This article was written in 2015 and updated with 2019 information.
Add Milwaukee to Your Summer Vacation Plans – It’s Closer Than You Think
Riding the ferry to Milwaukee from Muskegon is something I’ve always wanted to do. I didn’t know much about Milwaukee other than the typical Wisconsin stereotypes: beer, cheese, and the Packers.
We were offered a chance to try out the Lake Express High Speed Ferry out of Muskegon and I jumped at the offer. I finally was going to see what Lake Michigan looked like from the other side! Time for an adventure!
The Lake Express High Speed Ferry Makes it Easy!
Traveling by ferry is much easier than air travel. There are no long lines, the baggage check is a breeze, and boarding is smooth. The terminals in Muskegon and Milwaukee are comfortable and offer snacks, as well as on-site Enterprise Car Rentals (I recommend booking ahead).
The Lake Express was a safe, comfortable 2.5 hour trip with lots of amenities. On the ferry we found:
- a light food-service menu with sandwiches, snacks, coffee, beer and wine.
- large passenger seats with table area. We took advantage of this to play games and use coloring books.
- a large upper deck to explore and view the lake.
Booking on the Lake Express just takes a few clicks and you’re in. Choose the date and time of your sailing, and decide if you want a one-way or round-trip fare.
Ferry rates depend on who is traveling and if you are bringing a vehicle along with you. We found it more economical to rent a car in Milwaukee for two days than bring our van along with us.
Finally, remember that you’re going for a boat ride.
It sounds obvious, but if you haven’t traveled on a ferry before it’s important to realize the Lake Express is taking you on a boat ride. The ferry travels in all sorts of weather.
Consequently, you may need to take Dramamine (or it’s equivalent) if you’re prone to motion sickness. Our ride over to Wisconsin was a bit choppy and I’m glad I had taken something. Our ride back was smooth and I could barely tell the boat was moving.
Revitalized Milwaukee is Cool, Cool, Cool
My stereotypes of Wisconsin kept me away for far too long. Little did I know that Milwaukee was hard at work reinventing itself, creating a vibrant city built around an amazing river waterway system.
As a result of all of this hard work, Milwaukee now showcases their river front with miles of Riverwalk, dotted with waterfront restaurants, shopping, and art.
Their Lake Michigan waterfront has been sculpted into Lakeshore State Park, a place beckoning you to get outside and enjoy the natural beauty.
Kids and Adults Have Endless Activity Options
The Safe House
My Michigan friends agreed on one thing when I asked about Milwaukee on Facebook: the Safe House was a must-do for our family in Milwaukee. We dutifully complied and entered “Safe House” into Google Maps, only knowing it would lead us to a spy-themed restaurant for dinner.
Were we ever surprised.
To enter the Safe House, visitors go through an unmarked door in an alley. You’ll find yourself in a small room where you’re put through a “spy test.” If you pass the test (I have a hunch everyone does!) or know the safe house password, you’re led through long, winding hallways until you finally reach the restaurant.
When your server seats you and you order from the menu, you may start to think you’re in a normal restaurant at this point. You’re not. After you order, you’re given a list of clues and encouraged to snoop around the restaurant. Be sure to bring quarters for this part…you’ll want to feed that machines to see what happens. Be ready for anything!
When we returned to our table, we found delicious, fresh food. I had chicken with avocado and it was scrumptious. My girls had, what would turn out to be, one of many grilled cheese sandwiches on this trip. Yum all the way around.
You’ll find a new exhibit around every corner at Discovery World–from simple machines to robots and aquariums to Great Lakes replicas. You can even visit the Kohl’s Design It! Lave where you can create free DIY projects to take home! Our next visit to Milwaukee will include more time here–we loved it!
Lakeshore State Park
We happened upon a beautiful park while walking between Discovery World and Polish Fest: Lakeshore State Park. The park’s trails offer a great spot to take in the Milwaukee skyline and Lake Michigan.
Finding these paved trails made me want to lace up my running shoes or jump on a bike – something I will be sure to do on our next visit. I love that Milwaukee is connected with a network of trails (Hank Aaron State Trail and Oak Leaf Trail are in this area) and waterways for recreation. You can even go fishing and kayaking here. So fun!
If you’re really up for adventure, you can arrive at Lakeshore State Park by boat! They have a 20-slip marina, with overnight and daytime moorage available. Make advance reservations, as this is very popular.
Milwaukee Public Market
When I heard that Milwaukee had a public market I knew we needed to go there for lunch. I was not disappointed. The local businesses, great food, and energetic atmosphere delighted all around. Definitely, put the Milwaukee Public Market on your itinerary!
My husband is a huge craft beer fan and loves to try out a local IPA when he gets a chance. We made sure to hit at least one brewery on our weekend trip, and Lakefront Brewery delivered on all fronts.
The place was hopping – even on a Saturday at 4pm – because they continuously offer brewery tours that sell out. Parents can take kids on the tour (the kids will get root beer samples) but the tours are geared toward adults.
We ate in beer hall and then ventured out onto the Riverwalk patio. Hubby sampled two different IPA’s and gave rave reviews.
Bonus: the pork tacos were divine and the girls loved their grilled cheese.
Milwaukee County Zoo
Milwaukee County Zoo spans 200 acres! It’s park-like setting and an amazing array of animals instantly draw you in. Plan to stay at least a few hours – but maybe the whole day – at the zoo.
There are also a ton of extra activities and attractions for you to choose from, including feeding the giraffes, the safari train, sky safari rides, sea lion shows and the zip line/ropes course.
Many of the exhibits allow you to get nose to nose with the animals.
We loved discovering animals we don’t get to see back in Grand Rapids, like the polar bears and elephants.
Milwaukee Public Museum
Good news! Here’s another location participating in the Association of Science and Technology reciprocal benefits –this means your Grand Rapids Public Museum Membership will get your family free admission to the Milwaukee Public Museum!
Leave yourself plenty of time for your visit to the Milwaukee Public Museum, which has an astonishing number of items on display. Life-sized replicas will thrill dinosaur lovers, and the tropical rainforest includes a climb into the tree canopy. Rock lovers, bird lovers, lovers of knowledge…rejoice…this is your place!
Be sure to fit time into your visit for a planetarium show. I’ve never been in such a large planetarium before. Your show is projected on a six-story-tall screen with wraparound digital surround sound… it is truly an experience you have to have for yourself.
You can also explore an old European village with cobbled streets and window displays of different heritages. You’ll have a chance to amble down the Streets of Old Milwaukee and see what life would have been like in days gone by.
The butterfly room was another hit with the girls. Although it’s not very big compared to the Meijer Gardens butterfly exhibit, this one is year round and the butterflies were plentiful and quite active! One butterfly landed on my head!
My girls were wide-eyed with excitement as we entered Bounce Milwaukee. This place exudes energy and fun. I’ve been in places like this before, but this was the first time I’ve encountered one set up for adult AND kid enjoyment.
The bounce houses are reinforced to accommodate adults, and all ages are free to enjoy the rock wall and laser tag. Endless arcade games are built into your wristband pass, and pizza, ice cream and other snacks are available at this indoor play arena.
Bonus: The upper level serves craft brews and the facility turns adult-only in the late evening.
Socks are required for the bounce houses. Shoes are needed for the rock wall and laser tag. If you forget your socks they have some available for purchase.
Babe’s Ice Cream
We couldn’t leave Milwaukee without eating ice cream like a local, so we headed for Babe’s Ice Cream. Although they offer vegan choices, I went with the regular turtle sundae and was in ice cream heaven. And the look on my daughter’s face below tells the rest of the story. Five stars for Babe’s Ice Cream!
Other Stops We Made While in Milwaukee
Our first official stop IN Milwaukee was at the Harley Davidson Museum. The museum resides in a modern building, made to reflect the ride itself.
When you arrive, be sure to grab the Peashooters’ guide at the admission counter and ask about the scavenger hunt. Our kids had a lot of fun searching for the various answers and received a fun prize at the gift shop for turning it in.
There is a small kids playroom if the little ones need a break, where they can dress up in Harley gear, ride a pretend cycle and enjoy games and puzzles.
The rest of the museum, although designed to hold the interest of motor loving adults, did a great job at including things for those not so interested, including a build-a-bike creation station, Evel Knievel video games and the chance to saddle up on REAL bikes!
Much like Grand Rapids, Milwaukee has a river running through it. The Milwaukee Riverwalk spans three miles along the river and through the heart of downtown. Although not a ‘must see’ destination, it is a nice, relaxing way to see the city and enjoy some fun art (including a statue of the Bronze Fonze).
Historic Third Ward and Market
If there is one thing I would put on your must-do list, the Milwaukee Art Museum would be it. The museum, comprised of three unique buildings, is absolutely breathtaking, inside and out.
The main pavilion is an architectural masterpiece designed by Santiago Calatrava, and includes a movable sunscreen with a 217-foot wingspan. Be sure to make your way to the pedestrian bridge to watch as the wings actually UNFOLD three times daily (weather permitting).
Inside you will find a great collection of art, including works by Kandinsky, Picasso, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Warhol, and a gallery showcasing Georgia O’Keefe. Do note that some of the galleries are currently under construction, so be sure to check their website before visiting.
Be sure to pick up an ArtPack activity to help your kids connect with all they are seeing. You’ll find Sketchpacks, picture books with cue cards, puppets, puzzles and more! They also offer a FREE iPod Touch Tour guide with games, videos and scavenger hunts!
You can also drop into the Kohl’s Art Generation Lab and explore what happens behind the museum.
What’s a visit to Wisconsin without cheese? We decided to take a tour of a cheese factory on our way out. This one at Clock Shadow was quick and educational. The staff did a good job of explaining the history of cheese and educating the little ones on some of its unique characteristics. We also got to taste some curds, which got mixed reviews. It’s recommended that you visit on a weekday morning, and reservations are required.
Even More Ideas to Keep You Busy
Because we went in the late fall and were only there for 2 short days, we didn’t get a chance to check out all that Milwaukee has to offer. Here are a few things that we left off the itinerary because of time or temperature, worth checking out:
- Henry Maier Festival Park – Home to many music festivals, including Summerfest – The World’s Largest Music Festival. The permanent grounds include a splashpad, playground and sky ride.
- Betty Brinn Children’s Museum – Had we younger children, we would have squeezed this in for sure.
- Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory (The Domes) – Three domes that house a variety of gardens. Be on the lookout for dinosaur bones in the Tropical Conservatory. If you’re in the area at night, drive by and see the domes glow!
- Lynden Sculpture Garden – Beautiful grounds and a great collection of sculptures.
- Miller Park – Home of the Milwaukee Brewers.
What Are Your Milwaukee Favorites?
Have you visited Milwaukee? What do you like to do there? Leave your comments below- we’d love to hear what you have to say for our next trip across the lake!