(Tribune News Service) -- I first visited in August 2020, when the city was to have hosted the Democratic National Convention. Streets and shops were largely empty and many venues shuttered due to the pandemic. Merchants seemed thrilled to welcome a visitor (from a safe, masked, hand-sanitized distance) in town while the expected crowds stayed away.
With things getting back to normal, I returned last month and found a delightful bustle, busy restaurants and reopened venues — and the famous Midwestern Nice welcome was no less evident.
Where to stay
The Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave. The vision of businessman Guido Pfister and his son, Charles, this iconic building dating to 1893 is itself a work of art, houses the Pfisters’ vast collection of Victorian pieces and hosts an artist-in-residence program. Just walking into the lobby — soaring ceiling, ornate chandeliers and sculpted lions, Dick and Harry — is an experience.
My first visit, I stayed in the original part of the hotel, a grand and gracious section with broad hallways accessible either by elevator or the hotel’s stately staircase. The second time I stayed in the newer tower portion, added in the 1960s. This room was smaller but had a nice view of Lake Michigan a few blocks away. The hotel’s Lobby Lounge is a great place for cocktails and a snack. (It may remind you of the clubby former Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead, which has been replaced by The Whitley).
Blu, on the 23rd floor of the hotel’s tower, offers a soaring panorama of the lake and downtown. The Mason Street Grill serves an excellent steak and seafood menu with an impressive wine list. In the mornings, the Café at the Pfister is a convenient spot to pick up coffee and a muffin or croissant.
What to see
The Pabst Mansion, 2000 W. Wisconsin Ave. This stunning Gilded Age home, constructed from 1890-1892 for Captain Frederick and Maria Pabst and their family, was closed last year. A chance to see the sumptuous interior, which includes many original furnishings, was reason enough for a return visit. After the Pabsts’ deaths, the home was sold in 1908 and, for nearly 70 years, served as the archbishop’s residence and the center of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee. It faced demolition in the wrecking ball-happy 1970s. But it was spared the fate of becoming rubble and was instead added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. The Fox joined that list a year later. You can take a guided or self-guided tour, a “Blue Ribbon Happy Hour” tour or a Sunday mimosa tour. Even if you opt for the self-guided tour, the effervescent docents will answer any question you may have. One of them said I looked “so familiar.” Maybe we crossed paths last year? I am telling y’all, Midwestern Nice is a thing. pabstmansion.com.
The Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive. It’s as big as a whale (several pods of them, actually) and looks to be about to set sail. Perched on the lakeshore and boasting a nautical design, its exterior boasts the Burke Brise Soleil, 217-foot wings that fold and unfold twice a day. Its collection includes 31,000 works from antiquity to present day, including paintings, drawings, sculpture, decorative arts, textiles and more. “Americans in Spain: Painting and Travel, 1820–1920,” is on display through Oct. 3. mam.org.
The Grohmann Museum, 1000 N. Broadway. The opportunity to “experience the art of work” may seem like an odd way to vacation, but visiting this gem was the best $5 I spent here. Its fortress of a building was once home to Metropolitan Cadillac and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. It was acquired by the Milwaukee School of Engineering in 2005 and reconfigured to house the collection of Dr. Eckhart Grohmann and his wife, Ischi Grohmann. Start with the rooftop sculpture garden and work your way down through more than 1,400 paintings, sculptures and works on paper from 1580 to the present day, augmented with some enthralling video presentations. (Have you ever seen a glassblower or highway surveyor at work? It’s mesmerizing). The collection depicts vocations through the ages from alchemy, farming, mining, barbering and constructing the Tower of Babel to the practice of law and medicine to that most noble of professions, delivering the newspaper. Bonus: did you know the Cyclorama (now housed at the Atlanta History Center) was constructed in Milwaukee? A piece by one of the artists who worked on it, Richard Lorenz, is on display here. msoe.edu/grohmann-museum.
Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, 2220 N. Terrace Ave. Built in 1923, it was the home of Lloyd and Agnes Smith, who christened it Sopra Mare (“above the sea”). Lloyd was president of the AO Smith Company, which made the frames for Henry Ford’s automobiles. That apparently was a lucrative gig. The Smiths lived here with their children and in one room there’s a charming reel of home movies that show them roller-skating along the tiled floors. Agnes donated the home to be used as a museum in 1966, after Lloyd’s death. villaterrace.org.
How get around
Unless you’re headed out of town, you won’t need a car. (Handy, since rental cars are in short supply). The airport is a quick Lyft or Uber ride from downtown. I highly recommend Bublr Bikes. The rental stands are everywhere and all the bikes I checked out on both visits were in great condition. Download the app ahead of time and you’ll be on your way when you get to town. bublrbikes.org. There’s also a streetcar called The Hop (get it?) thehopmke.com.
Where to eat
The Historic Third Ward neighborhood has a bite for everyone. We loved the handmade pasta at Onesto and the lobster rolls at the St. Paul Fish Company, in the Milwaukee Public Market building. There are also chains like Shake Shack and Wahlburgers if you’re looking for something quick and familiar. And after all that bike riding, you’ll be happy to know there’s also a Drybar in this neighborhood. historicthirdward.org.
Zarletti’s downtown location, which serves delectable northern Italian cuisine, is great for a special occasion. By special, I mean we can see each other’s smiles again. When we dined here last year, each table and seat at the bar was encased in Plexiglas and masked servers slid plates through a slot. I got takeout on my return visit and teared up at the site of normal. No more Plexiglas and masks were no longer required. I apologized for getting emotional but the server wouldn’t hear it, saying something like, “This is a moment to celebrate.”
How nice, Midwestern and otherwise, indeed.
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