Celebrating Summerfest in Milwaukee

We hopped back on the Empire Builder for the final leg of our Midwestern Amtrak journey, with our destination the lakeside city of Milwaukee.

This was a relatively short hop (just 6 hours), so we saved our pennies by travelling in coach class. This meant that unlike on our previous two journeys, we didn’t get a private compartment and we weren’t served three-course meals in the dining car, but we did still get a comfy reclining seat and access to the sightseeing lounge, so perfect for a daytime journey.

I’d heard lots of good things about Milwaukee (mostly about beer!) so it had been on our to-visit list for a while, but in our usual style we didn’t start planning our visit in any detail until we’d boarded the train and were well on our way. So, this is how it came about that we were about 20 minutes outside of the city when we realised that our visit would coincide with Summerfest, billed as the ‘the world’s largest music festival’. Whoops! This would explain one or two things about why we’d found it so difficult to find accommodation…

Anyway, we had found a place to stay and it just so happened to be within a couple of minutes’ walk of the Lakefront Brewery. Given Milwaukee has the nickname Brew City (because of its rich brewing heritage), this seemed like a great place to start.

When our friend Erin text us and emphatically recommended that we should go to exactly this brewery and eat the fried cheese curds served with garlic ranch, we knew we were onto a winner. Things got even better when we arrived and discovered that not only did they have a beer named Bumble Bear on tap (featuring a bear in a bumble bee costume, naturally), they also served tasting flights of sausages! Along with the excellent cheese curds, that was our dinner sorted. Of course, our food order was delivered under Oli’s American alter ego, ‘Holly’ (this happens often!), but even this wasn’t enough to upset Oli as we ate surrounded by the warm, yeasty, malty smell of brewing – this being an actual working brewery, unlike some of the places we’ve visited recently that are perhaps breweries only in name.

The following day, we began at Milwaukee Art Musuem. This might sound like an unlikely stop for us, but don’t worry – we just loitered outside! We’d read that the building opened and closed its ‘wings’ several times a day, which sounded intriguing, so we stood on the suspension bridge that led to the museum to watch it unfold. It was a beautiful piece of architecture and the movement was very cool, although extremely slow. So slow, in fact, that people were passing and we overheard them wonder what we (and a few others) were gathered for, speculating that something might be about to happen. In fact, it was already well underway! Thankfully Oli’s timelapse video captured it without you having to watch for a very long time, like we did…

After this, we wandered through the downtown area, which had a really lovely mix of mid-century and modern architecture.

Next, we made it to the Third Ward district, where we found a fun atmosphere, complete with a (somewhat gentrified) food market, lively bars, and a dog on a motorbike. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but I imagine that this area was much busier than usual because of the festival in town. We embraced the festive atmosphere with some warm-up beers at Café Benelux, and then decided to head into the festival itself.

Sadly, our Milwaukee friends Alec and Sydney were out of town, but they were kind enough to give us lots of Summerfest tips and even share their tickets that they weren’t using for the weekend. We started at one of the smallest stages, watching Old Goat Skiffle Band, and then worked our way around four of the larger stages. At Sydney’s recommendation, we ended the night watching Fitz and the Tantrums, who were really good fun. Earlier in the day, we’d been baffled about how there were lines of benches in front of every stage and everyone was neatly sat down – it all seemed strangely civilised. By this point, people were actually standing on the benches and it looked a bit more like the type of festival we’d been to before!

It wasn’t just music either – we also came across wrestling (with comically unconvincing choreography, of course) and some Freestyle BMX, which was Dad’s favourite part of the whole festival. I couldn’t watch, it was way too stressful!

A 1080 tailwhip. How?!

The one thing we were really puzzled about was how this could possibly be the largest music festival in the world – it takes place in the city centre and, although I’m sure there were some areas that we didn’t explore, we still found we could walk from one end of the site to the other in about 15 minutes! Glastonbury Festival comes to mind as being rather larger…

Anyway, some Googling after the fact gave us the answer. Firstly, it doesn’t hold the record any more – its record attendance is around 800,000, while Donauinselfest in Austria has around 3 million attendees 😳! Second, Summerfest takes place over 9-11 days and the Guinness World Record in 1999 was for total attendance rather than daily people at the festival, which is much lower. (Finally, in case you were wondering, Glastonbury is classified as a performing arts festival rather than a music festival – and even so, it’s way down the list with approximately 200,000 attendees.)

Either way, Summerfest was a lot of fun – it was definitely the right decision to embrace the festival while it was in town. And overall, we absolutely loved Milwaukee – what a cool city! We’ll be back one day, but for now, it’s time to head north towards Green Bay for the beginning of our Lake Michigan road trip.

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