THE WASHINGTON POST – Long before I visited Madison, Wisconsin, I overheard a conversation among three women that went something like this: Woman No 1: “I’m from the Madison area.” Woman No 2: “Oh, I love Madison.” Woman No 3: “Madison is like Sara Lee. Nobody doesn’t like Madison.”
I’ve since visited the city enough times to know that woman No 3 might well be right. Madison is, in so many ways, the quintessential Midwestern city, from its inviting downtown, perched on an isthmus between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, to its character-filled neighbourhoods, hiking and biking trails and ever-present green space, including 260 parks and beaches.
Madison is both the Wisconsin state capital, with about 250,000 residents, and a spirited college town, home to the University of Wisconsin, with about 40,000 students. You can’t miss either aspect.
The carefully planned area around the Capitol, called Capitol Square, is packed with trendy restaurants, shops and music venues that appeal to residents as well as visitors.
And the campus? It’s a straight shot down State Street, past about a mile of coffee bars, restaurants, boutiques, ice cream shops, a modern art museum and performing arts centre.
It’s a place where you can get your fill of traditional Wisconsin indulgences, like Friday night fish fries, while finding a healthy balance, as the locals do, in countless outdoor activities – water sports, cycling and running in warmer months; cross-country skiing, snow shoeing and ice fishing during the long winter.
If you’re coming from a larger city, Madison is an easygoing break from the chaos. If you’re coming from a smaller town, it’s a culture-filled adventure.
Is it true that nobody doesn’t like this town? You’ll have to see for yourself.
The bundled-up winter personality of Madison is quite different from its carefree summer self.
Thankfully, one beloved mainstay is available throughout all seasons: the Dane County Farmers’ Market.
It stakes its claim as the largest producer-only farmers market in the United States (US) (meaning the people you buy from are the people who produced the products – no reselling is allowed), and, while its late-winter version is more staid than the downtown summer incarnations (surrounding the Capitol building Saturdays and Wednesdays in the 200 block of Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard) there’s something especially gratifying about perusing hardy produce and products – greens, apples, honey, potatoes, mushrooms, cheese curds, pastries and more – when it’s frigid outside.
Last year, the winter market was in a new location inside the historical Garver Feed Mill, a stately brick building recently renovated and reopened as a hub for small, locally owned businesses (a spa, a yoga studio) and restaurants.
For a midsize town, Madison draws some impressive talent from around the world to its many storied venues. A few years ago, I saw Josh Ritter at the Majestic Theatre, an intimate space that dates back to the early 1900s.
On this recent trip, we were more spontaneous and bought last-minute tickets to see a standup comedy show at, again, the Majestic.
Had we not lucked out with that performance – conveniently located a few minutes’ walk from our downtown hotel – we might have checked out someplace like the Sylvee, which recently drew the likes of Lizzo, Lana Del Rey and Vampire Weekend; High Noon Saloon, which brings in national and local acts and hosts the storytelling event, the Moth; the Barrymore Theatre, where you might find Mat Kearny performing one day and a fly-fishing film fest the next; or one of the many other entertainment options, from hole-in-the-wall to stadium-sized.
Downtown, all roads pretty much lead to the Wisconsin State Capitol.
And yet, we didn’t originally plan to go inside, until, on a lazy Saturday morning, my husband points toward the dome and proclaims, “There are people up there!” With that, we had a new mission: Become the people up there.
Exploring the building, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017, turns out to be one of the more memorable endeavours of the trip. We pass by elaborate statues, shuffle by hand-carved furniture, admire the many different types of marble and stone (43 types, to be exact), and stifle giggles at a carved badger head (this is the Badger State, after all).
On the sixth floor, a docent points us up a tight, winding staircase that leads to the outdoor observation deck, where we take in views all across the isthmus.
Back inside on the sixth floor, we walk through a small museum documenting the architecture and history of the building.
There, the same docent points to a mural above us, explaining that the women in the painting are holding objects related to Wisconsin. We squint to see. “They’re not cheese curds, believe it or not,” he chuckles.
