Popular culture, namely movies and television shows, can dramatically impact one’s perception of a geographic location. Laverne & ShirleyHappy Days, Wayne’s World, and for the more obscure film lovers, American Movie all depict Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as blue collar America, set amidst smokestacks, beer drinking slackers, and unfortunate hairstyles. While most viewers understand these are fictional characters, somehow the notion that the city and its people live these lives seeps into our belief systems, and a slight prejudice evolves. This German-influenced culture definitely revels in its beer, but Milwaukee has been striving for several years to shed its “drinking city” reputation.

We ventured to Milwaukee from Rockford, Illinois, to celebrate my husband, Chris’ birthday. The Midwest drive produced rolling hills, dairy farms, and a fair share of crazed drivers. Our first stop was lunch at Karl Ratzsch’s Restaurant. The establishment has been serving German fare since 1904, and the main dining room is filled with European steins, porcelain, and glassware collections.

Remarkably, our nearly two-year-old son managed the entire meal as if fine dining was a regular occurrence in his short life. Our seasoned waiter (who resembled actor Jeff Goldblum’s father) was delightful, and highly knowledgeable on the various menu items. I chose a broiled white fish, while Chris ordered the Black Forest Schnitzel, a breaded veal cutlet, layered with smoked pork, Swiss cheese, spinach, mushroom sauce, and spatzle (tiny noodles.) Aidan decided on fancy chicken tenders, and was highly satisfied. We continued the celebration with a chocolate éclair drowned in vanilla ice cream, chocolate, and cherries, and a birthday wish. Ratzsch’s exudes Old World charm, and of actor Leslie Nielsen, a younger Queen Elizabeth, and many other celebrities and dignitaries eating at Ratzsch’s, was proof positive that we might just have good taste.

In an effort to burn some lunch calories, we walked to the Historic Third Ward, which boasts the highest concentration of art galleries in the city, numerous restaurants, theatres, condominiums, unique specialty stores, and office spaces. The Milwaukee River is to the west, and Lake Michigan to the east. The bustling area surprised us, as we were expecting a tamer downtown experience. Seagulls squawked, the river flowed swiftly, and the urban city dwellers basked in the spring day.

In 1892, 16 square blocks of the historic area burned in the “Great Third Ward Fire.” Reconstruction took 30 years, and today over 400 businesses function in the mixed-use district. An $11 million renovation that began in 1999, gave the Riverwalk an urban feeling that rivals many larger cities.

After window-shopping, we found a park, where Aidan ran off excess energy. We saw several detailed art sculptures, and intricate metal archway designs. As with any city park, there was the local eccentric, sampling dandelions, and mumbling to himself. We later learned that dandelions are a delicacy, with springtime festivals named in their honor. Supposedly, some have made wine from the flowers, deep friend the flowers, or included them in fresh springtime salads. Often called a weed, Europeans have long appreciated the flower. The French cooked the greens with bacon, and Italians used them with hot peppers. The farm-raised version tends to be less bitter than the front yard fare, and should be sampled in early spring, when they are most tender. So who knew? The odd weed eater was probably an international chef, searching for the perfect ingredients. He continued taste testing the plentiful flower buffet, and we ventured down the street, where we found a fabulous paper store, called Broadway Paper

The candy-colored store is a feast for any paper lover’s senses. It has been in the current location since 2003, and offers a variety of paper wares, including wrapping paper, stationery, greeting cards, specialty paper, wedding and birth announcements, journals, and more. The cheerful staff provided us with a map, and directed us to the Wicked Hop for a beverage.

We walked a block to find the hip hangout, which offered an upstairs view of the day’s happenings. Decorated with vintage Hollywood posters and memorabilia, the establishments sells the standard soups, sandwiches, and salads, and an extensive list of beers, including Bell’s Oberon, New Glarus Spotted Cow, Guiness Stout, and Full Tilt. We chanced it with the kid, and he sat in a high bar seat. Luckily, no mishaps occurred. It was a young professional bar scene, but we did spot an unlikely site: a rat tail! Although I thought the 80s were over, this guy was not a believer. Besides the shocking hair sighting and a strong urge to locate a pair of scissors,The Wicked Hop was an enjoyable break from our downtown trek.

Full of hop, we drove to Veteran’s Park, where the rest of Wisconsin was inhaling the beautiful weather, either by paddleboat, roller blade, bicycle, or foot. The Milwaukee Art Museum is located at the south end, and a marina is located at the north end. The Lake Michigan shoreline (Milwaukee’s Lakefront) is one of Wisconsin’s great natural amenities. A collection of kites tore through the sky, and we soon saw a kite store, Gift of Wings, onsite. 

The shop sells flying cows, cars, tractors, and more, much to our son’s delight. By late afternoon, it was time for the road trip home. It was a fun day of culture, food, and outdoors. Who knew Milwaukee would offer so much diversity? Of course, as we walked to the car, we sang the requisite ‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight! Schlemiel! Schlemazl! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated’ because we were in Milwaukee after all.

To learn more about the city of Milwaukee, visit The Greater Milwaukee Convention Bureau.

More helpful resources:

Karl Ratzsch’s
The Historic Third Ward
Broadway Paper
The Wicked Hop