Milwaukee is one of those cities that is perfect for people who don’t really like vacationing in cities. It’s small and friendly and was recently voted one of the most affordable cities in America. Best of all, it’s got lots of cool stuff for kids and families.

This is a secret I discovered only recently. Despite having grown up less than 150 miles south of Milwaukee, I had never visited until a few years ago. My husband, a part-time musician, had played a gig there and returned home raving about the wonders of Milwaukee and the Pfister Hotel, an old fashioned Grand Dame of a hotel. He was so impressed he had made reservations for us to spend our wedding anniversary there.

We did. It was a wonderful spring weekend perfect for long walks along the pristine lakefront, a leisurely afternoon exploring the world-class Milwaukee Art Institute and making plans for a return visit with our kids, then ages 7 and 9.

Milwaukee is the 22nd largest city in America, nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s best known for its huge, free summer music festival, Summerfest. But it’s got plenty of fun stuff to do during the other three seasons as well.

When we returned to Milwaukee with the kids in tow, we headed not to the Pfister (why waste such elegance on unappreciative children?) but to the Milwaukee Hilton City Centre. It’s not quite as grand at the Pfister, but it’s still a bit of a dame and it has the ultimate in kid vacation features: an indoor waterpark in the basement. The waterpark is best for younger kids, although my slightly older kids managed to stay active and happy for a few hours. 

Walking Around

The Hilton is conveniently located within walking distance of one of Milwaukee’s best family attractions, the Milwaukee Public Museum, a terrific natural history museum. Don’t miss the two-story Puelicher Butterfly Wing that’s always a hit with kids and the temporary traveling Titanic exhibit that’s worth a look if you missed it when it was in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Also housed in the downtown Museum Center Complex is the Humphrey IMAX Dome Theater. It has the typical IMAX features–the six-story-high screen and a 12,000 watt, six-channel digital stereo surround sound–that makes for one cool viewing experience. But be careful taking young children to an IMAX–it can be a little too intense for them. The $2.6 million Daniel M. Soref Planetarium also shares the space.

A few blocks away–it’s within walking distance on a warm day, but on a blustery one when the wind whips in off the lake, you might choose to drive over and park nearby–is the fantastic Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. The life-size BRIO train set is a big draw for pint-sized fans of trains and Thomas the Tank Engine.  The place is filled with things kids can push, pull and play pretend with. It’s best for little ones, but bigger siblings with a open mind can find plenty to entertain themselves until the advent of naptime means they can head back to the hotel.

If you can put the little ones in the stroller for that afternoon nap, walk across the street from Betty Brinn for an adult afternoon wandering the exhibit halls of the Milwaukee Art Museum.  It’s OK for kids, but much better as an adult experience.

For Tweens and Teens

As is so often true, many of the family-friendly attractions in Milwaukee are best for kids 10 and under. At least they were until 2006. That’s when Discovery World, the city’s new 120,000-square-foot science and technology museum, opened.

The beautiful building was built along the lakefront across from the children’s museum and next to the art museum. According to Jeannine Sherman, public relations manager for VISIT Milwaukee and the mom of three tween- and teen-aged kids, Discovery World is “all about innovation, exploration and discovery.”

Her kids are fans of the museum with its virtual reality exhibits and techno-jungle. There’s even a bed of nails kids can lay on to learn about the distribution of pressure.

For the youngsters, there’s an aquarium with touch tanks and rooms where the fish swim over and under visitors and the great expansive lawns and grounds along the lakefront, perfect for running off that excess energy.

The city’s newest attraction showcases another Milwaukee original: the Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

The 130,000-square-foot Harley-Davidson Museum, opened this summer, celebrates the 105-year history of the Harley. But it’s not all exhibits and history. There’s also the  gallery that lets visitors climb on a hog and “ride” along with a movie broadcast on a large screen. If there aren’t enough Harleys inside and you’re visiting on a nice day, stroll along the wall of windows that looks out on the parking lot for a view of hundreds of more hogs, ridden there by their owners.

For other great vacation spots for teens and tweens, check out TravelingMom’s report on tween-approved eateries in Chatanooga, a visit to Vermont, as well as tips on taking teens and tweens to England and Wales or Montreal

Add your family-friendly Milwaukee suggestions here.

Cindy Richards is the mom of Evan and Tess and editor for TravelingMom.com. Check out her MomWithTeens blog.