Madtown 101

You’ll learn to love Wisconsin’s capital city—even if you’re too old for a frat party.


“This isn’t heaven, it’s Madison, Wisconsin.”
Outside magazine, ranking Madison America’s “No. 1 Dream Town”


It’s the second largest city in Wisconsin and the government seat, but Madison’s cosmopolitan, freethinking, fun-loving flavor originates from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. UW is one of the nation’s largest institutions of higher learning and ranks among the country’s top post-secondary schools. With 40,000 students in a city of 200,000, Madison definitely feels like a college town.

Between the notorious Halloween Party and Badger football frenzy, fall in Madison can feel like one big fraternity party (they don’t call it Madtown for nothing). After you come down from that kegstand—kidding—you’ll soon appreciate everything else the city has to offer: a walkable city center, beautiful natural resources, and dozens of cultural and recreational opportunities.

Downtown Madison stretches along a narrow isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona (one of only a few American cities with this unique geography). Of course, the city has its requisite student ghettos—with couches on front porches, “For Rent” signs in windows, and beer bottles in yards—but new residential lofts and commercial districts also are developing to support the growing population of young, high-tech, white-collar workers.


In 1829, James Doty, a former federal judge who later became governor of Wisconsin Territory, traveled through Wisconsin’s Four Lakes Region and purchased 1,200 acres of what is now Madison for $1,500. The city was founded as Wisconsin’s capital in 1836; the university was founded in 1848.

The city—socially tolerant and perpetually protesting—has long been a political hotbed. During the Vietnam War, the UW–Madison campus was one of the most turbulent in the nation, with anti-war demonstrations and the 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall by a radical group. The open-minded Madison City Council once debated whether people on welfare could be reimbursed for sex-change operations. (And that wasn’t just a fake news story from the Onion, the Madison-bred satirical weekly with such irreverent/cheeky/genius headlines as “Heat Wave Forces Johnny Cash to Don Black Shorts” and “Stack of Unread New Yorkers Celebrates One-Year Anniversary.”)


On its prime lakefront perch, The Edgewater has traditionally been the place for stars to stay. The walls of the hotel’s Cove Lounge are covered with autographed head shots of guest celebs: Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Cyndi Lauper, and Bobby Knight, to name a few. Post-millennium, the Edgewater feels a little stuffy, perhaps because of the overly busy carpet and upholstery patterns and the beef Wellington on the dining room menu. Still, it sure beats a night in the dorms. Rooms range from $99 to $399 per night; 666 Wisconsin Ave., 608-256-9071.

The Mansion Hill Inn, an 1857 Romanesque Revival, is one of the most tasteful and luxurious bed and breakfasts in the state. The 11 guest rooms circle around a central spiral staircase that winds up four stories to a windowed cupola, which offers a panoramic view of the city. With its minimalist mid-century modern decor, the Atomic Room is a favorite, as is the Sarah Fairchild Conover Room, whose bookcase doubles as a secret door to the adjoining bathroom. While giving a tour of the inn’s foyer, an employee points out a marble figure whose mate was stolen a number of years ago. “It’s probably sitting in some frat house with a toga on it,” she says. Rooms from $135 to $325 per night; 424 N. Pinckney St., 608-255-3999.


Madison is said to have the most restaurants per capita of any American city. Truly, there is something for everyone—starting with the kid at heart. Every child within striking distance of Madison likely has the same vision of heaven: when I die, I will go to Ella’s Deli. From the working carousel outside to the Superman flying across the ceiling, the place rattles, clatters, and hums with the sounds of homemade mechanical toys: bees buzz, Ferris wheels spin, spaceships blink, clowns dance, orchestras play, ships sail, and carpets fly. This Jewish deli/diner/roadside attraction serves bigger portions than flavors, but its gestalt keeps people coming back. 2902 E. Washington Ave., 608-241-5291.

Start your morning off right with a smoothie and a tofu scramble at the sunny Marigold Kitchen or with the snarky banter of the longtime waitresses at Mickie’s Dairy Bar, Madison’s venerable greasy spoon. Wind the evening down at L’Etoile, the fine-dining restaurant founded by Odessa Piper, a Midwestern version of natural foods chef/activist Alice Waters. Marigold Kitchen, 118 S. Pinckney St., 608-661-5559; Mickie’s Dairy Bar, 1511 Monroe St., 608-256-9476; L’Etoile, 25 N. Pinckney St., 608-251-0500.

