Walking the Hank Aaron State Trail doubles as an sightseeing tour through Milwaukee © Paul Brady Photography / Shutterstock
Often called one of the most underrated cities in the Midwest, Milwaukee is full of farmers markets, festivals, beer gardens and more than 150 spacious parks to visit. The best part? Many of these activities are free to experience.
Here’s our guide to the best free things to do in Milwaukee.
Black Cat Alley
Black Cat Alley is one of the few curated outdoor street art galleries in the city, and visitors can see works by creatives and muralists from Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Berlin and more. Black Cat Alley makes for a great photo stop, and you can snap a selfie with one of the many beautiful backgrounds. The art does rotate, so check the website to see which artists are showcased and when you can catch the art switches in action.
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Alice’s Garden Urban Farm
Alice’s Garden Urban Farm is a locally led community space for people to connect and bond in the outdoors. This two-acre farm on Milwaukee’s north side hosts events such as contemporary dancing with the local company Danceworks, guided and self-guided meditative walks in an herbal labyrinth, art activities for kids and live music during a fish-fry night.
Free prescheduled tours or a self-guided tour are available if you want to know about the garden’s Black history and its role as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Although most events at Alice’s Garden are free, a few special events require a small fee. From June until September, you can also visit its Artisan Market on Tuesdays and Thursdays to browse products from local vendors including jewelry and herbal body products.
Hank Aaron State Trail
The 14-mile Hank Aaron State Trail, named for the Milwaukee baseball legend, doubles as a walking tour through the city. Walk through the greenery and along the Lake Michigan shoreline as you pass Lakeshore State Park. On the trails in the Milwaukee metro area, visitors can make pit stops at the Urban Ecology Center for more wildlife and nature activities, get a view of the white wings on the Milwaukee Art Museum pavilion designed by Santiago Calatrava, and relax at Bradford Beach. The Hank Aaron trail also connects to other trails in the city including the Beerline and the Oak Leaf.
Set up a picnic at Veterans Park and watch people in the lagoon full of swan pedal boats © Aaron of L.A. Photography / Shutterstock
As you head toward the lakefront from downtown, you’ll notice large and spacious grassy areas with a lagoon full of swan pedal boats at Veterans Park. Bring some snacks and set up at one of the picnic tables facing the lake. On a busy summer day, you will see people riding rental bikes and flying kites as high as the surrounding trees. In the spring and summer, the park has outdoor events like the Gift of Wings Kite Store’s free movies in the park that are kid friendly. The park also hosts an annual free Kite Festival where hobbyists showcase their best and biggest kites of whales, yellow butterflies, orange jellyfish, red bears and other designs.
Milwaukee has no shortage of parks for visitors to explore, but the Swing Park is one of the most delightful – and most under the radar. It is the only Milwaukee park with adult-size swings, but kids enjoy it too. To track it down, search for the Marsupial Bridge Media Garden and Holton Street Bridge. Underneath them, you will find a mix of swing styles if you need a break from the busy, restaurant-filled Brady Street nearby.
Pack snacks and a beach towel and head to the lakefront to bask in the sun at Bradford Beach. Catch a free sand volleyball game put on by a local league, join a frisbee game, hop in the freshwater lake, or just lay out on the sand all day. You’ll also see people rollerblading and biking along the sidewalk on the inland areas surrounding the beach.
Bradford Beach is the go-to summer spot where you can experience Milwaukee in action, especially on a hot day. Be prepared to hear music, smell delicious food, and see people of all ages running and playing around Lake Michigan and on the beach.
Milwaukee farmers markets
Farmers market season coincides with the warmest months of the year and tourist season in Milwaukee, and it is free to walk through them and peruse all the local goodies. Many of the farmers markets also have live performances including music and contemporary and Irish dancing. The Shorewood Farmers Market offers a mix of fresh local produce and food trucks that serve treats ranging from empanadas and waffles to spring rolls and homemade donuts. South Shore Farmers’ Market sits near Lake Michigan and has stalls from farmers as well as pop-ups from local coffee roasters, ice cream makers and barbecue restaurants. Most markets run from June through October.
The Basilica of St. Josaphat, built for Milwaukee’s Polish immigrant community, offers free tours © Brett Welcher / Shutterstock
Basilica of St. Josaphat
Anyone is welcome to stop by the Basilica of St. Josaphat. This grand granite structure complete with Italian-style domes and decorative plaster was built for the Polish immigrant community that flourished on Milwaukee’s South Side. The red, blue, yellow and orange stained-glass window designs from Austria and its European-style murals inside contributed to St. Josaphat being named the third basilica in the United States in 1929. You can schedule a free tour online or do a self-guided visit. Both options include a free exhibit detailing the basilica’s history.
Milwaukee Public Library
Established in 1878, the Milwaukee Public Library system is the largest public library system in Wisconsin, and the downtown branch is the most extravagant. Visitors can admire the mosaic-tiled floors, marble columns and grand staircases reminiscent of the French and Italian Renaissances. The downtown branch also provides free activities and storytimes for families.
Jazz in the Park
For lovers of jazz, blues and funk, Jazz in the Park is a must-visit free event. Jazz in the Park has been a staple for almost 30 years and takes place at Cathedral Square Park. It is the Milwaukee’s largest weekly music series with more than 5000 people attending each week. Families, couples and friends all come to hang out and enjoy the music every Thursday from May to September.
The outdoor exhibition Sculpture Milwaukee brightens up the tall buildings and parking structures downtown. More than 20 sculptures are scattered over two miles, from Sixth Street to O’Donnell Park. Along the way, you’ll spot abstract sculptures including larger-than-life blue pickup sticks, a bronze statue of a Black sportsman and a colorful blob monster. Each piece showcases the style and identity of local artists and artists from around the world. The installations change every year, and the exhibit is open only in summer.
A postcard view of North Point Lighthouse © Nejdet Duzen / Shutterstock
North Point Lighthouse
Originally constructed in 1891, the restored North Point Lighthouse is a picturesque landmark that sits in Lake Park. The lighthouse is free to see from outside and is reminiscent of an old postcard, but it does cost $8 for adults and $5 for students to enter the museum and climb to the top, where you’ll get a panoramic view of downtown Milwaukee and the lake.
The three-mile Milwaukee RiverWalk flows through the heart of downtown and has several access points. Stroll through the artsy Historic Third Ward neighborhood and the European-style Old Third World Street that pays homage to Milwaukee’s German roots. If you need a rest, there are also breweries along the way. Be sure to find the art from the RiverSculpture outdoor art gallery and stop to learn more about the artists.
South Shore Beach
A visit to Milwaukee’s South Side should include a relaxing day at South Shore Beach. Decompress in the green space and enjoy a view of Lake Michigan away from the hustle and bustle of downtown and Bradford Beach. South Shore also has an area to play in the sand or join a volleyball game. Climb on the rocks along the water to get gorgeous photos of the lake at sunset.