A flotilla of around 20 kayaks slowly paddles along, a comical number considering we’re all trying to listen to a history talk about the buildings lining the Milwaukee River. “Steve, we can’t hear you!” we yell at Steve Schaffer, assistant archivist of Milwaukee County Historical Society as his kayak drifts backwards behind a moored boat. For the voyage, the Milwaukee Kayak Company has issued us each a can of beer, a bag of cheese curds and a laminated piece of paper showing historic photos of Milwaukee buildings. Schaffer is explaining Milwaukee through a megaphone I suspect came from a dollar store.

Some would say it’s a miracle we’re paddling on this river, once a totally industrial waterway. The Milwaukee River connects here with the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic, or KK, as people call it for short. By the early 1900s, Milwaukee had the nickname “Machine Shop of the World.” It cranked out steam engines, electrical equipment, mining shovels, automobile frames, agricultural machinery, bricks and beer to build and fuel a nation. Then it shipped those goods down its rivers and across the Great Lakes — water quality being collateral damage. A few of the things you might find in the river back then were animal hides, gross castoffs from meatpackers, miscellaneous toxic chemicals and municipal sewage. You would not find kayakers or, God forbid, swimmers.

Related: Wisconsin’s hidden eco-wellness hotspot

“The idea of a river being used for recreation was just completely alien to anybody in the city until the 1960s,” said Schaffer. “They began to think how can we engage people with what is basically a dreary and dead industrial artery? That’s when things began to change.”

A half century later, on a beautiful blue sky day in early October, Milwaukee is ready for paddlers. But swimmers? Judging from the smell in some places, the too-frequent belly-up fish sightings and the scum of trash on top, I’m going to wait on that. But you’ve got to give Milwaukee credit for coming this far. The city has invested millions in cleaning up both the toxic sediment that you can’t see and the trash that you can. The 50-foot vessel Lynyrd Skymmr plies Milwaukee’s waterways several times a week, collecting floating debris.

A stream with kayakers, with a sign "Milwaukee Kayak Company" in front of it

Lake Michigan recreation

While the river is still cleaning up and catching on with residents and tourists, Lake Michigan is a big recreational draw. The weekend I was in town, 2,680 people took in early morning views while running the Lakefront Marathon. A series of beaches and parks are scattered along the long shoreline, providing chances to rent a bike, paddleboard, kayak or canoe. You can also play golf or tennis, lawn bowl, take a sailing lesson, visit a lighthouse or eat Milwaukee’s famous frozen custard. If you’re in Milwaukee during June or July, you might catch Summerfest, the world’s biggest music festival with grounds overlooking the lake.

A woman painting on a step ladder a mural with honeycombs

Black Cat Alley

Vibrantly colored street art packs Milwaukee’s favorite pedestrian thoroughfare. Black Cat Alley, a private alley on the East Side, boasts more than 20 murals by two dozen artists ranging from Milwaukee locals to a Berliner. It’s open 24/7 and is a popular backdrop for selfies, family portraits and wedding shoots. During the two days I visited, I saw artist Mi Salgado up on a ladder painting honeycomb on her mural one day and adding darling fuzzy bees the next.

Three cats lounging on a yoga mat

Beyond the usual yoga

At one end of Black Cat Alley, about thirty cats lounge, frolic and gaze out a storefront window at passers-by. If you read their lips, they might just be saying meow, or maybe they’re inviting you in to have a cup of coffee, take a yoga class or even adopt one of them. The Sip & Purr Cat Café welcomes visitors to get to know their friendly, adoptable cats.

Brittany Curran, who goes by B, started leading the weekly Sip & Purr yoga classes last year. Teaching amongst cats is a dream come true.

Yoga is a great way for folks to connect with their bodies, minds, spirits and breath,” said B, who has two cats of her own, Cici and Guapo. “When there are cats involved, there is also a layer of comedy.  These cats never fail to do the unexpected, and we laugh a lot in cat yoga. I think some deep healing comes into play as well, because cat purrs are known to lower stress hormones in people and even heal bones! They are magical little creatures.”

