Madison is a city close to my heart. I lived there during my college years and then spent the last five years living there until I returned East to the family homestead. It is the seat of the State government and the home of the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin system drawing many attractions making Madison a great place to visit. My favorite, favorite, favorite place in Madison is the Capitol Building. For me, it is a “must see.” After you’ve done that, below are 5 “tour” ideas (Beer, Art(s) and Architecture, Outdoor, Sports Fan, and 24-Hour) to pick and choose from for your own Madtown adventure!
**** First and foremost, the best way to enter Madison is by taking the John Nolen Drive exit off the Beltline and head into downtown. The view of Monona Terrace (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) coming up out of the lake and then sweeping your eye up towards the State Capitol building is breathtaking as you drive on the narrow causeway between Lake Monona and Monona Bay.
BEER TOUR: When many people think of Wisconsin they think of beer. Wisconsinites aren’t ashamed of their beer drinking prowess and a number of these folks have decided to turn that drinking experience into business by crafting their own microbrews. Madison has a number of microbreweries in and around town. In the city proper there is Ale Asylum, the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company, and the Vintage Brewing Company. The suburb town of Middleton has the Capital Brewery with an outdoor beer garden, and the town of Verona plays host to Gray’s Tied House. Though the Sprecher Brewing Company is in Milwaukee, there is an unaffiliated but fully sanctioned restaurant and pub in Madison that provides customers with Sprecher beer and a great outdoor patio atmosphere. New Glarus, Wisconsin is a great day trip. Not only is there the New Glarus Brewing Company but the town of New Glarus is a little piece of Switzerland right in southern Wisconsin. Other area beers to look for in bars are Lake Louie from Arena and Furthermore Beer from Spring Green.
Great places to grab a pint: Have a boot of German beer at the Essen Haus. Try one or many of the 150 Wisconsin beers at The Old Fashioned. As mentioned above, Sprecher’s Restaurant and Pub is great for outdoor dining. In the summer, no place beats the Memorial Union Terrace for its lakeside atmosphere while tossing back a cold one. For a pub crawl, I’d start at State Street Brats at the campus end of State Street and work my way up to Capitol Square.
Not to leave the wine drinkers out – Wollersheim Winery is just north of Madison with daily tours and tastings year round.
ART(S) AND ARCHITECTURE: Madison has art, theater, music, and architecture out the whazoo. Here are a few of the highlights. For the art lovers, start with the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art just off of the Capitol Square. Be sure to stop at their rooftop restaurant Fresco for cocktails. On campus there is the Chazen Museum of Art, housing the second-largest collection in the state. A surprising find is the Dale Chihuly glass sculpture at the Kohl Center, the sporting arena. During the summer there is the Art Fair on the Square and the Art Fair off the Square, with the Square referred to being the Capitol Square.
For Broadway productions, head to the Overture Center, housed in the same complex as MMOCA. The Overture Center is also the place for attending the symphony and opera, unless you’re visiting in the summer when you can attend Concerts on the Square to hear the symphony for free while sitting on your chairs or blanket on the Capitol lawns or sit hillside at Garner Park to enjoy an evening of Opera in the Park.
Just off the Square is the Bartell Theater, which is an excellent community theater. The University Theater is home the school’s Department of Theater and Drama. For the Shakespearean nuts among us there is American Players Theatre (APT) in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The main theater is open-air and seats 1148.
While in Spring Green take a ride literally up the road from APT to Frank Lloyd Wright‘s home, Taliesin. The house and grounds may be toured but if you don’t have the time nor money, you can view the house from the road. A number of homes he designed are dotted around the city of Madison, as well as a Unitarian Church near the University Hospital. As I stated above, he also designed the Monona Terrace, a few blocks down from the Capitol.
OUTDOOR TOUR: Madison is a great city to visit for those who love the outdoors. There are five lakes in the area. The heart of the city is on an isthmus defined by Lakes Mendota and Monona. Lake Wingra is within the city limits of Madison and borders the impressive 1260-acre University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum and the Henry Vilas Zoo. Lakes Waubesa and Kegonsa are just southeast of Madison in McFarland and Stoughton, respectively. The Yahara River connects each of these lakes (minus Wingra). If you don’t have your own boat, The Union’s Outdoor Rentals Office offers canoe, sailboat, and kayaking rentals.
In addition to water sports, there are a number of bike paths that can take a rider (or walker) around the lakes boasting spectacular views of downtown and the Capitol. There are also bike lanes throughout the city. Take a bike ride and a picnic to one of the many parks lakeside such as Governor Nelson State Park on Lake Mendota or head down to Lake Monona and enjoy the Mad-City Ski Team. A great place to get your picnic items is the Farmers Market held most of the year on the Capitol Square.
Just outside of town is Devil’s Lake State Park. There is camping, hiking, biking, swimming, hunting, fishing, and canoeing to name a few activities available. When the days get shorter and colder, Devil’s Lake is a great place for cross country skiing. If you prefer downhill, Cascade Mountain is not a far jump.
There are also a number of golf and disc golf courses in town.
SPORTS FAN TOUR: The University of Wisconsin is a large school in the heart of Madison with top tier athletics. The big three sports at UW-Madison are football, basketball and hockey. The beers and brats are brought out at tailgate parties and State Street is a sea of red on game days. Camp Randall is where the Badgers football team plays and the Field House adjacent is where volleyball and wrestling matches are held. The Kohl Center is home to the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the ice hockey teams, including the 2011 #1-Ranked and National Champions four out of the last six years Women’s Ice Hockey team coached by “Miracle on Ice” player, Mark Johnson.
UW-Madison does not have a baseball team but the city does have the Madison Mallards baseball team. They are a part of the Northwoods League, a summer collegiate league. The players come from colleges all over the country and some even live with area families. Be sure to get tickets in the Duck Blind for all you can eat and drink (beer/soda) included in the ticket price.
If you’re looking for something a bit more edgy, then check out the Mad Rollin’ Dolls for roller derby.
24-HOUR TOUR: If you find yourself with only 24 hours to spend in Madtown, here are my “Must Do’s.” Always, always, always start at the Capitol. Next, walk around Capitol Square. If it is a Saturday, it will be impossible not to check out the Farmers Market. There are also a number of museums, shops, and restaurants to check out. I’d opt for the Old Fashioned on the Square and be sure to order their great fried cheese curds (practically a Wisconsin delicacy), or the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company just a block off the Square for a pint and good pub grub. I would walk off my brunch, lunch, or beer with a stroll down State Street for some shopping and people watching. Once you reach the end of State Street you are on the Univeristy of Wisconsin – Madison campus. Head over to the Memorial Union, stop and get some Babcock ice cream, then enjoy the lake views from the MU Terrace. After enjoying the Terrace I would take a tour of campus, either walking or driving, making sure to see the sports arena and football stadium in addition to campus classics like Bascom Hall atop of Bascom Hill. Come dinner time I would make my way to the Essen Haus for German food, beer in boots, and polka on the stage – getting a taste of the German heritage of Wisconsin. Don’t be embarrassed to try the polka. All kinds and all skill levels get on the dance floor at the Essen Haus. For a post-polka cocktail, head to the rooftop setting of Fresco for views of State Street and the Capitol. A fun way to end the evening is by heading across the street to the Comedy Club to laugh till you pee a little!
Additional websites to check out while planning your trip: