Explore Milwaukee By River
Milwaukee sits at the confluence of three rivers. Use them as a blueprint to explore two distinct pockets of the city.
I'm paddling north past condos in Milwaukee's posh Historic Third Ward neighborhood when I reach the fork of the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers. Time to make a choice: Go right and join dozens of other kayakers and boaters enjoying a duck's eye view of downtown architecture. Or veer left, westward onto the Menomonee, where the scenery for the next mile includes a power plant, a parking lot full of mail trucks and a recycling center.
I go left.
But once I've paddled past the grit, the cityscape fades. Soon enough, I'm trading overpasses for tree cover and smokestacks for lush vegetation. The only sign that I'm still in the city is the distant hum of traffic.
Milwaukee's main water attraction, Lake Michigan, often outshines its three rivers. (The Kinnickinnic completes the trio.) They flow from points west, north and south toward the lake, where a busy harbor basin ties them in a loose knot. Due to decades of industrial dumping, all three have been better known for pollution than recreation—a legacy that's changing.
"There's been this narrative that the Milwaukee River is a disgusting toxic waste dump," says Anne Bohl of the Milwaukee Water Commons, a nonprofit that promotes stewardship of and equitable access to the lake and rivers. "But there's been huge progress made in the last 10 years thanks to restoration efforts from environmental groups and community support."
So much progress, in fact, that people can even swim in the Milwaukee River during the Water Commons' Cream City Classic, a 1.5-mile open-water swim that started in 2018.
"The race was meant to push the envelope and say these are our common waters. We all have a right to swim in them. We have a right to clean water. And it's all of our. responsibilities to help us get there," Bohl says. At the start of 2020, local and federal officials announced a $29 million plan to clean the rivers even further over the next eight years.
It will take some time before the waters are safe for public swimming. (You technically need a city permit to take a dip in the river, Bohl says, unless you're participating in the Classic.) In the meantime, boating on Milwaukee's rivers offers a different perspective on the city, whether you prefer an urban backdrop or an escape into nature.
As for me? I'll take both. After my maiden voyage onto the Menomonee, I drop off my kayak and head to Zócalo food truck park. I'm back in modern Milwaukee, but I'm already yearning for a return trip to the serene river segment I just discovered—a sanctuary that's new to me but predates the city itself.
Pick a path (er, river): You can spend your time in the downtown area north of the Menomonee River or the quieter neighborhoods south of there.
The Harbor District and Walker's Point
Tucked south of downtown in the pocket of land bordered by all three rivers, these less-touristed neighborhoods offer diverse eats, a scenic trail and a super-fun dock-on, dock-off bar.
Rent a single or tandem kayak (or a stand-up paddleboard or canoe) from MILWAUKEE KAYAK COMPANY. Put in near the mouth of the Milwaukee River, then paddle south onto the Kinnickinnic. Dock at HARBOR VIEW PLAZA to walk around a former brownfield site that's now home to the UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MILWAUKEE SCHOOL OF FRESH WATER SCIENCES. Kids can ascend the playground's 40-foot tower made of shipping containers and come down via a cherry red slide.
Keep paddling south to BARNACLE BUDS, a bar and dock with a Key West vibe. Grab a picnic table with an umbrella and order a glass of spiked punch for a Floridian experience in industrial surrounds.
If you're more of a landlubber, skip the paddle and head to the HANK AARON STATE TRAIL for walk or bike ride along the Menomonee River. You can snag a bike from BUBLR BIKES, the city's bike share program, with stations throughout the city.
Not far from the kayak rentals, fuel up with brunch at ALLIE BOY'S, which serves the finest lox bagel in the city, plus elevated sides like latke waffles and potato chips with crème fraîche and trout roe dip. Or if it's happy hour, head to BOONE AND CROCKETT to sip a signature Old-Fashioned or a bittersweet Trinidad Sour while taking in Kinnickinnic River views from the patio.
A few blocks west of the river in the diverse Walker's Point neighborhood, you'll find a fun stretch of bars and restaurants along Fifth Street. Just off the main drag, vendors at the ZÓCALO food truck park sell tacos, arepas and burgers. End on a sweet note with a cone from SCRATCH ICE CREAM. (Try Door County Cherry.)
Near the Menomonee River and Hank Aaron State Trail, THE IRON HORSE HOTEL boasts luxurious accommodations that cater to the biker crowd, with perks like covered motorcycle parking. (The HARLEY-DAVIDSON MUSEUM is just across the river.) Traveling with a pet? The hotel has dog-friendly areas, treats and water dishes in the lobby.
Riverwalk and Beyond
The Milwaukee River snakes through some of the city's urban core. Take in the scenery by boat or foot, using the art-strewn, 20-block-long River Walk path as your guide.
Take a stroll starting at the MILWAUKEE PUBLIC MARKET. Browse stalls selling spices, sweet treats and wine, or grab a bite from a vendor slinging fresh seafood, tacos or vegan comfort food. Then head north on the RIVERWALK alongside historic downtown office buildings. Watch for dozens of sculptures along the path, including the BRONZE FONZ (a life-size homage to Henry Winkler's Happy Days character) and a scattered flock of sculptures inspired by Gertie, a famous Milwaukee mallard and her ducklings. Farther up the river, you'll find RIVERSIDE PARK, a project of the URBAN ECOLOGY CENTER with 15 acres of wooded land and a 40-foot climbing wall.
Watch boaters and kayakers float by while sipping a cold one on LAKEFRONT BREWERY'S riverside patio. (Order the fried cheese curds—they're some of the best in the city.) A few blocks north, BEERLINE CAFE serves vegetarian breakfast and brunch fare all day long that's hearty enough for any omnivore. Head east across the HOLTON STREET BRIDGE to BRADY STREET and enjoy the bars and restaurants in this historically Italian neighborhood. GLORIOSO'S ITALIAN MARKET is an institution, serving signature deli sandwiches, like the Milwaukee Muffalatta.
SAINT KATE—THE ARTS HOTEL is steps from the RiverWalk and venues like the MARCUS PERFORMING ARTS CENTER and THE PABST THEATER. The hotel has well-curated art in every elevator, vestibule and guest room. Borrow classic vinyls from the front desk and rock out with the record player in your room, or strum a tune on another fun room amenity: a ukulele.
For a taste of old-world Milwaukee, stay at the DUBBEL DUTCH hotel in East Town. A double mansion built in 1898, the building was lovingly restored to its former glory (with a few modern flourishes) and opened as a 17-room boutique hotel in 2020.
Buy the Book
Haven't found your sea legs? Check out Walking Milwaukee, a new book authored by two locals, with 31 routes around the city's neighborhoods. Try walks 1, 10, 11, 12 and 20 to further explore some of the area's near the city's rivers (Wilderness Press, $17).