Arts & Culture

Beat the winter doldrums with a trip to Madison

Foodies will want to stop at the National Mustard Museum, one of many brewpubs, eat some cheese curds and catch a fish fry

On the University of Wisconsin campus, the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens are a scenic place to walk, even in the mid
On the University of Wisconsin campus, the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens are a scenic place to walk, even in the middle of winter. (Focal Flame/Destination Madison)

Many Iowans head to Madison for sporting events — but Wisconsin’s capital city has a host of other reasons to plan a trip, especially as cabin fever sets in and you’re looking for a fun and close-to-home escape in the middle of a long Iowa winter.

On a weekend getaway, you’ll discover that Madison is a city that celebrates its contradictions. Both hip and down-home, it’s a foodie destination with an abiding love for deep-fried cheese curds, an urban hub with rural roots, and an academic enclave with entrepreneurial zest.

“Madison has one of the highest number of millennials per capita of any city in the country,” said Rob Gard, director of public relations and communications for Visit Madison. “We used to be known mainly as a university town, but that’s changing as more and more young professionals come for the vibrant job market here. Their presence has brought a lot of positive spin offs for the city, especially in our beverage and food scene. We’re become a top destination for foodies.”

Before sampling the culinary delights of Madison, though, work up an appetite by touring some of the city’s attractions. Start in its charming downtown, which is dominated by the white-domed Wisconsin State Capitol. Completed in 1917, it’s topped by a gilded bronze statue of a heroic-looking woman who represents the spirit of the state. Tour the capitol’s marble-lined interior and marvel at its immense dome, which is bordered by four mammoth mosaics made from 400,000 pieces of glass.

Then head outdoors to explore the streets that fan out from the Capitol. The downtown district includes four museums, three of which have free admission, as well as one-of-a-kind stores and lively eateries and bars. The Wisconsin Historical Museum gives an overview of the events and people that have formed the state, while across the street, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum tells the story of the state’s involvement in combats ranging from the Civil War to today’s conflicts. A block away, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art showcases the creativity of a wide range of artists. Its glass-walled building, which was designed by world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli, is a work of art in itself.

Families may want to spend an entire afternoon in the Madison Children’s Museum (well worth its small admission charge). Head up to the rooftop for a birds-eye view of the Capitol, then tour its three floors filled with creatively designed, interactive learning areas. Don’t miss the exhibit dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright, the influential architect who did some of his best work in Wisconsin. In addition to describing his childhood, the exhibit gives kid-friendly explanations of key architectural concepts.

Venturing away from the downtown, pay a visit to the National Mustard Museum, a free attraction that includes hundreds of mustards from around the world, many available for sampling. Its displays have a wry sense of humor, from the world’s only mustard vending machine to a research study on the dangers of ketchup. In its gift shop you can buy jars of mustard and items from the distinguished institution of higher learning known as Poupon U.

The nearby Holy Wisdom Monastery provides a tranquil respite from touring. Located on 130 acres of woodlands and prairie, it’s home to an ecumenical Christian community with a strong environmental focus. Its frequent concerts, programs, and daily services are open to all.

“We also invite people to walk the trails that wind through our restored woodlands and prairie,” said Sister Mary David Walgenbach. “They’re great places to soak up peace and quiet.”

You’ll find many other places to enjoy the outdoors in Madison, which has 260 parks and four lakes. On a walk around Lake Mendota, you’re likely to see hardy locals braving the cold to ice fish. Admire the diverse landscaping in the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, or strap on a pair of rented skates and glide across the ice at Edgewater Rink, which has views of both the State Capitol and Lake Mendota.

Finally, sample Madison’s lively food scene. The famed Dane County Farmers Market, which fills the streets near the Capitol on summer Saturdays and Wednesdays, is held indoors on winter Saturdays in the Garver Feed Mill. Shop its aisles for baked goods, goat milk soaps, beeswax candles, and other locally made items, as well as fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats.

For high-end cuisine head to L’Etoile, named one of the country’s Top 50 restaurants by Gourmet. If you’re looking for a more casual vibe, book a table at Everly, located on Monroe Street near the University of Wisconsin. Not far away is another Madison favorite: the Bloom Bake Shop. Its made-from-scratch, locally sourced offerings include innovative updates of classic recipes.

“Our sweet potato donuts were created for a special event, but they were so popular they’ve been on the menu ever since,” said owner Annemarie Maitri.

Fans of microbrews, locally produced wines and artisanal distilled spirits have many options in the city. Rockhound Brew Pub is a cozy pub with a changing array of beers brewed on site. Other local favorites include Ale Asylum and the State Line Distillery.

While the city loves its hipster food scene, it hasn’t left its culinary roots behind. One of the best places to sample them is The Old-Fashioned, a restaurant and bar near the State Capitol that has 52 beers on tap and more than 70 in cans and bottles. Its deep-fried cheese curds, beer soup, and walleye sandwiches are perennial favorites, along with Old-fashioneds, the state’s signature cocktail.


“And if you’re in Madison on a Friday, you have to do a fish fry,” said Rob Gard. “You can find one in restaurants all over town. It’s an essential part of a weekend in Madison.”

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