"Everyone remember,” says the organizer with the megaphone, “follow the Abominable Snowman!”
That’s when 500 Santas on bikes turn onto North Avenue in a western Milwaukee suburb, forming a mass of red echoing with cheers and clanging bells as it rolls along. Since 2000, the Santa Cycle Rampage has drawn cyclists clad as St. Nick, plus, this year, a peddling yeti leading the crowd to a craft brewery. In a city where bars are rumored to outnumber grocery stores, straggling Santas find plenty of distractions en route.
In the onetime brewing capital, small revivals scatter across neighborhoods sprouting eclectic restaurants and shops. The throwback glitz at Christmas remains, too, as a German market at the old Pabst brewery sells ornaments and Glühwein (hot spiced wine) and the Miller Valley neighborhood decks out in lights. In December, it’s a city you can’t beeline through. Something always prompts you to park, step out and explore.
Tree-lighting in the Historic Third Ward
Historic Third Ward
“I want to thank Santa Claus for making an appearance,” Mayor Tom Barrett says from beneath a 30-foot tree. “Mostly, I want to thank all of you for coming into this neighborhood, because it really is a neighborhood now.”
The Historic Third Ward stretches in every direction just south of downtown, with block after block of old warehouses reborn as apartments, boutiques and brewpubs. Each year, people gather on an open square to light the tree and watch fireworks, and each year the area’s list of things to do grows longer.
Christmas shoppers take to Broadway, a street flanked with eye-catching shops. They pore over crisp stationery and designer notebooks at Broadway Paper and snack on dark chocolate with peppermint crumbles at Red Elephant Chocolate Café. On North Water Street, Hot Pop gallery and art shop sells pop-culture-infused works and tongue-in-cheek gifts like a whiskey flask that reads “GREAT EXPECTATIONS.”
A Christmas tree looms over the stalls at the Milwaukee Public Market, the foodie magnet at the Ward’s northern end. Holiday delights include hand-dipped chocolates at Kehr’s Candies and winter-ready reds at the Thief Wine Shop and Bar. At C. Adam’s Bakery, you could (and should) split the Nutter Butter cookie the size of a smartphone between friends.
Milwaukee Public Market
It’s said Oscar Wilde once strolled this corridor on the Lower East Side, concluding, “If what you want isn’t on Brady Street, you probably don’t need it.” The statement still stands in this old Italian neighborhood packed with bars and late-night amusements.
Just off Brady Street sits the fun and funky Red Light Ramen. Chef-owner Justin Carlisle, who also owns Ardent next door, launched Red Light Ramen after experimenting with a single dish— Tonkotsu ramen—served after midnight on weekends at the more formal Ardent. “We wanted a place for us in the service industry to eat and drink after work,” Justin says. “Until then, bar food meant frozen pizza.” There’s nothing frozen about this bowl brimming with noodles, pork and broth—a comfort food up to the challenge of December cold. It’s satisfying, savory and made memorable by creamy boiled eggs soaked in soy sauce. To drink? Wisconsin’s famed old fashioneds served in slushy form.
Red Light Ramen
The Burke Brise Soleil looks like a futurist’s vision of a giant, abstract dove atop the Milwaukee Art Museum on Lake Michigan. The structure, which slowly opens its wings each day at 10 a.m., provides one of Milwaukee’s signature photo ops. Inside the newly renovated museum, winter exhibits include Typewriter Eraser, a 1976 sculpture by Claes Oldenburg modeled after one of the artist’s favorite boyhood playthings in his father’s office.
The soul of a Milwaukee Christmas just might rest five blocks west of the museum at the Pfister Hotel. In a grand, gold-trimmed lobby decked with evergreens, wreaths hang from second-floor railings above an 18-foot tree. A fireplace crackles next to the bar in the lobby’s lounge, where guests slink deep into leather chairs and sip Sazeracs (whiskey, absinthe, sugar and lemon peel) as a pianist softly plays carols nearby. It’s all the pizzazz of a big-city Christmas distilled in a single, cozy room.
Milwaukee Art Museum
The younger residents settling this southside neighborhood in recent years helped turn an already charming area into a creative hotbed replete with some of Milwaukee’s best restaurants and bars.
The words on the windows of one such spot make clear its focus: “Sausage. Spirits. Beer.” The bratwurst, a Milwaukee staple, takes a global tour with high-end ingredients at The Vanguard. In a corner kitchenette, two cooks hustle to grill up dishes like the Thai Breaker, a lemongrass pork sausage with ginger and peanut sauce, and Duck BLT, made with duck, bacon and sun-dried tomatoes with shredded lettuce and hollandaise aioli. The gravy-soaked poutine gets downright decadent, pairing fried cheese curds with maple syrup-braised duck.
Above the bar, two flat-screens play reruns from an ‘80s pro wrestling league. The patrons crowding the bar below seem transfixed, including two beer-sipping Santas fresh off the day’s bike tour. At December in Milwaukee, Christmas comes in ways both familiar and unexpected.