Explore Milwaukee

This rather low-key city has a surprisingly vibrant gay scene

Milwaukee’s tourist board likes to welcome potential visitors by touting the city’s “traditional, small-town values.” Interestingly, this same tourist board actively promotes gay tourism, and Milwaukee has a distinctly gay-friendly vibe.

People often assume that Madison, the progressive and intellectual hub of Wisconsin, has the state’s only real draw for lesbians and gays. But, arguably, Milwaukee has just as vibrant a gay scene. Small-town values do prevail here, but only in the sense that most folks in this industrial metropolis of nearly 600,000 respect each other’s differences without necessarily making a big fuss about them. Sexual orientation just isn’t a big whoop.

This low-keyed city lies two hours north of Chicago by car, situated dramatically overlooking Lake Michigan. Outsiders are quick to associate Milwaukee with bowling, Laverne & Shirley, and kitschy German restaurants with dirndl-clad waitresses and bucket-size beer steins. There’s nothing really wrong with these stereotypes, but Milwaukee has far more to recommend it. For instance, the city has quietly emerged as one of the Midwest’s leading centers of the visual and performing arts – with a highly acclaimed ballet and symphony, two opera companies, countless theaters, and a world-class art museum. Milwaukee also has dozens of lesbian and gay social and political groups, and the June PrideFest celebration consistently draws more than 17,000 visitors.

Begin your explorations with a stroll through Milwaukee’s dynamic downtown along colorful Old World 3rd Street, which is lined with dignified 19th-century cast-iron buildings. Head west a few blocks to reach the Milwaukee Public Museum, which surveys natural history and contains an alluring butterfly garden as well as the Humphrey Imax Dome Theater. State Street leads east from the river to the Theater District, whose two anchors are the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and, just south, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Promenades run along the nearby Riverwalk, passing beside waterfront terraces of trendy restaurants and bars. River tour boats depart regularly from Pere Marquette Park, where concerts and events are staged.

South of downtown, across the Menomonee River, is the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, under whose 85-foot glass domes thrive tropical, desert, and other flora. Entertaining tours are given daily of the nearby Miller Brewery – the company is a major contributor to gay causes in Milwaukee and around the nation.

The city’s most celebrated attraction, however, is east of downtown along the lakefront. Here you can visit the Eero Saarinen-designed Milwaukee Art Museum, which is impossible to miss with its striking Quadracci Pavilion. Strengths of the permanent collection are German Expressionism, American Modernism, and folk art.

North along Prospect Avenue are some of Milwaukee’s most gay-popular residential districts, including the Brady Street area, which buzzes with yuppies, skate punks, and elderly Italians who settled here decades ago. Nearby is a fine example of Edwardian architecture and decor, the Charles Allis Art Museum – especially notable here are the collections of Barbizon and Hudson River School paintings. The museum also operates Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, a 1920s mansion built in the style of a 16th-century Italian Renaissance palazzo and containing a priceless collection of paintings, wrought- iron decorative arts, and antiques. The gardens alone justify a visit.

Head south to reach the Historic Third Ward, a patch of renovated warehouses that contain restaurants, art galleries, and antiques shops. Billed as Milwaukee’s “Off Broadway,” the district is also home to experimental theaters.

Milwaukee has several excellent, gay-friendly lodging options. A sophisticated all-suite hotel in a converted 1930s downtown building, Hotel Metro has touches of Art Deco in the large, open rooms outfitted with down comforters and spacious, slate-floor bathrooms. County Clare is a distinctive boutique property with reasonable rates. The beautifully appointed rooms have four-poster beds, data ports and fax lines, and double whirlpool tubs. Quaff a pint of Guinness in the Irish pub on the ground floor.

Milwaukee’s dining scene is up-and-coming, but one restaurant, Sanford, has been a culinary wonder for years – a highlight is the sauteed soft-shell crab on scalded spinach and lemon spaetzle with a caper vinaigrette. The same owners also run a more casual bistro, Coquette Cafe, in a converted loft in the Historic Third Ward. Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro, apart from offering great water views, presents a well-executed menu of classic French cuisine. And owned by a woman who treks back to Italy in search of new recipes, Mimma’s trattoria has been a catalyst for the Brady Street renaissance. The Hi Hat Lounge is another offbeat hangout in this neighborhood; it’s known for its terrific Sunday brunch, happy-hour martini specials, cozy sofas, and live jazz.

Nearly opposite the Eisner Museum, trendy Sauce is a high-ceilinged haunt of artists and fashion plates with a curvy bar and sexy food – try the pan-seared lamb sirloin with risotto, sauteed broccoli rabe, and a bourbon-mint sauce. Blueberry cobbler is a knock-out dessert. In a vintage brick building nearby, gay-popular Bella is a warm and inviting coffeehouse that’s perfect for hanging out with a good book or munching on decadent desserts. Steps from several gay bars, La Perla is a lively late-night Mexican restaurant with commendably spicy food. In warm weather, dine on the deck out back. After the bars close, plenty of queer revelers head to Big Mama’s Diner, which stays open till 4 in the morning.

It should come as no surprise that the city that organized the nation’s first gay softball teams and bowling league has some intense queer sports bars. The guys at the Ballgame definitely know the score and don’t hesitate to express their allegiances during televised games. Milwaukee also has a saucy leather scene, and Boot Camp is a main player. It’s dark in here (duh) and packed on weekends. For a breath of air, or to get a better look at your suitor, head for the patio. Similarly popular with the leather crowd is the Harbor Room. A place to go when you gotta dance, Dish is a hip and homey lesbian-owned club that’s women-only some nights, mixed on others. Also dyke-owned, Walker’s Pint is a cool, super-friendly tavern with an attractive interior and a wide selection of brews – a big plus is the beer garden.

Another great place to strike a pose, Orbit pulls in a youthful and pretty crowd; still, this is Milwaukee, and nobody puts on airs in here. Musical theme nights – reggae Tuesdays, blues & jazz Thursdays – keep the mix interesting. One of the friendlier bars in town, Fluid is a mirrored cocktail lounge with a lively bar in front and lounge seating in back. You’re sure to see Milwaukee’s die-hard clubbers at brightly lit LaCage, which has also has a lively video bar. Stylish sorts head to the M&M Club, an old-fashioned tavern in the Historic Third Ward. The space is beautiful – gilt frame mirrors, pressed-tin ceilings, and a tree-shaded deck. There’s live piano and cabaret some nights. Here you’ll also find Milwaukee’s premier gay restaurant, Glass Menagerie, which serves traditional American and Continental fare.

Around the corner from Cathedral Square, This Is It is Milwaukee’s only downtown gay bar, with a retro-hip interior that resembles a 1960s airport cocktail lounge. The crowd is eclectic and at times eccentric, the drinks cheap and stiff. A relatively popular cruise and video bar in Walker’s Point, the Triangle is a homey tavern with a plant-filled patio. And last but not least, Club Boom is a super-cruisy place that often throws underwear parties; the guys here usually show up with one thing on their mind, making it a likely spot to end a night of bar-crawling.

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