Travel Itinerary: Madison, Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin, is one of only two United States cities to be built on an isthmus, and its quirks don’t stop there. Best known as Wisconsin’s capital city and home to the University of Wisconsin, Madison also hosts the largest producer-only farmers market in the country and is surrounded by five lakes that become playgrounds for paddleboarders, sailors, kayakers, canoers, fishermen, and swimmers when the ice melts. Craft breweries and small businesses abound, as do houses and public buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who spent much of his childhood here.
“Madtown,” as it is sometimes called by locals and college students, is also famously cycling-friendly, with widespread bike lanes and more than 200 miles of off-road and multiuse paths. Some 6,000 acres of parkland also contribute to the city’s reputation as a haven for lovers of the outdoors.
Founded as the state capital in 1837 and named for the fourth U.S. president, who had died the previous year, Madison started as a sleepy village. Wolves, bears, deer, and game birds could all be hunted in Capitol Square. The city served as a center for the Union Army in Wisconsin during the Civil War, and its tallest building, the Wisconsin State Capitol, was completed in 1917.Preservation chatted with three local experts—Stephen Fleischman, director of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art; Anna Andrzejewski, an art history professor at the University of Wisconsin; and Ellsworth H. Brown, director of the Wisconsin Historical Society—about their favorite spots to eat, stay, and visit in and around Madison.
Ellsworth H. Brown
Ruth and Hartley Barker Director, Wisconsin Historical Society
EAT: If you’re in the heart of the city, which is where the State Capitol is, there’s a really great Italian restaurant called Cento. It’s right across from the Overture Center, where there are great symphony and theater performances.
STAY: The Hilton Madison is plugged into Monona Terrace, which was built in the 1990s from original Frank Lloyd Wright designs. There’s a wonderful rooftop garden and light fare [in the warmer months], and it’s always good for a walk-through otherwise.
DO: State Street is a pretty interesting walk. You can stop at any of the saloons, bars, restaurants, and shops and have a lot of fun. It dead-ends at the campus; just turn right and you’re at Lake Mendota and the Lakeshore Path, which is really lovely, spring to fall.There are several museums in town worth visiting. One of them is the Wisconsin Historical Museum on the square, and across the street is the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. There’s the wonderful Madison Children’s Museum—it’s a great place for kids to play on a rainy or cold day. And there are many places to rent bikes—Madison is bike city.
Director, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
EAT: Forequarter has an extremely innovative menu. It has small plates and a wonderful selection of mixed drinks, and it features a lot of local ingredients. The cheese plates are to die for.
STAY: The Mansion Hill Inn is in a gorgeous historic neighborhood. It’s small and has the feel of a B&B. It’s walking distance to town, but not right in the center of the city.DO: Of course, I have to plug the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which is a Cesar Pelli–designed structure and provides great rooftop views of the city. There’s a sculpture garden at the top, and a lovely restaurant. About an hour outside of town is Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, which was Wright’s home when he wasn’t headed out to Arizona.
Art history professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
EAT: A little off the beaten path, I would recommend the Weary Traveler Freehouse. It’s in a former grocery store, and it really gives you a sense of what Madison was like in the late 19th century.
STAY: The Edgewater complex [a Historic Hotel of America] is a recent development project that took an old Art Deco hotel and built a new tower and wing, so it’s kind of a creative attempt to integrate historic architecture with contemporary.DO: We have buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright from every major period of his career, and they’re all within 10 miles of each other. [Highlights include] the Robert Lamp House, which shows a transition from the Arts and Crafts style into his Prairie Style, the Prairie-Style Airplane House located just west of the university, and the Unitarian Meeting House. Madison is known for being a city of neighborhoods. There are amazing self-guided neighborhood tours that one can go on using resources on the City of Madison Planning Division’s website. Some, such as the Nakoma neighborhood, are historic districts on the National Register, and others are local historic districts, like the Third Lake Ridge.