Where to Stay in Milwaukee

SD › Best Places to Stay in Milwaukee
Updated: February 19, 2022
By Santorini Dave

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Best hotel in downtown Milwaukee.

The historic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee.

Best Areas to Stay in Milwaukee

The largest city in Wisconsin, Milwaukee has been undergoing a renaissance in recent years, with revitalized downtown, riverside, and lakeside areas, a booming craft beer industry, a stylish museum dedicated to local legend Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and the awe-inspiring Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The city lies on the western shores of Lake Michigan, 90 miles north of Chicago and 80 miles east of Madison, the state capital.

Downtown is split into two by the Milwaukee River: historic East Town contains the city government and the major lakeshore museums, while Westown encompasses the old shopping district on Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee Public Museum and traditional German-themed Old World 3rd Street. Just south of I-794 from downtown, the old warehouses of the Historic Third Ward have been converted into plush apartments, boutiques, bars, and restaurants. Across I-43, Westown merges into the Avenues West district and Marquette University campus, while just to the south, the regenerated Menomonee River Valley is home to Harley-Davidson. To the southwest lies Walker’s Point, a diverse residential neighborhood and LGBT hub, while Bay View along the lake is known for its hip eating and drinking scenes.

While it’s relatively easy to explore the central districts of East Town, Westown, and the Historic Third Ward on foot, you’ll need to drive or take public transport to explore further. Driving in Milwaukee isn’t recommended: traffic congestion and car theft are relatively common. The bus system is extensive and easy to use, while the Hop Streetcar M-Line runs downtown from the Intermodal bus and Amtrak station to the Historic Third Ward and East Town (the new L-Line streetcar should open in 2022 and make a loop around East Town). The Streetcar is a free service and runs every 15 to 20 minutes daily.

• Milwaukee’s bike share system is Bublr Bikes: pay $24 for 24hrs, or 25 cents per minute for single rides. Plenty of locals also zip around on e-scooters (Spin, Lime, and Bird), though riding in downtown Milwaukee and on the Riverwalk is prohibited.
Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport lies just 8 miles south of downtown and is connected to the city center by bus #80.
• Amtrak trains trundle between Chicago and Milwaukee in around 1hr 40min.

We’ve covered our favorite neighborhoods to visit and stay in more detail below, but with more time, Bronzeville is also worth checking out (there’s nowhere to stay in this neighborhood, but it’s not far from Downtown and the Eastside). Bronzeville is the traditional heart of Milwaukee’s African-American community and is also undergoing regeneration, with a spate of festivals and diverse dining and shopping scenes. Landmarks include America’s Black Holocaust Museum and the nearby Wisconsin Black Historical Society & Museum.

• Note also that numerous motels and chains line Hwy-59 in Milwaukee West (Hampton Inn & Suites Milwaukee West is a good bet), but these are not especially convenient for the center.

The Best Places to Stay in Milwaukee

Best Neighborhoods in Milwaukee for…

  • Best Neighborhood to Stay for First Timers/Sightseeing: East Town or Westown
    It makes sense to stay in Downtown Milwaukee if you’re visiting for the first time – most hotels are here and it’s convenient for shopping, eating, and drinking. You’ll also be within walking distance of the main sights, notably Milwaukee Art Museum, RiverWalk, and the Milwaukee Public Market over in the Historic Third Ward (the Harley-Davidson Museum is also pretty close). East Town has a bit more historic character than primarily commercial Westown on the other side of the Milwaukee River, with the added attraction of being closer to the Lake Michigan shoreline.
  • Best Neighborhoods for Nightlife: Downtown, East Side, and Walker’s Point
    The traditional nightlife areas in Downtown Milwaukee lie north of State Street on either side of the river (on Water Street in East Town and Old World 3rd Street in Westown), within stumbling distance of each other. Aloft Downtown is well placed for the latter, with Saint Kate a short walk from the East Town strip. Highlights on Old World 3rd Street include the Munich-themed Old German Beer Hall and the fun Beer Garden, while Elwood’s Liquor & Tap is a good bet on Water Street. A stiff walk south, the Historic Third Ward is also laced with great bars (notably Milwaukee Ale House, Tied House Milwaukee, and Wizard Works Brewing).

