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For the absolute most spectacular view of Milwaukee anywhere, a newly engaged couple should head to Kilbourn Park. Most area residents probably know it better by location than by name – it’s the steep hill that rises above North Avenue between Interstate 43 and the East Side. Park on a surrounding street and wear comfortable shoes for walking uphill a quarter-mile, or up several flights of stairs. (This is why it’s better for engagement photos; formal dress shoes will not get up here easily.) Once you reach the top, you will agree it was worth it; your photographs will really pop in this setting.
Located in the middle of Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, an area where artists can afford the rent and gentrification has not yet taken hold, the park provides unlimited possibilities for the photographer. Atop the hill, virtually every tall building in Milwaukee is spread out before you in a 180-degree arc as the skyscrapers of downtown merge seamlessly into the condo towers of the Gold Coast. In warmer seasons, leafy trees provide a foreground contrast for photos, and behind everything, the deep blue of Lake Michigan stretches to the horizon. Even after your photographer is done with the shoot, you may want to linger and celebrate your engagement with a quiet moment in this unique island of serenity within Milwaukee’s bustle. (It would also be a great place to get engaged, if you haven’t already.)
Near the left edge of your spectacular view, you will see a single narrow tower pointing skyward. When you and your photographer walk down the hill and get in the car, drive east on North Avenue through the funky, hip East Side until you’re right at the base of it – it’s the landmark Water Tower. This Victorian Gothic landmark was built in 1873 and served the city’s water needs from Lake Michigan until 1963, but rather than tear it down, its memorable architecture was left to grace the skyline. The building itself is not open to the public, but if you stand at a short distance, your photographer can get some dramatic vertical photos as the building rises in the background. And of course, you’re close to the limitless backdrop of the lake. Whether it’s serene or choppy on the day of your engagement shoot, you can’t have a better setting.
The Water Tower marks the edge of Milwaukee’s East Side, where young, creative, intellectual types live and play on a crazy-quilt of streets created by the collision of Milwaukee’s north-south grid with the inward curve of Lake Michigan. But if bustling, funky urban street life isn’t your preference for an engagement photo, you can celebrate the area with some great shots in the Oriental Theater on Farwell Avenue. One of Milwaukee’s few remaining movie palaces, the interior of the building drips with minarets, elephants, chandeliers, and other decorative touches painstakingly preserved from the 1920s.
Next, head to Lake Park, which doesn’t actually border Lake Michigan but gets its name from the spectacular views. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also created Central Park in New York City, the park stretches along the bluff overlooking the lake, and even in summer, when leaves cover the trees, every twist and turn of the paths offers new sylvan idylls. The park’s most photographed spot may be the North Point Lighthouse, built in the 1870s to steer Great Lakes shipping away from the shores. The light at the top of the tower, positioned 160 feet above the water, is still in use. And make sure to get some photographs on the graceful, well-aged footbridges over the ravines near the lighthouse – the arches and carved stone lions that guard the approaches, nestled amid trees and vines, will take you to another time and place.
Even if you venture into an open area and look away from the lake, your photographer still has possibilities; the row of stately, century-old mansions along Lake Drive offers a photo backdrop of understated opulence. The combination of private and public space speaks to a time, still preserved, when Milwaukee’s wealth boomed.
If you return to the main parking lot of Lake Drive, you’ll see an elegant, low white building. It’s Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro, regularly voted among Milwaukee’s very best restaurants. Go around the building and down the steps for more wonderful photographs of natural woods and water mixed with man-made stones, bridges and winding roads. Then stop for lunch or dinner afterward. It’s an unforgettable ending to your engagement photo session.
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