State Thirty Six: Wisconsin

One major downside of being Brits and trying to visit all fifty states of the USA is that we can only venture across the pond once a year. So 13 months after our last wonderful trip to some of the New England states we were exploding with excitement as we began road trip number six, to some of the “middle bit” of America. Our first appointment, once we’d waved hello to Chicago’s O’Hare airport once again, was with America’s Dairyland – AKA Wisconsin.

For perfectly understandable reasons this is one we’d been excited about for some time. Apart from being famous for its cheese, Wisconsin is also famous for beer. And not just the mass-produced likes of Miller, the exploding craft beer scene hasn’t forgotten this corner of America.

Downtown Milwaukee is fun
Downtown Milwaukee is fun

Since we arrived in the early afternoon our first stop was a pre-dinner drink at one of the more unassuming-looking tiki bars we’ve come across. Foundation Bar is on the corner of a block in a residential area north of Milwaukee. We walked in from the sunny street to near darkness, or what felt like near darkness until our eyes acclimatised. And its a good job they did, because inside is a feast of Easter Island heads, fish tanks, bamboo panelling and most importantly of all a long list of cocktails. Hannah opted for a Royal Hawaiian while Josh supped his first beer of the trip – a Moon Man from one of Wisconsin’s finest craft brewers New Glarus. It was an excellent start to our holiday!

Butter + Cheese + Burger = delicious
Butter + Cheese + Burger = delicious

We were hungry for dinner by this point so we made the short trip to Solly’s Grille, also north of downtown Milwaukee, for a famed butter burger. We were both a little apprehensive of this, we are very familiar with a gut-busting American burger, but one with a slab (and we really do mean a slab) of butter in it for good measure? Was that too much even for us? No, as it turns out. The beautifully smooth butter on top of the cheese and a perfectly thin beef patty, combined with a fluffy bun, made for one of the best burgers we’ve ever eaten, hands down. How was the rest of the trip going to keep pace with the first two hours?!

When we finally ventured into downtown Milwaukee and checked into our basic but very reasonable Plaza Hotel bedroom, it was time for some more beers to kick off the holiday properly. We made the ten minute walk to 3rd Street, lined with plenty of German-themed bars, and ducked into the appropriately-named Uber Tap Room. The choice of beers, from 30+ taps, was mind-boggling. We tried a few, making a tiny dent in the list of those available, before we decided it was time to call it a night after a long day’s travelling.

3rd Street in Milwaukee is neat
3rd Street in Milwaukee is neat

Our first morning consisted of a leisurely walk down to the river to see the Bronze Fonz (70s/80s sitcom Happy Days was set in Milwaukee) and the Ladybug Building, before heading to the Milwaukee Art Museum to witness its really cool gimmick. Every morning at 10am the Santiago Calatrava-designed museum lifts its “wings” with the backdrop of Lake Michigan. The museum itself houses an impressive collection from Wisconsin native Georgia O’Keefe, as well as works from Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol.

Milwaukee Art Museum in full
Milwaukee Art Museum in full “wings raised” mode

After that injection of culture our next stop was with the rather more down-to-earth Harley-Davidson museum, just south of the main downtown area in a slightly unloved part of town. The museum itself is a fascinating tour of the history of an all-American company and strikes a good balance between providing too much information and not enough. Its worth the short detour out of the main part of town.

A collection of hog fuel tanks at the Harley Museum
A collection of hog fuel tanks at the Harley Museum

A number of cities we’ve been to of late have renovated their riverside areas with riverwalks (San Antonio, Providence for example) and Milwaukee has done the same. From the Harley museum we walked almost the full length of the riverwalk for our appointment with the first brewery of the trip, Lakefront. We arrived early for our tour which gave us an opportunity to sample a Wisconsin speciality, cheese curds (as well as some beer). They are delicious. Something like a mix between Greek specialities saganaki (fried cheese) and halloumi, their creamy, squeaky goodness with have you salivating in no time. The Lakefront tour, about an hour long, takes you through the brewhouse, giving a history of the company and some of their recipes, before ending with some beer tasting which is, let’s face it, the main reason for coming to a brewery. The beers are delicious, the tour is interesting and entertaining, and the tap room/restaurant is large and atmospheric. Its a great Milwaukee stop.

A selection of tasty beers from Lakefront
A selection of tasty beers from Lakefront

From Lakefront we carried on walking, back towards the lake, stopping at Landmark Lanes for a couple of games of bowling, another Milwaukee tradition (we won a game apiece, in case you’re interested). All bowled-out, we made the short walk to Comet Cafe which serves up delicious and reasonably priced traditional American fayre like the meatloaf and mac’n’cheese we sampled. Plus an extensive list of beers, naturally.

Comet Cafe is a great stop for dinner
Comet Cafe is a great stop for dinner

Our last stop of the evening was at the Up & Under Pub on Brady Street, which is lined with many a pub and bar, for a final pint. Predictably, the beer list is excellent and it seemed to be a nice neighbourhood pub, with at least three very stroke-able dogs popping in while we were there. By this time, after a lot of walking, a lot of beer and a lot of food, we were more than ready for bed!

