Top 10 Gems of Milwaukee

I previously blogged on the top 50 finalists for the title of “Gems of Milwaukee,” a publicity event run by the Milwaukee Press Club. The top 10 winners have been announced:

1. Summerfest

Summerfest is an impressive event. The organizers consistently get very big-name bands as well as hot up-and-coming bands to book Milwaukee on their tours. Many of these bands can be seen for the price of admission to the Summerfest grounds, and due to various promotions, that cost can be ridiculously cheap. When my wife and I went in 2002, we saw Jewel for $10 plus bus fare.

Despite that, we haven’t been back to Summerfest, and I can’t imagine why we’d go again. The “free” concerts are lousy events–if the band is a big name, the performance area will be packed with people (many of them smoking heavily) and will have lousy acoustics. Besides the music, the main attractions are greasy foods, alcohol and flirting. Those might have been big attractions for me when I was a lot younger, but they aren’t so compelling now that I’m a middle-aged dad of 2.

2. Milwaukee Art Museum

This is a really cool building. Designed by famous Spanish architect Calatrava, the building looks like an alabaster ship setting sail into Lake Michigan. The lake views from inside the building are pretty neat too. The building never fails to impress out-of-town visitors, and it definitely deserves a place on the list.

3. Ethnic Festivals

Every weekend during summer, some ethnic group has a festival purportedly celebrating their heritage. Collectively, these festivals rightly give Milwaukee the title of “City of Festivals.”

After our Summerfest experience, we haven’t been to any of these. From my limited observations, Wisconsin “festivals” all have the same following ingredients:

* a series of bands playing in poor-acoustic facilities. Less-prominent festivals attract lower-quality bands; most festival bands are extremely low-profile.

* lots of greasy and non-vegetarian food

* lots of alcohol (and, as a result, lots of intoxicated people)

No thanks.

I’m a little surprised that the Wisconsin State Fair didn’t come out above the ethnic festivals. I’ve never been, but the county fair has the same basic attributes (bad bands, bad food, lots of alcohol) but is also known for some traditions, including creampuffs and people-watching.

4. Milwaukee’s Lakefront

This is a bit of a puzzler. Lake Michigan is very pretty to look at from palisades high above the lake. However, at lake level, the lake smells awful (mostly due to the raw sewage that regularly is dumped into the lake)! Putting aside the smell, beach-going isn’t very much fun either–the water is freezing and usually unsafe to enter due to bacteria, a cold breeze often blows off the lake (which is nice during the hottest days) and the beaches are narrow and more dirt than sand. There is a nice stretch of lakefront near downtown that was designed by the designer of NY’s Central Park–it represents a great example of early civic planning. My guess it that the voters were thinking of this area. Otherwise, I think the lake deserves to be on the list; the lakefront, not so much.

[UPDATE: Sonya sent me this article which provides a much better explanation of the complex dynamics that, collectively, make Lake Michigan disgusting]

5. Harley-Davidson

I’m not a biker, but lots of Milwaukeeans are–and Harley is the bike of choice. A couple of years ago, Milwaukee celebrated Harley’s 100th year anniversary, and it was incredible–a couple of hundred thousand bikers descended on the town. There were almost no cars on the road; virtually every moving vehicle was a Harley bike (some new, some vintage). I felt like I was in a surreal sci-fi movie like Road Warrior. In any case, Harley definitely deserves to be on the list.

6. Milwaukee County Zoo

I’ve never been to the zoo, so I can’t opine on the choice. My wife has been, however, and she considers it unremarkable. A weak choice for top 10 gems.

7. Frozen Custard

Frozen custard is like ice cream but much, much richer. Think full-fat ice cream and then imagine squeezing more fat into the same space. If I were still in my teens and could eat 6,000 calories a day without gaining weight, frozen custard would rock my world.

8. Allen-Bradley Clock Tower

There are a lot of four-sided clocks around town, but there’s none bigger in town–or the world–than this one. Big Ben is a mere toy compared to this behemoth (although Big Ben gets the nod for largest chiming four-sided clock in the world–whatever). I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to see it (it looks like a large clock), but I drive by the clock every time I go to the airport. And as I drive by, I think to myself: “Hello, largest four-sided clock in the world.”

9. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

It’s hard not to be a little jealous that UWM made the list over/instead of Marquette. Congratulations, UWM!

10. Friday Night Fish Fries

Another gem I haven’t tried (for obvious reasons), but no question that Friday night fish fries are a big deal in town. Restaurants that don’t serve fish fries on Friday definitely see less traffic that day than those that do.

What’s Missing

The Packers and Miller Brewery are big brands not on the list. The Milwaukee City Hall (prominently featured in the opening Laverne & Shirley credits) is a neat building. Beer and sausages definitely rival frozen custard and fish fries as Milwaukee staples. Something acknowledging Milwaukee’s deep German Catholic roots would have been appropriate.

I mentioned before some of my overlooked favorites, including Schlitz Audubon, Beans & Barley and honeycrisp apples (which we buy by the bushel in season). I should also add that Lisa has gone crazy for Amy’s Candy Kitchen in Cedarburg, which makes some of the most amazing, tasty and expensive apples covered in caramel and other confections.