Welcome to a place with lakefront views, a beautiful riverwalk, a great food scene including lots of vegan options, many fitness options, and a great balance of culture and nature!
I lived in Milwaukee for a month this past summer while doing an away rotation there, and loved it! It is such a unique city with so much to do and a great balance of city action with nature and a relaxed Midwest atmosphere! I loved exploring the food, fitness, dance, arts and culture, and outdoors and am excited to share it all with you!
In terms of transportation, it is definitely easiest to have a car, especially if you want to go to Wauwatosa or places nearby that aren’t directly downtown. But if you are just visiting for a weekend and are staying downtown, there are buses and it is pretty walkable!
There are also city bikes called Bublr Bikes spread around downtown that are easy to use and a fun way to get around and explore. You download the app, and then pick them up and drop off at various locations, and one person can check out up to 4 bikes at a time, so if you are with a group, you don’t all need to get the app - you can get a discount for students or healthcare workers!
Some food spots even give you a discount if you bike there, which is cool - you have to pay $5 and signup at bicyclebenefits.org/ and then put the sticker on your helmet and show it, so if you are going to be in Milwaukee for a while, you could consider this!
If you are driving, parking is pretty easy to find and often free during evenings and weekends! Click here for more information on street parking and you can sign up for temporary free overnight parking for up to 3 nights here and Saturday nights have free parking overnight. You can get an overnight parking pass for $20 that lasts up to 4 months. There are specific rules about which side of the street you can park on overnight if you are street parking (generally it is even street number sides on even dates and vice versa), so just be sure to check online to be up to date on this in case anything changes.
Alright, now let’s get into the fun things!
It’s not all just beer and cheese, despite what people classically think of as Milwaukee food!
There are a lot of cool markets, many of which are quite new, in Milwaukee, which is a fun way to explore a lot of food variety in one place and great for a group outing so everyone can find something they like.
This is the most well-known market, and is right in the Third Ward, which is the main area of restaurants and shopping just off the river! It has a wide variety of food, grocery, snack, and souvenir shops. My favorite there would be On The Bus, a vegan food stand made with the front of an old VW bus! They also have a lot of events, including cooking classes that sound really fun! I like The Spice House (which also has a stand-alone location in the Old World Third Street German area) for many unique spices (I got lemon, lime, and orange dried zest there, which I was very excited about as it saves a lot of time when making a recipe that needs zest).
A cool newer market with a lot of food options, including Make Waves, a sandwich, salad, and smoothie spot with tasty options that are mostly, if not all, vegan. They also have a mini wine shop from Strange Town (see info on this restaurant laer) and food from cuisine styles around the world. They also have some games and other activities there as well.
A food court with a colorful mural outside I walked by, but didn’t have a chance to eat at, that has a cafe, Indian food, pasta bar, ice cream, and more.
There are many farmers' markets in the Milwaukee area (click here for a guide), which are fun to check out during the summer! I went to the Wauwatosa one, which was lovely and had a lot of tasty free samples as well as outdoor yoga! I also stopped by the market in Cathedral Square, which was small but nice - on Thursday evenings they have free live jazz at this park too with food trucks!
If you can go to downtown Wauwatosa (driving or by bus), I would definitely recommend it - it is very cute and a quick excursion with lots of great food and fun shops, especially if you go during their Tosa Fest or Farmer's Market. Then you can check out the food places I mention that are there too!
Wisconsin is of course famous for cheese, so if that is something you enjoy, the Wisconsin Cheese Mart in the Old World Third Street German Area is a good choice! They have many free samples and a wide variety of cheeses and cheese-themed souvenirs (for example, if you need a Wisconsin cheesehead haha).
Casual/quick food spots
*in addition to the markets and places mentioned above
This was the place I went to the most during my time in Milwaukee - it was very close to the clinic I was at (technically in Wauwatosa), and so tasty with so many amazing options so I wanted to be able to try multiple dishes! It was a great, bright, plant-filled place to study and do work as well. It is all vegan and has creative dishes, such as a poke bowl with lox made from carrots. They have a weekly rotating French toast flavor, and many smoothies and non-coffee lattes (like matcha, beet, spirulina, etc), as well as coffees. They have grab-and-go options as well and a great mix of sweet and savory options. They have yoga once a month on the weekend followed by juice, which sounds fun!
Colectivo is a chain of coffee shops that started in Milwaukee and is now in Chicago as well. There are many locations, and they have a big menu including vegan and vegetarian options for food and drinks! My favorite location in Milwaukee is the lakefront location - it is such a great spot with lakefront views and a lovely patio!
This is a great salad and juice bar near Third Ward. You can build your own meal as well as ordering from their menu, and their ingredients are very fresh and healthy. Great for vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free offerings!
