MILWAUKEE — Beer. If that's your first thought after hearing the word "Milwaukee," you haven't been here lately.
In the last decade, the country's 25th largest city has gone through such a massive revitalization that "cosmopolitan" is a more apt description than "blue collar." Have a Pabst if you wish, but there's a whole lot more to sample, whether it's microbreweries and organic coffee or modern art and architecture.
Travelers who haven't found a reason to visit the Dairy State and its largest lakeside city may find a compelling reason this month. Harley-Davidson Inc., which has its headquarters in Milwaukee, is opening a museum designed to attract bikers and non-bikers alike. The highly anticipated project is expected to draw 500,000 visitors a year to good ol' M'waukee when it opens Saturday.
Like so many others who will be visiting the city in years to come, I was in town to check out the museum, which turned out to be one of the most engaging I've experienced. What I wasn't expecting was to be just as blown away by the city. I'm still fantasizing about moving there.
As The Times' motorcycle columnist, I was visiting the museum before it opened, though I had the access of a regular visitor. Traveling on two wheels, I was thrilled by the rock-star parking. I rolled my bike over the lot's striped orange concrete and kicked down the stand in front of one of the oversized glass garage doors. The museum is one of the few places where a motorcyclist gets to park right in front of the entrance.
The museum itself is just as thrilling, with its trio of stunning gunmetal-gray structures rising from a stylized, immaculately groomed landscape. As with its motorcycles, Harley-Davidson has exposed and highlighted the buildings' steel frames, giving the museum a raw, industrial look that pays tribute to Harley's factory focus and Milwaukee's manufacturing past.
Inside, the museum is filled with endless eye candy that doesn't showcase just the 400 bikes on display or Harley-Davidson culture or the company's impressive 105-year history but also the story of the United States as seen through the lens of motorcycling.
The Harley-Davidson Museum is in the city's 5th Ward, an industrial area on the south side that is only beginning to be revitalized and will most likely get a boost from Harley's presence. The rest of the city has already gotten the big-money treatment, including downtown, which is where I went for my first night in Milwaukee.
Coming from L.A., I was surprised by how easy it was to get around. In Los Angeles, it takes at least 30 minutes to get anywhere. In Milwaukee, it's about five.
That's how long it took me to get from the museum to Hotel Metro, one of Milwaukee's four high-end, high-rise hotels. The vibe was distinctly Zen, with its minimalist decor. I booked a spa suite because I figured I'd want a whirlpool bath at the end of a long day's ride from Illinois and because I wanted to take that bath with yummy-smelling products.
After whirlpooling in bath salts in the dimmed light of my bathroom, I headed down to the bar and was surprised to see it teeming with stylish twentysomethings drinking stylish drinks. Old Milwaukee? Try grapefruit cosmopolitan, which was the happy-hour special I sipped while listening to Fergie on the sound system.
I found dinner just a few doors down at Cubanitas, another place jammed with chic young 'uns who prefer fried plantains to cheese curds and stiff mojitos to Schlitz.
About then, I started to wonder where I really was. Blame it on the mojito, but I didn't feel as though I was in Milwaukee. Where were all the overweight women in appliqued sweaters with bad perms? They certainly weren't downtown.
The last time I was in Milwaukee was in the '80s, when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, just 90 minutes away. I'd road-tripped to Milwaukee to see a concert and, as college kids do, toss back endless plastic cups of Milwaukee's finest. The city I was experiencing hardly resembled the Milwaukee of my youth.
If I hadn't known I was in Milwaukee, I would have guessed it was Seattle.
Milwaukee seemed just as hip, progressive and clean as Seattle -- only it's about 2,000 miles east and at the edge of fresh water (Lake Michigan) instead of the Pacific. On the sunny days I was here, it had just as many people jogging and bicycling through its parks.
It's also smaller and easier to navigate. I'm not great with directions, but I found Milwaukee's grid system and main streets easy to get around. That was important because I was traveling on a Harley Heritage Softail Classic. It didn't have GPS, and I couldn't fumble with a map while riding.