Skip to site content
The Group Travel Leader Small Market Meetings Going on Faith

Tap into a great time!

As if awakened by the swell of classical music released by speakers within, the Burke Brise Soleil slowly raises its winglike sunscreens to span 217 feet when completely opened, surpassing the width of a Boeing 747. Like a bird leisurely stretching its wings after a long nap, the movable architectural piece atop the Milwaukee Art Museum unfurls most mornings to welcome guests into the 341,000-square-foot museum.

Though four floors of the museum cover artistic works from the 15th to the 20th century, the white-framed glass building itself is one of the museum’s most impressive works of art, a postmodern take on a Gothic cathedral with flying buttresses and a 90-foot-high central nave.

Milwaukee showcases its brewing heyday at Pabst Mansion, top, built by Pabst Brewing Company founder Frederick Pabst.  At Miller Brewery Company, guests can see a modern brewing factory, second from top, before enjoying some Miller samples, third from top.  Ten Chimneys, bottom, the home of legendary thearter couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne preserves their memory and their fancifully decorated mansion. Courtesy Greater Milwaukee CVB

While viewing the Milwaukee skyline from the museum, I got an impression of the cultural and artistic side that runs throughout the city. Historic buildings, museums and protected green spaces hint at a Milwaukee not always seen in pop-culture images on television series such as Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley.

“People’s images of Milwaukee are from Laverne and Shirley, but Milwaukee has grown into so much more than that,” said Wendy Dobrzynski, group tour manager for Visit Milwaukee, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. “We are a sophisticated urban city with amazing history and entertainment.”

Milwaukee will showcase its range of attractions, from a tropical garden to a motorcycle museum, at the 2010 Bank Travel Conference Feb. 7-9.

One hot slot

Dollar signs and a video display of gold coins jumping around on my screen helped kick off my tour of Milwaukee at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino. Leaving the ringing Chinese-themed slot machine before my beginner’s luck wore off, I toured the 780,000-square-foot casino whose design and décor stay true to the Native American heritage of its owners, the Potawatomi tribe, or “keepers of the fire.”
A rooftop flame invites guests inside a wooden lodge-themed casino where there is an echoing grand lobby, a four-seasons-themed gambling area and paintings of Wisconsin.

“This is how it all started — as a bingo hall,” said Ryan Amundson, external communications manager for the casino, when we reached the bustling bingo hall. “It is the eighth-largest bingo hall in the world. It’s a fun way for people to play a more social game than the traditional card games or electronic machines, which we also have.”

Newly expanded in 2008 to triple its former size, the casino offers 3,100 slot machines, 20 poker tables, more than 100 table games and the 1,350-seat bingo hall. If all that gambling works up an appetite, guests can dine at a buffet, a fast-food court and fine-dining restaurants in one of the casino’s five eating areas.

Signatures lining the walls of the 500-seat Northern Lights Theater show the type of entertainment the casino draws with autographed guitars from musicians like Jewel and Ringo Starr.

Public offerings

People can find the ethnic footprints left behind in Milwaukee by following their noses at the Milwaukee Public Market, where vendors still use tasty recipes handed down through the generations from Germany, Poland, Latin America, Asia and France.

A trip down the aisles of the market offers a plethora of dining options with many premade meal options such as Polish sausages, fresh seafood dishes and delectable desserts. Started in 2006, the indoor market features seating above for people shopping on their lunch break and culinary classes for those who would like to create some cooking masterpieces themselves.

At Mader’s Restaurant, hungry patrons can dine at a more formal location to taste the culture of Milwaukee. The 1902 German restaurant started out less upscale than it is today with few decorations and a deal proclaiming a free lunch if you spent 5 cents on your beer. The city’s influx of German immigrants enjoyed the restaurant for re-creating some of their native courses.

Now, a $3 million art collection, suits of medieval armor and 14th-century antiques hang on the walls of the eating establishment. When I walked in for lunch, I felt immediately plunged into a medieval German beer hall with period costumed waitresses and stained-glass depictions of German legends.

A plaque by my seat informing me that Jack Benny once dined there turned out to be one of many references to famous people who have come to Mader’s craving some Old World cuisine.

Milwaukee Public Market not only offers a variety of foods, but also cooking classes for groups.

The next morning, with my Potawatomi winnings intact, I took a driving tour of Milwaukee past architecturally intriguing buildings such as the Basilica of St. Josaphat. In 1929, the 1901 ornate structure became the third building designated a basilica in the United States.

Because of this honor, the church must remain prepared for a papal visit at any time, which is why a chair and an umbrella stay at the front of the church, just in case. The design of the basilica echoes that of St. Peter’s in Rome, a connection easy to see as I gazed up at the huge dome, the stained-glass windows and the walls coated in inspiring artwork.

In the basement, photos and displays discuss the building’s progression, from its original construction using many recycled materials from the razed federal building in Chicago to the basilica’s restoration in the 1990s.

“The basilica is not only beautiful, but it also has a great history to it,” said Dobrzynski. “Walking inside makes you feel like you have been transported to Europe.”

Other historic buildings showcase the history of the area, including the 1927 Ambassador Hotel. The art-deco hotel still uses its original metal light fixtures, mirrored columns and decorated metal elevator doors.

How did they do that?

I turned the wheel faster and a light bulb came on literally and figuratively at Discovery World. The museum of science, technology and the natural world provided me a look at what really happens when I turn a key, pull a lever or flip on a light switch with exhibits such as a hamster running on a wheel to power a light bulb.

“We’ve lost our connection to natural and man-made wonders,” said Mike Armgardt, group sales manager for Discovery World. “In here, people can be a kid for a couple of hours and figure out the magic behind the world’s processes and technologies. It is a place where you can make things happen instead of just watching things happen.”

