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Hear Harley's vroom in Milwaukee

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Milwaukee

Beer. If that's your first thought after hearing the word "Milwaukee," you haven't been here lately.

In the last decade, the country's 25th largest city has gone through such a massive revitalization that "cosmopolitan" is a more apt description than "blue collar." Have a Pabst if you wish, but there's a whole lot more to sample, whether it's microbreweries and organic coffee or modern art and architecture.

Travelers who haven't found a reason to visit the Dairy State and its largest lakeside city may find a compelling reason this month. Harley-Davidson Inc., which has its headquarters in Milwaukee, is opening a museum designed to attract bikers and non-bikers alike. The highly anticipated project is expected to draw 500,000 visitors a year to good ol' M'waukee when it opens Saturday.

Like so many others who will be visiting the city in years to come, I was in town to check out the museum, which turned out to be one of the most engaging I've experienced. What I wasn't expecting was to be just as blown away by the city. I'm still fantasizing about moving there.

As The Times' motorcycle columnist, I was visiting the museum before it opened, though I had the access of a regular visitor. Traveling on two wheels, I was thrilled by the rock-star parking. I rolled my bike over the lot's striped orange concrete and kicked down the stand in front of one of the oversized glass garage doors. The museum is one of the few places where a motorcyclist gets to park right in front of the entrance.

The museum itself is just as thrilling, with its trio of stunning gunmetal-gray structures rising from a stylized, immaculately groomed landscape. As with its motorcycles, Harley-Davidson has exposed and highlighted the buildings' steel frames, giving the museum a raw, industrial look that pays tribute to Harley's factory focus and Milwaukee's manufacturing past.

Inside, the museum is filled with endless eye candy that doesn't showcase just the 400 bikes on display or Harley-Davidson culture or the company's impressive 105-year history but also the story of the United States as seen through the lens of motorcycling.

The Harley-Davidson Museum is in the city's 5th Ward, an industrial area on the south side that is only beginning to be revitalized and will most likely get a boost from Harley's presence. The rest of the city has already gotten the big-money treatment, including downtown, which is where I went for my first night in Milwaukee.

Coming from L.A., I was surprised by how easy it was to get around. In Los Angeles, it takes at least 30 minutes to get anywhere. In Milwaukee, it's about five.

That's how long it took me to get from the museum to Hotel Metro, one of Milwaukee's four high-end, high-rise hotels. The vibe was distinctly Zen, with its minimalist décor. I booked a spa suite because I figured I'd want a whirlpool bath at the end of a long day's ride from Illinois and because I wanted to take that bath with yummy-smelling products.

After whirlpooling in bath salts in the dimmed light of my bathroom, I headed down to the bar and was surprised to see it teeming with stylish twentysomethings drinking stylish drinks. Old Milwaukee? Try grapefruit cosmopolitan, which was the happy-hour special I sipped while listening to Fergie on the sound system.

I found dinner just a few doors down at Cubanitas, another place jammed with chic young 'uns who prefer fried plantains to cheese curds and stiff mojitos to Schlitz.

About then, I started to wonder where I really was. Blame it on the mojito, but I didn't feel as though I was in Milwaukee. Where were all the overweight women in appliqued sweaters with bad perms? They certainly weren't downtown.

EYE-OPENING

The last time I was in Milwaukee was in the '80s, when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, just 90 minutes away. I'd road-tripped to Milwaukee to see a concert and, as college kids do, toss back endless plastic cups of Milwaukee's finest. The city I was experiencing hardly resembled the Milwaukee of my youth.

If I hadn't known I was in Milwaukee, I would have guessed it was Seattle.

Milwaukee seemed just as hip, progressive and clean as Seattle -- only it's about 2,000 miles east and at the edge of fresh water (Lake Michigan) instead of the Pacific. On the sunny days I was here, it had just as many people jogging and bicycling through its parks.

It's also smaller and easier to navigate. I'm not great with directions, but I found Milwaukee's grid system and main streets easy to get around. That was important because I was traveling on a Harley Heritage Softail Classic. It didn't have GPS, and I couldn't fumble with a map while riding.

My second day began across the canal from the new Harley-Davidson Museum, where I got a hard-hat tour of an intriguing new hotel called the Iron Horse. One hundred years ago, the six-story brick building was a furniture factory. Now it's being transformed into a luxury boutique hotel catering to business travelers and motorcycle enthusiasts.

The hotel was just two months from its scheduled Sept. 1 opening, but that plan wasn't obvious. The entrance was clogged with bulldozers, and the interior was swarming with hard-hatted workers. The Iron Horse's owner, Tim Dixon, 46, was able to show me an almost finished room, though.

