Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm
Milwaukee, one of those old blue-collar, Rust Belt cities famous for the Three Bs – beer, bratwurst and baseball – was expected to fade away as America micro-chipped her way into the Information Age. Instead, the city reinvented its downtown, leveraging one of the most seductive draws on the planet: water, water everywhere."
– Betsa Marsh, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Earlier this summer, Milwaukee hosted dozens of travel writers and photographers during the Society of American Travel Writers Central States Chapter conference. It was the first time in more than 20 years that the conference was held in Milwaukee.
The conference presented Milwaukee with a unique opportunity to impress travel writers, perhaps spurring them to write complementary articles about the city as a visitor’s destination.
It did just that.
"I thought Milwaukee was an exciting place. I had never been there before," said Libby Smith, the travel editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and chairman of the central states chapter. "I hate to say it, but my image (of Milwaukee before the conference) was from Laverne and Shirley. I hadn’t been there, and I didn’t know much about it."
A few writers who attended the conference, held in early June, have already written Milwaukee travel stories that have been published.
On July 24 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a story by travel writer Betsa Marsh, headlined, "A liquid heritage: Milwaukee toasts its riverside and lakefront development."
"I really thought it was great," Marsh said. "It’s a pretty town. I was really kind of amazed. The Calatrava is an amazing building. It’s one of the most amazing buildings I have ever seen."
Marsh writes for The Cincinnati Enquirer and the Travel Arts Syndicate. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picked up her story through the syndicate and other newspapers may do so as well. Marsh plans to write a separate story about Milwaukee for the Cincinnati publication.
In mid-July, the Des Plaines Journal (which covers the Chicago suburb), published three stories written by travel editor Todd Wessell about Milwaukee, Brady Street and the Milwaukee Press Club’s celebrity autograph collection at the Newsroom Pub.
Many Chicago area residents visit Wisconsin on a regular basis, but most go to Lake Geneva, Door County, Wisconsin Dells, the state parks or other popular tourist destinations. Few Chicago residents visit Milwaukee, other than attending Summerfest or a Brewers-Cubs game at Miller Park, Wessell said.
However, Chicago-area residents should give Milwaukee a try, he said.
"I’ve been to Milwaukee a bunch of times, but I’ve never really visited Milwaukee (before the travel writers conference)," Wessell said. "I was really impressed with it. It’s got a lot going for it. A lot’s happening. It’s small enough to be cozy. It isn’t overpowering like New York, or even Chicago can be at times. There’s a lot to do."
Wessell said he enjoyed the Alterra café on Lincoln Memorial Drive, an Edelweiss boat cruise, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Pfister Hotel, the city’s restaurants, Brady Street and the Milwaukee Press Club.
"The art museum is stupendous," he said. "(Brady Street) to me is like a lot of Chicago neighborhoods, but it has a personality of its own."
Wessell was fascinated by the signature collection at the Newsroom Pub, 137 E. Wells St. The collection includes the signatures of several U.S. presidents and numerous dignitaries, celebrities and sports figures. It’s an impressive historical collection many Milwaukeeans aren’t even aware of, even though it’s open to the public.
"To me, that was a highlight," Wessell said. "I’m a history buff. I got into all the autographs. That (collection) would be good for the Smithsonian, as far as I am concerned."
On June 19, the Chicago Tribune published a story by travel writer Alan Soloman about Milwaukee. Soloman attended the travel writers conference, but only as a speaker. His story about Milwaukee was part of a Tribune series on Midwest travel destinations.
Soloman said he was impressed with Milwaukee, and his story describes Milwaukee as a reemerging city that is shaking off the declining Rust Belt image.