    To really get into the local swing of things, hit the East Side, where most of the action takes place on or around Brady Street. Bars line the strip between Farwell Avenue and the river, and there are also several excellent craft brewers in the area (Eagle Park Brewing and Lakefront Brewery are our favorites).

    Walker’s Point, on the southern edge of downtown, is also an up-and-coming nightlife area, with craft breweries and distilleries, plus a flourishing LGBTQ scene. Check out Walker’s Pint or DIX.

  • Best Neighborhood for Food and Restaurants: Walker’s Point and East Side
    Though there are plenty restaurants Downtown, including old-school German stalwarts like Mader’s, and shops like Usinger’s Famous Sausage and the Wisconsin Cheese Mart, dedicated foodies should aim explore a little further afield. The burgeoning culinary scene in Walker’s Point, just south of the river, includes acclaimed restaurants such as tapas bar La Merenda, La Dama Mexican Kitchen, and Braise, but also down-to-earth Mexican spot Guadalajara Restaurant, multi-vendor Zócalo Food Park, Great Lakes Distillery & Tasting Room, high-quality coffee at Anodyne, and even a local cheese maker, Clock Shadow Creamery (famed for its cheese curds).

    Over in the East Side, gourmet New American restaurants like Sanford, Tess, and Ardent share the neighborhood with hip Asian diner Easy Tyger, Good City Brewing and old school Italian delis such as Glorioso’s Italian Market.

    • The best hotel in Walker’s Point is the excellent Iron Horse
    • There are no hotels on the East Side of the city – apartment rentals are available, but East Town is also just a short ride away.

  • Best Neighborhood for Shopping: Historic Third Ward and Bay View
    Milwaukee isn’t the greatest when it comes to mainstream shopping, with locals tending to hit malls in suburbs such as Brookfield and Wauwatosa (Mayfair Mall is the region’s largest). The good news is that small clusters of indie boutiques and stores have survived in the city itself, notably in the Historic Third Ward (mostly along North Broadway). Highlights here include the women’s fashions at Lela, Mainstream, and SoHo Boutique by Stephanie Horne, and the men’s clothing at Milworks and Moda3. It’s not just clothes: Red Elephant Chocolate, MOD GEN (housewear), Broadway Paper (stationary) and several other stores can all be found nearby.

    It’s also worth browsing the stores along South Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View, home to vintage clothing specialists, record shops and more. We like Alive & Fine and Tip Top Atomic Shop for vintage fashions, Sparrow Collective for gifts and art, Voyageur Book Shop for secondhand books, Lion’s Tooth for comics, and Acme Records for vinyl.

  • Best Neighborhood for Local Vibe: Bay View
    Visitors seeking a more authentic Milwaukee experience should aim to visit (or stay in) Bay View, 4 miles south of Downtown along the Lake Michigan shoreline. As well as the independent stores lining main drag Kinnickinnic Avenue, the neighborhood has developed a diverse dining and bar scene in recent years, popular with families and young professionals (we love the classic Balkan dishes at Three Brothers). There’s not much in the way of sights, though South Shore Park (with its lake views, beach and beer garden) is a fun place to hangout in summer (the South Shore Farmers Market runs here June to October), and the aptly named Atmospheric Avalon Theater is a great spot to see a movie. Happily, Bay View boasts of a couple of excellent B&Bs: Kinn Guesthouse and Muse Gallery Guesthouse.
  • Unsafe Areas of Milwaukee
    Downtown Milwaukee (and the neighborhoods listed here) is generally quite safe, though the usual precautions should be taken at night. Some of Milwaukee’s north side neighborhoods (Metcalfe Park, North Division, Franklin Heights, Park West) still struggle with high crime and poverty, but there’s little reason to stray up here. Bay View, East Town, Historic Third Ward and the Lower East Side generally post very low crime rates.

