Meneawkee. Mahnawaukee. Mellioke. Milwaukee. The Potawatomi Native American tribe had several iterations of the word meaning “good land” and they dubbed the fertile space between what is now Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River to be pleasant, welcoming, and an ideal spot to establish roots.
Centuries later this Midwestern city of 500,000 is still a good place to live and I should know—I moved to Milwaukee six years ago without knowing a soul. I have discovered what is wonderful about my new land. I have become intimately acquainted with the cool waters of the Great Lake. Next door neighbors have become lifelong friends over backyard bonfires and hangouts at the dog park, things that seemed impossible when I lived among perpetually busy New Yorkers and then car-bound Southern Californians. And I know in my soul that, like the Potawatomi tribe so long ago, Milwaukee is truly a good place for me to lay down my own roots.
So, what makes Milwaukee a “good land” today and why should you visit this metropolis on the shores of Lake Michigan?
First there’s one ground rule: please do not refer to Milwaukee as a “mini-Chicago”. As Milwaukeeans, we’re proud of where we live—a city filled with the rumbling of Harley Davidson motorcycles, fresh craft beer, and savory cheese curds. And it’s not all beer and cheese—Milwaukee’s myriad of unique neighborhoods are home to excellent restaurants, from five-star French cuisine at Lake Park Bistro to casual tapas dishes at La Merenda.
When you live in a city that sees winter temperatures dip to “feels like -45 degrees” you appreciate every chance you get to expose your bare skin to the sunlight. Milwaukeeans come out in force between Memorial Day and Labor Day at the city’s various outdoor festivals. Take a summer stroll through one of the city’s tightknit neighborhoods and you’ll likely happen upon a local street festival. There’s the Locust Street Festival in Riverwest complete with a Beer Run (runners drink beer as they race) and plenty of local bands, the East Side Summer Soulstice Music Festival on North Avenue, the Brady Street Festival on one of Milwaukee’s most historic thoroughfares, and the Bay View Bash down on the southern end of the city. This is just the tip of the summer festival iceberg.
Milwaukeeans are a hearty bunch. Just head to Bradford Beach on New Year’s Day, and you’ll witness hundreds of locals plunging into Lake Michigan wearing swim suits and costumes (be on the lookout for the father-son duo in the Tarzan get-ups—they do the plunge every year). Even when the temperatures plummet, we pile on the layers and go for a run on the Oak Leaf Trail by the lakefront or ride our bikes to and from work. Of course there’s also good old Milwaukee beer to warm us up. While Milwaukee may have been nicknamed the “Brew City” thanks to old school breweries like Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, and Miller, there is a new craft beer renaissance occurring. Check out Lakefront Brewery’s tasting-heavy tour (featuring a free pint glass) on a Friday afternoon and stay for the traditional fish fry. Visit the Milwaukee Brewing Company in the Walkers Point neighborhood and feast on delicious food at one of the nearby Mexican restaurants afterward. Tour MillerCoors, the granddaddy of them all, and wander through the cavernous caves that were once used to keep the beer cold before the invention of refrigeration.
Milwaukee honors its history and champions locally-owned businesses. Take the Brady Street neighborhood on the city’s East Side where I live. The neighborhood is inhabited by families who’ve lived here for generations as well as many newbies like me. In the 19th century, Italian and Polish immigrants settled on and around Brady Street when they first arrived in America. An old world vibe still remains, a spirit of “keeping things local”. Step into Sciortino’s Italian Bakery, bite into a freshly filled cannoli, and delight in the sweet smells of baking bread. Shop for paper-thin prosciutto and gourmet cheese at Glorioso’s Italian Market. Grab a pint at the Roman Coin and, if you ask nicely, owner Teri Regano might just let you see the late-19th century bowling alley in the bar’s basement.
And there’s a palpable pride felt here. You spot it on people wearing the city’s area code, 414, proudly on t-shirts designed by local clothing company Too Much Rock for One Hand. You see it from the inside out at the annual Doors Open Milwaukee event, where the nooks and crannies of landmark buildings like City Hall are open to the public. And it’s felt in the parking lot at Brewers baseball games where people spend a Saturday tailgating in the summer sun.
So, Milwaukee is good because it’s just right and the spirit of “Midwestern Nice” lives in this smallish city that sits between the shores of Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River.