If having cats pounce and leap over your forward bends is too lively, try doing yoga in a cemetery. Beautiful and historic Forest Home Cemetery offers yoga classes during the summer. They even throw in a mini tour. This cemetery is the final resting place of many of Milwaukee’s beer barons, and is also a certified arboretum. If you’re not a yogi, consider visiting Forest Home for a guided tree walk or history tour.

A garden with a man standing in it

Alice’s Garden

Back in 1948, Milwaukee planners decided to build a freeway along a route once used by the Underground Railroad. Neighborhoods on the city’s north side were torn down to make space, and people displaced. Then the project was cancelled. But in 1972, out of the ruins of these wrecked neighborhoods, community members planted a garden. And it’s still thriving.

On my visit to Alice’s Garden Urban Farm — named for former executive director of Milwaukee Extension Alice Meade-Taylor, who was a big community gardening advocate — Eugene Bivens showed us his garden patch. Surrounded by giant collard greens, cosmos and other plants both edible and decorative, he told my group about the 90 or so people from Cameroon, Scotland, Jamaica, the Middle East and other places who now garden here. Bivens said he inherited his green thumb from his mother, who grew up in Haiti. Neighborhood kids play basketball in the garden’s court, and sometimes a youngster helps Bivens garden in exchange for fresh vegetables.

“I think gardening should be taught in every school,” Bivens told us.

Public events at the garden include farmers’ markets and labyrinth walks.

Blue bicycles lined up in a row

Getting around

During pleasant October weather, I found Milwaukee easily walkable. But if you want to get places faster, you can take the bus, streetcar or ride a bike. For short hops, try Milwaukee’s nonprofit bikeshare system, Bublr Bikes. The sturdy blue bikes have three speeds and are equipped with baskets that carry up to thirty pounds and lights for night riding. To rent by the day or week, stop by Milwaukee by Bike. If you prefer a guided tour, this bike shop also offers a two-hour city skyline bike tour that leads you to local highlights like the lakefront and the Bronze Fonz statue (“Happy Days” was filmed here), or a tour of Milwaukee’s historic breweries.

Vegan tacos with meat and topped with avocados

Vegan food

I was happily surprised by how easy it was to find vegan food in Milwaukee. All-vegan On the Bus, located in the bustling Milwaukee Public Market, is a must for hearty lunchtime sandwiches and dairy-free ice cream. Beerline is a bright vegetarian café with a nice big patio that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its vegan crepes are especially good. If you want the German beer hall experience, Lakefront Brewery has vegan options tucked between the meaty standards. The night I was there, they served vegan bratwurst. Other days you might find a vegan fry bread taco or vegan chicken tenders. Its spot right on the Riverwalk lent itself to a pleasant walk back to my downtown hotel after a night at the beer hall.

A historical-looking building

Where to stay

Travel Green Wisconsin promotes sustainable travel in the state. Quite a few hotels scored higher than the minimum 30 points to make the list. Here are some conveniently located downtown.

The upscale Hilton Milwaukee City Center, which has AAA Four Diamond status, scored 56 points on the green certified scale. The Pfister scored 63 points. This grand Victorian hotel has a spa, Energy Star light fixtures, windows and appliances, low-flow bathroom fixtures and, according to my sources, ghosts.

I stayed at the Saint Kate Arts Hotel which, at 45 points, could be greener. But this newish hotel is fabulously artsy, with a gallery on the ground floor and interesting art, a ukulele and record player in every room. Rooms come with several albums, and the invitation to switch them out whenever you want to listen to something new. The hotel obviously saved a truckload of bargain bin vinyl from the landfill. I settled on 1960s Brazilian instrumentals as a soundtrack for my Milwaukee stay.

Photography by Teresa Bergen