Madison, Wisconsin's, secret is out: Consistently ranked by national magazines as one of the best places to live in the U.S. And Madison's population is growing more than twice as fast as the rest of the state. Some of the new folks are drawn to the city's beautiful natural setting—an isthmus separating two glacial lakes that are surrounded by rolling hills. It's a great area for bicycling, cross-country skiing and other outdoor activities.
Others go to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin and never leave, taking jobs as researchers or even taxi drivers just to remain in town (don't be surprised if your cabdriver has a degree). They stay because they enjoy the city's progressive attitude, fueled by the university but endorsed by many of the politicos who work just east of campus in the state Capitol. Madison is, after all, the city that produced reformist governor "Fighting" Bob LaFollette and calls itself "Madtown," a nod to its lively character. No wonder longtime residents refer to their city—with obvious affection—as "78 square miles surrounded by reality."
Even residents who don't share Madison's left-of-center politics have plenty of reasons to like their locale: Madison boasts a low unemployment rate, growing high-tech and biotech sectors, good schools and services, lots of cultural activities and housing that rapidly appreciates.
The heart of Madison is built on an isthmus that divides lakes Mendota and Monona. From the state Capitol, which is surrounded by a huge plaza called Capitol Square, several major streets radiate outward like spokes on a wheel. One of those, State Street, is closed to most vehicle traffic—its six blocks are a pedestrian paradise with shops, museums, street entertainment, bars and restaurants. State Street merges with the University of Wisconsin's Library Mall at its western end.
The university occupies much of the isthmus west of Capitol Square, and new retail and residential development continually stretch the city to the east and west. Mansion Hill is a historic neighborhood of grand limestone houses north of the Square near Lake Mendota. The ultraprogressive Marquette neighborhood is east of the Square.
The Native American people who lived and hunted in the lakes and forests around Madison for thousands of years left behind one of the world's largest collections of effigy mounds, many of which survive. By the 1830s, however, most Native Americans had either left the area or been forced out by the U.S. government, clearing the way for fur traders and lead miners to settle the isthmus.
Madison's stature grew considerably in 1836 when a crafty real-estate developer named James Doty persuaded lawmakers to make Madison the permanent capital of Wisconsin. A dozen years later, Madison was chosen again, this time as the home of the state university.
In the ensuing 150 years, government and academia have largely defined Madison, though the relationship between the two has occasionally been antagonistic. The University of Wisconsin was a breeding ground for opponents of the Vietnam War, whose ire culminated in the 1970 bombing of the Army Math Research Center on campus, killing a researcher. Yet an antiwar activist from that period, Paul Soglin, eventually became one of Madison's most productive (and controversial) mayors.
Today, government and university personnel share the city with high-tech workers, who have brought another distinct attitude to this dynamic city. The already-vibrant State Street corridor is in the beginning of an upscale overhaul. The Overture Center, Madison's eight-venue, state-of-the-art performing- and visual-arts complex, has been State Street's crown jewel since it opened.
If possible, visit Madison in the summer, when the weather is balmy and the farmers market's wonderful collection of colors, smells and tastes is at its peak. Capitol Square, where hundreds of vendors set up stalls every Saturday, is the center of town and a good place to start your tour. The white-domed Capitol building is there—take time to admire the glass mosaics and well-tended gardens.
Then stroll west along State Street toward the University of Wisconsin campus. Immerse yourself in Wisconsin's wartime history at the Veterans Museum, take part in hands-on activities at the Children's Museum or admire new talent at the galleries within the Overture Center.
Other fine museums nearby include the Chazen Museum of Art and the Geology Museum (see the skeleton of a mastodon that roamed Wisconsin during the Ice Age).
During your visit to the University of Wisconsin campus, check out the Babcock Hall Dairy and watch how cheese, milk and ice cream are made—then sample the finished products (the ice cream is unbelievably good). The university's arboretum has more than 20 mi/32 km of marked trails that are open year-round for biking, walking and cross-country skiing.
Away from campus, visit the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, where you can stroll through the specialty gardens, as well as a conservatory that contains a rain-forest habitat. Another fun stop, especially for children, is the Henry Vilas Zoo (children can ride a camel there on Sunday morning).
Madison has several buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center is called a "new" Wright building because it wasn't built until 1997, although the exterior was designed by Wright in 1938.
After lying dormant for some years, Madison's music scene is revived with several midsized, multiuse music venues. The Orpheum, which doubles as a restaurant and movie theater, books national acts not big enough to fill stadiums such as the 17,000-seat Kohl Center, as do the Barrymore on the East Side and the venues of the Overture Center. Much of the fun, however, happens in the tiny clubs clustered downtown, especially in the King Street area, where there is a variety of music and dance options nightly.
Things often don't get going until well after 9 pm. Last call usually comes around 2 am (Madison bars must be empty of all patrons at 2:30 am on Friday and Saturday and 2 am on weekdays). If there is special entertainment, you can expect to pay a small cover charge. It's always a good idea to call ahead about tickets, since many shows sell out in advance.
For a small city, Madison has a plethora of riches for the food lover, and residents are interested in good food of all kinds. In the past few years, more than a dozen new top-notch spots have been added. Madison. In addition to more traditional Wisconsin fare, choices include Middle Eastern, Indian, Laotian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican. Chautara, a Nepalese restaurant said to be the oldest in the nation, is in Madison. The state's first Indonesian restaurant, Bandung, also opened there and has attracted large crowds.
Because it has so many serious food lovers, the city has many ambitious chefs to accommodate them. There is a special wealth of Italian food thanks to Greenbush; that immigrant neighborhood was lost to urban renewal, but not before it sent scores of great cooks into the community.
Friday-night fish fries are an ongoing tradition because of Wisconsin's large Catholic population, which abstains from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. (Even the most elegant restaurants have a fish fry.) Most restaurants offer at least one vegetarian entree, too.
General dining times are 11 am-2 pm for lunch and 5-10 pm for dinner, but restaurant hours are known to change frequently. A restaurateur will serve brunch for a few months, then stop, then start again. Some restaurants cut back their hours when the university goes on break because there isn't enough staff. Also, hours may change with the seasons. It's best to inquire in advance.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on dinner for one, not including tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than US$10, $$ = US$10-$20, $$$ = US$21-$40, $$$$ = more than US$40.
Want to read the full Madison travel42 Destination Guide?
or call 1.866.566.8136 for a free trial.
Copyright © 2022 Northstar Travel Media, LLC. travel42.