Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a Great Lakes city full of urban charm that strikes the right balance between big city verve and small town friendliness. Ideal for a Midwestern weekend getaway, it is easy to navigate with many of its best attractions located in the compact city center.
Year round, the Harley Davidson Museum and fun beer-making and pizza-making factory tours provide plenty of family fun. It’s very cold for much of the year, so when it warms up between Memorial Day and Labor Day, locals take advantage of the outdoors and weekly celebrations that have given Milwaukee the moniker City of Festivals. The truly brave may try a summer dip in the bracing waters of Lake Michigan, but most will be content to enjoy the water from the deck of a boat. Here’s our guide to the best attractions Milwaukee has to offer families.
Great Fun for the Kids
Betty Brinn Children’s Museum
929 E. Wisconsin Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53202
Young children should have a blast exploring this hands-on Mecca. Imaginative play is the star of the show, and young visitors are encouraged to engage in open-ended dramatic play with the help of innovative, detail-rich props. Think you want to be a mechanic? Visit the Super Service Center to do some diagnostic testing on an automobile. Want to try working in a grocery store? The Sendik’s Food Market exhibit will teach youngsters to use a touch-screen register and scan grocery items, before allowing customers to pay with a pretend credit card. In warm weather, the museum makes excellent use of its outdoor space with whimsical climbing structures and hands-on horticultural activities on the sunny, lakeside balcony.
Milwaukee Public Museum
800 W. Wells St.
Milwaukee, WI 53233
This giant natural history museum ranks among the best in the Midwest. Travel around the globe as you visit exhibits from Asia, Africa, South America and other distant locations. It houses the world’s largest known dinosaur skull, an IMAX theater, Planetarium and live Butterfly Conservatory. Families with an interest in local history should check out the Old Milwaukee exhibit which re-creates authentic street scenes straight out of the 1880s.
500 N. Harbor Dr.
Milwaukee, WI 53202
This museum highlights science and technology as it connects to the Great Lakes. It is housed in a state-of-the-art, light-filled building on the banks of Lake Michigan, so you feel immersed in the actual eco-system that you are learning about. The museum features interactive, multimedia displays with hands-on options that should appeal to very young visitors as well as their older siblings. There is even a bed of nails that you can lie down on, so there are many cool exhibits that don’t have anything to do with the Great Lakes. The schooner Denis Sullivan is docked here in summer months. A 2-hour ride on this 137-foot sailing vessel is a great way to get out on the lake.
The Milwaukee County Zoo
10001 West Blue Mound Road
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 53226
This zoo has the predictable assortment of animals that may not dazzle you if you have visited the big guns in San Diego, Berlin or the Bronx. What makes it special is the climbing wall, zip line and ropes course, excellent opportunities for active youngsters to let off steam. Speaking of steam, you can ride a steam-powered train here or hop on the sweet carousel. Our favorite part of our visit was the Kohl’s Wild Theatre. Talented young actors perform short plays multiple times daily, as well as spontaneous skits as they stroll the grounds and interact with young visitors.
Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory (The Domes)
524 S. Layton Blvd.
Milwaukee, WI 53215
These 85-foot high, three domed-glass conservatories are visually striking on the outside, and full of nature-oriented fun on the inside. Locals appropriately call these the Milwaukee Domes. Once inside, you’ll visit a jungle, a desert as well as see lovely seasonal floral displays.
Fun for Older Kids
(Up to Age 18)
400 W Canal Street
Milwaukee, WI 53201
877-HD-MUSEUM or 414/287-2789
One of Milwaukee’s biggest tourist draws is this love song to the motorcycle. This is the city where Harley-Davidson started and continues to flourish. The iconic image of a biker on a Harley looms large in pop culture. You will spot lots of kids, parents and grandparents discovering the history of Harley-Davidson and its significance in many aspects of American culture. Kids should have a blast “testing” motorcycles from the extensive archives, trying on dress-up biker clothes and hopping on a kid-sized motorcycle. The museum is full of touch-screen technology, so it should hold everyone’s attention. If you still want more, there is a casual restaurant on-site, loaded with memorabilia.
Milwaukee Art Museum
700 N. Art Museum Drive
Milwaukee, WI 53202
The MAW building alone is worth a visit. It is a lakefront ultra-modern masterpiece designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. The 25,000 piece permanent collection offers families a visual feast and is always free for children 12 and under. There is lots of programming geared to kids. The Bradley collection is an eclectic assortment of works that share the common theme of bold, bright colors. Pick up a free ArtPack before you hit the galleries and you’ll be set with pencils, paper and assorted supplies. The Kohl’s Art Generation Weekend Family Programs invite you to create a masterpiece that will enrich your museum experience. Don’t miss “Animation: Art Goes to the Movies”. This fabulous exhibit demonstrates the creative process of film animation, and engages kids with hands-on activities that will have them creating their own simple stop motion animations.