The museum reveals the mysterious inner workings of automation at the Rockwell Automation Dream Machine, where visitors design their own products and watch them roll off an automated assembly line. Other exhibits let guests walk in a virtual reality, touch underwater creatures and try their hand at a flight simulator used to train pilots.

The Les Paul’s House of Sound exhibit introduced me to the inner workings of the late creative genius behind the invention of the electric guitar. The influential musician, who is in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Inventing Hall of Fame, started out learning how to alter vibrations on his guitar until he tweaked his project into the model for the iconic Les Paul Gibson.

But my Milwaukee education did not end there. Afterward, I drove to one of the nation’s oldest and largest natural-history museums: the Milwaukee Public Museum. The 1882 museum presents scenes from around the world and throughout time with dioramas representing a tribal African lion hunt, a Tyrannosaurus fighting a Triceratops and a late-19th- to early-20th-century re-creation of downtown Milwaukee.

“The idea of depicting artifacts in their natural environments started in this museum,” said Jason Rehorst, special events manager for the Milwaukee Public Museum. “Prior to that, people used to just put things in cases without any explanations and little organization.”

The realism behind some of the exhibits, such as the life-size rain forest with audible birdcalls, often tricked me for a split second into expecting figures such as that of a leopard to suddenly move. The museum’s artifacts and ancient fossils cover a wide range, including one of the world’s largest gun collections and the skeleton of a woolly mammoth.

Following the museum tour, I entered the elegant 1892 Capt. Frederick Pabst Mansion. The Gilded Age Flemish Renaissance-revival house along Grand Avenue is an example of the most fashionable houses of its time, with stucco details, period furnishings and intricate ironwork commissioned by the founder of the Pabst Brewing Co.

Some of the mansion’s intriguing decorations include a chandelier with antlers and windows made from beer glasses, and they paint a fascinating picture of the Pabst family’s lifestyle.

My next stop led me to the Skylight Opera Theatre Company’s 358-seat historic Cabot Theatre. Mimicking an 18th-century European opera house, the Cabot Theatre hosts light opera and Broadway works inside the gorgeous, softly lit space with painted, curved balconies.

Visitors can watch the progression of motorcycle designs from the first attempts to the complicated modern vehicles at the Harley-Davidson Museum. Courtesy Greater Milwaukee CVB

A backstage tour of the theater not only allowed me to appreciate the hard work involved in constructing sizable props and elaborate costumes, but also told me the stories behind the theater company’s formation, including the reputed haunting by founder Clair Richardson, who declared the company would continue only over his dead body. His ashes remain in an urn under the stage to ensure that the company’s shows will go on.

Easy riders of Harleys

Driving into the parking lot of the Harley-Davidson Museum, I could hear the revving of engines from numerous motorcycles parking outside. However, I quickly learned the museum is not geared exclusively toward motorcycle fans.

“You do not need to be a motorcyclist to appreciate the Harley-Davidson Museum, because from 1902 on, motorcycles were a part of history,” said Dobrzynski. “Harley-Davidson is a true American icon, because most people know someone into Harleys. They [the museum] also have videos where individuals tell why they ride, which puts another face besides the big burley guy to show what Harley is all about.”

Inside, a long row of motorcycles illustrates the history of the vehicle from the first Harley-Davidson bike to the latest models. Interactive opportunities also helped dispel my motorcycle naivete with different engine sounds, a computer program to design my own bike and the Experience Gallery, where I swung onto a Harley while watching videos of a simulated ride across America. I could almost feel the breeze on my face as I watched the vast scenery fly by.

On my third day of touring Milwaukee, I traveled beyond the city to Genesee Depot and the home of the famous and glamorous 1920s and 1930s theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The couple helped transition acting to a more realistic style instead of melodramatic oratory style, which gained them enough fortune to design and live in the extensive Ten Chimneys property.

The Scandinavian influence and whimsical additions to the mansion hint of a life spent in theater, such as a sitting room set up like a French farce set with six entrances and exits. Other rooms claim the names of some of the stars who regularly stayed with them, such as Helen Hayes, Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier.

“Can’t you just see them sitting there talking and drinking champagne?” asked Becci Terrill, volunteer manager for Ten Chimneys. “Everything in Ten Chimneys belonged to the Lunts, and it is in the same place they left it, so you really can visualize their life here. It is one of the things that makes us so different from other houses you can tour.”

Afterward, I dined at the barbershop quartet-themed Harmony Inn in the small village of Greendale. Recorded voices singing harmonizing hellos greeted me when I entered the sophisticated yet homey restaurant full of nostalgic and quirky decorations.

Garden spots

Later, I found myself comparing two different but picturesque Milwaukee gardens at Boerner Botanical Gardens and Mitchell Park Domes.

Boerner’s outdoor gravel paths lead through colorful peonies, hostas and roses that can grow in Wisconsin’s climate. A walk past the fountains, rock streams and tall bushes gives all the charm of an English garden.

The domes contain three glassed-in gardens separated into tropical, arid and show domes. Inside the arid dome, I admired the odd twisting plants from Madagascar, and in the tropical dome, a jungle environment enveloped me with sweet smells and brightly colored exotic orchids.

“When it’s 30 degrees outside, you can come in here and meander through a tropical garden,” said Sandy Folaron, executive director of the domes. “At night, the domes have a whole different ambiance with blue lighting.”

That evening, I ate a bratwurst and cheered on the Milwaukee Brewers as they played the St. Louis Cardinals at Miller Park. Perhaps it was reflective of the amazing variety of attractions I’d seen, or perhaps it was the fact that the Brewers came from behind to win in the final innings, but my bratwurst seemed to taste extra good that evening.