If you’re a traditionalist looking for the best beers, burgers, and brats, try the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry (a.k.a. Dotty’s), and State Street Brats, respectively. These three variations on the neighborhood sports bar are great places to watch a Badger game or rub sweaty elbows with a post-practice intramural Ultimate Frisbee team. If you’re hankering for a Friday night fish fry, Quivey’s Grove, located on a historic estate just south of the Beltline, serves this classic Wisconsin meal in three settings: in casual tents pitched in the front yard, inside the sturdy stone homestead, or in the refurbished stable (linked to the home by an underground tunnel). For dessert, the Babcock Hall Dairy Store sells indulgent ice creams made in the adjacent dairy plant (visit the observation deck to see your scoop of Orange Chocolate Chip Custard in the making). Great Dane, 123 E. Doty St., 608-284-0000; Dotty’s, 317 N. Frances St., 608-259-0000; State Street Brats, 603 State St., 608-255-5544; Quivey’s Grove, 6261 Nesbitt Rd., 608-273-4900; Babcock Hall Dairy Store, 1605 Linden Dr., 608-262-3045.

And don’t forget Madison’s ethnic eats. The German-themed Essen Haus is Deutsch down to the ethnically costumed waitresses and liter-size steins. The Indonesian Badung restaurant occasionally serves rijsttafel, an elaborate smorgasbord of Indonesian dishes accompanied by traditional music and dancing. And the Nepalese Himal Chuli is a vegetarian favorite. Essen Haus, 514 E. Wilson St., 608-255-4674; Badung, 600 Williamson St., 608-255-6910; Himal Chuli, 318 State St., 608-251-9225.


Buck Up the Badgers
Though tickets for this season’s home football games are sold out, you still can be part of the tailgate ruckus—or catch a soccer or volleyball game instead. Wisconsin Athletic Ticket Office, 601 W. Dayton, 608-262-1440.

Dane County Farmers’ Market
The Minneapolis Farmers’ Market is located in the armpit of the city (under the freeway, near the impound lot), but Madison’s market is the apple of its eye. On Wednesdays and Saturdays from May to November, the Dane County Farmers’ Market draws nearly 300 vendors to the state capitol grounds to sell all-local produce, meats, coffee, baked goods, and snacks. Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturdays, 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., State Capitol Square; call 608-455-1999 for more information.

The Wright Stuff
While the building’s Jetson-esque curves are best viewed from the water, Frank Lloyd Wright’s community and convention center, the Monona Terrace, offers a grand view of the lake—if you can battle the wedding guests who crowd the deck during pleasant weather. The prominent prow of the lesser-known Wright-designed Unitarian Meeting House once looked over university farmland; today the building is surrounded by city but is still available for tours. Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, One John Nolen Dr., 608-261-4000; tours ($3) daily at 1 p.m. First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Dr., 608-233-9774; tours ($3 donation requested) daily May through October, winter tours available after Sunday service.

Outdoor Activities
The Madison area is about 20 percent water and contains a sizable number of parks and natural oases. The 1,260-acre UW–Madison Arboretum offers restored prairies, savannas, wetlands, and forests. The more manicured Olbrich Botanical Gardens has rose gardens, fountains, a Thai Pavilion, and an all-weather tropical plant conservatory. Paddle the lakes, bicycle around them, or walk out to Picnic Point, the half-mile spit that extends into Lake Mendota. UW–Madison Arboretum, 1207 Seminole Hwy., 608-263-7888; Olbrich Botanical Gardens, 3330 Atwood Ave., 608-246-4550.

Orpheum Theatre
Pick up a copy of the Isthmus, Madison’s alternative weekly, to find out what the cool kids are doing. Chances are, they’ll be at the restored 1927 Orpheum Theatre, whose grand staircase and elegant lobby restaurant look like a set from The Aviator. The venue presents art-house films, live music, and special events, such as RuPaul’s UnderWear Party. 216 State St., 608-255-6005.

Overture Center
If you’re looking forward to Minneapolis’s new Central Library, check out one of architect Cesar Pelli’s latest works, the Overture Center for the Arts. The building’s concert hall opened in 2004; when the gorgeous glass box is completed in 2006, it will host orchestra, dance, and theater performances, as well as the new Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. 201 State St., 608-258-4177.

The Terrace
Not to be confused with the Monona Terrace, the wide lakeside patio at the university’s Memorial Union—known as the Terrace—is one of the Midwest’s best civic spaces. On weekend evenings, the music’s loud and the scene is student see-and-be-seen. During the day, the Terrace attracts more non-students, though you’ll need a student ID or a Memorial Union membership card to buy alcohol. 800 Langdon St., 608-265-3000.

Lined with more upper-end restaurants and cafés than State Street (which runs directly opposite, on the other side of the capitol), King Street has a decidedly postgraduate flavor. You’d be more likely to pick up a biochemistry PhD than a Super Senior at Nattspil, the newly opened bar/eatery/haven-of-cool. The unmarked front door, shotgun layout, unlisted phone number, and slick, rustic décor with vaguely Asian and Scandinavian elements give the place a speakeasy vibe that’s East Coast hip—without the pretension. 211 King St.