As with so many other revitalization projects in Milwaukee, this one has been careful to retain and incorporate much of the building's history. The old wooden pillars that were removed for the remodel are being re-crafted into boot benches that will rest on the slate tile floors of the rooms' entryways. A 1907 sign for the Milwaukee Boiler Co. will mark the entrance to an underground pool called the Boiler Room.

The hotel's motorcycling orientation is subtle. The entire subbasement is designed to house motorcycles, and the furniture in the lounge is leather, but overall the cycle theme, to a non-motorcyclist, is merely elegant. But a biker who looks closely will find purposeful nods, such as the custom iron hooks in the rooms, designed to withstand 60 pounds of wet leather.

BIKER BOOTS? NO BIGGIE

The concept for the Iron Horse is to be stylish for business travelers yet durable for bikers, so a woman like me would feel equally comfortable walking through the lobby in high heels or dirty buckle boots. "My hope is that at my bar on a Saturday afternoon, I've got two guys in full leathers having a pint of beer and talking about their ride, three businesswomen having martinis too early and four grandmas having a late lunch," Dixon said.

My own lunch that day was at Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro. Adam Siegel recently won the James Beard Award for best Midwest chef for his work at this lakeside French restaurant, and I wanted to taste the reason.

I got my answer when I ordered the menu des affaires, or special of the day. For $24, I enjoyed a cup of red pepper soup and a few slices of locally raised roasted lamb and finished the whole thing off with a sampling of aromatic, artisanal cheeses, all delicious.

I hardly needed dessert, but I'd been hearing so much from so many people about the Alterra coffee shop, just a few minutes down the road, that I decided to stop in. I'm a coffee fiend, so I was already inclined to check it out, but even I initially wondered what could be so special about a coffee joint.

The coffee is, I found, only part of the appeal. Though the vibe is distinctly organic, with its pesticide-free fare, rain-barrel gutters and recycled outdoor seating, the blond-brick building overlooking the lake was pure Milwaukee. The re-purposed former flushing station was yet another example of the old remade into the new.

Bold new architecture also abounds. A short walk from Alterra are two of the city's most talked-about buildings: Discovery World, an interactive science and technology museum that opened in 2006, and the Milwaukee Art Museum's Calatrava expansion, opened in 2001.

The art museum is home to more than 20,000 pieces, but its latest architectural addition is worth seeing too. It was designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and looks like a sun-bleached bird skeleton, flapping its wings like some sort of kinetic sculpture. Each morning, noon and night, the brise-soleil that shutters the museum's windows flutters to life and draws a crowd.

I was among the spectators when the bird-like structure folded its wings for the night, signaling it was time for me to head uptown for the evening.

A little old world

For my second night in Milwaukee, I switched hotels, exchanging the swanky downtown scene for the County Clare Irish inn and pub in the bohemian Brady Street area. The double-decker homes and tree-lined roads in this northern part of the city already told me I was in a more low-key part of town, but my check-in at the hotel sealed the deal. I was handed a paper bag of chocolate-chip cookies.

It was Friday night. I was in Milwaukee. I wanted to sample some of what's made the city famous, so I ditched my motorcycle and headed out by trolley. In the summer, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, a free trolley roams the city, dropping off and picking up passengers every 20 minutes at major attractions.

There was a stop just two blocks from the County Clare, so I walked over and hopped on, heading for Old World Third Street. Even if I hadn't asked the trolley driver to let me know when we'd arrived, I would have known we were in the German part of town from the half-timbered buildings and signs for Usinger's sausage.

I was headed for dinner at the legendary Mader's restaurant. In longevity, Mader's is the Musso & Frank of Milwaukee. For 106 years, its dirndl-attired waitresses have been serving up Wiener schnitzel, sauerbraten and frosted pints of German brew, all of which I sampled.

My next stop was the Old German Beer Hall, a couple of doors down. Drinking alone isn't my idea of a good time, but my experience with Milwaukeeans was that they were friendly. I figured I'd just make some new friends and do it with a game of hammerschlager, played with a hammer, a tree stump and a smattering of nails.

The Old German Beer Hall is known for two things: its selection of German beer and its back room, where hammerschlager is played. The nails needed to play the game are available from the bartender, who sells them for a quarter each. I bought three, headed into the back room and challenged a couple to a game.

I met Jay and Jennifer at 9 p.m. Two cigarettes, five hours and seven drinks later, they were on their way home in a cab and I was asleep at the County Clare.

When I'd booked my room at the County Clare, I'd worried I might hear the live music from the pub. I had no idea I'd be closing down the bar, which is what I did, or that I'd be ending my night with a drink called an Irish car bomb and doing it at 2 a.m. to a steady chant of "Drink! Drink! Drink!" from the surrounding patrons.

But I did.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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