Harley Mystique: Milwaukee on Two Wheels

By: Jeanette Hurt

October 23, 2014

Motorcycle after motorcycle roars through Milwaukee, pouring into the city’s biggest party site on the banks of Lake Michigan. This is the home of Harley mystique: the city that gave birth to the world’s most famous motorcycle.

When Harley-Davidson Motor Company celebrates an anniversary – its last big one was the 110th in 2013 – hundreds of thousands of riders from across the globe flock to its headquarters in Milwaukee for a week-long party.But even when there isn’t a big event, thousands of riders visit to pay homage to the birthplace of the legendary motorcycle. “Harleys have withstood the test of time, and the heart and soul of the product – the engines and the transmissions – have always been produced here,” says Kirk Topel, owner of Hal’s Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee. “Coming to Milwaukee is almost always on every Harley rider’s bucket list.”

Topel says that international riders often fly into Milwaukee, rent a Harley from his store or another location, and tour the city and Wisconsin countryside before heading off on a long ride to either the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota, or to the American Southwest. Even global business travellers sometimes rent a bike for a day to discover Milwaukee’s Harley mystique first hand.

Harley Mystique: Milwaukee | Ehibits at the Harley-Davidson Museum
Early exhibits are a far cry from teh Harley bikes you’ll see on the streets of Milwaukee © Ed Bierman/Flickr

The Harley-Davidson Museum and the Powertrain Operations Facility are two must-see spots for motor heads. A special Steel Toe Tour package combines the two and covers transportation, admission into the museum, and behind-the-scenes access within the factory. It’s worth making reservations at least a month in advance if you want a tour during peak summer season “” they sell out fast.

Harley Mystique: Milwaukee | Tsunami motorcycle
Tsunami motorcycle at the museum © Harley-Davidson Museum

The museum itself traces the company lineage from the very first bikes made by founders Arthur, Walter Sr. and William Davidson and William S. Harley. Visitors can chart the journey from a tiny Milwaukee garage to the multi-national, global corporation it is today. “There’s this feeling of nostalgia that they were just these four young guys tinkering in a backyard shed in Milwaukee,” says Kristin Jones, museum exhibitions and curatorial manager. “The thing is, the founders may not have been able to do what they did anyplace else in the world, because at that time Milwaukee was the machine shop of the world, and they had all that technology and support to start their business.

Harley Mystique: Milwaukee | Terminator 2 motorcycle
T2: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Harley from Terminator 2 is displayed in all its glory © Harley-Davidson Museum

The cultural and technical story of Harley is told through ample displays of antique and Hollywood bikes like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ride in Terminator 2, along with hands-on exhibits on technology and advertising. The last room of the museum is a Harley-filled hall where visitors can climb aboard and pretend to ride. “When you have something that becomes a pop culture icon and transcends its original meaning as a machine, that’s what makes Harley special,” says Jones.

Harley Mystique: Milwaukee | Harley bikes on display at the Iron Horse Hotel
Bikers paradise: Harley bikes take centre centre stage inside the hotel © The Iron Horse

The best place to stay in town, or at least grab dinner and drinks, is at the world’s only boutique motorcycle hotel, The Iron Horse. From covered motorcycle parking to bike washes and special hooks in room walls for heavy motorcycle leathers, the hotel caters to a rider’s every need.During the summer, the outdoor roar-up biker bar, The Yard is a heady party spot, or opt for finely crafted cocktails and farm-to-table dinners at Smyth restaurant.

Harley Mystique: Milwaukee | Smyth restaurant
Fuel up at The Iron Horse’s Smyth restuarant © The Iron Horse

The ambiance of the hotel is high-end meets biker grit. “I wanted it to be a place where both ladies who lunch and bikers could be comfortable,” says Tim Dixon, owner. And as odd as it may sound, that’s exactly the atmosphere the hotel embodies.

After hitting these three big sites, Topel recommends riders just explore the city on their own terms. “Milwaukeeans are so welcoming to Harley riders, and riders really feel that,” he says.

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What did you make of Milwaukee’s Harley mystique? Have you explored the city on two wheels? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

Written by Jeanette Hurt


Jeanette Hurt

Award-winning author Jeanette Hurt writes about food, wine and travel for a variety of publications, including AAA Living, Wine Enthusiast and The Four Seasons, and she's also a food and beverage correspondent for Milwaukee NPR affiliate WUWM's Lake Effect show. When she's not writing about food, wine or travel, she can be found enjoying Milwaukee's lakefront bike and with her husband, their son and their dog.

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