of the six-year, $34 million redesign by noted Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava is the angel wings sculpture atop the museum. Composed of 72 steel fins with a 217-foot wingspan, the “wings” open and close several times a day. The spectacle takes 3 ½ minutes and always attracts an admiring audience.
The building’s architectural design can best be described as a combination of the Sydney Opera House and a Gothic Cathedral complete with flying buttresses and ribbed vaults. The total effect appears that of a structure floating over Lake Michigan.
The interior is equally stunning, with a glass-domed ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows allowing a panoramic view of the lake as a backdrop for the art.
Don’t think all the art is in the architecture. As stunning as it is, it is just the receptacle for the 30,000 artworks that take up four floors and 40 galleries in one of America’s oldest art museums (1888).
The art is nothing if not eclectic. There are pieces from Claude Monet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko; Winslow Homer and Andy Warhol, as well as one of the largest collections of works by Georgia O’Keefe, who despite her New Mexico connection, was a Wisconsin native.
The museum also has one of the nation’s best collections of American and Haitian folk art (700 N. Art Museum Dr.; mam.org).
Marlon Brando rode one in “The Wild One”; Jay Leno and U2 drummer Larry Mullen are fans and Elvis Presley once bought one on installment. I am, of course, referring to the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, which if not quite as American as Mom and apple pie, certainly qualifies as one of the country’s most iconic inventions.
Harley-Davidson lovers will truly be in “Hog Heaven” while touring this one-of-a-kind museum in the city where the motorcycle was born. In 1903, Arthur Davidson and Bill Harley built their prototype bike in a 10- by 15-foot shed on the Davidson property. Seventeen years later, they were selling bikes in 67 countries.
The museum, which is something of a mother church to Harley riders, is also fascinating to non-riders such as me. On my tour, I loved seeing Serial 1, the oldest known Harley-Davidson in existence, dating from 1905.
I loved seeing the earlier bikes that were used to deliver everything from mail to milk, and to see the bikes still used by police and military units.
I loved reading the comments of an early executive who said, “We are building motorcycles to be used by sane people for pleasure and business. We do not want our machines to be ridden by lunatics.”
That’s understandable when you learn that early riders often reached 100 miles per hour. What’s so unusual about that, you might wonder. Only the fact that those early bikes had no brakes.
I loved seeing the Captain America bike and the one ridden by Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 2.”
Most of all, I loved seeing the bike donated by Presley. Shortly after he recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956, a young Elvis went into an HD dealership and filled out an application to purchase a bike. On the form, he listed his occupation as “self-employed vocalist.”
Figuring he might not be the best risk, the staff finally agreed to let him pay $50.15 a month, and the once and future King became a proud Harley owner.
For today’s proud Harley owners, the museum offers a twice-yearly “Dream Experience” (Nov. 30-Dec. 2) where the red carpet is rolled out for a series of events, including VIP access to the museum, lunch at Motor Bar and Restaurant, and a holiday dinner and entertainment. The Experience is limited to 20 people and costs $2,770 per person — unless you leave with a new Harley (400 W. Canal St., h-dmuseum.com).
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Potawatomi Hotel & Casino: Just minutes from downtown, it is one of the Midwest’s premier entertainment destinations with a variety of restaurant options, as well as roulette, poker, blackjack and slots (paysbig.com).
Where to eat
Smyth at the Iron Horse Hotel: Hip hangout with handcrafted works of art. The restaurant is big on exposed brick and beams, as well as seasonal bounty from Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest (theironhorsehotel.com).
Cafe Benelux: A popular brunch spot, although it’s open from breakfast to midnight. If you want a table on the roof terrace, you may have a wait, but it’s worth it (cafebenelux.com).
Harbor House: With a beautiful setting on Lake Michigan, this is the place to go for seafood, especially oysters (harborhousemke.com).
Mader’s: Milwaukee’s most famous German restaurant has played host to dignitaries from John F. Kennedy to Audrey Hepburn, although it is hard to imagine the waifish Audrey chowing down on the gargantuan platters of wiener schnitzel and sauerbraten. Decor is equally fantastic, including a $3 million collection of art, antiques and medieval armor (madersrestaurant.com).