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Best of Milwaukee 2021 | City Life

llustration by Kervin Brisseaux

From swan boats to selfie spots, here’s our favorite parts of city life this year in MKE.


Hoan Light Shows Every Saturday night, the 2,600 lights attached to the steel of Milwaukee’s most famous bridge dance to life, sending rainbows and bolts and cascades across the city’s skyline. The show is mesmerizing even before you tune in to the synced-up music broadcast on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, which we highly recommend. It’s what the Light the Hoan organization promised when it began raising $3.5 million for the light project, but it’s one thing to hear “light show on a 150-foot-tall bridge” and it’s another thing to see it. – CD Photo by Kristine Hinrichs PhotographyBEST MEME MATERIAL

Fog and Modernism Lakefront fog is a frequent sight in Milwaukee, and sometimes it behaves really strangely. Linda Lipin captured this memeworthy photo of the US Bank building appearing to cut a square path through some June morning haze, and WISN meteorologist and local Twitter star Mark Baden (@Mark_Baden) made it famous. The image was retweeted more than 400 times. BEST PROMOTION

Vaccine Giveaways When COVID-19 vaccines became widely available this spring, Milwaukee organizations and businesses joined the push to get them out there. Some, like Black Husky Brewing, Shawarma House and The Iron Horse Hotel, offered free drinks or food for the vaccinated. And a shoutout to the Brewers and Bucks, who gave away vaccines at their games. The Bucks even raffled off tickets to a Finals game for folks who got vaccinated at a clinic a few hours before tipoff. Unrelated side note: Is it bad to get the shot 30 times in a row wearing disguises in order to get a better chance of winning Bucks tickets? Because I’ve been feeling a little woozy. – AP


Alice’s Garden Alice’s Garden Urban Farm is a magical oasis, a place to connect with the Earth and cultivate a closer relationship with food. The farm next to Johnson Park, which has been used for urban agriculture since 1972, contains 127 rental farming plots and brings together teens, community volunteers and local residents to learn growing practices that are easily forgotten in this age of packaged convenience and fast food. Executive director Venice Williams has helped build the visibility of the farm (named after Alice Meade-Taylor, former head of Milwaukee County UW-Extension) with additional programs such as summer live music and guided walks through the garden’s labyrinth. She also sells products made at Alice’s Garden – such as muscle cream and bath salts – at farmers markets and local shops. A fruitful garden, indeed. – AC Juneteenth This year’s Juneteenth had some extra energy to it. Milwaukee was one of the first Northern cities to celebrate the liberation of the last enslaved people in the United States, and this 50th anniversary of that inaugural 1971 commemoration came as many were eager to embrace community events again with COVID cases waning. It also came as Juneteenth became a federal holiday. That act of Congress was opposed last year by Wisconsin’s Sen. Ron Johnson, who nevertheless showed up for some face time at Milwaukee’s celebration – the rare exception to Juneteenth’s good vibes. –CD Pickleball Under I-794 Pickleball is a bit like mini-tennis or mega-ping-pong, and now you can play it under the shade of I-794 across from the Milwaukee Public Market. The newly built courts are part of the “Brighten the Passage” project aiming to improve the area between the Third Ward and Downtown. BEST BRIGHT IDEA

Barbara Cerda WHEN BARBARA CERDA took a walk with her daughters in April 2020 to explore her South Side neighborhood’s “little free library” offerings, just a few weeks after the pandemic’s March spike had closed many public libraries, she noticed two problems. Her neighborhood’s little libraries had very few books, and in the few books she did find, she didn’t see herself, her daughters or her Latinx community but predominantly white authors and characters. The solution? A relentlessly community-driven project, and a little bit of magic. Donning the moniker “Barby the Book Fairy,” what began as an isolated effort to stock her nearby little library with books through personal and community donations soon transformed into a multi-neighborhood plan to bring free books to the South Side. “People I didn’t even know started reaching out to me to donate their books,” Cerda says. “And that’s where I started focusing efforts on buying books that were written by Black and brown authors for Black and brown people.” There’s now a growing network of volunteers and donors, an expanding map of little libraries and even a grant from the city to support the effort. “The thing that’s impacted me most is to see how this project has planted a seed,” Cerda says. “People from other neighborhoods are going out and becoming their own ‘book fairies.’” – BR BEST SPECTACLE

