League of American Bicyclists' Rating: Silver
Bike Map (pdf)
Transit Map (pdf)
Like many places in the American Midwest, Milwaukee began as a trading post. One Mr. Solomon Juneau set up a settlement right along Lake Michigan, and a fascinatingly crooked land surveyor from Connecticut named Byron Kilbourn set up Kilbourntown just west of him on the west side of the Milwaukee River, effectively cutting Juneautown off from the mainland. Kilbourn was determined to keep his town more ifnluential than his perceived rival, so he distributed maps of the area that showed Juneautown as uninhabited, and even went so far as to make sure his streets did not line up with those of Juneautown across the river, so it would be much more difficult to build bridges between them. That's dedication. Eventually it culminated in an armed skirmish called the Bridge War, and the state decided to formally unify the area into Milwaukee, with Mr Juneau as mayor. Kilbourn licked his wounds, founded a few more small towns, got fired from a sweet railroad company gig for fraud, and even got busted for using railroad bonds as bribes to state officials for land grants! Newly unified and peaceful, Milwaukee promptly got down to business, and that business was mostly the production of fizzy yellow beer, overseen by recent immigrants from Germany and Poland. By 1900, over 1/3 of the city was of German descent, and their influence persists today. Unlike many other "rust belt" cities, Milwaukee began preserving its historic neighborhoods in the 1980's, which prevented the drastic population decreases seen in other downtowns around the midwest. Downtown Milwaukee today is vibrant, clean, and teeming with small local businesses. The lakefront area is mostly developed as park land, with bike paths carrying you past scenic Bradford Beach, the gorgeous Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Marcus Amphitheater, the home of the Summerfest music festival. Milwaukee is friendly and gorgeous.
Milwaukee bike etiquette is typical "midwestern laid back," similar to Madison and Minneapolis. There's a good mix of experienced commuters, students, and people trying to get some exercise. From what we've seen, there's usually not enough bike traffic for your hand signals to matter as much as they would in parts of Chicago or NYC. It's still a good idea to signal (and technically state law, but we suspect the police don't even realize it), and not to shoal at red lights, but don't stress about it.
Front white lights and red rear reflectors are required at night (as usual in the US), and helmets are actually not mandatory in the state for anyone, regardless of age, though they remain a pretty spectacularly good idea for kids. Bells don't seem to be required, but are (as always) a very smart idea.
Bike theft is about what you'd expect for a city of over 500,000: present, but not a plague. Milwaukee tends to have more space and fewer stairs to climb than places like Chicago and NYC, however, so depending on where you're staying, you've usually got pretty good odds of being able to bring the bike inside. Don't leave it in view of the street at night, and bring / rent a high-quality lock.
...is nicer and more laid back than Chicago, with less density and bike traffic. We saw very little hustle, urgency, or haste in most riders. There's a strong culture of riding for relaxation here, with thousands of people setting out on weekends to enjoy the lakefront area, often on fat-tired cruiser bikes. It's very easy to get along here.
Best Bike Rides in Milwaukee
These routes were curated by local Milwaukee folk who wanted to share their #BestBikeRide with you. Print off the map for free!
Coast in Bikes - $45+ daily for adult, cargo, tandem, kids, seat or trail-a-bike
Hop Head Beer Tours - $55+ per person for tours of iconic brewery sights or craft beverage tastings
Fyxation - River West based frame maker and bike shop with great brands
Spinlister is like the Airbnb of bikes! Use promo code, BIKABOUT, for $10 off
Empire Builder (Chicago - Milwaukee - St. Paul/Minneapolis - Spokane - Portland/Seattle) - requires bikes to be boxed (boxes are $15) and pay $10 to check as luggage.
Badger Bus - $10 cash for one way storage of fully assembled bikes underneath. Travels to Madison.
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