Milwaukee: new, old, and festive. Diversity - in cultures, traditions, food, architecture - is what this city is all about

THE name Milwaukee comes from an Indian term meaning ``gathering place by the waters.'' And today that name seems especially apt, because this ethnically diverse city of 635,000, nestled where three Wisconsin rivers flow into Lake Michigan, seems to revolve around festivals and fairs that bring the community together and that attract thousands of visitors each year.

One indication of the diversity can be found in the array of reasonably priced restaurants here offering a global variety of tantalizing cuisine, including Arabian, Armenian, Dutch, Peruvian, Polish, Serbian, and - of course - German, not to mention the more common European, Latin, and Asian varieties.

The city has a wealth of architectural styles, too, ranging from the monumental Flemish Renaissance-style City Hall (1895), to the magnificent Victorian mansion built by beer baron Frederick Pabst (1893), the graceful Italian-style Villa Terrace (1923) built as a private home but now housing a museum dedicated to the decorative arts, Frank Lloyd Wright's blue-domed Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, and the ultramodern First Wisconsin Center skyscraper. Festivities for all

Then there are the festivals themselves.

This once predominantly German and Polish melting pot now is home to more than 50 ethnic groups, who celebrate annually with Greek, Irish, Italian, Mexican, and Polish festivals, and with celebrations of the French Bastille Day, an Afro Fest, and the traditional German Volkfest and Oktoberfest. All of these help keep alive old traditions and cultures.

In mid-November, numerous groups combine efforts to produce a Holiday Folk Fair at the Milwaukee exposition and convention center arena, featuring exotic costumes, folk dancing, exhibits, and ethnic culinary delicacies.

Summer in this clean, bright city signals another wave of special events.

Every June, the Lakefront Festival of Art is held on the beautifully landscaped grounds adjacent to the sleek Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Eero Saarinen. This year's edition, June 12-14, includes works of 190 artists from around the US, selected from 900 entries. And festivalgoers will also be able to preview the museum's Andy Warhol exhibition, opening to the general public June 19.

After sampling the festival, many visitors like to tour the museum itself - especially since admission is free during the festival. The museum contains important collections of European, American, Egyptian, and Haitian art, and it sponsors guided walking tours of the sensational Bradley Sculpture Gardens, located on Brown Deer Road in Bayside, Monday through Saturday, weather permitting. (Make reservations for the sculpture garden at least 10 days in advance by calling Irene Braeger at [414] 276-6840.)

Later in June, the downtown lakefront plays host to a Summerfest, a music festival where top entertainers perform on 10 stages, offering classical, pop, folk, rock, jazz, country, and Western music - something for everyone. This year's lineup (June 25-July 5), includes Bruce Hornsby and the Range, the Bangles, Whitney Houston, Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

In July (this year, the 12th), the annual Great Circus Parade, with antique, horse-drawn circus wagons and live animals, attracts nearly a million spectators.

And in August, similar throngs gather at the Wisconsin State Fair Park for the 10-day event, this year Aug. 6-16.

Year-round attractions

But whether or not you time your visit to coincide with a fair or festival, other amenities of this city will be of interest throughout the year.

Nestled among modern structures of Marquette University, for example, is a small stone chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc, built during the 15th century in Lyon, France, and painstakingly reconstructed here in 1926. Old St. Mary's Church, built in 1846, the year when the city was chartered, is constructed of bricks made by parishoners in their homes and contains an altarpiece donated by King Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1865.

Of special interest to nature lovers are the Milwaukee Public Museum, one of America's 10 largest natural history museums; the Milwaukee County Zoo, whose installation is designed to show predator and prey in close proximity; and the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, which offers a tropical rain forest, a desert display, and a glorious floral display inside three seven-story domes.

Those who enjoy the performing arts may want to sample ballet, opera, the symphony, or drama at the downtown Performing Arts Center. Touring artists and Broadway shows are headlined at Riverside Theater, a beautifully renovated landmark. Another lavishly restored theater, the Pabst, presents local groups as well as touring artists. And at the Skylight Theater and Melody Top Theater, which operate in the summer, musical productions are the specialty.

Sports lovers will find a wide range of seasonal activities available in Milwaukee's parks - golf, swimming, fishing, tennis, sailing, ice skating, and skiing - and something going on almost any season among the city's pro teams - the Green Bay Packers (football), the Milwaukee Brewers (baseball), the Bucks (basketball), the Wave (soccer), and the Admirals (hockey).

Visitors interested in how beer is brewed have made the famous Pabst Brewing Company and Miller Brewing Company popular tour stops here. And shoppers usually make a beeline for the Grand Avenue Center, an enclosed arcade with 130 shops, whose third level features sidewalk caf'es.

Also popular is Old World Third Street, a quaint two-block downtown area that recreates the 1880s with harp street lights, cobblestone pavement, and food specialty shops in artfully restored buildings. And near the downtown district, the Milwaukee Antique Center offers 75 shops on three floors under one roof.

If you go

Travel to Milwaukee is easy. An international airport is just six miles from downtown. Amtrak provides daily rail service, and the freeway system ensures convenient access by car or bus.

For more detailed information, contact the Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau, 756 N. Milwaukee St., Milwaukee, Wis. 53202 (tel. 800-231-0903). Admission to the Lakefront Festival of Art is $2; more information is available by calling (414) 271-9508. The Summerfest information hotline is (414) 273-FEST, and tickets are available through Ticketron.

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