Swan Boats The swan boats added a bit of charm to Veterans Park when they arrived a few years back, but seeing them lit up at night – a new feature introduced this year – is pure magic. It conjures up images of amusement parks from the turn of the last century, of men in seersucker blazers and women in long dresses stealing a kiss while floating on the pond. Another beautiful sight to behold on the Milwaukee shoreline. Meet the Milwaukee County Zoo’s three newest residents Jellybean This bushbaby (aka, a mohol galago) was so small when it was born on April 4 that the zookeepers couldn’t even tell whether it was male or female. Months later, we were still waiting for Jellybean’s gender reveal. Bristle Quinn and Seamus, two prehensile-tailed porcupines in the Small Mammals building, became proud parents to Bristle on May 11. Zookeepers describe her as “spunky, sassy and animated.” Kumo This Japanese macaque was born on May 15, the third child of his mother, Negai. His name means cloud in Japanese.


Pandemic Changes That Lasted In The Great Rethinking of 2020, some pretty good ideas came forward, and a bunch of them emphasizing people over cars appear to be sticking around for good. Parking spots converted to parklets and outdoor seating are mostly not reverting. And the city extended its Active Streets program, which blocks through traffic in favor of travelers with two wheels or legs to create what Mayor Tom Barrett called more of a “small-town experience.” Plus, you can have an old fashioned mixed by a pro while enjoying these public spaces since the state legalized to-go cocktails, too.


The Tosa Monolith Remember when monoliths began showing up in exotic places last fall? Well, someone – or something – placed one in Wauwatosa’s County Grounds Park on a gray, snowy weekend in early January. The 9-foot-tall object was just reinforced cardboard and paint, but it captured our sense of mystery and whimsy during a pandemic winter when those elements were in short supply.

BEST SPOTS FOR A SELFIE Selfie WRLD MKE Turns out, this national franchise devoted entirely to selfies actually does have pretty great lighting. 16700 W. Bluemound Rd., Brookfield Selfie Hop Another immersive − and sometimes dog-friendly! – studio experience for the Instagram set. 2410 N. Farwell Ave. Black Cat Alley Home to more than 20 murals, many by Milwaukee artists. Between Kenilworth Place and Ivanhoe Place off Prospect Avenue. The Villa Terrace Trick your friends into thinking you’ve taken a trip to Italy by snapping a photo at this Italianate mansion. 2220 N. Terrace Ave. East Town Spa The exterior of this brick building has been painted the perfect shade of Millennial Pink. 718 E. Wells St. The Bronze Fonz A classic photo-op, and for good reason. No one’s cooler than the Fonz. East side of Riverwalk near East Wells Street Readers’ Choice

BEST HOTEL Iron Horse Yes, the cool theme, gorgeous guest rooms, great Walker’s Point location. But it’s The Yard patio that keeps us coming back. BEST COUNTY PARK

Lake Park Lake Michigan views, the North Point Lighthouse and winding, wooded paths are the standouts here. Plus, free concerts all summer long. BEST HIKING

Ice Age Trail Hike across the whole state of Wisconsin, or just the parts in our neck of the woods. Either way, you’re in for a scenic journey.

BEST BEACH Bradford Beach Come for the waves, stay for a game of sand volleyball. This beach is Milwaukee’s hottest spot each summer.

BEST WINTER SPORTS SPOT Urban Ecology Center Sure, the ice skating, cross-country skiing and winter walks are a delight, but the Urban Ecology Center really stands out in educating visitors about our local habitat. BEST INDOOR ACTIVITY FACILITY

Adventure Rock Adventure Rock has built a community for its climbers. The gyms are so popular the owners opened a third location in 2020 to keep up with demand. BEST DAY TRIP

Baraboo & Devil’s Lake Climb up the state park’s bluffs, and you’ll see a view comparable to being on a small mountain. Plus, the lake is right there to cool off after all that hiking.

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