Milwaukee is loaded with terrific attractions that are especially suited to families. Its manageable size, compact core and welcoming Midwest vibe equals fun and easy explorations. It sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, and summer is a celebration of its location with boating, swimming (brrrrrrr!) and scores of lakeside festivals. A visit in colder months is fun too, as many of the best attractions are indoors. Harley-Davidson motorcycles were born here, and an interactive museum pays homage to this American icon of freedom, independence and rebellion. The Milwaukee Art Museum ranks up there with the country’s great art collections, and welcomes kids with open arms. Wisconsin is famous for its cheese, and there are lots of kid-friendly restaurants that serve the state’s finest dairy products. If you are planning a trip to the Great Lakes region, consider a visit to this totally urban yet low-stress city.
Don’t Miss Attractions
1) Harley-Davidson Museum
This one-of-a-kind destination provides a look into American history and culture through the lens of this iconic American brand. It emphasizes motorcycles place in pop culture through eye-catching interactive, multi-media exhibits that are perfect for kids. You can hop on a kid-sized bike for a virtual ride and try on authentic motorbike gear. Don’t forget the camera, as there are plenty of photo-ops.
2) Milwaukee Public Museum
This is one of the best natural history museums in the region. It’s best known treasure is the world’s largest dinosaur skull, housed inside a colossal dinosaur diorama. Other exhibits include a Costa Rican rainforest, an indoor butterfly garden and the Streets of Old Milwaukee, where a typical 19th century local street scene is re-created. If you view the IMAX movie and visit the Planetarium, you could easily spend the entire day here.
3) Discovery World
This museum focuses on science and technology. Pretty much every exhibit is interactive and many explore the Great Lakes’ eco-systems. Musical kids and their parents should not miss the Les Paul House of Sound exhibit. It explores how this legendary musical great created the guitar sounds that helped to make rock and roll possible.
4) Milwaukee Art Museum
This museum welcomes families with free admission for kids 12 and under, complimentary art packs and a slew of family programming. The collection is large and eclectic, including one of the world’s largest Georgia O’Keefe collections and a whimsical collection of folk art by non-trained artists. There are hands-on art projects for kids each weekend and daily in summer. A fabulous exhibit on animation will have the kids trying their hand at simple stop motion animation.
5) The Betty Brinn Children’s Museum
Though not the biggest children’s museum I have ever seen, it is one of the best. Why? It encourages creative, open-ended play. Kids can imagine themselves in adult settings with the help of terrific props. Work on a car like a real mechanic, ring up groceries as your customer swipes a credit card and broadcast the nightly news. The museum aims to kick-start young imaginations. Best for kids ages 10 and under.
6) Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory
Known by everyone as the Milwaukee Domes, go inside these three 85-foot-high glass-domes and view the flora of the desert and the jungle. Fabulous seasonal floral displays are an added attraction.
7) North Point Lighthouse
This mid-19th century lighthouse overlooks Lake Michigan from a bluff in Lake Park. It is a maritime treasure that is very suited to young children, as you only need to climb a few steps to reach the top and get an awesome view. You can also learn a bit of history about lighthouse keepers.
8) Sprecher Brewery
Milwaukee has been brewing excellent beer for centuries. Today, lots of visitors come to Milwaukee to tour the numerous beer breweries. The under 21 crowd gets their own brewery tour that features soda at the Sprecher Brewery. Tour the plant and see how the soda is brewed, bottled, labeled and packed before you move on to the tasting tent. You get unlimited samples of 10 gourmet sodas, including the root beer, which the New York Times gave its highest accolades. Beer is brewed here too, so parents can sample the hard stuff.
9) Palermo Pizza Tour
If your family loves pizza, you shouldn’t miss this factory tour. This family-owned business makes frozen pizzas that ship all over the country. Learn how Papa Palermo arrived from Sicily and started a successful business, tour the plant and finish with a delicious taste of the goodies.
