Milwaukee Art Museum Degas
Top: Quadracci Pavilion. Bottom: Edgar Degas, Woman in a Tub, 1883.

Milwaukee is our family’s go-to getaway, so at noon on the sunny Thursday after Christmas, we hop in the Buick and head north. Ninety minutes later we arrive, sweeping into the city on I-794. It’s a grand sight: colorful old stone skyscrapers etched against clear blue sky; the Milwaukee Art Museum perched on Lake Michigan, its snow-white wings aloft.

It’s a little past the lunch hour, so there’s only a short wait for a table downstairs at Café Calatrava (earlier in the day, the long lines can be discouraging). The furnishings are spartan, but the food is good, the service friendly, and we love the view of the lakefront through the windows of the museum’s “prow.” A little later, at Building a Masterpiece: Santiago Calatrava and the Milwaukee Art Museum—an exhibit commemorating the ten-year anniversary of the institution’s Quadracci Pavilion—we see a photo of the very spot where we had been seated as it looked in the initial stages of construction. (Be sure to head upstairs afterward to see the paintings by Calatrava that helped inspire his design for the pavilion.)

The Calatrava exhibit, up for another month, is definitely worth a visit, but the main reason for our trip was to see Impressionism: Masterworks on Paper,  which closes January 8 (which means this is the last weekend for Chicagoans to catch the show). The 125 drawings, watercolors, and pastels by Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and their contemporaries invite close study—the Degas pastels and works on cardboard by Toulouse-Lautrec are a revelation—and provide unexpected insights into the Impressionists intent and methods. The few oil paintings hung alongside—including a Pissarro landscape and one of Monet’s studies of London’s Waterloo Bridge—are an added bonus.

To close out our tour, we take a quick look at the museum’s Georgia O’Keefe collection and make an obligatory stop at one of my daughter’s favorites, Alex Katz’s Sunny #4. Here’s a little trick we learned: Put your hand up in front of your face so the dog’s nose and tongue are hidden and watch the waterfalls appear.

After checking into Chez Chris (aka, my brother’s house) and leaving our daughter and cousin in the care of our 14-year-old son, we head out to Buckley’s Restaurant & Bar. It’s a small, lively place almost crammed inside a onetime Italianate house from the 19th century. The mood is convivial, the service excellent, and the food fabulous (charred Scottish salmon, olive-oil mash fingerling potatoes, cocoa nibs, wilted baby spinach, and grilled sweet corn cream sauce; a risotto made with local heirloom pumpkin, cream cheese, brandy flambéed mushrooms, and arugula). After dinner, Mike Buckley, the ardent Red Sox fan who runs the place with his two sons, shows me around. Among other things, he tells me the story behind two large black-and-white photos of a young, pre-President John Kennedy and explains the framed selection of memorabilia commemorating Buckley’s boyhood encounter with the poet Robert Frost.

Before we stop for a nightcap at County Clare Irish Inn, Ruby Erickson, one of our dinner companions, gives us an after-hours tour of her Soup House. The place is open Monday through Friday from 9 to 2, and Erickson’s homemade soups sell out each day, so get there early. To our regret, Erickson had closed the restaurant for the week after Christmas, her first break since opening, but after seeing her tantalizing menu, it will be our first stop on our next trip to Milwaukee.

Next morning, we visit the Milwaukee Public Museum for Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt. This stunning collection of objects retrieved mainly from the ancient (and largely submerged) city of Alexandria originated in Egypt, and it’s here through April 29. (I recommend you buy tickets online in advance at the museum website; several local hotels offer package deals in conjunction with the exhibit.) Everyone in our party, kids and adults alike, are captivated. Click on the slide show below for a preview.

Before heading home, we grab lunch in the city’s historic Third Ward at The Wicked Hop. The cheeseburgers are tasty, and the Bloody Mary lives up to its reputation as the city’s best—or so I was told. (I am driving and nobly abstain.) At 3:30 p.m., we’re back in the Buick and headed for Chicago beneath gray and rainy skies, tired but happy after 26 hours in the most underrated city in the United States.


Photographs: Timothy Hursley (Pavilion); Tate: Bequeathed by Mrs. A.F. Kessler, 1983 (Degas)