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The Perfect Itinerary For A Delicious Weekend in Milwaukee

By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 27, 2016 2:37PM

Beautiful MKE. Photo via shutterstock.

Whenever I announce that I'm heading to Milwaukee for a vacation, I get a lot of blank stares and sarcastic comments.

"That's not a vacation," I was told before my most recent trip. "Why would you go to Milwaukee when you live in Chicago?" asked another co-worker.

Well, those people are completely wrong. MKE is a city with great restaurants, a growing cocktail scene, a few pretty hotels and some of my favorite museums and attractions around. Plus, it's inexpensive and only about 90 minutes away.

We've published Milwaukee guides in the past, but here's an itinerary made specifically for the visiting food and drink geek. I've included some of my favorite attractions (you've got to do something to work off the calories in between meals) and some good places to stay, but mostly, it's all about the food.

The Wisconsin Cheese Mart. Photo via Facebook.

Friday Lunchtime: Uber Tap Room/Wisconsin Cheese Mart

I generally try to drive up to MKE on a Friday morning, which lets me beat the traffic and get an extra meal in. It also means I can get to the Wisconsin Cheese Mart when it's not filled with weekend tourists. Some swear by the Mars Cheese Castle, but this place is my go-to for my dairy fix. They've got an insane variety of local cheeses, tons of samples, and a nice bar/restaurant next door, the Uber Tap Room, which serves the largest pretzel the world has ever seen and a huge selection of cheese plates. If you don't mind having an entire lunch just made of cheese (and really, who would?) this is the place for you.

The Streets of Old Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Photo via Facebook.

Friday Afternoon: Milwaukee Public Museum

The name might be confusing to outsiders, but the Milwaukee Public Museum isn't some strange repository of municipal history. It's actually a natural history museum, and boasts some of the best dioramas in the world. Carl Akeley, who pretty much invented the museum diorama (and did most of the famous Field Museum dioramas) got his start here, and the work still holds up 100 years later. The highlight of the visit? The recently-rennovated "Streets of Old Milwaukee" exhibit, now complete with an app-based game that lets you play detective throughout the exhibit.

The interior of Bryant's. Photo via Facebook.

Friday Early Evening: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

I've already raved enough in print about Bryant's, which I consider to be the best bar in the Midwest. Esquire magazine went even further, naming Bryant's the best bar in America. The dim, stylish cocktail bar hasn't changed since about 1971 and is a perfectly preserved example of groovy cool. The cocktails, on the other hand, have stayed current. The entire menu is "dealer's choice," so place yourself in the hands of their skilled bartenders and get ready for a boozy night.

Friday Dinner: Ardent

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently called Ardent the best restaurant in town, and I have to agree with them. Chef Justin Carlisle, recently nominated for a Beard award, turns out some incredible dishes, and his focus on clean ingredients rather than tortured gastronomic tricks sets his food apart. My favorites: a milk and butter course that reminds you how great bread and butter are supposed to taste and a beef tartare made with meat from his family farm and topped with whipped bone marrow.

The tortilla at Tre Rivali. Photo by Anthony Todd.

Saturday Morning: Breakfast at Tre Rivali

Heather Terhune, formerly of Sable, has taken up residence in Milwaukee at the brand new Kimpton Journeyman hotel. The hotel has gotten the most attention for its stylish rooftop, but Terhune's food makes the restaurant a destination in itself. While we loved dinner, we were particularly taken with breakfast, when Terhune turns out the prettiest avocado toast around and a perfectly cooked Spanish tortilla with just a hint of spice.

Saturday Daytime: Take Your Pick!

There's plenty to do on a nice Saturday in MKE. Wander the Third Ward and check out some of the adorable shops, walk along the riverfront, or head to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the only thing that everyone who hasn't been to Milwaukee will recognize from your vacation photos. I'd suggest starting your day with the museum and ending your afternoon in the Third Ward, because you're going to want a snack.

The Lobster Bloody Mary. Photo by Anthony Todd.

Saturday Afternoon: Snack at Milwaukee Public Market

The Public Market is one of the coolest things in the city, and one of the things that makes every Chicagoan go "Why don't we have this?" It's like a more charming version of the Chicago French Market, and is made up of small outposts of local stores and restaurants. I always stop at St. Paul Fish Company's counter for an afternoon nosh. Skip the indifferently shucked oysters, but definitely go for the lobster bloody mary (topped with an entire lobster claw) and shrimp cocktail, which comes by the pound in plastic baskets.

Saturday Early Evening: Drinks at Boone and Crocket

I recently visited Boone and Crocket for the first time, and immediately felt like I'd walked into a movie set version of a craft cocktail bar. There is antique furniture, taxidermy everywhere, tattooed bartenders and huge chalkboards—every box is checked. However, it doesn't feel formulaic so much as incredibly comfortable. And their cocktails are on point. Be sure to try their barrel aged old fashioneds, which are poured from barrels suspended from the ceiling.

The interior of Ratzsch's. Photo via Facebook.

Saturday Night: Karl Ratzsch's

Milwaukee remains a German town, and this cafe (opened in 1904) makes you feel like you're back in the old country. Recently renovated and cleaned up, the restaurant lost most of its dust but none of it's charm. The menu sticks to classics, and there's more sausage than you could ever eat, but my favorite dish remains the goose shank, rich and falling off the bone and topped with pickled red cabbage.

Saturday Late Night: Foundation Tiki

I almost never miss a visit to this neighborhood tiki bar during a trip to MKE. I actually prefer going around 5 p.m., before it gets crowded, but if you need something to wash down your goose shank, I can't think of anything better than a classic mai tai. They've got a full menu of tiki classics, but their skilled bartenders will experiment if you let them.

Sunday Morning: Milwaukee Zoo

After a late night of drinking, the last thing I want to do is eat a huge brunch. I know, this makes me weird, but I'd rather walk it off. Head over to the Milwaukee Zoo, a beautiful facility that is especially perfect for children. It's got a zoo train, a petting area and a ton of play structures to keep your little ones entertained. For the adults, it's got a good collection of small mammals (especially nocturnal ones), a great primate exhibit and an engaging penguin cove that will keep you entertained for a long time.

This only scratches the surface. We didn't get to the Conservatory, c.1880 restaurant, any of the other classic German spots, the other hopping neighborhoods in the city, a single bookstore or even a brewery or distillery.

Guess you'll just have to visit again.

Places to Stay:

If you're looking for classic charm, stay at the Pfister, the prominent downtown hotel frequented by most business tourists. It's not cheap, but it's worth the it for the gorgeous lobby, the top-floor pool and the lovely club lounge. On this most recent trip I stayed at the new Kimpton Journeyman, home of Tre Rivali, which is a great choice if you're looking for something more modern and sited outside of downtown. They'll lend you bikes for exploring, serve up a free happy hour of wine and local beer and have some of the most epic bathrooms that I've ever seen in a hotel.