The 5 Best Neighborhoods in Milwaukee for Tourists

1. East Town

Sandwiched between the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan, East Town is the administrative center and historic heart of Downtown Milwaukee. It’s the home of landmarks such as Milwaukee City Hall, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist (on leafy Cathedral Square Park), the Marcus Performing Arts Center, and the Pabst Theater, as well as some of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. The 2-mile long RiverWalk is lined with restaurants and public art (including the Bronze Fonz, based on the Happy Days character). On the lakefront itself, Santiago Calatrava’s spectacular Milwaukee Art Museum is a futuristic home for modern art, including one of the largest collections of Georgia O’Keefe paintings, while next door Discovery World is a family-friendly, hands-on science museum with an aquarium. Nearby Betty Brinn Children’s Museum appeals to younger kids. Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Grohmann Museum displays art dedicated to the history of human work. Some of the best hotels in the city are located here, and there’s plenty of eating and drinking options, especially along Water Street.

2. Westown

Across the Milwaukee River from East Town, Westown comprises the more commercial half of Downtown Milwaukee. It also serves as the city’s traditional entertainment hub, with bars and restaurants along the river and Old World 3rd Street (with intriguing reminders of Milwaukee’s German culture like Mader’s Restaurant), and performance venues such as the Miller High Life Theatre, Riverside Theater, and Turner Hall Ballroom. This also the home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks (at Fiserv Forum), and the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena (of hockey’s Milwaukee Admirals). In terms of tourist attractions, the gargantuan Milwaukee Public Museum serves as Wisconsin’s enlightening natural history museum, while Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery preserves the once mighty Pabst Brewery, founded here in 1844 (it closed in 1996). Westown features a good spread of generic but slightly cheaper chain hotels compared to East Town, with better transport connections (the main train and bus station is here).

3. Historic Third Ward

Just south of East Town, along the river and beyond the I-794 overpass, the Historic Third Ward is a neighborhood of revitalized 19th century warehouses and red-brick factories, transformed into the city’s arts and fashion district. Water Street and Broadway are lined with hip boutiques and indie stores, bars and restaurants. Highlights include Milwaukee Public Market at the north end, and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design to the south, which often hosts art exhibitions. There’s not much else to see, but it’s a pleasant area to explore and browse on foot, with contemporary art on sale at spots like Tory Folliard Gallery and the Portrait Society. You’ll find one of the city’s best and newest hotels here, but it can be hard to find accommodation otherwise – it’s a relatively quick walk from the hotels of East Town or Westown.

4. Menomonee River Valley

The once heavily industrialized banks of the Menomonee River Valley, west of Downtown Milwaukee, have been largely transformed into a series of green parks and trails making a refreshing break from the city center bustle. The long, narrow neighborhood is chiefly known for the Harley-Davidson Museum at the eastern end, just across from Westown; charting the history of the legendary motorcycle company founded here by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson in 1903, the stylish facility displays over 450 vintage bikes. Further along the river is the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, the beautifully landscaped Three Bridges Park, and at the far western end, American Family Field, home of baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers – and the legendary tailgating that proceeds games. Though you might want to check out the attractions in this neighborhood, there’s not a lot here in terms of eating and drinking options (the Twisted Fisherman is one exception), and the casino is really the only place to stay.

5. Avenues West

On the other side of the I-43, Westown eventually blends into the Marquette University campus and the Avenues West district. Anchored by Wisconsin Avenue, the campus features a couple of attractions worth checking out: the Haggerty Museum of Art, and the unique 15th-century St. Joan of Arc Chapel, a genuine medieval relic built in France and transported here in the 1960s. Further along Wisconsin Avenue stands Pabst Mansion, one of the few Gilded Age remnants you can tour in the city. Beer magnate Frederick Pabst had the lavish home constructed in 1893. The neighborhood isn’t known for its food and drink, though the Five O’Clock Steakhouse is a classic Wisconsin supper club worth visiting. If you like B&Bs, this is neighborhood for you, though it’s a little removed from the city center action.

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About Santorini Dave

Santorini Dave Santorini Dave was started in 2011 by a guy who loves Greece and Europe, travel and great hotels. We're now a small team of writers and researchers dedicated to providing the best travel content on the internet. We focus on Santorini, Mykonos, Athens, and Greece, offering recommendations for top hotels, neighborhoods, and family-friendly hotels worldwide. Dave can be contacted at dave@santorinidave.com.