As a newcomer to Milwaukee, you get a lot of friendly advice from the true-to-reputation affable locals. They will tell you which breweries to visit (each has its own idea of how educational a tour should be), which restaurants to eat at, and about Summerfest and fried cheese curds. But when you first physically arrive here, and you make it to the sparkling, Bahaman-blue water of Lake Michigan, it tweaks something in your inner compass. The water stretches all the way to the horizon, where you thought you might be able to see…land? Another state perhaps? But you’re suddenly on a coast, and it’s your duty to explore.
Lots of things make Milwaukee unique. There’s a rich, up-and-coming culinary culture, a killer music scene, fun bars, and plenty of cheerful locals to clink beer mugs with. But if you’re visiting Milwaukee for the first time, or you’re just settling into your new hometown, (or you’ve been here for decades and need a refresher), don’t miss the sights along the lakefront. The natural beauty of this place transcends culture. And you need something to do before the brewery opens anyway.
Glimpse the Skyline from Bay View Park
From a tucked away park bench, you can enjoy the tree-lined shore of Lake Michigan, and to the north – a glimpse of the Downtown Milwaukee Skyline. From this distance, the urban expanse is serene and quiet, which provides a good initial, outsider’s perspective of Brew City.
Grab a Beer at the South Shore Terrace Kitchen and Beer Garden
This is a great stop for the newcomer and veteran alike, as it’s a great place to grab two mainstays of Wisconsin culture: beer and pub grub, while simultaneously giving a fantastic view of the lake and South Shore Yacht club. There’s also a top-notch playground for the kids (and unabashed adults), as well as some cool sculptures.
View the Off-Season Summerfest Grounds from Lakeshore State Park
It’s a great place for spotting migratory birds (like the Double Crested Cormorant and Black Bellied Plover) who find the native prairie grasses a welcome stop on their migrations. This park can be a great stroll to escape the hubbub of downtown or festivities on the Summerfest grounds.
Enjoy the “Wind Leaves” Sculpture Outside Discovery World
These 30-foot-tall, glittering aluminum and stainless steel structures by Ned Kahn look like spinning taco shells at first glance. If you sit to take in the spectacle, you’re actually part of the work, as the benches are functional xylophones, with mallets attached to create your own melodies. Sit here to watch the undulating reflections of the city and the sky, and maybe do some quiet reflecting yourself.
Survey the Sailboat Menagerie at McKinley Marina
If you follow the Oak Leaf Trail up past the Art Museum and into Veterans Park, and take it to the northern portion toward the lake, the walkway on the jetty gives you great views of the Milwaukee skyline (definitely worth a touristy panoramic shot with your phone). With McKinley Marina just to the north, this makes it prime sailboat viewing too. The sailing culture is rich here in Milwaukee, not something that comes to mind if you’re new to town.
Explore the Oddities at the Shorewood Nature Preserve
A great little escape from the city without going too far, this series of trails lead you to the lake and around a woodsy nature preserve. There are a few hidden oddities here if you explore a bit, which makes it an excellent place to make up spooky stories to scare your hiking companions (or if you’re solo, to convince yourself of and flee the preserve).
Watch the Sunrise Behind the Burke Brise Soleil
From the Oak Leaf Trail, you can witness truly awesome sights, at distinct times during the day. Sunrise can be a spectacular, coming up blazing orange over the lake, with the skeletal, postmodern architecture of the Art Museum behind you. The great wings (“Burke Brise Soleil”) of the museum spread open at 10 am, closing and reopening at noon, then closing again at 5 pm. As a centerpiece of the downtown lakefront, the Art Museum and its collections are not to be skipped, but don’t forget the walk by the water for an exhibition by Mother Nature, free of charge.
Climb the Long Staircase at Atwater Park
A short drive north from the busier Bradford Beach, this beach makes you work for it. The long, winding walkway and steep stairway descend upon a more private place to enjoy the sandy splendor of lake beach life. On strong north or south wind swells, surfers flock here to catch some rides. Milwaukee has plenty of surprises up its sleeve for those adventurous enough to seek them out.