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A walking excursion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a great way to get in touch with everything the city is known for: brewing, the arts, history, beaches, and more.
Think about diverse storefronts, tree-lined urban trails, and notable architecture. There is much to see on a walking tour from downtown Milwaukee! Wisconsin’s largest city, it sits on the shores of Lake Michigan. I was so impressed with Milwaukee’s walkability that I thought, “This city should be called Mil-WALK-ee.”
(If you’re on the western side of Wisconsin, you may be interested in walks in Eau Claire).
I’ve put together four suggestions for walking excursions near downtown Milwaukee to give you an idea of how pedestrian-friendly it is. These include the downtown RiverWalk, a shoreline walk, the captivating Lake Park and the North Point neighborhood, and an architecture tour of Wisconsin Avenue. Let’s start at the Milwaukee RiverWalk, a decidedly urban corridor connecting city neighborhoods.
The Milwaukee RiverWalk
The Milwaukee RiverWalk may be the city’s most well-known walking route and with good reason. This 3.1-mile (5 km) path cuts through the heart of the urban center. It follows the Milwaukee River from the Harbor and Historic Third Ward through downtown and north to the Beerline “B” neighborhood. In some sections, a pathway is on both sides of the river.
Today’s RiverWalk is the result of continual urban improvement since the city began cleaning up the polluted Milwaukee River in the early 1980’Ps. Private interests completed the first downtown riverwalk segment in 1985. After a riverwalk district was formalized, a public portion opened in 1994. It’s been growing ever since. Taking a stroll here while enjoying the boat traffic on the water would be pleasant enough, but the RiverWalk has become so much more.
Plus, the route forms an outdoor art gallery hosting multiple sculptures, murals, and other art pieces. The Bronze Fonz (2008, Gerald P. Sawyer) and Gertie the Duck (1977, Gwen Gillen) are favorites, but by no means the only statues worth viewing.
Patio seating means enjoying waterfront views at various bars, brewpubs, restaurants, and cafes along the RiverWalk. Additional restaurants, hotels, shopping, theaters, and other nightlife venues abut the RiverWalk or are just off the path.
It’s also worth pointing out that the RiverWalk is ADA accessible, thanks to several ramps and elevators. Overall, the RiverWalk is a well-designed, functional route for navigating the core of downtown Milwaukee on a casual stroll, walking or running for exercise, pursuing public art, or even searching for a new coffee stop.
Next, let’s move from the city center to the shoreline.
Walking to Veterans Park and Milwaukee’s Beaches on the Oak Leaf Trail
While there are a couple of options for waterfront exploration of Milwaukee. I’ll concentrate on a route from Veterans Park north through McKinley Park, McKinley Beach, and Bradford Beach. I logged this route at about 2.7 miles (4.3 km). The distance will depend on whether you take a straight line path or tend to meander through the parks.
Walking into Milwaukee’s Veteran’s Park from downtown is slightly tricky, as it involves crossing over busy N Lincoln Memorial Dr. near the iconic Milwaukee Art Museum. From there, follow the sidewalk north, or if you find it, the Oak Leaf Trail, until Veterans Park comes into view.
Overall, I found it just a little bit confusing, but I had no real trouble or safety issues. Head for the art museum and take the Reiman Pedestrian Bridge over Lincoln Memorial Dr to be extra safe.
Note: A branch of the Oak Leaf Trail runs along the west side of Lincoln Memorial Dr., but this route will take you into Juneau Park instead of Veterans Park.
However, when you arrive in Veterans Park, stop and see a larger-than-life statue of one-time Milwaukee resident General Douglas MacArthur (1979, Robert L. Dean). Additionally, take advantage of the thought-provoking Southeastern Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This stark monument includes three columns of Wausau Red Granite, each representing a population of veterans: those killed in action during the conflict, prisoners of war and those missing in action, and finally, those who were able to return home.
Once you’ve seen the monuments, walk along the shoreline and check out the marina, or take the Oak Leaf Path that skirts the park’s narrow lagoon to move toward the next natural area.
McKinley Park and Beach
Leaving Veteran’s Park on the Oak Leaf Path parallel to N Lincoln Memorial Dr., you’ll come to McKinley Park and McKinley Beach. In addition to a large lawn, McKinley Park has restrooms, a marina, fishing areas, tennis courts, a picnic spot, and a children’s play area. The beach has been closed to swimming for multiple years because of dangerous conditions, but work is underway to improve safety. As you walk through Mckinley Park and Beach, gaze over the water, enjoy the breeze coming in, and view the downtown skyline, now in the distance behind you.
From McKinley Park and Beach, continuing along the Oak Leaf Path to the north, you’ll arrive at Bradford Beach, one of the most popular in Milwaukee. If McKinley Beach appeared understated, Bradford Beach’s festive atmosphere compensates for it. This beach attracts water lovers, including sunbathers, swimmers, and beach volleyball players. A historic bathhouse, concessionaires, and tiki bars make it a lovely place to end your shoreline walk and enjoy the waves breaking on the golden beach sand.
Walking Around Lake Park and the North Point Area
If you’d like to continue your walk from Bradford Beach, the next stop is historic Lake Park, a mile- (1.6 km-) long park on a bluff above the beach that has been here since 1889. Lake Park is distinctive and worth exploring on foot, just as you’d expect from an open space on the National Register of Historic Places.
Of course, you can drive to Lake Park, but walking in from the beach is a short climb. Just take the stairs to the upper level of the bathhouse, cross the pedestrian bridge over N Lincoln Memorial Dr., follow the Bradford Beach Trail up to the intersection with the Oak Leaf Path (following Wahl Ave.), and turn right to take the paved trail into Lake Park, which Frederick Law Olmstead designed.