I don’t drink or like beer (and still thrived in Milwaukee, so if you also don’t like beer, it’s ok!), but Milwaukee is famous for beer and breweries, so when I heard that they had an all-vegan brewery, I figured I should at least check out the food there! It is a cool spot to hangout with arcade machines inside and a nice patio, and non-vegans will enjoy it as well! They host a vegan night market the first Thursday night of each month with some local vegan vendors. I tried their carrot street tacos, and thought they were tasty!
Beerline Cafe is an all-vegetarian cafe in the Beerline section of the Milwaukee Riverwalk, with many vegan and gluten-free options! It has a great patio, and the inside is really cool too - there is a whole wall of real vines hanging down from the ceiling and it’s decorated with local artwork. They focus on sustainability and minimizing their environmental impact, and carry locally made baked goods, coffee, and beer. It has won awards for Best Green Business and Best Vegan Restaurant in Milwaukee! They have a great variety of sweet and savory foods with both healthy and indulgent options. I got their vegan cinnamon roll pancakes, which were incredible!
This is a cute blend of a sit-down restaurant, grab-and-go market/cafe, and a gift shop! And it’s all vegetarian with plenty of vegan options! Their ingredients are locally sourced and I had a great brunch here and got some fun gifts for friends and family too. They have composting in the restaurant for any food bits left over, which is great!
This is in downtown Wauwatosa and is a great French cafe and bakery! They have sit-down meals, or you can just enjoy a delicious and beautiful pastry! It is a very nice atmosphere and you can pretend you are in France while enjoying tasty food.
This is in Wauwatosa but their chocolate is sold at shops throughout the city (such as at Beans and Barley) and it is an all-vegan chocolate shop with creative flavors. They also do chocolate-making classes, and sell cacao butter and vegan gelato! Their chocolate was delicious, and you can sample flavors to help decide what to get.
This place was AMAZING, I got so many delicious desserts here! They are an all-vegan, all-gluten-free bakery that uses healthier, unprocessed ingredients to bake delicious creations. They have breads, muffins, scones, cookies, cupcakes, tiramisu (so good), cakes, and more! They often do sales of their frozen baked goods too. We got a lot of things here for my sister and she said they were the best gluten-free baked goods she had ever had!
Purple Door ice cream is a nationally-awarded ice cream shop in Milwaukee that has a ton of rotating flavors, including many vegan options. I tried their dark chocolate and purple moon flavors with my boyfriend, and both were delicious! Purple moon is a popular flavor in Wisconsin (I’d never heard of it before!), which is citrus, almond, and berries. Their shop also makes an effort to be sustainable and reduce waste in the design and operations, and they donate a portion of their proceeds towards homeless shelters in the city.
A popsicle shop that is very cute and has many unique, creative flavors! The flavors rotate but they always include dairy-free and vegan options. If you scroll down to sign up for their newsletter on their website, you can get a free pop! They have a storefront, but it is far from downtown, and they also pop up at the Public Market and other locations.
The coolest spot! Great for a date night or fancy dinner, even if your dining buddies aren’t vegan (my parents loved it). This was number one on my list to go to for unique vegan food in Milwaukee and it exceeded my expectations! Strange Town is a woman-owned, all-vegan natural wine bar with creative seasonal small plates (perfect for sharing). My mom loves wine, and thought the wine here was wonderful and they had very cool options. The atmosphere is so pretty, with tons of plants in a beautiful old building, and outdoor seating in the shade of trees not far from the lakefront. They are very social-justice-oriented as well as being focused on sustainability and all-vegan, natural, local foods. Their menu changes seasonally and is always full of unique and tasty options, and I hope to go back again someday! I also hope they start serving brunch someday because I am sure it would be incredible!
Sweet Diner is a delicious brunch spot in Third Ward with creative dishes such as cinnamon roll French toast! They don’t take reservations, so be prepared to put your name down and wait, but you can wander around the streets and shops or riverwalk nearby while waiting and there’s lots of explore. They have gluten-free options available and their pancakes and waffles can be made vegan or gluten-free upon request. It is very cute and much bigger inside than it looks from the outside.
An all-vegan brunch spot with a cute atmosphere! They have tons of delicious options, both sweet and savory, and it is on a cozy little corner with fun artwork inside and nice outdoor seating.
I love the charming quirky but elegant atmosphere here - it is a fancy restaurant but full of duck decorations, so it isn’t too serious! They were so allergy-conscious - they even prepared an annotated menu ahead of time for my boyfriend (who has allergies to some nuts but not all) to share which dishes contained the nuts he is allergic to, which could be modified, and which he could order as is. I have never seen another restaurant do that, so it was so nice and unexpected, and made it a lot easier for us to order. Many of their dishes are vegan or can be modified to be vegan as well. The food was delicious and one of our favorite dinners we have had!
Near the riverwalk and a very pretty spot! I had a great dinner here and it is often recommended by locals! Their menu is smaller than some other restaurants, but they really perfect each dish. We ordered the same pasta twice because it was so good! It has a nice atmosphere for a date night.
Other restaurants that I heard great things about but did not go to are: Cafe Hollander, Wicked Hop, Dorsia (some vegan options), The Diplomat, Benelux (often recommended for brunch, but didn’t seem to have vegan options), Centro Cafe (has vegan pasta options). There are of course many more, especially in the Third Ward area. For famous German food options, see the section below about the Old World Third Street.
As I mentioned above, Bublr Bikes are a fun way to explore the city and you can find them around downtown! Biking, running, rollerblading, or walking along the Lakefront trail is great - you can see the city views as well as some nice nature trails. You can also kayak or paddleboard. You will go past the art museum and other fun sights! There is also a section not far from Bradford Beach that has some outdoor workout equipment. There are other great hiking trails too - here is a list.
They also have a lot of free outdoor yoga classes, which is great to do during the summer - I went to one at the Wauwatosa Farmer’s Market!
I found many great fitness studios here with free or discounted offers for first-time clients, which was a great way to try new classes and save money! Here are the ones I tried:
Brew Fitness offers a free 10-day membership and they have a variety of cardio and strength classes in a very cool facility. It was very fun and motivating, and I liked the colorful lights! If you like beer, this is a great place for you because they serve a rotating beer on tap after the class (I think it is free), which is very Milwaukee. They have showers and a locker room. This had easy-to-find street parking.
Train Moment (which is actually also in Chicago) offers 2 weeks of unlimited classes as an intro trial, including a guest pass so you can bring someone with you, for $29. Their classes involve rotating through stations of a bench press, rig with bands and free weights, and a cool climbing cardio machine. Each day of the week has a different focus/theme. They have a nicer locker room and showers. On weekends and evenings, you can park for free on a nearby street.
Power Milwaukee offers a free 2-week trial, which is a pretty cool deal! They have bootcamp style classes where you rotate between different stations. They have a few different class types, and it was fun. The studio has a view of Cathedral Square Park across the street, which is a nice park with a farmers’ market on weekends and jazz on Thursdays. Of note, they do not have showers here, just a bathroom and I got very sweaty from the challenging class, so definitely take that into account when making plans following your workout. Give yourself a bit of extra time to find street parking, and if you are going on a Thursday summer evening when they have the jazz in the park, it can be harder to find parking nearby.
Brew Fitness, Train Moment, and Power all had similar types of classes where they alternated strength and cardio, which are very different from the types of workouts I normally do, so this was a fun challenge and I enjoyed it!
Flying Squirrel Pilates is a very cute pilates studio that has both reformer and mat classes - you can get 3 mat classes for $15 or 2 reformer classes for $25. They were voted Best Pilates Studio in Milwaukee for 2022, and it seems well deserved! They had a very friendly community, and the owner was so nice and her advanced reformer class was one of the most creative and challenging Pilates classes I have ever taken! They have classes for all levels. This is in Third Ward and not far from Train Moment, so not hard to find street parking and it is free on weekends and evenings. The building it is in also has some poke bowls and donuts, if that’s something you want to check out after class.
Soul Collective is a very unique yoga, workout, movement space and community in a cool studio space that offers a wide variety of classes. Your first class is $11 and on Fridays (sign up after 5 AM) they have $5 classes! They kind of have a shower if you really need it (it is shared with the whole building and on a separate floor and not really used, so you’d need to bring your own towel, shampoo, etc) but clients usually just go home to shower. They have a little shop with local crafts and jewelry, and even have a little cozy seating area with tea, etc where people hang out or do work. There is a free parking lot across from the studio.
Of course, I had to find a barre studio, and The Barre Code is a local midwest chain of barre studios with a great spot in Milwaukee’s Third Ward! The studio looks out right over the river, which is a beautiful view during class (I definitely recommend being at a barre near the window) and the space is really nice. The owner is so kind and such a great teacher! Since it is in a popular and busy area, definitely give yourself some time to park or you can park closer to Train Moment and it isn’t a far walk. They offer 3 free classes for new clients! They have barre classes as well as strength and bootcamp (cardio) focused classes.
I was so excited to be able to take ballet classes during my stay in Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Ballet - they have 2 studios (one is slightly outside the city, so I didn’t go there but it is not far with driving) with multiple class times and levels. I took the intermediate/advanced class and it was great! The studio space is beautiful and there is a ton of free parking nearby, but also not a far walk from Third Ward.
Sightseeing and Things to Do
My number 1 and 2 recommendations if the weather is nice is to walk along the Lakefront and the Riverwalk! Both are beautiful and provide a great way to explore the city. The streets near and parallel to the Lakefront have many beautiful houses and are a nice place to walk.
