Cooking Light Best Cities: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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

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

Douglas Merriam

One of the first things you notice about Milwaukee is what locals fondly refer to as the "Polish Moon"-the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower that's a beacon from downtown vantage points. While the clock tower has remained the same since it was built in 1962, the city surrounding it has undergone tremendous change: a dining scene that's evolved far beyond beer and bratwurst, a world-class addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and a surge of retail and residential development. As the city continues to evolve, locals are rediscovering it every day. You can, too, with these suggestions.

Milwaukee ranked highly for a high percentage of the population who report good or better health, a high percentage who participated in physical activity during the last month, a low percentage of population with diabetes, number of farmers' markets, and a high percentage of the population who consume five or more fruits and veggies a day.

Best way to eat like a local: Milwaukee's Friday night fish suppers are a throwback to the city's melting-pot roots. Predominantly Catholic German, Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrants brought their culinary traditions to Milwaukee in the mid-19th century. Until the mid-1960s, Catholics refrained from eating meat on Fridays and fast days, and Milwaukee restaurants responded to a demand that's never waned. Popular at venues from taverns to high-end restaurants, fish dinners are now as secular as pot roast. The fish-baked or deep-fried-is often served with potato pancakes, coleslaw, and marble rye bread. Chef/co-owner George Burzynski meticulously selects the cod and lake perch at Polonez (414-482-0080), his 23-year-old Polish restaurant. A rich cream-dill sauce flavors his baked cod.

Best healthful dining: Long before there were chain juice joints, Beans and Barley (414-278-7878) was serving fresh carrot and wheatgrass juice. The café/market's success is perhaps evidence of why more than a quarter of Milwaukee residents consume the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Loyalists fill the sun-drenched dining room for Beans and Barley's dairy-free burritos, vegetarian chili, and mesclun salad with grilled veggies and herbed tofu.

Best indulgent treat: Despite an average annual temperature that hovers around 48 degrees, Milwaukee residents love frozen custard. Though it got its start on the East Coast, custard quickly became a Midwest staple after appearing at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, and now Milwaukee sells more of the creamy concoction than any other city in the country. Local favorite (it consistently ranks at the top of food critics' lists) Kopp's (414-961-3288) began in 1950 and sells basic chocolate and vanilla, plus two flavors of the day-anything from German apple streusel to Never Enough Chocolate.

Best locally grown fare: Many of the ingredients Chef John Raymond uses at Roots (414-374-8480) come from a 67-acre farm in nearby Cedarburg tended by co-owner Joe Schmidt. The duo finds creative uses for their harvest. For example, last winter Raymond crafted an unusual ice cream using Red Landis Brandywine Heirloom tomatoes preserved from the summer before. Schmidt has found that Red Landis grow particularly well in the Milwaukee area's clay soil.

Best way to stretch your sea legs: Years ago, Milwaukee used the motto "a great city on a great lake." One of the first signs of summer is sailboats on the horizon of nearby Lake Michigan, within blocks of downtown. The Milwaukee Community Sailing Center (414-277-9094) turns novices into confident sailors. The center offers lessons for all ages and maintains its own fleet of nearly 80 boats. With advanced reservations, MCSC skippers can take parties of up to four people out for a one- or two-hour sail and "mini-lesson." You can't find a better view of the downtown skyline than from a sailboat cruising along the Milwaukee shoreline.

 

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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