The Oak Leaf Path loops around and into Lake Park, but it’s not a true loop, meaning you won’t end up back where you started. Additionally, there are several other paved and unpaved trails throughout to encourage exploration of the park’s many appealing sights and features. If you’re like me, you’ll wander around this gorgeous park without remembering which trail you’re on! The park includes a golf course, children’s playground, ice rink, and lawn bowling area. In addition to several distinctive bridges and a rare Native American burial mound, I recommend these additional “can’t miss” sights: :
The North Point Lighthouse
Literally, it’s hard to miss this 74-foot (23 m) tall lighthouse that dates from 1912 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Now housing a maritime museum, it was once the tallest working lighthouse on Lake Michigan. The charming former Keeper’s Quarters at the lighthouse base are also beautifully restored.
Lake Park Waterfall
Initially built in the 1930s, Lake Park’s 30-foot (9.1 m) waterfall underwent restoration in 2010. Although no water was running when I visited in late summer, the stairs down to the base of the waterfall invite exploration into the wooded ravine.
The hero on the horse is Brigadier General Erastus B. Wolcott, the surgeon general of Wisconsin during the American Civil War; his 15-foot (4.7 m) bronze statue on a granite base overlooks an open space in Lake Park.
Frederick C. Bogk House
Outside of Lake Park, but nearby, are two attractions worth some extra steps and attention. The first is the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Frederick C. Bogk House at 2420 N Terrace Ave. in the elegant North Point neighborhood. Built in 1917, it’s the only single-family residence designed by Wright in the city of Milwaukee. The horizontal and vertical lines on the home’s exterior are said to be influenced by Japanese and ancient Mayan architecture. It’s an occupied residence, so observe it respectfully.
North Point Water Tower
From here, travel south on Terrace Drive to arrive at a large traffic circle containing the impressive North Point Water Tower. It’s next to the 1909 St. Mary’s Hospital building, which functioned as a nursing school until 1969.
The building of the Water Tower started in 1873 as part of the city’s first public water system. Decorated in an elaborate Victorian Gothic style, it looks almost like a section of a European castle. It’s been out of service since 1963. Still, this 175-foot (53.3 m) tower listed on the National Register of Historic Places continues to beautify the east side of Milwaukee.
Historic Buildings along Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee grew from a small village to a significant midwest industrial center from roughly 1870 to 1920. Growth was fueled by the arrival of railroads and large influxes of skilled and entrepreneurial European immigrants. After the Great Depression, the demand for machinery generated by World War II reinvigorated industrial Milwaukee. This trend continued until the early 1960s when manufacturing began to decline.
Grand and varied architecture is one of the legacies of the city’s economic might. A walk along Wisconsin Avenue allows for a good reflection of this rich heritage and viewing structures built in various architectural styles: neoclassical, Art Deco, and Gothic Revival, among others. The easiest way to take it all is a self-guided audio walking tour on the VoiceMap app entitled “The Grand Walk.”
This audio tour only takes about 35 minutes. It covers 1.3 miles (2.1 km), starting at the Milwaukee Public Library and ending at the Milwaukee Art Museum on the shore of Milwaukee Bay.
In my view, some of Wisconsin Avenue’s most impressive historic buildings include:
- The Milwaukee Public Library,
- The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Corporate Headquarters, and
- The Iron Works Building
How to get to Downtown Milwaukee
There are many options for getting to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Fly to General Mitchell International Airport (MKE). Get downtown via rideshare or taxi, or a local bus (Line 80 or the GreenLine).
If you’re close enough to drive, take the closest major Interstate into Milwaukee: I-94 or I-43 from the north and south, and I-41 from the west.
Several bus companies operate routes to Milwaukee, and Amtrak’s Hiawatha Train Service connects Milwaukee with Chicago.
Food and Drink in Milwaukee
After all that walking, you may want to get a bite to eat or rehydrate. Fortunately, It’s easy to find yummy food and drinks in Milwaukee. For variety, visit the well-known Milwaukee Public Market in the Third Ward neighborhood or the Third Street Market Hall just off Wisconsin Ave. Here are just a few of my highlights:
- Coffee: I got personal service and delicious coffee at the Canary Coffee Bar (720 N Old World 3rd St.)
- Upscale Dinner: Mason Street Grill (425 E Mason St., located in the historic Pfister Hotel) was a relaxed, elegant spot for dinner with a splendid wine list and thoughtfully prepared classic steakhouse fare.
- Beer: Wizard Works Brewing (231 E Buffalo St.) claims to put a little bit of magic in each of its beers. Take advantage of the friendly service and numerous beer styles at this ground-floor brewery in the Third Ward.
Where to Stay in Milwaukee
Milwaukee has plenty of lodging downtown! Choose your hotel based on the brand, vibe, budget, or a combination. For example, you could enjoy the Drury Plaza Hotel for its comfortable, quiet rooms, included breakfast, and a daily happy hour-style gathering with complimentary snacks and drinks starting at 5:30 PM. Or perhaps the historic (and reputedly haunted!) Pfister Hotel, with its opulent vintage lobby, is more your style.
Whatever your preference, use this map to help you book your Milwaukee hotel:
Pin It for Later!
Here are a couple of pins for your Pinterest boards.
Final Thoughts on Walking in Milwaukee
Exploring Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on foot offers an immersive experience, from shoreline beaches and parks to historic buildings to a revitalized urban core. The four suggested walking excursions near Milwaukee’s downtown exemplify the pedestrian-friendly nature of this charming midwestern city. Explore the downtown RiverWalk, shoreline, the enchanting Lake Park area, and Wisconsin Avenue architecture on your next visit.
Disclosure: I received support and perks from Visit Milwaukee
Have you gone on a walking excursion in Milwaukee? Leave a comment below!