Milwaukee at Christmas
During the holidays, this city shimmers like Cinderella.
© Torsten Muller
At Christmas, luminaries and "trees'' made of red, white and green lights make Cathedral Square glow.
No one ever accused Milwaukee of being flashy.
Best known for tractors, motorcycles and beer, it’s a meat-and-potatoes kind of town, stolid and practical like the Germans who built it.
It’s not what you’d call a trendy destination. And yet every time I go there, I have a great time.
The ugly duckling has turned into a swan. Consider its landmarks — a bright-white “wing,’’ whose graceful unfurling draws sightseers to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the sliding roof of Miller Park, which tucks itself in to a musical fanfare after Brewers games.
And at night, this gray lady has a face that lights up like a kid in a candy shop.
One December, my husband and I arrived in Milwaukee’s Third Ward just as Christmas celebrations were getting under way. Red and green rockets exploded over Catalano Square, showering us with slivers of light, and draft horses pulled carriages through the streets.Once an Irish neighborhood, the Third Ward turned into a working-class Italian neighborhood after an 1892 fire wiped out 16 square blocks.
“My mother and father lived down here when they were growing up in the ’30s,’’ said Joe Randazzo, who’d come back to help build Jolly’s Gingerbread House.
“My grandparents came from Sicily, and this is where they all settled. Then everybody moved away, and it was just the pits down here. Now, there’s been a complete turnaround.’’
Shops, restaurants, theaters and museums fill the neighborhood, which adjoins downtown, and developers are turning the cream-brick warehouses into condos and lofts.
“If I could afford to live down here, I would,’’ Randazzo said.
From the square, we walked to the Broadway Theatre Center and bought tickets to Skylight Opera Theatre’s “The Christmas Schooner.’’
In the Cabot Theatre, we felt as if we were inside a Faberge egg, seated above a little main stage in one of three galleries adorned with sconces and trompe l’oeil woodwork, under a sky filled with angels and cherubim.
Then we were transported to Christmas Eve 1881, in the home of one of the German “Christmas-tree ship’’ captains who braved Lake Michigan in winter to deliver evergreens to nostalgic German immigrants in Chicago.
It’s set in Manistique, Mich., but as the family sang “O Tannenbaum,’’ and received a visit from the can-rattling Mummers, it seemed like Milwaukee, where Germans arrived first and sank deep roots.
From the theater, we walked over to one of three dozen Third Ward restaurants, this one with exposed cream-brick walls, long banquettes and a wood-burning fireplace stretched behind a glass garage door.
© Beth Gauper
In the Third Ward, a cart sells popcorn as children wait to see Santa in the Gingerbread House.
Next to us, 12 fashion-merchandising students from New York City told us they’d had a “New York-quality dinner.’’
Our inn, the County Clare, was on the other side of downtown, not far from the lakefront bluff. A Celtic-folk trio was playing in the Irish pub, where we ate corned-beef hash the next morning as the staff trimmed a Christmas tree.
From there, we drove across the Milwaukee River to Old World Third Street. It’s the remnant of the old German downtown, and its shops and turreted landmark restaurant, Mader’s, are repositories of Old World flavors.
At Usinger’s Famous Sausage, a line of customers waited patiently under turn-of-the-century murals of happy elves chasing cattle and pigs. Banners read in German, “Ham, sausage and pig stomach delight every German,” and “Yankees and French also love these German things.’’
Pig stomach doesn’t sound delightful, but it’s the favorite dish of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who visited Milwaukee in 1996 with former President Bill Clinton, who called it “America’s most German-American city.’’
At the Wisconsin Cheese Mart, Torsten was delighted to find his favorite German tilsit cheese.“We’re living in the wrong state,’’ he said. “When you look at the cheeses — oh, my God.’’ And at the Spice House, we stocked up on Ecuadorean peppercorns, saffron and tiny tubs of veal and seafood demiglace.
Across the river, we spied new townhouses, each with a dock, and the former Blatz brewery, advertising “gracious living’’ in apartments; as in Chicago and Minneapolis, empty-nesters from the suburbs are flocking back downtown.
Even Captain Frederick Pabst’s house, the home of Milwaukee’s archbishops from 1908 to 1975, came within 10 days of being torn down for a parking lot.
“This was the lucky one. This was the one that survived,’’ said Margie Seifert of Sheboygan Falls, who was selling candles in the kitchen. “Everyone who was anyone came to eat with Captain and Mrs. Pabst; Teddy Roosevelt ate in there.’’
It was decorated for the holidays, its intricate woodwork festooned with red-velvet ribbons, frosted roses and gilded pinecones. During the 1890s, Pabst became the world’s largest producer of lager beer, though Schlitz, Blatz and Miller also contributed to the town’s reputation as the beer capital of the world.
Today, only Miller remains, bought in 2002 by South African Breweries, which merged with Coors and became SABMiller, then MillerCoors.
From the Pabst Mansion, we went downtown and split a sampler of German delicacies at one of the city’s famous German restaurants.
© Beth Gauper
The Pabst Mansion celebrates A Grand Avenue Christmas.
Skaters were circling the rink in Red Arrow Park, and the streets were filled with people, going to see “A Christmas Carol’’ at the Pabst Theater and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at the Marcus Center.