The Milwaukee Art Museum is along the lakefront, and is a really cool building - it has wings that are open when the weather is not too windy! I loved this museum, and they have a student discount. They have a great mix of modern and classical art, even artistic furniture, and a glass Chihuly sculpture! It has nice seating facing the lakefront where you can sit and enjoy the views, which is nice on a rainy day.
Near the Lakefront in Third Ward is the Henry W. Maier Festival Park, which hosts Summerfest (the world’s largest music festival) and other festivals in Milwaukee. Summerfest was not happening during my time in Milwaukee, but they have really major, famous artists and it is a big deal!
There is so much free music in the city and lots of events going on, especially in the summer - here is a guide for free music and here is a guide for summer festivals.
The Riverwalk was redone relatively recently and has a lot of artwork and sculptures along it, which includes both permanent pieces and temporary installations. It is quite long but you can easily walk the length of it in a few hours as a fun sightseeing activity! It connects three different neighborhoods along the river: Historic Third Ward, Downtown, and Beerline B. Each neighborhood has a distinct character, so you can venture off the Riverwalk to explore.
Third Ward has a lot of restaurants and shops (I liked the shop Mod Gen, which had gifts, plants, snacks, books, and more) and is a great place to walk around and explore. Definitely a top recommendation!
The Beerline area is more residential but has restaurants and the Schlitz Beer Park, which has activities and pop-up food and drink in nice weather. Towards the end of the Riverwalk in the Beerline area, it is very quiet and there is a nice little nature park and walk.
Not far off of the Riverwalk is the Old World Third Street, where you can best appreciate Milwaukee’s German heritage. It is about three blocks and has 19th-century style buildings, the Cheese Mart, The Spice House (both mentioned earlier), and other famous food such as Usinger’s Sausage, the Old German Beer Hall, The Brat House, and Mader’s (which has been around for over 100 years). It is near the Bucks Stadium area, which is a lively place full of restaurants and bars.
There are many theatres downtown and lots of concerts and shows come through Milwaukee, so check out if there’s anything you like playing during your visit! The Milwaukee Ballet and Symphony are very good and have shows often as well!
Up on a hill overlooking the Lakefront is a beautiful area of old, elaborate houses, a lighthouse, and a historic water tower. If you park or start near Bradford Beach, you can walk up a path up the hill towards the historic water tower and then look at the pretty houses there. It seems like a great spot for a picnic, as there are benches facing the lake. The North Point Lighthouse is cool to see as well.
One of my favorite things is also near the water tower and lighthouse - the Villa Terrace Arts Museum. This is a beautiful building with a courtyard and gardens that will make you feel like you are in Italy! They do yoga and events such as a butterfly release in the summer. You can see it from the Lakefront and it is so pretty!
Not far from the historic water tower area is Black Cat Alley, an alley covered in creative and thoughtful murals - even the ground has some paintings. This is right by the Crossroads Collective and not far from Blooming Lotus Bakery, Beans and Barley, Strange Town, or The Lafayette Place if you need some refreshments! There is also a cat cafe by the alley entrance called Sip and Purr. The streets around the alley have a lot of restaurants and shops, so it is a fun area to walk around and explore. Brady Street is a popular street with restaurants and bars and very lively to walk on.
A great activity for a rainy or cold day is to go to the Mitchell Park Domes. (PS if you visit on a Wednesday, you get a fun plant sticker). There are three domes, with different themes of desert, floral, and tropical and they are so pretty and a nice chance to be in nature. They also do different plant exhibitions and events.
If you are a sports fan, Milwaukee has a lot of great options: You can see games of Brewers’ baseball, Bucks basketball, Wave soccer, Admirals ice hockey, or college or non-professional sports games. I didn’t have a chance to go to any games while I was there, but Milwaukee is very into their sports and I have heard that the games have great energy and spirit!
There are cool vintage and other unique shops in Milwaukee - I found some great clothes at Dandy Vintage! Some other shops and places I saw or heard of: Plume Vintage, Stump (plant shop), the Vintage Glass Garden, Rainbow Booksellers (has a giant bookshelf mural outside, a great spot for a picture), Rooked Milwaukee (BIPOC children’s bookstore, near Rainbow booksellers), Maranta Plant Shop (Milwaukee’s first Black-owned plant shop), Niche Book Bar (a cafe/bookshop), the Harley Davidson Museum (unique to Milwaukee and supposed to be cool if you like motorcycles), and there is a Bobblehead museum (seems very unique, haven’t heard what it is like). More shops than I expected were closed on Sundays in the summer, so be sure to check store hours!
I hope you get a chance to visit Milwaukee and that you enjoy it as much as I did! As you can see, there are many wonderful things to eat, see, and do! If you visit anything I recommended, I would love to hear about it, and if you discover anything new, please let me know!