Milwaukee Lakefront Walking Tour

Milwaukee Skyline And Shoreline Aerial
Davel5957 / Getty Images

Milwaukee's downtown lakefront is home to some of the most well-recognized landmarks in the city, and the best way to see it all is with a lakefront walking tour. After all, the view over Lake Michigan is spectacular year round, and the famed architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum has yet to detract from a photograph.

The public-access lakefront is situated in what is primarily a business district, a neighborhood called both East Town and Juneau Town, depending on who you're talking to. This area has seen an influx of wealthier residents making their homes among the high rises in the past two decades, however, largely due to the condo craze that has changed the face of what was recently a blighted downtown. New boutiques, chic restaurants, public art projects, and walking trails are also breathing new life into the area.

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The Calling

Structure in O'Donell Park, owned by the Milwaukee Museum of Art (seen in the background)
Psanchez820 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Wisconsin Avenue and Mason Street

We’ll start at the top of Wisconsin Avenue, one of the main, and oldest, thoroughfares of the city. Here you’ll note a large, orange steel sculpture, generally known by Milwaukeeans as "the Sunburst," although its real title is "The Calling," by Mark di Suvero.

This sculpture, although admired by some, is actually a point of contention among local art critics -- although the public art of Milwaukee almost always is. In the past, it was merely criticized for being "too industrial," but in the years since the addition of the Quadracci Pavilion on the Milwaukee Art Museum, critics have looked down on the sculpture for blocking the view of the newer building from Wisconsin Avenue.

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Betty Brinn Children's Museum

Betty Brinn Museum Craft Gallery
Betty Brinn Museum

929 E. Wisconsin Ave.
Phone: 414-390-KIDS (5437)
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday: Noon - 5 p.m., Monday: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (June-August)

Directly across the street on the right, we’ll see the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. This museum, opened in 1995, is a popular spot for the under-10 set. Exhibits like “How My Body Works,” in which you can weave a scab on a great wall of skin and hear what the body sounds like when it’s processing food, keep little learners eager to come back for more.

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Milwaukee County War Memorial Center

Milwaukee County War Memorial Center
Milwaukee County War Memorial Center

750 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr.
Phone: 414-273-5533
Hours: By appointment

From the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, we’ll head north one block on Prospect Avenue, east again on Mason Street for a very short block, and ahead of us will be the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. A product of the WWII years, the War Memorial was designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, whose most well-known work is the St. Louis Arch. Now considered a classic in the development of modern architecture, the War Memorial remains a popular spot for weddings, corporate functions, and other private events.

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Milwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee Art Museum
J.Castro / Getty Images

700 N. Art Museum Dr.
Phone: 414-224-3200
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily (extended hours until 8 p.m. every Thursday)

From the War Memorial Plaza, there are many ways down to street level, and the warmer months are a great time to explore these options. The quickest way, however, is to walk back to the “Sunburst” sculpture, where you’ll see the white expanse of a bridge to your east. This 250-foot suspended pedestrian bridge extends over busy Lincoln Memorial Drive and offers shutterbugs some great shot of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the white mass of which is often likened to the sails of a ship.

The Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion and Burke Brise Soleil, the wing-like protrusions on the massive roof, were completed in 2001. Originally the art museum was housed in the lower level of the War Memorial, but with its subsequent moves and expansions, the museum building now easily overshadows its ‘50s-era first home to the west.

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Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin

Rockwell Automation Dream Machine Exhibit
Discovery World

500 N. Harbor Dr.

Phone: 414-965-9966

Hours: Tuesday – Sunday: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Closed Monday

Once we’ve crossed the pedestrian bridge, we can descend to street level and walk south toward the newest denizen of the lakefront. Featuring everything from an aquarium to audio and video production studios, Discovery World is a tech-savvy distraction for adults and kids.

During warmer months you can't fail to notice, however, a blast from the past docked next to this futuristic building: the S/V Denis Sullivan, a 137-foot wooden schooner. A replica of the many shipping vessels that carried cargo and passengers in and out of Milwaukee's harbor in centuries past, the Denis Sullivan helps illustrate what words can’t – that while Milwaukeeans look forward to the future, they still remain proud of and loyal to their past.

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