Across the river, the Bucks were playing at the Bradley Center.
Milwaukee is prettiest at night, when spotlights bathe the copper cupolas, domes and gables atop downtown roofs and lights twinkle on pedestrian bridges across the river.
It’s at its best during the Holiday Lights Festival, when holiday figures shine in Pere Marquette Park, buildings are strung with lights and luminaries line sidewalks.
From downtown, we headed north along Lake Drive, hugging Lake Michigan as we drove up to Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, where Captain Pabst opened the Whitefish Bay Resort in 1889.
Our route, popular with sightseers since horse-and-buggy days, was lined with brick and half-timbered mansions, some as big as hotels.
Long ago, Milwaukee’s prospects rivaled Chicago’s. But Chicago became the great city, and Milwaukee, locals say, has had an inferiority complex ever since.
But today, Milwaukee has all the big-city attractions, but none of the pretension or high prices. You can drive there, park for nothing and walk everywhere, from river to lake. It’s gemütlich — pleasant, cozy, easygoing.
It is what it is — and for a tourist, that’s a pleasure.
Trip Tips: Milwaukee at Christmas
Getting around: It’s fairly easy to park for free, though downtown spaces fill up at night.
2017 events: Nov. 16, Tree Lighting at Red Arrow Park, followed by Holiday Lights Festival kickoff in Pere Marquette Park, with fireworks. Nov. 16-19, Best Christkindlmarket Milwaukee at Best Place. Nov., Holiday Folk Fair International at the State Fair Exposition Center in West Allis. Nov., Holiday Parade downtown. Dec., Christmas in the Ward, with fireworks at dusk.
Jingle Bus tours: For $1, you can take a 40-minute narrated tour of downtown landmarks and light displays on the Jingle Bus, which leaves from the Center Court of The Shops of Grand Avenue on Wisconsin Avenue between 6 and 8:20 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays from Nov. 17 to Dec. 30.
© Beth Gauper
A monk with a beer stein hangs above Mader's on Old World Third Street.
Accommodations: Near the river and Pere Marquette Park, the InterContinental Hotel on Kilbourn Avenue is connected to the ornate Pabst Theater and the modern Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 414-276-8686.
In the old German area on Old World Third Street, the Aloft Hotel is close to the Riverwalk and the Bradley Center.
Not far from the lake, County Clare is an Irish boutique hotel, almost walking distance from downtown. Its rooms are attractive, and a full hot breakfast is served. There’s live music in the pub (smoke may seep into the rooms upstairs). 414-272-5273.
On the edge of downtown, across the South Sixth Street bridge from the Harley Davidson Museum, the 102-room Iron Horse Hotel
occupies a renovated 1907 warehouse.
The hotel has a covered parking area for motorcycles, rag bins, an on-site bike wash, packed saddle bag lunches, road trip maps and in-room storage areas for boots, helmets and heavy riding leathers. It also accepts dogs of all sizes, 888-543-4766.
The Hilton Milwaukee City Center is a block from the deservedly popular Milwaukee Public Museum. It no longer has an indoor water park.
The Knickerbocker is well-located, a block from the lake and walking distance to downtown. The 1929 hotel now rents privately owned apartment suites and includes Osteria del Mondo, a well-regarded Italian restaurant. 414-276-8500.
The Hampton Inn and Suites Downtown Milwaukee on Wisconsin Avenue is well-located and newly refurbished. 888-271-4656.
The art-deco Ambassador Hotel also has been refurbished. It's three blocks west of the Pabst Mansion on Wisconsin Avenue.
Dining: The Milwaukee Public Market has nearly everything you'd want to pick up and eat — pastries, cheeses, sushi, fruit, soups, sandwiches, candies — and it's all on mouthwatering display. It's at the edge of downtown on Water Street, walking distance of the Historic Third Ward and its many cafes and restaurants.
On Old World Third Street, Mader’s is a great place for lunch, when prices are much reduced, 414-271-3377.
Bacchus, in the Cudahy Tower across from the Art Museum, is traditionally elegant, 414-765-1166.
Milwaukee Art Museum: The brise soleil opens at 10 a.m., closes and opens at noon, then closes at 5 p.m. Admission to the museum is $14, $12 for students, free for children 12 and under.
Pabst Mansion, Milwaukee: This gabled Flemish Renaissance Revival was built in 1892, during a time known in Milwaukee as "the Pabst Decade." A Grand Avenue Christmas tours are held daily, $9, $5 for children 6-17.
With an $11 pass, people can visit the Pabst Mansion as well as the Charles Allis Art Museum and Villa Terrace Decorative Arts museum, also decorated for the holidays.
Ice-skating: It’s free in Red Arrow Park, across from the Marcus Center, if you bring your own skates; skate rental is $3.75. The warming house has a gas fireplace and a Starbuck’s.
Nightlife: For concerts and plays at the Pabst, check at 414-286-3663. The Marcus Center presents touring Broadway shows and is the home of a symphony, ballet, opera, theater and children's theater. Check 888-612-3500.
Brewery tours: For details, see Mad about brew.
Last updated on April 20, 2017