One thing you should know about Milwaukee: It’s gayer than you think. And the best part is that the face of the city is finally catching up to what residents have known for a while—it’s a progressive town with its mind, and its arms, wide open.
This city of a half-million-plus is situated on Lake Michigan’s west side, about an hour north of Chicago. Right away, it’s great to see how Milwaukeeans have maximized their city’s geography. Biking, walking and cross-country skiing trails line its lakefront, where a winding promenade flanks the Milwaukee River, which flows through downtown. Beautiful parks are sprinkled throughout the city as well, including Lake Park, designed by Central Park’s own Frederick Law Olmstead.
Also on the bank of Lake Michigan is the 90-acre Maier Festival Grounds, where virtually every culture is celebrated year-round—from African to Asian to Greek to Arabian. The mother of all Midwest festivals is Summerfest (summerfest.org), lasting eight days and welcoming the likes of the Indigo Girls, Alanis Morisette, Pearl Jam and Cher. Maier is also the site of Milwaukee’s huge Gay Pride event. Every June, the three-day Pridefest (pridefest.com) draws more than 20,000 revelers, hosting local performers, fave ‘80s and ‘90s bands, and national comedians such as Margaret Cho.
Of course, Milwaukee still struggles to shake off its reputation as “Brew City,” home of Miller and Pabst (and Laverne and Shirley). And they’re not too crazy about the stereotype of being obsessed with delicious Wisconsin cheddar either. Such labels have become more cliché than culture in Milwaukee. A long weekend shows off its effusive friendliness and low-key livability, with plenty of delectable restaurants, sexy stylish women, fun bars, and almost no attitude.
Choice historic architecture dots much of “Cream City”—a nickname earned for the color of local bricks, and not the froth on draft beer or anything dirty. The city’s crown jewel is the Milwaukee Art Museum (414-224-3200, mam.org), the first North American structure built by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava. The breathtaking lakefront structure evokes a bird, complete with enormous, retractable wings. Once inside, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the notable collection of classic and contemporary artwork.
This big town/little city also boasts thriving theater, symphony, art and literary scenes that have earned Milwaukee comparisons to Austin, Seattle, and other high-profile hubs. And if culture’s not your bag, there’s always the NBA, pro hockey, college sports and stadium-size concerts.
As for food, the Milwaukee Public Market (414-336-111, milwaukeepublicmarket.org) is the source for fresh local flavors. And any local will tell you that a visit to the reliably delectable and cozy Alterra Coffee cafés (414-223-4551, alterracoffee.com) is a must. Quality restaurants are easy to come by all over the city. Head to main drag Brady Street to take your pick of neighborhood joints for every price range, and be sure to try the veggie-thick Bloody Mary at Trocadero (414-272-0205, ztrocadero.com).
Meanwhile, over in the up-and-coming Walkers Point area, scores of hoppin’ Mexican restaurants and gay-owned hangouts will keep you occupied. Top among them is Barossa (414-272-8466, barossawinebar.com), where co-owners Deanne Wecker and Julia Loggia have fostered a vibe of relaxation and romance, with a menu that rivals the finest, freshest food anywhere. Riverwest and Bayview (a.k.a. “Gayview”) are a couple of homo-friendly hives worth investigating. So is the fabulous Hotel Metro (from $189, 877-638-7620, hotelmetro.com). It’s not super-cheap, but the spacious, art deco Metro is a worthy splurge, and smack in the middle of downtown. For a less expensive place to crash, try the recently renovated Comfort Inn & Suites Downtown Lakeshore, formerly the Park East Hotel (from $99, 414-276-8800, choicehotels.com). It’s the closest hotel to the water, offers free breakfast, and is near the festival grounds, art museum, baseball stadium and more.
To explore the joys of the local gay universe, start with a visit to the LGBT Center (414-271-2656, mkelgbt.org). The Center is a great place to learn about Milwaukee’s progressive nature, including the Alliance School (allianceschool.org), a new-ish public high school for students who have been bullied. Local gay rags will be stacked high at the Center, and can clue you into where sexy local drag-king troupe the Miltown Kings (miltownkings.com) will be performing, or where hot (dyke) band The Toms will rock out next. Head to feminist cooperative bookstore Broad Vocabulary (414-744-8384, broadvocabulary.com) in Bayview to see what the Midwest girls are reading.
And it may not be cool to say it, but the local beer and cheese are sensational, so don’t forget to eat up and drink down to your heart’s content. Just don’t talk about it.