Two main entities power Madison, Wis. One is the state government, headquartered in this capital city. The other is the 43,000-student-strong University of Wisconsin-Madison. The two are connected by State Street, a half-mile shopping-dining-entertainment corridor that starts out a bit staid at its eastern end near the Capitol, then slowly lets its hair down as it nears Badger territory. The vibe both on the 936-acre campus and throughout the city is casual yet cerebral. Lively. And always funky. Students and residents alike embrace the outdoors year-round, cycling, running, boating, skiing. But you’re also apt to find them quietly tucked away in a bookstore, or heatedly debating the latest hot-button issue in a coffee shop. So what does this mean for you? You’ll never be bored when you come to town.
As Wisconsin’s capital and home to its flagship state university, Madison is full of cultural opportunities. Free one-hour tours are offered most days at the Capitol (tours.wisconsin.gov), which sits on 14 beautifully landscaped acres. The impressive glass Overture Center for the Arts (overturecenter.org) is home to 10 resident companies, so someone’s always performing; free tours of the Cesar Pelli-designed building are offered Saturdays at 11 a.m. Several prime museums are tucked between the Capitol and campus; check out the Wisconsin Historical Museum (histori calmuseum.wisconsinhistory.org) or the Chazen Museum of Art (chazen.wisc.edu).
The 1,200-acre University of Wisconsin Arboretum (uwarboretum.org) is laced with more than 20 miles of footpaths, boardwalks and fire lanes so you can explore its woodlands, wetlands and prairies. Four miles of paved roads cut through as well, and are popular with cyclists and runners. Like the Twin Cities, Madison is a major bike-friendly town. Rent some wheels from a B-Cycle station (Madison.bcycle.com) and explore the city’s 50 or so miles of recreational trails. Water enthusiasts, don’t forget Madison is home to Lakes Mendota, Monona and Wingra. Rent a canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard at Rutabaga Paddlesports (rutabaga.com) and get out on the water.
Grab your reusable cloth bag (this is Madison, remember) and wander along State Street. Near campus, duck into Earthbound Trading Co. and browse through its fair trade fashion, accessories and household goods. Sacred Feather has been hand-fashioning fine leather goods since 1975; the Soap Opera, purveyors of skin care and body products, is a Madison institution. On Monroe Street, near Camp Randall Stadium, you’ll find more upscale shops such as Orange Tree Imports, which sells kitchenware, specialty foods and soaps; Bodacious Boutique, featuring both sassy and chic women’s clothing; and Borokhim Oriental Rugs.
On the way home
Sad that you just dropped your offspring at the dorm? Picturesque Spring Green, a half-hour west of Madison, could prove the perfect distraction. It offers a smattering of quality specialty shops and cafes, but is best known as the home of American Players Theatre, a highly regarded theater troupe. Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio, is also nearby (Springgreen.com).
Where to stay
HotelRED, Madison’s first boutique hotel, sits across the street from Camp Randall Stadium, home of Badger football. Its 48 suites feature king beds and kitchenettes. Parking is free, and pets are welcome. There’s also free shuttle service to Kohl Center sporting events and local attractions.(Hotelred.com; 1-608-819-8228).
The Edgewater, a historic Madison hotel, recently reopened after a major renovation and addition. Snug against the shores of Lake Mendota, it’s convenient to both the Capitol and campus. Pop for a room with a lake view (Theedgewater.com; 1-800-922-5512).
Hampton Inn & Suites, a more modestly priced option, offers clean rooms and a complimentary hot breakfast (1-608-255-0360).
Where to eat
Madison is a huge foodie town. You can’t go wrong strolling down State Street, where you’ll find innumerable cozy spots offering international cuisine, from Mexican to Nepalese, plus the requisite cafes and bars.
The Capitol Square and Monroe Street are two other spots in the general campus area with great restaurants.
Here are a few specific suggestions:
The Old Fashioned features traditional Wisconsin fare with an elegant twist — and, of course, plenty of brandy old-fashioneds, the state’s signature cocktail. Beware: This is a popular spot, and reservations aren’t accepted, so arrive early or late or be prepared to wait (23 N. Pinckney St.; theoldfashioned.com; 1-608-310-4545).
Students love Ian’s Pizza, which offers ’za by the slice (whole pies, too). Besides the standard pepperoni and sausage, Ian’s sells creative selections such as Smoked Brisket and Tots and its uber-famous Mac n’ Cheese (100 State St.; ianspizza.com; 1-608-257-9248).
Merchant initially was heralded for its craft cocktails, but now is gaining a reputation for its fine farm-to-table cuisine, whether that’s a hamburger, brat sliders, duck confit or a market omelet during brunch. (121 S. Pinckney; merchant madison.com; 1-608-259-9799)
Melanie Radzicki McManus lives in Sun Prairie, Wis., near Madison.