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How Milwaukee is moving beyond Happy Days

The Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum’s rooftop ‘wings’ flap at noon.


For most Canadians, the mere mention of the city of Milwaukee is likely to conjure images of beer, brats and Happy Days, and sure enough, a visitor so inclined will find several breweries, Usinger's famous sausages and a life-sized statue of Arthur Fonzarelli – the "Bronze Fonz" – all within easy reach of downtown.

But there is a lot more to this former industrial powerhouse on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. Like many blue-collar metropolises, Milwaukee has in recent years reimagined itself, conjuring a city that both reveres its past and gazes relentlessly forward. Here, 10 things that might surprise you.

1. The recession has done a number on the shopping district, but commercial Milwaukee still marches to a slightly funky beat in the historic Third Ward. Anchored by the Milwaukee Public Market, the Third Ward combines independent fashion shops and galleries with cool restaurants. Try the cheese and charcuterie platter at the Hinterland Gastropub. .

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2. Seemingly at odds with the city's storied industrial past is its astonishingly green present, featuring in excess of 6,000 hectares of parks stretching along the Lake Michigan shore. Join the locals at Bradford Beach, just more than two kilometres from downtown.

3. Find a taste of Bavaria at the Estabrook Beer Garden in a public park on the bank of the Milwaukee River. Estabrook encourages visitors to bring a picnic to enjoy with the Munich-brewed Hofbrauhaus beer, but also offers Usinger bratwurst and German-style pretzels.

4. You'd expect to find German culture, but French? On Bastille Days, one of the largest celebrations of French culture in the United States (July 10 to 13), a quarter of a million people will be treated to Madame Gigi's Outrageous French CanCans, French lessons and hourly light shows from a 13-metre replica Eiffel Tower.

5. Milwaukee has breweries and breweries have tours, but you've probably never experienced one like that at the Lakefront Brewing Co. The walkabout is a fun, sometimes comedic romp, including four six-ounce beers and a free pint glass all for $7.

6. While I've never caught the motorcycle bug, my visit to the Harley-Davidson Museum was still enough to bring out the romantic in me. The sprawling facility boasts many exhibits, but nothing quite compares to the Experience Gallery, where an interactive video allows you to throw your leg over any of more than a dozen historic motorcycles and head out on the highway.

7. And speaking of bikes, the coolest digs in Milwaukee is the two-year-old Iron Horse Hotel, perhaps the only luxe lodgings to incorporate motorcyclist-friendly elements into its design. Housed in a converted warehouse, it combines boutique hotel comfort with amenities such as tiled entryways to facilitate the removal of muddy leathers.

8. Foodies who like a dash of mystery are advised to follow the And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Crumbs group. Organizers of pop-up dinners, the team sets the theme of their meals in advance, but keeps the location secret until 48 hours in advance.

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9. You expect cheese from Wisconsin, but maybe not more than 600 varieties. Yet that's what the state produces, and up to half of them are in rotating stock at Wisconsin Cheese Mart, which claims to sell more Badger State cheese than any store on the planet.

10. Milwaukee has more than its share of eye-catching architecture, from the late-19th century City Hall to the stunning, Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum, with its rooftop "wings" that open in the morning, "flap" at noon and close with the front doors at night.

The author travelled with assistance from Visit Milwaukee, which did not review this article.

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