Indoor activities are a must for blustery Wisconsin winter days (are you noticing a theme here?), and Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) is a small but mighty diversion – bonus that it’s free and not far from the Capitol.
The building itself is a sight to behold. Designed by architect César Pelli, the dramatic walls of glass look like a translucent ship slicing into the intersection of State and Henry streets. On display is Wisconsin Triennial, showcasing paintings, drawings, sculptures and more from artists around the state. Beyond the galleries, a rooftop sculpture garden lures visitors up three stories of glass stairs to the tippy top (in my case, past a newlywed couple patiently pausing between photos to allow visitors to pass).
On inclement days, the sculptures are best viewed from Fresco, the adjoining restaurant.
It’s a good thing we meet up with friends – who also happen to be regulars – at Mint Mark, a shareable, small-plates restaurant in the Schenk-Atwood neighbourhood, because it allows us to try more than half of the 14 items on the ever-changing menu.
A hearty cheese plate, mussels and frites, a divine biscuit, duck terrine, kale salad, cauliflower, salt cod fritters, a skillet cookie – we eat with abandon.
Because we scored seats at the “chefs table” (ie a four-seat bar peering into the kitchen), we’re able to chat with the outgoing kitchen team and watch our meal come together, piece by delectable piece.
If you ask around for the best brunch in Madison, you’ll get a lot of hemming and hawing, and out of that hemming and hawing, at least one answer will probably be Sardine.
The French bistro serves dinner throughout the week, too, but the daytime hours are ideal, at least in winter, for taking in the floor-to-ceiling views of Lake Monona, upon which the restaurant gazes.
The pastries are a beautiful start to the meal (we had a photogenic blueberry Danish), and entrees are creative, ranging from crab and shrimp cakes to baked creamed eggs with prosciutto, spinach and Gruyere cheese. The omelets, like the one I had with fine herbs and Gruyere, double as an excuse to eat frites before noon.
At 5pm on a Friday night in last December, when surrounding high-end restaurants are eerily quiet, the Old Fashioned has a line out the door.
What’s the fuss? All things Wisconsin, served steps from the Capitol building. This bustling restaurant pays homage to classic American Dairyland favourites, such as supper clubs, cheese, sausages, pickled eggs and, tonight, the Friday night fish fry.
The crisp perch and walleye are standouts (we also tried the cod), and salty meals pair perfectly with a sweet, namesake old-fashioned.
Upstairs, it’s retro classy with its white linen tablecloths, wood-panelled walls, 28-ounce rib-eye and oysters Rockefeller. But when the clock strikes 10pm, the basement of Tornado Club Steak House grows progressively louder and, shall we say, less inhibited as it bursts with people who are well into their evening cocktails and looking for a satisfying USD10 beef tenderloin sandwich, a side of onion rings – or perhaps escargot – and an unforgettable pineapple upside down cake.
Change is the kind of boutique where, if you select a necklace or dress to try on, the staff knows the backstory of the product (for me, it was a necklace made by a local jewellery maker).
Much time and thought is put into selecting each eco-friendly item at this shop, whether it’s a scarf woven in Vietnam or a sweater knitted in Peru.
You can feel good about shopping here, knowing that the artisans who made the products were paid a fair wage.
It’s fitting that the shop, which is owned by a local mom, is located on Williamson Street – aka Willy Street – in an area made famous by its progressive roots.
Hazel General Store is that gift shop that all cities of all sizes should have. Maybe you know what I’m talking about: the kind of place that carries socks illustrated with flying tacos, jewellery made by local artistes, American-made T-shirts referencing cats, and do-it-yourself catapult kits.
All of the shelves and walls here are adorned with items you never knew existed but suddenly must have. Come to browse, leave toting a woodcut sloth magnet.
You have to love that there’s an artisanal cheese shop in the shadow of the Capitol building.
The cheesemongers at Fromagination are happy to chat about – and share samples of – all things fromage, whether it’s made locally or imported from afar.
The shop is also chockablock with souvenirs, such as locally made-in-Madison cookies and chocolates, olive oil, cheese boards, and so much more.
For a truly Wisconsin experience, check out their list of classes on all things cheese held on Thursday nights.
Recent examples include courses on cheese and chocolate, and how to build a cheeseboard.
If luck is on your side at Context, a rugged yet artisanal menswear store in Capitol Square, you can actually see the artisan at work, crafting leather belts and wallets on site or in a workshop in the adjacent arcade (the leatherwork is sold under the First Settlement Goods brand).
The small shop is also stocked with American-made boots, denim, flannel and wool work shirts, bags and accessories, displayed tastefully amid circus posters and vintage art, with the occasional punctuation of a mounted dead animal.
Paint cans, paint rollers, paint murals, paint drops – the lobby, hallways, restaurant and splashy guest rooms at Hotel Indigo Madison Downtown are covered in the paint theme, and for good reason.
The hotel, which opened last spring, pays homage in the most colourful way to the building’s history as the Mautz Paint Company, which operated here for about 60 years.
The staff is chatty and eager to make recommendations on what to see and do during your stay.
And the location, a bit east of the heart of downtown, is a good launching point for exploring nearby neighbourhoods.
Capitol Square is about a 15-minute walk, and the restaurants, bakeries and shops of Willy Street, known for its hippie heritage, are a five-minute walk (there’s also a complementary hotel shuttle that will drop you off and pick you up around town on request).
Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, Bob Marley, Elton John and the Dalai Lama have all graced the hallowed hallways here at the Edgewater, which dates back to 1948 and is the area’s only four-diamond hotel.
The Art Moderne-style hotel, which was majorly overhauled in 2014, has the undeniably posh air of a resort, with its Lake Mendota views, spiral staircase, bustling ballrooms, multiple restaurants, spa and, in the winter, an ice-skating rink by the lake.
I was pleasantly surprised to have a room – and large bathroom – that look out on the lake, even though I didn’t opt to pay extra for lake views when I made my reservation.
Geographically speaking, the Edgewater is a 10-minute walk to the restaurants and entertainment of Capitol Square, yet still feels a serene distance from the fray.
Having spent time in a fair number of hippie havens (I briefly lived in both Oberlin, Ohio, and Boulder, Colorado), I associate them all with a particular shared smell: garlic, with an underscore of crisp toast. That’s exactly what wafts beneath my nose on Willy Street in the Williamson-Marquette neighbourhood – outside of the Willy Street Co-op, located about a mile and a half east of the Capitol.
I’d already passed by a mural at the Social Justice Centerdetailing the 1970s vision of the area, when artistes, musicians, poets and activists created their own countercultural enclave here, and the scent reinforces that the hippie vibe is still alive and well, if tempered by time, gentrification and a couple of CBD stores.
A stroll along Willy Street, with its mix of comic books, vegan food, old and new bakeries, thrift shopping, cold-pressed juices and a float therapy centre, reveals a side of Madison well worth exploring. It has the feel – and smell – I’ve come to expect from a liberal college town.
Trendy restaurants. Lakeside parks. You could easily spend a day exploring Shenk-Atwood (also known as Atwood or Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara), east of Williamson-Marquette. It’s a little bit artsy and a little bit funky, with a welcoming neighbourhood feel.
Start the day at the tropical Olbrich Botanical Gardens, where USD2 gets you entry into the warm, lush, glass pyramid known as the Bolz Conservatory.
Birds chirp, streams trickle, skin hydrates and memories of warmer times surface (in nicer weather, you’ll also want to wander the 16 acres of outdoor gardens, as well as the neighbouring Olbrich Park, on the shore of Lake Monona).
For lunch, visit Garver Feed Mill for a slice of Ian’s Pizza (I recommend the mac and cheese, odd as it may sound) and a scoop of Clementine’s ice cream, which comes in funky flavours such as old-fashioned drinks and jalapeño cornbread.