Despite being the second largest city in Wisconsin and the capital of the state, Madison maintains an inviting, small town atmosphere while providing ample opportunities for sight-seers, nature lovers, culture vultures and foodies alike. The "City of Four Lakes" has a rich history as the breeding ground for progressive politics, which continues to inform the city's more modern sensibilities and openness. But beyond its history and politics, Madison's many micro-breweries, small restaurants, and indie concert venues guarantee a good time.
Must See in Madison
No trip is complete without a visit to the massive, almost literally unmissable Wisconsin State Capitol—it's the largest building in the entire city and, situated upon the isthmus from which the rest of the city expanded, many of the nearby streets circle round the building, leading drivers straight to it. Afterwards, a short walk down State Street, a pedestrian street, will provide food, drinks, and entertainment in the form of popular local bars, restaurants, and, during the warmer months, street performers and buskers. Of course, Madison isn't all hustle and bustle: with dozens of entry points and beaches along the lakes, there's ample room for swimming, boating or taking a stroll along the waterfront.
Where to Stay in Madison
Travelers looking to take advantage of Madison's downtown nightlife will find a variety of options right on the isthmus, from high-rise hotels overlooking Lake Mendota to inexpensive hostels just adjacent to the university. However, these high-traffic areas are probably not best suited for families who may find more accommodating bed and breakfast inns either north of campus by Lake Wingra or north of the isthmus in Maple Bluff.
Best and Worst Times to Go to Madison
Wisconsin winters are notoriously harsh, so those unaccustomed to the layering lifestyle of living in the north might find it more inviting to visit during the warmer, autumnal months, from mid-August through October, to take in the vibrant, changing colors of a Midwestern fall. Of course, Wisconsin is just as renowned for its winter sports, so a visit during December or January for some ice skating, skiing or ice fishing before the charm of snow wears off for locals in February would not be out of the question.
Where to Get Lost in Madison
The combined natural beauty and cultural density of Madison's downtown is unrivaled in cities of a similar size and easily traversed by foot or bike. A bike ride along the lake and down State Street takes travelers right into the heart of the city to visit local staples like Ian's Pizza, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and the iconic Great Dane Pub all within a block or two of each other.
The Best Deal in Madison
Several museums downtown, such as the Chazen Museum of Art and the Madison Museum of Contemporary art, are free to the public. Additionally, the Capitol Square holds a host of inexpensive-to-free events from April through November, from the Dane County Farmers Market, which is the largest producers-only farmers market in the country, to the weekly Concerts on the Square performed freely by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.
Transportation in Madison
Madison's downtown and campus neighborhoods are handily—and scenically—traveled by bicycles easily obtained by city-wide bike rental services. Additionally, the city provides a reliable Metro Transit bus service, although those traveling around the smaller cities and countryside along the outskirts of town will need to rent a car.
Getting In from Dane County Regional Airport
Dane County Regional Airport is conveniently located less than ten minutes north of the city, however it is also a very small airport and may not meet the needs of all travelers. Frequent travelers will often find it more affordable to fly in to Chicago and either bus or rent a car and drive up to Madison. However, access to and from Dane County Regional Airport is made easy by the Metro Transit bus route 20 which runs every 30 minutes and courtesy vehicles for most hotels in Madison.
Local Tip for Visitors to Madison
When visiting the capitol, make sure to make your way up to the observatory to get a sweeping, panoramic view of the city from its highest point. And afterwards, head on down to the Old Fashioned for world-famous Wisconsin cheese curds and beer.
Rob C. is a freelance writer, filmmaker, and breakfast taco enthusiast in Austin, Texas. When not writing or on set, he enjoys hiking, live music, and pub trivia.