1. Where to Stay
Step back to a more opulent era at the downtown Mansion Hill Inn (from $200), a ten-room B and B set on a hill a few blocks away from the majestic State Capitol. Trek Bicycles (headquartered in nearby Waterloo) purchased and renovated the 1857 German Romanesque revival building in 2008, restoring original features like the mahogany spiral staircase, etched Venetian glass windows, and wrought-iron balconies. Book the ground-floor suite (from $250) for French doors that open onto the hotel’s gardens, and borrow one of the complimentary Trek cycles for a ride along the bike paths that ring Lake Mendota a block away.
Get a dose of modern style at HotelRed (from $189), which opened in August and is Madison’s only independent boutique hotel. Its 48 design-focused suites feature polished concrete floors and soaking tubs along with kitchenettes and furnished patios. Though the Bauhaus-inspired steel-and-glass structure might seem at odds with iconic buildings like the University of Wisconsin Field House across the street, local architect Bob Sieger paid homage to the Badger spirit with the prominent red, slate gray, and white color scheme as well as through partnerships with Wisconsin artisans who made fixtures like the custom cabinetry.
Reduce your carbon footprint at the ecofriendly Arbor House (from $150), where eight suites contain green features like organic mattresses, natural linens, and water-efficient fixtures. Comprising two buildings—a landmarked inn built in 1853 and a sustainably designed annex—the property also offers a dry sauna and a wildflower garden. Grab a bike from the front desk and cycle across the street to the University of Wisconsin Arboretum or set out on Lake Wingra with your complimentary pass for a one-hour paddle, canoe, or kayak ride.
2. Where to Eat
Taste the best Wisconsin has to offer at the Old Fashioned, a bustling spot on the Capitol Square that serves meat, cheese, and a selection of 150 beers from small producers across the state. Share the house-made Wisconsin beer-battered cheese curds ($6.95) before moving on to updated takes on classic supper club fare: plates of fried cod, perch, and walleye with a lemon-caper tartar ($14.95) on Fridays and a two-course prime rib dinner ($28.95) on Saturdays.
Reserve a table at elegant L’Etoile, the leader of the city’s culinary revival since it was taken over in 2005 by Tory Miller, who was named this year’s James Beard Chef of the Midwest. The menu changes daily, but you can expect French technique and global flavors in entrées like pheasant served with polenta, Italian sausage, and seasonal vegetables in a pinot noir jus ($40). For a more casual take on Miller’s cuisine, head next door to the seasonally-inspired gastropub Graze (entrées $10–$19).
Snack on small plates of seared lamb carpaccio ($12) and grilled octopus salad ($14) at Merchant, where you’ll also find a list of craft cocktails with fresh seasonal ingredients. Linger after dinner for D.J. sets that start at 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, or wake up with a pork belly breakfast sandwich ($13) on the Saturday brunch menu before heading to the farmers’ market a block away.
3. What to Do
Cool off indoors while gazing at some of the 5,000 works that make up the permanent collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (free admission), which includes works by Frida Kahlo, Roy Lichtenstein, and Cindy Sherman. The current main exhibition, “One must know the animals” (through August 19), considers the relationship between animals and artists and features selections by Thomas Hart Benton and Roy De Forest. Take a break in the sculpture garden on top of the César Pelli–designed building, or grab a snack at Fresco, the glass-walled café with terrace seating.
See the mark left on the area by Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright by touring two of his local works, starting on the lakefront at Monona Terrace (daily one-hour tours at 1:00 p.m.; $3). The rounded convention center, which bears a similarity to Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, was proposed in 1938, but the building wasn’t completed until 1997, in a modified format that had been adapted by Anthony Puttnam, who worked with Wright. Contrast its striking curves with the angular limestone, copper, and glass structure of the Unitarian Meeting House (call in advance to arrange a tour; $10), completed in 1951 on the west side of town.
Wander sixteen acres of artfully tended flora at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens (free admission; $2 for the Bolz Conservatory) on Lake Monona. Spot native midwestern plants outside and hundreds of tropical species inside the Bolz Conservatory. Don’t miss the ornate Thai Pavilion, a gift from the Thai government to the university, which hosts one of the largest populations of Thai students in the U.S.
4. Insider’s Tip
You don’t have to leave the city limits to make the most of your Dairyland experience. Stop by UW’s Babcock Hall Dairy Store for freshly churned ice cream ($2.75 for a six-ounce cone) and hunks of Wisconsin Dutch Käse ($8.34 per pound). In the mornings, peer down from the observation deck of the adjacent Babcock Hall Dairy Plant (closed Sunday) to see experts crafting a rotating selection of ice-cream flavors and separating curds to make more than twenty cheeses on-site.
5. Oddball Day
Hop on a bike to explore some local eating and drinking traditions and find out why Madison was named the only gold-certified Bicycle Friendly Community east of the Mississippi by the League of American Bicyclists. Rent your ride at Machinery Row Bicycles (Trek 7200 hybrid with lock and helmet, $20 per day) and then head a half-mile to fuel up at the Dane County Farmers’ Market (every Saturday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.) Stock up on goods from more than 160 vendors trimming Capitol Square; keep an eye out for incredible produce from Snug Haven Farm and organic Gouda and cheddar cheese from Bleu Mont Dairy. Afterward, connect with the Capital City Bike Loop as it climbs slightly east before winding south across Lake Monona. The scenic sixteen-mile loop passes downtown attractions like Monona Terrace before crossing through residential neighborhoods dotted with bungalow-style homes and leafy natural areas like the Capital Springs State Recreation Area. Circle back to the Memorial Union Terrace on the university’s campus and watch boats drift by on Lake Mendota with a pitcher of Bell’s Oberon seasonal ale ($12.50) and a Klement’s bratwurst sandwich ($3.65), a local delicacy. Before returning your bike by 7 p.m., reward your day of pedaling with a sip of brandy, the state spirit of choice, at the Old Sugar Distillery. Sit in the airy tasting room and order a brandy old-fashioned sweet ($7), classically built with house-made brandy, 7-Up, and garnished with an orange wedge and cherry. Once your bike is returned, take a break from dairy at Lao Laan-Xang, run for more than two decades by a family of Laotian refugees. Be sure to try the house specialty of larp, a mix of minced meat, shallots, and spices served cold on a bed of lettuce and bean sprouts with sticky rice ($13.75). Afterward, wind down at no-frills Mickey’s Tavern (1524 Williamson Street, 608-251-9964) on the east side of the city, which opened in 1902 and has kept its doors open ever since, including during prohibition. Sit outside on the patio with a locally adored Bloody Mary ($6.50 with a beer back), containing a skewer of pickled olive, onion, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and pickle, before catching a live rock, punk, or folk show.
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