Ever since Polish and German immigrants settled along Lake Michigan's Wisconsin shore in the early 1800s, Milwaukee has been a city soaked in beer. Locals brew it, celebrate with it, mourn with it, and occasionally drink it during midmorning work breaks. Thanks to several new efforts to immerse tourists in the longstanding local hops culture, the Brew City is becoming the ultimate destination for hard-drinking history buffs.
The brand-new Historic Bar Tour, put on by established local company Milwaukee Food & City Tours, takes visitors on a three-hour bus trip between different pre-Prohibition taverns that serve up local ale and Wisconsin's official-unofficial state cocktail, the Brandy Old-Fashioned. Drinkers start at the Landmark 1850 Inn, Milwaukee's oldest tavern, then move to Puddler's Hall (established 1874), where early union leaders cried out for justice while polishing off their pints. Next up is a bit of gnoshing at the Historic White House Tavern, which stocks every variety of cured meat that has ever come out of Germany. The final stop is Holler House, which has the nation's oldest bowling alley in its basement and female patrons' bras dangling from every beam and light fixture. In typical Milwaukee style, the owner, an octogenarian named Marcy, still tends bar and cracks jokes that make sailors blush.
After the tour, continue hydrating at the Pabst Brewery Complex, a 20-acre campus of old cream-colored brick buildings that constitutes the Midwest's answer to Dublin's more touristed Guinness Storehouse. Pabst hasn't brewed a drop at this location since the company was shut down in 1996 – Blue Ribbon is now made in a half dozen breweries around the country – and the entire 20-acre campus was slated for demolition until a local beer enthusiast swooped in and started buying up pieces of the property.
The renovations are a work in progress, which is part of what makes touring the complex so interesting. First, visitors get a rundown of the brewery's 170-year history in Blue Ribbon Hall while enjoying a Pabst and pretzels. Then guides lead small groups up a creaky staircase and into a giant hall, where sheetrock has just been torn down to reveal amazing original details like Pabst-themed stained glass and intricate wood finishing. Poking around the late Captain Frederick Pabst's office, which is still littered with early-20th-century ledgers, is as fun as trying to make sense of the manual for the ventilation system set up to facilitate the beer baron's 10-a-day Cuban cigar habit. After the tour, stop next door to check out – or sleep it off at – the newly renovated Brewhouse Inn and Suites, where the brewery's original copper kettles stand tall in the middle of a five-story atrium.
Another great overnight option: The Iron Horse Hotel, a 100-year-old warehouse turned swanky stopover with decor that can only be described as Sturgis chic. Inspired by Harley-Davidson, which was born in Milwaukee 110 years ago, the hotel is festooned with gears, cogs, and engines yet still manages to look posh. The rooms are loft-style and cozy, and, yes, there is a great bar. If you decide to eat at Smyth, the on-site restaurant, order the beer tenderloin.
More Information: The Harley-Davidson Museum sits just a half mile from the Iron Horse and is worth a visit when you sober up.