Cooking Light Best Cities: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Our eighth-ranked city proves a worthy destination for food lovers, adventure seekers, and culture aficionados alike.

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Best ecosanctuary: Pristine homes frame the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center's (414-352-2880) 185 acres of woodland, lakeshore, prairie, and marshland, located on the shore of Lake Michigan just 15 minutes from downtown Milwaukee. The center is a natural fit for families, particularly since the addition of its eco-friendly education and visitors center, which includes nature exhibits, an auditorium, and a nature preschool. Hiking, geocaching (treasure hunts using a Global Positioning System [GPS] unit), and bird-watching opportunities abound. The first Saturday of each month brings the popular Raptor Saturday program, giving visitors up-close encounters with bald eagles, hawks, falcons, native Wisconsin owls, and other birds of prey.

Best outdoor adventure: Your legs and a good map are enough to explore the 20,000 acres of glacial hills, prairie restoration sites, and hardwood forests that dot the southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest (262-594-6200) 20 miles west of Milwaukee. Its 160 miles of trails are great for mountain biking or horseback riding in summer, and snowmobiling or cross-country skiing in winter. Hikers can trek the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and see a diverse landscape-from the Native American effigy mounds to drumlins (oval hills created by glaciers). History lovers will want to stop nearby to see what life was like for Wisconsin-reared author Laura Ingalls Wilder at Old World Wisconsin (262-594-6300) a living history museum steeped in 19th-century culture.

Best art and architecture: The Milwaukee Art Museum's Quadracci Pavilion (414-224-3200) was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. One of its main attractions is its 217-foot-wide retractable sunscreen that provides shade for the pavilion's glass reception hall. Drivers often pull over to watch it close and open each day. While the Bradley Gallery houses the museum's permanent collection (including German expressionist and post-World War II European art), the pavilion displays prominent traveling shows. Starting in June, you can view Camille Pissarro's impressionist landscape paintings here.

Best field trip: Moved to a new, state-of-the-art lakefront location last year, Discovery World (414-765-9966) at Pier Wisconsin is a showpiece for technology, science, and Great Lakes ecology. Its aquarium is designed to follow the voyage of a schooner departing Milwaukee from Lake Michigan up the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic and then down to the Caribbean. Displays of native marine life represent each body of water.

Best way to spend an afternoon: A century ago, produce vendors sold their wares on the streets of the Third Ward, a small district south of downtown. More recently, the area-dotted with handsome converted warehouses-has become home to various women's clothiers, modern home furnishings, and trendy gift shops. In the heart of the Ward stands Milwaukee Public Market (414-336-1111). At the enclosed market, shoppers can buy pico de gallo and homemade tortilla chips from local Mexican purveyor El Rey and hummus and falafel from Mediterranean shop Aladdin. They also peruse West Allis's 150 varieties of locally made cheeses.

WHERE TO STAY

Best retro escape: The Ambassador Hotel (from $119; 414-342-8400), recently underwent a renovation and restoration, returning the 80-year-old, 120-room hotel to its original splendor.

Best Irish inn: Milwaukee is home to one of the nation's largest Irish cultural events: The annual Irish Fest takes place August 16th to 19th this year. One of the most appropriate places to stay during the fest is the County Clare guesthouse (from $110; 888-942-5273).

Best for cyclists: In summer, guests take Hotel Metro's (from $209; 414-272-1937) bikes for a spin on the city streets and pedal the mile or so to Lincoln Memorial Drive, which offers superb views of Lake Michigan. Bike access is a free perk for those staying at the pleasant boutique-style hotel.

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