Milwaukee is a city of neighborhoods. Each one is distinct and unique, from the flavors on restaurant menus to the “main drag” shopping areas. From hipster to historic, here’s where to go in Milwaukee for a slice of local life.
The joke is that this South Side neighborhood is where hipsters on the East Side move to raise their families, which could be due to the similar attitudes towards community involvement and supporting small businesses. Housing stock is also similar: think cozy historic bungalows. In recent years, Kinnickinnic Avenue (called KK for short) has spawned some of Milwaukee’s best restaurants, including Odd Duck (small plates), and there are at least half a dozen coffee shops. Come summer a farmer’s market is hosted in South Shore Park which hugs Lake Michigan. Entertainment abounds, including the restored Avalon Theater for films and Alchemist Theatre for plays.
Many first-time visitors remark that the Third Ward reminds them of New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. That’s because of all the boutiques, cafes and art galleries tucked into historic warehouses. Artists flock here for the quarterly Gallery Night & Day, when artists open up their studios. The Milwaukee Public Market is a huge draw to this neighborhood immediately south of downtown, with vendors selling everything from fresh lobster dinners to wedges of award-winning Wisconsin cheese. The neighborhood’s many bridges lend a European vibe and lovers of the arts can be satisfied with shows at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Skylight Opera Theatre.
This East Side neighborhood — named for its main drag — is where Milwaukee’s Italian immigrants settled during the early 1900s. Today you don’t have to walk far to find cannoli or muffaletta (Peter Sciortino’s Bakery and Glorioso’s Italian Market are two hot spots) but you can also enjoy the boho-chic vibe over a latte at Rochambo Coffee & Tea House or Brewed Cafe. Ethnic-dining choices include Easy Tyger or La Masa Empanada Bar. Shopping is equally eclectic and all over the map, from hemp items at Green Fields to a bottle of pricy Bordeaux wine at Waterford Wine Co., which hosts tastings in its store.
Just like the name implies, this is basically the eastern edge of downtown Milwaukee. It includes some of Milwaukee’s best restaurants (hello, Bacchus!) as well as lively and colorful bars such as Taylor’s (think ‘70s vibe, in a good way). Every Thursday night during the summer is Jazz in the Park, hosted in Cathedral Square, which also turns on a light display come December and a sort of love letter to France each July for Bastille Days. Entertainment options are in abundance in East Town, from watching the Milwaukee Bucks at the new Fiserv Forum to performances (plays, symphony and ballet) at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
Name a community-oriented cause and chances are it’s rooted in this neighborhood — marked as the area between East North Avenue and East Capitol Drive, just west of the Milwaukee River. While many UW-Milwaukee students rent houses here, young families and couples also choose to live within walking distance of progressive businesses like the Riverwest Co-op Grocery and Café and Riverwest Yogashala. Sundays during the summer months welcomes a farmer’s market on East Locust Street. Woodland Pattern Book Center, just down the street, is one of those hidden gems in that it hosts award-winning writers and poets for readings and workshops.
If you haven’t been to Milwaukee lately, you’re probably thinking “Where is the Harbor District?” This is a newly named area along the harbor a 10-minute drive south of downtown Milwaukee, anchored by the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. Condos are sprouting up here like crazy and historic warehouses are following in the footsteps of its northern neighbor (the Third Ward), welcoming businesses like Boone & Crockett, a bar with a taco truck permanently parked out front, Tribeca Gallery Café & Books and Milwaukee Kayak Company.
This West Side neighborhood borders Wauwatosa and the main drag—think shopping, dining and entertainment—sits along Vliet Street. Valentine Coffee Co. opened its first café on Vliet Street in 2013, right next to the Times Cinema, which screens a mix of vintage and new-release flicks. Maison is a newer restaurant, flaunting French cuisine; and Wy’East Pizza began in Portland, Oregon, as a pizzeria inside a camper trailer in Oregon. Rainbow Booksellers specializes in children’s books and has been at its current location since 1994.
This lesser-known South Side neighborhood is home to one of the city’s most diverse zip codes, which has led to culinary delights like paleta (or popsicle) shops and restaurants inspired by Dominican, Asian and Mexican cuisine. Many are owned and operated by immigrants, the majority from Spanish-speaking countries. If you like murals, this neighborhood has a lot of them. El Rey—a local chain of Mexican grocery stores—has a huge store here with a deli that’s a great place to score a delicious, cheap lunch or snack.
Named for beer barons that built homes here during the late 1800s, Brewers Hill is now a mix of restored Victorian homes on tree-lined streets as well as modernized condos along the Milwaukee River. Due to the increased number of offices nearby (including Schlitz Park and Manpower’s headquarters), many young professionals opt to live in this quieter section of the East Side that is very walkable. One of the most beloved restaurants is View MKE, named for its stellar view of downtown Milwaukee; and COA’s Skyline Music Series in Kadish Park is a huge draw come summer.
For a glimpse at the cutest craftsman bungalows, head to Story Hill, which lies just west of downtown Milwaukee. Story Hill BKC, part of a local restaurant group, serves all-day meals that fold in local ingredients, with an attached wine, beer and spirits store. Due to its proximity to Miller Park (home field for the Milwaukee Brewers) there are many bars in Story Hill, including Kelly’s Bleachers and J&B’s Blue Ribbon Bar and Grill. Mitchell Boulevard Park along Bluemound Road is one of the neighborhood’s green spaces.