This is a guest post from our friends at The Family Backpack, the ultimate online resource for traveling with kids. No matter how far you and your crew want to roam, The Family Backpack can help you make it happen!
A First Timer’s Guide to Visiting Milwaukee with Kids
The only people who don’t like Milwaukee are people who have never been to Milwaukee. This is a city with Calatrava architecture and beer assembly lines, a stunning lakefront park and the world’s largest music festival. When you wash it all down with a Sprecher Root beer and some fried cheese curds, it’s pretty easy to be charmed by our laid-back, self-effacing Midwestern-ness. Bring along the whole family and experience Milwaukee with kids!
Welcome to Milwaukee
Milwaukee is the largest city in Wisconsin with a population of about 600,000, with close to a million in the surrounding suburbs. Parents may know Milwaukee as the setting for Happy Days or Laverne and Shirley, while bikers recognize the city as the birthplace of their Harley-Davidson motorcycle. “Brew City” is the birthplace of many iconic American beers, such as Miller, Pabst and Schlitz, and today the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team plays a stone’s throw from Miller Brewing Company. But visiting modern Milwaukee is so much more than bikes and beer.
Thanks to a world-class parks system designed in part by Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York’s Central Park, Milwaukee is lucky to have a beautiful lakefront open to the public with sand beaches, museums, and festival grounds. This is great news for families looking for free or low-cost activities. Try some frozen custard at Bradford Beach or the family-friendly Beer Garden at Estabrook Park in the summer, then ice skating at Red Arrow Park or tobogganing in Whitnall Park in the winter.
For indoor fun, Milwaukee’s arts scene can keep parents and kids busy all year. The Milwaukee Art Museum, with its Santiago Calatrava-designed building (featured in many movies such as Transformers), also hosts family art Sundays where your little Picasso can create art near an actual Picasso. Other arts groups including The Milwaukee Ballet, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Florentine Opera, Skylight Music Theater, and Danceworks all have performances for families and adults alike.
Besides the Brewers, sports fans can revel in the Milwaukee Bucks new state-of-the-art area, Fiserv Forum. And all over Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers are somewhat of a religion. Though not technically in Milwaukee, to be in Wisconsin is to be a Packers’ fan. You can also take in a Milwaukee Wave game and enjoy professional indoor soccer or cheer on the Milwaukee Admirals!
Finally, if you are lucky enough to be in Milwaukee in the summer, you are in for a treat. Milwaukee is the home of Summerfest, where hundreds of bands play on the lakefront in a week-long live music fest that last year included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Willie Nelson, The Steve Miller Band, Ludacris, Toto, Bob Dylan and more — yes, all at one festival. And it’s kid-friendly during the day. Milwaukee summers may be short, but citizens of this city make the most of them.
Milwaukee – A City of Neighborhoods
Transplants from larger cities are often impressed by Milwaukee’s close-in suburbs, which offer all the amenities of a small-town neighborhood without the hour or more commute to downtown. Bay View, Shorewood, Wauwautosa, Whitefish Bay, River Hills, Fox Point, and Bayside have restaurants, shops, and great school districts but are 30 minutes or less from Milwaukee’s city center. Further west, Brookfield and Waukesha are cities unto themselves with low housing costs, high-end shopping and commutable neighborhoods. Keep on going west and you’ll find yourself in Lake Country, an area with gorgeous shores and plenty of outdoor exploration to be found.
Wisconsin’s wacky weather and what to pack
“Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes.” Many cities use this quote, but it’s a safe bet in Milwaukee. Wisconsin weather is tricky because it ranges from year to year, but in general, the winters are cold (10-30 degrees, but temps occasionally dip lower); the summers are moderate to very warm (60-90 degrees); springtime is generally chilly with an occasional heat spell and autumn ranges from very warm (in September and early October) to chillier as the season progresses. Once you’ve got that down, remember Milwaukee’s other truism: “cooler near the lake.” In summer temps can range 10 degrees cooler in a matter of miles, in winter 10 degrees warmer, thanks to Lake Michigan. Best thing to pack for Milwaukee? Layers.
The good news is: no matter that the season, there is plenty of cheese.
Here are some general packing-for-kids tips. When in Milwaukee, pack swimwear if visiting in the summer because the city has Lake Michigan and many smaller, human-made lakes and outdoor pools. In the winter, especially if you and your family are not used to cold weather, bring hats, gloves and warm jackets.
What to do in the Brew City
Weather not only affects what you pack when visiting Milwaukee, but also what kinds of activities you and your family will do.
For rainy or wintery weather, here are a bunch of indoor options for you and the kiddos. Conversely, here is a Milwaukee Summer Bucket List of things to try if you’re visiting during the warm season. Milwaukee is also home to many beautiful parks and green spaces and hiking trails.