10) The Fonz Statue
Jog your memory and you may remember that the Cunningham clan of Happy Days made their home in Milwaukee. That includes none other than Arthur Fonzerelli, better known as The Fonz. Today, a bronze statue stands along scenic RiverWalk, complete with a leather jacket and thumbs pointing up. This may please parents more then kids, but a photo taken with The Bronze Fonz is a Milwaukee must-do.
11) Milwaukee County Zoo
You can see over 2,000 mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles in specialized habitats spanning 200 wooded acres at the Milwaukee Zoo. But this zoo stands out for its extra activities. Kids can try the standard ropes course, obstacle ropes course or a zip line. There are low-energy options as well, like a ride on a Safari Train or the whirl on the whimsical carousel.
Outdoor Family Adventures
When the weather’s fine, locals and tourists hit Lake Michigan and the three rivers that traverse the town. There are lots of different ways to enjoy being out on the water. Rent a kayak at Milwaukee Kayak Company or opt for a family canoe excursion at Urban Ecology. If you just want to relax and see the sights, take a cruise on the Milwaukee Boat Line.
13) Urban Hiking and Biking
Milwaukee’s Oak Leaf Trail is a 100-mile biker and walker's paradise. The scenery varies from energetic urban to spectacularly peaceful woods to a flat section that meanders along an abandoned railroad corridor, perfect for novice cyclists. Rent bikes from Corey The Bike Fixer, who delivers directly to your hotel. The Lakefront Trail is an easy 6-mile loop for the entire family.
Milwaukee is a festival town, and Summerfest is its big daddy. It is the largest musical festival in the world and features an eclectic lineup of rock, pop, world, country and other styles of music. Admission prices are very low, and kids are free for much of the 10-day festival. Parents pushing strollers, tweens, teens and grandparents all co-exist peacefully. If you are not here for Summerfest never fear, there is a family-oriented festival each weekend, Memorial Day-Labor Day. In December, the Winter Lights Festival is a twinkling showstopper.
15) Ice Skating
The Pettit National Ice Center is an official U.S. Olympic training facility. Strap on skates and take a whirl around the same rink that Olympians have. It is indoors, so foul weather won’t spoil your plans.
16) Melthouse Bistro
Wisconsin is famed for its fresh cheeses, so it is no surprise that Milwaukee has its own fast-casual restaurant that features a huge menu of grilled cheese sandwiches. Melthouse Bistro serves an array of handcrafted local cheeses that showcase the best dairy products that the state offers. Kids 12 and under eat free on Sundays, and parents can pair their sandwich with locally brewed beer.
German immigrants helped to settle this city centuries ago, and their influence is still felt in culinary spheres. Mader’s is an old-world German restaurant that serves schnitzel, sauerbraten and all types of succulent sausages. Warm home-baked pretzels fill the breadbasket and yummy warm strudel completes the meal. Local families flock here when they need their fill of belly-ballooning cuisine. Teens and tweens should be impressed with the wall of photos of the famous folk who have dined here, including Usher and Justin Beiber. There is a fabulous collection of medieval armor on display, dating back to the 14th century.
18) Milwaukee Public Market
This is a good place for a quick and inexpensive lunch. Everyone can make an individual choice from the variety of high quality, freshly prepared foods on the ground floor. Head upstairs where the seating is plentiful.
Where to Stay in Downtown Milwaukee
19) Hilton Garden Inn
The Hilton Garden Inn is a spacious, clean and functional place for families to stay. Free WiFI is a welcome perk.
20) The Pfister Hotel
The Pfister is this city’s historic Grande Dame, built in 1893. It is full of old-world charm and houses a priceless collection of Victorian art. If these attributes don’t scream child-friendly, the staff is extremely welcoming to families. Your kid may feel like Eloise as he or she roams the sumptuous hallways and enjoys the decorative lobby with its live jazz piano performances.
How to get here
Many U.S. cities offer non-stop service to MIlwaukee's Mitchell Airport. If you are in Chicago, Amtrak will get you here in just over an hour. Megabus ventures here too, so you may score a low-priced ticket from select cities. For helpful trip planning information, go to www.VisitMilwaukee.org.