Miss Katy's diner does mega traditional American breakkies
Miss Katy’s diner does mega traditional American breakkies

Something told us we might regret only having two nights in Milwaukee, and so we were. There is so much to do there and so many nice food and booze joints. We sampled one more on the way out, Miss Katie’s Diner, which is just off the highway on the way out of the west of the city. Our pancakes and cheesy (of course!) omelette were incredibly tasty and served up with the most polite service you could hope for. It was the perfect end to our stay in this fantastic mid-western city.

Madison State Capitol is the biggest outside of DC
Madison State Capitol is the biggest outside of DC

Josh had long harboured a desire to experience a college football game and our next stop in Milwaukee was made with that in mind, although there is much more besides to see in Madison, the State capital. Once we’d dropped our bags at the quaint (in a friendly, helpful, attractive way as opposed to rickety and weird!) Hotel Ruby Marie we had to make our way to the Camp Randall Stadium for the Wisconsin Badgers vs the Purdue Boilermakers. We’ve now sampled a few American sports, baseball, NFL, Nascar and even soccer, but college football really tops them all. The atmosphere was incredible and the entertainment on offer was superb (and helfpul if you, like us, don’t understand much of the actual game). If you ever get the chance to go to a game, grab it with both hands, its a great experience.

College football is an experience not to be missed
College football is an experience not to be missed

After the game we decided to hop back in the car and make the short trip to Middleton. Its about a 15 minute drive from Madison and is home to the National Mustard Museum. Its a little dorky, but no one (who doesn’t hate mustard…) can go a museum that boasts the largest collection of mustard memorabilia and world’s only mustard vending machine and not go away happy. In the shop you can sample any one of the hundreds of mustards they have on offer, reason enough to go in our view!

Mustard glorious mustard!
Mustard glorious mustard!

We headed back to Madison ready for a fun evening in this smart and attractive college town. We began the evening at the Up North Bar, attached to our hotel (you get a free drink token with your room!) which was friendly and atmospheric. From there we headed to the Old Fashioned, which makes a claim to be the origin of the original brandy Old Fashioned cocktail. Whether it is or it isn’t, its a mighty popular eating a drinking joint in Madison, especially on the evening of football games. We had around a 45 minute wait for a table, which merely enabled us to sample some of the cocktails and beers on offer. Once we had our table we were served up tasty grub – including our début experience of Beer Cheese Soup – along with one of the finest beers going – a Raspberry Tart, again courtesy of the geniuses at New Glarus. Full again of booze and food, we struggled back to the Ruby Marie for a sound night’s sleep.

Lake Monona in Madison
Lake Monona in Madison

Our visit to Wisconsin was almost complete, but we had a few more stops to make on the way out of the state to the west. The first of those was to the frankly delirious Wisconsin Dells. Famous for water parks and theme parks, the main street is lined with some of the most garish and outlandish scenery. We stopped at the Upside Down White House (no idea why its upside down), next to the giant Trojan Horse rollercoaster. It really is a little bit mad. Nestled behind the White House though is the Wisconsin Deer Park, a quiet little spot where you can walk amongst very friendly (and very hungry) deer. It was an unexpectedly brilliant and beautiful break on our drive. A little further on is the F.A.S.T. Corporation in Sparta, essentially a giant collection of fibreglass moulds for all kinds of things from giant devil’s heads to enormous teeth and children’s slides. It’s free and a fun stop.

A devil's head mould in Sparta
A devil’s head mould in Sparta

Our last stop in Wisconsin was right on the border with Minnesota, at La Crosse. This small town on the Mississippi River is probably home to all kinds of nice things, but that pales into insignificance compared to what we went for. La Crosse is home to the City Brewery which in turn is home to the World’s Largest Six Pack of Beer. There’s enough room inside the tanks for 22,000 barrels of beer and on the long list of “world’s largest” things, this is one of the more functional ones!

There's a lot of beer in here!
There’s a lot of beer in here!

Our trip to Wisconsin was at an end. And we’d loved every second of it. Milwaukee is one of the most unassumingly cool cities we’ve visited, with a perfect mixture of culture, food, beer and friendly people. Madison felt like an extremely liveable and fun town. And everywhere in between there was something interesting and/or weird to stop and look at. No one seems to shout about how great this place is, even though there’s much to shout about, and maybe that’s what makes it so great. Even though direct flights from the UK aren’t available, this is still a very accessible state for Europeans, Milwaukee is just 90 minutes north of Chicago. If you haven’t been to Wisconsin yet you should go, you will not regret it!

Up close and personal at the Wisconsin Deer Park
Up close and personal at the Wisconsin Deer Park

Rate the State:

Good for: beer and cheese. The fall colours were spectacular. Small and accessible cities.

Bad for: your cholesterol.

Overall: An easy 10/10

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