ROAD TRIP! Travels with Mary in Milwaukee

A Mix of Summer Fun in the City of Festivals, Art & History

Above, an adorable red panda named Dr. Erin Curry,  is just one of several new animals at the Milwaukee County Zoo. – Joel Miller/Milwaukee County Zoo

by Mary C. Galligan

You can’t beat Milwaukee for a summer getaway that combines art, culture and music, along with sunshine and cool breezes on the shores of Lake Michigan. This city of about 600,000, and the largest in the state of Wisconsin, offers a fabulous lakefront, an art museum that’s a treasure, summer festivals and many delightful attractions for adults and kids.

Milwaukee is famous for its beer and brats, but developments in recent years such as the Milwaukee Art Museum’s postmodern pavilion and the Milwaukee RiverWalk have helped create a more polished image. Downtown and the adjacent lakefront have experienced a renaissance, with the revival spreading south to historic Walker’s Point.

The stunning Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. –

Any visit to here should start at the Milwaukee Art Museum and its fabulous art collection and special exhibitions. The museum’s soaring architecture and setting on the lakefront make it a magnet for art lovers and tourists. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the museum’s Quadracci Pavilion features a movable sunscreen with a 217-foot wingspread.

This summer’s starring attraction is the special exhibition, “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood.” Through Sept. 5 you can view paintings by Benton who was inspired by cinema and who used techniques of early moving-making in his work. Benton, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, later designed and painted scenery for film sets. He gained national attention after painting murals of Indiana life for Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition.

Thomas Hart
Part of the exhibit “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” is at the Milwaukee Art Museum through Sept. 5.

The Art Museum also has one of the largest collections of Georgia O’Keeffe’s works, including the Wisconsin native’s “Poppies” from 1950 and “Hollyhock Pink with Pedernal” from 1937.  If you’re traveling with children, pick up a family art guide or check out a museum ArtPack. Then take time to watch the wings open at 10 a.m., close and reopen at noon, or close for the day at 5 p.m. (8 p.m. on Fridays). It’s an enchanting sight.

Through Labor Day, the museum is open every day, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and until 8 p.m. on Fridays. Admission is free on the first Friday of every month. The admission fee is $17 for adults, $15 for seniors and students with ID, and free for children 12 and younger.

The south lakefront area, which includes Henry Maier Festival Park, hosts festivals throughout the summer. Although this year’s Summer Fest has concluded, you can enjoy Irish Fest and Mexican Fiesta in August and the Indian Summer Festival in September.

A sloth named Fezzik is a popular new addition to the zoo. - Joel Miller/Milwaukee County Zoo
A sloth named Fezzik is a popular new addition to the zoo. – Joel Miller/Milwaukee County Zoo

Just a few blocks west of the lakefront is the historic downtown, where the two-mile RiverWalk takes you along the Milwaukee River and provides access to restaurants, brew pubs and shops. Nearby is City Hall, built in the 1890s. You’ll want to check out the 400-foot clock tower and its German Renaissance Revival design.

To find wild and endangered animals, you can’t go wrong at the Milwaukee County Zoo, located on the city’s west side. The zoo’s 200 wooded acres are home to more than 2,000 rare and exotic animals and enough rides and shows to fill an entire day, including a sky safari, child-size safari train, carousel, camel rides, pony rides, and a ropes course and skyline. Other attractions include the popular Birds of Prey show and, this summer, “Bugs! Larger Than Life,” with robotic creatures more than 200 times their actual size on display. In addition, live bugs will be featured in several large displays in an indoor enclosure.

Milwaukee Zoo
The Milwaukee County Zoo is featuring a bug exhibit – “Bugs! Larger Than Life.” –

The zoo’s summer hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission fees are $14.25 for adults, $13.25 for seniors, $11.25 for children ages three to 12, and free for children ages 2 and under. Tickets for rides and special attractions vary in price.

Other places to discover include the Milwaukee Public Museum, an excellent natural history and science museum, and the Mitchell Park Domes, located south of downtown. Designed in 1959, the Domes are three beehive-shaped glass buildings that house conservatory plants as well as tropical birds, toads and frogs.

The Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, located near the Art Museum, offers hands-on activities where kids can play while learning about art, science and math. Also nearby is the Discovery World Museum on the lakefront, which includes an aquarium and science and technology exhibits.

And for a snack or meal, visit the Milwaukee Public Market, just south of downtown, which attracts shoppers and diners to its indoor and outdoor vendors.  Also set aside time for exploring the area south of the Market which is lined with shops and restaurants.

For more information about the Milwaukee Art Museum, visit:

To learn more about the Milwaukee County Zoo, visit:

For more information about Milwaukee’s other tourist attractions, visit:

Mary C. Galligan is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago.

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