I had the pleasure of traveling to my old stomping grounds this past weekend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While I was excited to meet up with good friends and visit some of my old haunts, I was not prepared for how much I had missed what this city has to offer. Not only did I wax nostalgic at a part of my life gone by, but I found a new appreciation for this town that I enjoyed so much.
Here are some of my musings from Milwaukee:
1. The air is CLEAN. When I first stepped out of the car, I was greeted by this cool, crisp air that just felt, well, CLEAN. I remember my years on the Marquette University campus where, on a good day, you got wafts of Ambrosia Chocolate Factory, and on the bad days, the tannery. And there was always that strong odor of hops and barley permeating from the brewery that seems to be Milwaukee's trademark smell.
2. The city is easy to navigate. OK, so I am well known for not being able to find my way out of a paper bag, but Milwaukee's road system is set up just for people like me. I-94 will take you pretty much anywhere, and the north-south streets are numbered so if you know how to count, you can get from here to there with little or no problem.
3. There's so much to DO. We didn't even scratch the surface of all I wanted to see and show this weekend. We drove straight to the Lakefront and wandered down a beautiful stretch of walkways, marveling at all the sailboats that were out on Lake Michigan on this 40 degree day.
We happened upon a place right on the Lake called Discovery World, and not knowing what it was, went in to check it out. This is a fabulous, 120,000-square foot facility that includes interactive science, technology and freshwater exhibits, learning labs, theaters, television and audio studios, and fresh and saltwater aquariums. I got to touch a stingray, view some amazing jellyfish, and see the world's largest model of the Great Lakes. We didn't have time to see the whole facility, but you can bet I will be back with my kids to explore it in full.
Next door was the amazingly impressive architectural structure known as the Milwaukee Art Museum. Again, it was too late to take a tour, but just strolling around the outside of the building on this gorgeous day was enough for me.
From there we headed to the Historic Third Ward, where we experienced the Milwaukee Public Market. Kind of like a mini Pike Place Market of Seattle fame, this indoor mecca contained everything from wine tasting and coffee, to fresh fish, ethnic foods and homemade chocolates.
Ready to imbibe in the beers that make Milwaukee famous, we found the Milwaukee Ale House, a large but cozy neighborhood micro-brewery. Now I'm a Guinness fan, but wanted to sample some of their own brews, and the bartender recommended their Sheepshead Stout. I hesitate to say this, but I found it as drinkable if not more so than my old Irish fave.
Which leads me to my next point:
4. Milwaukee is not smoke-free. I guess it never occurred to me, but when I walked in the bar, my first breath filled my lungs with cigar smoke. Looking around, I realized that the no-smoking law had not made its way up north. It never bothered me that much when smoking was allowed in the Peoria establishments, but after NOT having to deal with it for so long, I found it slightly irritating. But I pressed on...
5. Yummy Bloody Marys. With apologies to my favorite bartender at Sullivan's in the Heights, my love for Bloody Marys originated in Milwaukee. When I moved to Peoria and would order one, I would get some tomato mix concoction with a celery stick. Uh, NO. Milwaukeeans do their Bloody Marys right... a pleasing blend of vodka, tomato and spices, garnished with olives, a pickle spear, and last but not least, a shot of beer. The pickle is the perfect complement to the tomato flavors, and the beer takes the edge off the spice. When will the people of Illinois get on board with this?
6. Stop-and-go lights, bubblers, and Packers, eh? Yeah, I had forgotten about the accents up here - the one I used to have and is SO easy to pick up. Milwaukeeans seem to have their own vocabulary, and though at times it does still make me laugh, I find it quite endearing.
7. Hiking is a big deal, and there's a ton of places to do it. We were directed to Lapham Peak, a part of the Kettle Moraine State Park. This gorgeous area has more than 20 miles of hiking trails (and in the winter, cross-country skiing including miles of lighted trails), the highlight being the amazing view from the 45-foot observation tower atop the highest point in Waukesha County (1,233 feet above sea level). Though the trees up here were not at their colorful peak, the view was gorgeous, the trails paved and the scenery unbelievably breathtaking.
8. Milwaukeeans are nice people. We ate breakfast at the Wisconsin Machine Shed, where we gorged ourselves on calorie-laden, artery clogging brunch items and passed on the cinnamon rolls literally as big as your head. But what I noticed not only here but all weekend was the strong sense of family. Large families. Parents, grandparents and kids all eating breakfast together, hiking together, and seeing the sights together. It was really very heart-warming to see that still exists in a town that has the potential to rival Chicago as a bustling, too-busy-to-stop-and-talk city.
I found myself surprisingly happy and content to be back in Milwaukee, and saddened when it was time to leave. But I do know that I plan to return soon. I have gotten into the habit of taking my kids to either Chicago or St. Louis for a getaway weekend, and have completely forgotten about the town that I once called home. Now that I have been back and seen it with older yet fresher eyes, you can bet that it will be the next out-of-town destination on my list for my kids and me.
You know what I mean, eh?