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Modern Marvels and European Heritage in Milwaukee

Just because history happened in the past doesn’t mean it’s over. In Milwaukee, the great cultures and characters of the past play a vibrant part in the city’s present.

Wisconsin’s thriving metropolis on the shore of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee is proud of the past that has made it what it is today. From its immigrant heritage to its Old World sensibilities, industrial innovation, religious landmarks and artistic appreciation, elements of Milwaukee’s history that have endured for more than a century continue to define the destination.

Exploring Milwaukee’s proud past is the best way for groups to appreciate the distinctive character of the city.


Old World Charm

Milwaukee’s culture and commerce were heavily influenced by the customs of European immigrants who flocked to the city throughout the 19th century. At the Milwaukee Public Museum, which opened in 1882, an exhibit called “The Streets of Olde Milwaukee” gives visitors an idea of what life would have been like in the city during the 1880s.

“It’s a wing of the museum with cobblestones and gas lights,” said Margaret Casey, public relations coordinator for Visit Milwaukee. “It has replicas of businesses that operated then, like Old World Sausage. Some of the businesses that you see there still exist today. It really takes you back to that era in Milwaukee with a nostalgic atmosphere.”

A stroll through the museum exhibit pairs well with a visit to Old World Third Street, the last remaining portion of the original German retail district in Milwaukee. Groups that take time to explore the three-block area can sample the best of historic European products at shops such as the Wisconsin Cheese Mart, the Spice House and Usinger’s Sausages, which has operated in the same location since the 1870s.

“You walk in, and you think you’re in Germany or Austria,” Casey said. “The original white marble display cases are still there, full of sausage. There’s a mural along the ceiling with elves and German sayings. The idea is that the elves make the sausage at night.”

Groups can arrange for a meal at Mader’s German Restaurant across the street. The restaurant has been in operation for more than 106 years and features traditional German food and decor. Servers even wear classic German “drindles.”

To see more of old Milwaukee, plan some free time in the Historic Third Ward, which boasts 70 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The area is rich in architecture and features numerous art galleries, restaurants and specialty stores, as well as the Broadway Center Theater.


A History of Faith

When European immigrants settled Milwaukee in the 1800s, they brought with them a vibrant heritage of faith. Examples of that religious heritage, as well as fascinating art and architecture, can be seen at a number of churches and shrines around town.

Perhaps the most notable is the Basilica of St. Josaphat, which was built by Polish immigrants on the south side of the city beginning in 1886. Groups that tour the church learn about the city’s proud Polish population and the interesting way in which they acquired building materials for the project.

“It was built from an old Chicago post office and customs house that was torn down,” Casey said. “The Polish Catholic priest from Milwaukee went to Chicago and bought all of the stone, the doors, the hardware and fittings, and brought them here to be the basis of the basilica. On the tour, they point out some fixtures that still say ‘Chicago Post Office’ on them.”

Another historic site of interest to church groups is the St. Joan of Arc Chapel on the campus of Marquette University. The chapel was first built in France in the 1500s, and in the 1920s, it was dismantled and transported to the United States. Docents give tours of the Gothic structure and share some of the tales related to its namesake.

“There’s a bit of a legend there that Joan of Arc actually kissed one of the stones in the chapel,” Casey said. “The stone is supposed to remain colder to the touch than the other stones.”

About 45 minutes outside of Milwaukee in the Kettle Moraine, Holy Hill National Shrine is an important spot for pilgrims. More than 500,000 visitors a year travel to the shrine, which is operated by Carmelite friars, to see the church, eat in the traditional restaurant on-site and enjoy views of the Wisconsin countryside.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.