And of course, visiting Lake Michigan is a must when visiting Milwaukee. Just like eating your weight in cheese is a must when visiting.
Here are five awesome kid-friendly destinations in Milwaukee to check out during your visit:
The Betty Brinn Children’s Museum: Colorful, imaginative and hands-on, this kids’ museum ranks with the best. Plus, it’s in the heart of Downtown which means you can look for the big, illuminated flame on top of one of our buildings, identify the city’s largest skyscraper (hint: it’s white) and hopefully see the “wings” on the Milwaukee Art Museum spread wide open. (If it’s too windy, the wings are retracted.)
Discovery World: This science and technology museum offers aquariums, a virtual reality exhibit, a design lab, an innovation station featuring the ever-popular “bed of nails”, a racing simulation, a massive indoor pirate ship and more.
The Harley-Davidson Museum: Harley-Davidson motorcycles have been a part of Milwaukee culture since 1903 and today, people come from all over the world to visit the Harley-Davidson Museum. Kids (and grown ups) can “ride” dozens of different Harleys, try on Harley gear, see Milwaukee police bikes, play motorcycle video games and more. There is also a kid-friendly restaurant on the museum grounds called Motor and a large gift shop.
Milwaukee County Zoo: Milwaukee has a great zoo with over 2,000 mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles in specialized habitats spanning 200 wooded acres. Families can purchase food from the cafe or – and this is recommended – bring in your own. There is a shady, outdoor seating area for relaxing and refueling. Also, a trip to Milwaukee’s zoo must include a ride on the train (and a photo taken of children on the train. Every Milwaukeean has this photo of themselves and/or their kids.)
Milwaukee Public Museum: There’s lots to explore at the MPM. Take a trek through Africa or a rainforest, sit in an igloo, allow butterflies to land on your shoulder in the butterfly garden, watch a film in the dome theater and marvel at dinosaur models as big as garages. But most importantly, go on an adventure to find the two “snake buttons” hidden in museum dioramas. Ask an attendant for more information, but finding and pressing the snake buttons are a rite of passage at the MPM.
Milwaukee Art Museum: Milwaukee’s main cultural attraction, with its Santiago Calatrava-designed building (the same architect who designed, most recently, the New York City World Trade Center Transportation Hub), does a great job of keeping the kiddos entertained. Check out a backpack for a fun art-themed scavenger hunt that gives Mom and Dad time to appreciate all the museum has to offer.
No one visiting Milwaukee goes hungry
There are so many kid and family-friendly places to eat at when visiting Milwaukee. Here is a list of our favorites. The must-stop is for sure The Safe House because it’s such a unique Milwaukee experience your kids will be talking about for weeks. This spy-themed restaurant requires you to know the password to gain access or you face a test to prove your worth. Once inside, enjoying your food is only part of the fun! Complete your spy mission, explore hidden passageways, exit through the secret passageway, and check out some of the sweet espionage memorabilia. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience!
Here are places in Milwaukee where kids eat for free and, speaking of free, here are six more free local events for your family to enjoy. Looking to enjoy a night out without the kids along? We’ve got a couple hundred ideas for a Milwaukee Date Night you’ll love!
Take your Food Tour of Milwaukee to the next level by indulging in the amazing eats that are specific to our city. Learn how cheese curds are made at Clock Shadow Creamery, indulge in Whiskey Ice Cream at Purple Door, nosh your way through Summerfest, try the crazy concoctions on a stick at the Wisconsin State Fair, or check out any number of the cultural festivals taking place throughout the city to really go on a culinary journey!
Milwaukee shops (and shops and shops and shops…)
If shopping is your bag while visiting Milwaukee, there are four major shopping malls: Mayfair, Bayshore, Brookfield Square and Southridge. There’s also a fabulous luxury shopping mall just 15 minutes west of Milwaukee called The Corners of Brookfield. For local shopping, check out Beans and Barley (also a kid-friendly restaurant), Winkie’s and Little Monsters for fun kid products. If you are looking to score some Milwaukee swag of your very own to take home, we love The Waxwing, Milwaukehome, and Gusto Mercantile.
In Case of Emergency
No one wants to deal with unpleasantries on their vacation, but if you need a pediatric dentist while you’re in Milwaukee, go here. In the case of injury or sudden illness, Milwaukee is fortunate to have Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin right at our fingertips.
Exploring Beyond Milwaukee
If you’re looking to journey slightly beyond Milwaukee, here are “100 Day Trips” that are family friendly.
Finally, Milwaukee is only 90 minutes from Chicago and 5 hours from Minneapolis. Both are bigger cities than Milwaukee and may get a lot more attention. But spend an afternoon at our lakefront beach, or wash down our cheese with an award-winning beer, and once you’ve visited Milwaukee you will be among the many who love it — and come back again.