We didn’t make vacation plans in 2020. Looking back through our photos, our last destination trip was visiting Seattle in the summer of 2019. As we made it through the unknown changes of a pandemic year and relocating for a new job, it has been refreshing to finally settle in where we are and explore locally. With a few vacation days saved up, Derek wanted to take a day trip to a new place that we’ve never been. I heard great things about Milwaukee from a friend and we made plans to visit the very next day.
1st Stop: The Milwaukee County Parks’ Boerner Botanical Gardens. As members of the Chicago Botanic Garden, we have a list of multiple gardens within a 90 mile radius of Chicago that honor reciprocal membership so we were able to visit the gardens free of charge. It seemed as though we had this quaint place all to ourselves as we followed the one-way route while gardeners watered plants and pulled weeds. The gardens were well-maintained with a variety of interesting plants from around the world, all displaying their designated labels. Some of the highlights were the rock garden, the boardwalk trail through the bog, and the rose garden. The trial garden was also an interesting section to view the plant varieties and hybrids being tested out for transplanting. We were able to walk through the entire property in about 30 minutes and then were on our way.
#2: Milwaukee Domes at the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory. On first arrival, the sight of these glass dome buildings look somewhat like space ships that have landed from another universe. Each greenhouse is dedicated to a specific climate from the tropical rainforests and deserts of the world to the showcase dome that rotates its displays throughout the year. We’ve ever seen cacti that tower over us like trees. Each dome is 140 feet across by 85 feet high, which is over 7 stories tall. As we strolled through each greenhouse, I kept thinking about how fascinating some of the plants were and that we would need to travel to all of these places to ever be able to see their species again in their natural surroundings. It was as if these alien plants had been plucked from fantasy lands in outer space and arranged together under a crystal ball that cast an enchantment spell over all the beauty captured inside it.
#3: Milwaukee Public Market. Milwaukee is such an easy place to visit. We were able to drive right into the city and park for free in the lot next to the market. As we were crossing the street on foot, Derek heard the familiar sounds of dinks on paddles and we peered into the public courts to see a family playing Pickleball in downtown Milwaukee. Pickleball is everywhere! The Public Market was a folksy location with vendors serving fish, spices, coffee, sandwiches, and sweets, just to name a few. A much smaller take on the famous Seattle’s Public Market, the historic Third Ward neighborhood is a unique pit stop to meander through.
#4: RiverWalk Sculpture District. Milwaukee is a very walkable city. With our car still parked at the Public Market, we took the RiverWalk past beautiful old buildings, cafes, and breweries from the historic Third Ward to Beerline past the skyscrapers of downtown Milwaukee. We were on the hunt for as many of sculptures that we could find on the RiverWalk map and were pleasantly surprised by the many dedications to ducklings on the sculpture walk including “Mille.” From its most southern to northern point, the RiverWalk is more than 20 blocks of connected pedestrian walkways that run parallel to the urban waterway that kayakers paddle and boats glide at a crawl alongside us.
#5: Lunch at Uncle Wolfie’s Tavern. A take-out only location, we ordered our food on the sidewalk and found a table outside while awaiting our doggie bag delivery. Derek ate the “BELTCH,” the breakfast sandwich that started it all, with bacon, eggs, lettuce, tomato, and cheddar on sourdough. I had a Spinach-Pesto Caprese sandwich with fresh mozzarella, onions, tomatoes, and arugula on focaccia bread. We split the “Strawb” salad that had the most delicious fresh strawberries on spinach leaves with avocado, goat cheese, and honey-roasted pistachios. Our bellies were screaming after our walk along the river so every bite was simply delicious.
#6: Black Cat Alley MKE. BLACK. CAT. ALLEY! Duh-dah. duh-DAH! This was the artsy side of town where we sipped fresh lemonade at a cat cafe where pre-registered guests pet the furrballs that sleep on window hammocks and hide in tunnels. The walls of the neighborhood were an ode to the artists who paint murals on matters that speak to them. While we saw the most paintings at Black Cat Alley, Milwaukee seemed to be the city of murals because we saw artwork throughout the city and surrounding neighborhoods.
#7: The Board Game Barrister. We had to make a pit stop to a local board game shop. While their collection was extensive, we like catching deals in the used game section and this time we came out empty-handed. Definitely a place worth visiting, but it was short stop for us this time.
#8: Lakefront Brewery. The craft beer connoisseur had to try a local beer while in Brewer’s territory. Derek asked a good friend for recommendations and settled on Lakefront where we split a pretzel with beer cheese and Nutella and Derek sipped on a Hazy Rabbit IPA. It was an excellent beer that Derek rated 4.5 out of 5 for its light, juicy flavor. Nice vibe in the brewery and excellent COVID-19 safety precautions. Most people ate outside on the RiverWalk and since we had been on our feet in the sun all day, we reserved a table in the air-conditioning. They seated groups at the ends of long tables that were about 12 feet long in-between with plastic barriers at each table.
#9: Dinner at Birch on Pleasant St. Birch was a lovely treat to end our vacation day. A brand-new restaurant open just under two weeks and run by head chef, Kyle Knall who has a passion for crafting dishes from seasonal ingredients. We had the most unique “Crunchy Farm Vegetable” appetizer where raw veggies are presented in a bowl of seeds and spices that are meant to be swirled in a carrot miso dip before tapping back into the spice bowl for a coating of seeds with each bite. It was both convenient and artistic in its own way. For the main entree, Derek had a grilled walleye cooked over a wood fire with roasted potatoes and I had slow-roasted pork with turnips, arugula, and pasta. We had just enough room to splurge on a chocolate tart that was much too rich for us but still a gift to our tastebuds.
#10: Lake Michigan’s shoreline at Grant Park. It’s true that no matter where you go, people flock to the water. We had hoped to walk from Lake Park to the waterfront but the beach was overcrowded and we couldn’t find a parking space. We decided to stop by Grant Park instead on the way home and wished we could have spent even more time there. “Enter this wild wood and view the haunts of nature” was carved into the wooden archway as we crossed the bridge into the forrest. The “Seven Bridges Trail” winds through a ravine of gravel, stone paths, and foot bridges while birds chuckle from the trees. Following the trail, it suddenly opens up to a secluded beach where a few families were lounging and wading along the shore. We ceremoniously dipped our toes into the chilly waves with our shoes left on a beach log behind us as the sun began to lower on the horizon. The view reminded me of looking out on Lake Ontario while in the Porcupine Mountains on our honeymoon five years ago.
It was the perfect way to end our day in Milwaukee. We had no idea how simple it would be to visit and navigate the city. While there were a few sights we weren’t able to see, we made it the way we wanted to enjoy it. Our only expenses were meals and we were able to walk all over MKE in a timely manner. With a little over two hours to drive home, it wasn’t too difficult to make a round trip journey in a day. The only inconveniences were a little rush hour traffic and construction and a thunderstorm on the Chicago Skyway that took my breath away. All things considered, the good outweighs the bad. Explore on.