Fun for the Whole Family
701 W. Glendale Ave.
Glendale, WI 53209
Since Milwaukee is famed for its beer, the history of the city is intertwined with the breweries that provided legions of locals with employment, not to mention beverages. Today, the city is proud of its beer heritage, and throngs of tourists still crowd the many brewery tours. These tours are clearly not created with kids in mind, but young visitors do have a beverage factory tour of their very own at Sprecher's. They do brew beer here, but they are famous for their root beer, voted “Best Root Beer in the Country” by the New York Times. They produce 10 gourmet sodas, in tasty fruit flavors like orange and grape. The tour takes you through the brewing process, onwards to the bottling process and finally to the weatherproof tasting tent. Those over 21 years of age may sample from the scores of alcoholic beers that are also brewed here.
3301 W. Canal Street
Milwaukee, WI 53208
If there is a food that has more kid-appeal than soda it might be pizza, and there's a fabulous tour of the factory that makes frozen pizza to ship around the country. Watch the giant shredding machine get the cheese perfectly grated, see the assortment of toppings and learn that pepperoni is the most popular pizza topping in the land. Palermo’s was started by a Sicilian immigrant and continues to be run by the same family today, so it’s a true American success story. The tour, geared to ages 2 and up, ends with a yummy hot slice of pizza with your choice of toppings.
Summerfest is the world’s largest music festival, an 11-day early summer extravaganza. Unlike many music festivals, Summerfest is geared to families, and you will see lots of strollers parading the grounds. There is a children’s play area and refreshing fountain, and even a special kid’s day event. Very low admission prices, plus many days when kids are absolutely free make Summerfest an affordable way to hear live rock, pop, folk and world music on the 10 stages. If you are traveling with teens, they should enjoy the daily battle of the bands, where emerging talent competes for a prize. It all takes place lakefront, right in downtown. Other annual festivals with an eye towards families include Irish Fest, Mexican Fiesta and Indian Summer Festival.
Start at North Commerce Street
Milwaukee sits on the banks of Lake Michigan, but three rivers also traverse the city. RiverWalk is a wonderful place to meander and enjoy the scenic water views. Parents may take a stroll down television memory lane with a life-sized bronze statue of The King of Cool himself, The Fonz. Astute television viewers may remember that Happy Days was set in Milwaukee, and this statue pays homage to the pop icon, Arthur Fonzarelli. Kids may be familiar with Fonzie thanks to reruns, and many families stop and have their group photo taken with The Bronze Fonz.
There is an array of boating opportunities for families. Urban Ecology exploits Milwaukee’s riverside location by offering families gentle canoe excursions. Another way to enjoy the water is to rent inexpensive paddleboats and hydro-bikes at Juneau Park. You can rent a kayak at Milwaukee Kayak Company. For something on a grander scale, try a narrated sightseeing cruise on the 215-passenger Vista King or the 150-passenger Voyageur, both operated by Milwaukee Boat Line.
Fly a Kite
The breeze blowing off Lake Michigan means windy conditions are practically assured, so kite flying is a popular pastime. Gift of Wings is a whimsical shop that sells (and rents) a rainbow assortment of kites that you can fly right in Veteran’s Park, where the store is located. They even offer free lessons for novices.
Biking and Hiking
Milwaukee is a fine place to hike or cycle. The Oak Leaf Trail is an extensive network of over 100 miles of wooded parks and scenic landscapes. You may jog, walk or skate the six-mile Lakefront Trail, starting just near the Milwaukee Art Museum and running through leafy Veteran’s Park. For something short and flat, the Summerfest Island Loop is a one-mile paved loop. Midwest BikeShare has loaner bikes available at kiosks outside of Discovery World. Corey The Bike Fixer rents single and tandem bikes, and he will deliver to most hotels.
Milwaukee Brewers Baseball at Miller Park
This all-American town is the perfect setting to catch a ball game. The retractable roof makes a game here weatherproof, and large glass panels let in loads of light and allow natural grass to grow. Tailgating is an essential part of the experience, so arrive before game time. A fine assortment of hot dogs and exceptional bratwursts (a nod to the city's German heritage) is available for purchase.
For accommodation options and help with planning your trip, go to the Visit Milwaukee tourism information site.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.