"Here’s the old Milwaukee: deteriorating, largely deserted (especially at night) downtown, four major breweries, Summerfest, and for dinner: Sauerbraten. Marinated for 10 days and oven-roasted. Served with red cabbage and spaetzel. Mader’s, since 1902," Soloman wrote. "Here’s the Milwaukee waiting for us: recovering, increasing lively downtown (especially at night), thousands of new downtown condos (at booming prices), the nation’s coolest art museum building, a riverwalk, virtually non-stop festivals (including Summerfest), resurgent neighborhoods and, for dinner: Tuna au poivre. Ahi Tuna, grilled to temperature and served on wasabi mashed potatoes with spiral julienne beets, enoki mushrooms served with a mirin gastrique and a chive-infused olive oil. Sauce, since 2000."
Few Chicago residents consider Milwaukee a visitor’s destination, but more should check the city out, Soloman said.
"It’s changing," he said. "The art museum itself is reason enough to go to Milwaukee. The restaurants and the arts in general, I didn’t think were as strong as they are. Obviously, it’s a work in progress. If you’re going to do Milwaukee, you can have a wonderful three to four days, but you have to know the territory. You have to know where you are going."
Soloman said he was also surprised that Milwaukee has nice beaches on Lake Michigan and a booming downtown housing market.
"For the first time in my life, I thought I could live in Milwaukee," he said. "I never thought I could live there before."
Minneapolis Star Tribune travel writer Chris Welsch did not attend the travel writers conference, but he still wrote a story about Milwaukee recently.
"It was just a long overdue story," he said. "Because Milwaukee is our neighbor, I wanted to do a story about how things are changing there."
Most Twin Cities residents travel to Chicago instead of Milwaukee, Welsch said.
"If someone has already gone to Chicago, Milwaukee is worth a visit for the art museum alone," he said. "That building is a world treasure. Just that alone it’s worth a weekend visit. It’s a cool city to hang out in for a weekend."
Others who attended the conference say they are planning to publish Milwaukee travel stories in the future.
Smith, the Arkansas writer, said she plans to eventually write a story about Milwaukee as an attractive destination.
"I think Milwaukee is a great place to eat," she said.
Coquette Café, 316 N. Milwaukee St., was Smith’s favorite place to eat here. She also enjoyed meals at Mader’s, 1037-41 N. Old World Third St., and Karl Ratzsch’s, 320 E. Mason St.
In addition, Smith enjoyed an Edelweiss boat cruise, which she said offered a different perspective of Milwaukee.
After the conference, Smith visited Cedarburg. She stayed at the Washington House Inn, W62 N573 Washinton Ave., "a wonderful B&B," she said.
"(Cedarburg) was just a sweet town," Smith said. "I thought it had an interesting history."
Milton Fullman, a freelance travel photographer from Birmingham, Ala., and his wife, Lynn, a freelance travel writer, attended the conference and were very impressed with Milwaukee.
"It’s one of my favorite towns now," Milton Fullman said. "I thought the city was alive, I really did."
During the conference, Fullman wandered around downtown taking photographs and talking to people.
"To a person, they were pleasant and happy to be there," he said. "I was too."
Fullman said he was impressed with the Milwaukee Art Museum, the lakefront and the riverwalk.
"That new art museum is state of the art. It’s beautiful," he said. "There’s a lot going on (in downtown Milwaukee). A lot of cities don’t have that going on and they wish they did."
Fullman said he and his wife will market a Milwaukee travel story to several publications.
"I was very impressed with Milwaukee," he said. "I think they’re on the right track. I think more people need to know about Milwaukee. We don’t need to keep it a secret."
People who live in the South might find Milwaukee an attractive destination during the summer when the weather in the South is uncomfortable, but more tolerable here. In addition, the Midwest Airlines flight from Atlanta was an enjoyable experience, Fullman said.
"That is one of the most pleasant flights I have had in 25 years," he said. "It just put the fun back into air travel for me."
More Americans are taking shorter trips to closer destinations, making Milwaukee an attractive destination for many, Smith said. From Arkansas, travelers can fly Northwest Airlines to Milwaukee via a connection in Memphis, she said.
"A lot of people don’t want to go to Las Vegas or Orlando," Smith said. "A lot of people want to go to American cities, and (Milwaukee) is a great American city. It’s a wonderful city. I don’t know if I could take the winter, but it’s a great location on the lake."
August 5, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI