At first glance, Wisconsin might not seem like the perfect vacation spot between December and March, but if you’re envisioning a dreary winter, think again. When the snow falls and the nights slip into darkness is when Milwaukee comes alive in a new way. Ice fishers, cross-country skiers, and snowmobilers will, like clockwork, head up North to dig deeper into this cold season. But even if you can’t leave Milwaukee there are still plenty of ways to celebrate winter, with a unique twist, in this Upper Midwest city.
Polar Bear Plunge
Every year on January 1 at 12 p.m. locals race into frigid Lake Michigan—Bradford Beach on Milwaukee’s East Side is the “official” site—wearing nothing but a bathing suit. This is what’s called Polar Bear Plunge, an annual tradition for decades. Show up to cheer on the others who are brave enough to enter the water, and witness a phenomenon that’s unique to this part of the U.S. Many even sport crazy costumes like wigs and grass skirts.
Don’t have a pair of cross-country skis? No worries—there are a few places in Milwaukee to rent cross-country skis for the day, including Urban Ecology Center (with a $35 annual membership, the skis, boots, and poles are free—plus you’re supporting an environmental-education center in the process). Once you’re suited up, head to Brown Deer Park on the North Side (check out this link for info on its ski trails), Lake Park on the East Side or Lapham Peak near Delafield, which is part of the Kettle Morraine State Forest.
The last half of 2016 welcomed quite a few restaurants, from the rebirth of Karl Ratzsch (a German-style restaurant in downtown Milwaukee under new ownership with chef Thomas Hauck), DanDan (inventive Chinese food in the Third Ward) and the seafood-focused Third Coast Provisions on North Milwaukee Street, on what has quickly become Restaurant Row in downtown Milwaukee. Expected to open in the first few months of 2017 are The Ruckus in Shorewood, from Colectivo Coffee’s owners; The Laughing Taco in Walker’s Point (from James Beard Award finalist Justin Carlisle, owner of Ardent and Red Light Ramen); and Maison, in Washington Heights.
Milwaukeeans love to embrace winter and that includes ice skating. An outdoor rink is at Red Arrow Park on Water Street in downtown Milwaukee; bring your own skates and it’s free or pay $3 for rental skates. That there’s a Starbucks café on-site provides a nice “après-skate” experience. In West Allis, the Pettit National Ice Center is an indoor rink that’s an official U.S. Olympic Training Site for Speed Skating.
New Art Shows
During the winter, the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum is a bright place to be as sunlight streams through the Santiago Calatrava-designed space (his first North American project when completed in 2001).
The city’s first of four Gallery Night & Day events in 2017 is on Friday, January 21 and Saturday, January 22, 2017. Stroll through Historic Third Ward galleries, shops, and stores, using this handy guide. Many host live music and offer complimentary snacks and drinks. Most participating artists use Gallery Night to launch their latest shows.
New Upscale Shopping Options
If you haven’t been to Milwaukee in two or three years, there are new shops to explore. Nordstrom opened its first Wisconsin store in 2015, at Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa. Up the street, at West Burleigh Street and Hwy. 45, The Mayfair Collection opened in —and new stores keep joining the development. Nordstrom Rack, Saks Fifth Avenue Off Fifth, DSW (Designer Shoe Warehouse) and J. Crew Mercantile. Lunch is easy thanks to delicious options like Pizza Man (the original restaurant is on Milwaukee’s East Side), Smoke Shack (an offshoot of the Third Ward BBQ eatery) and Café Grace (casual French fare from The Bartolotta Restaurants).
The minute you land in Milwaukee by plane—at Mitchell International Airport (http://www.mitchellairport.com)—you quickly realize that beer isn’t the only liquid in town. Craft coffee is huge here, too. In 2016 Valentine Coffee opened cafes in the airport, a follow-up to the coffee roaster’s first tasting room (https://valentinecoffeeco.com/tasting-room/), which opened in Washington Heights in 2013. Another newcomer is Hawthorne Coffee Roasters on the South Side, operated by a former coffee buyer for Stone Creek Coffee.