Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital and second largest city welcomes visitors with open arms. Traditional Midwestern hospitality, plenty of year-round outdoor activities, and an impressive dining scene make this a fun (and road trip-worthy) weekend getaway. The city takes its name from former President James Madison (city officials held him in high regard although he was not from Wisconsin). It’s situated along an isthmus giving it a rather unique geography between Lakes Monona and Mendota.
As a result, you can walk from one side of the city to the other with ease, going from one beautiful lake to another. You’ll want to do just that because the views from either shoreline are beautiful. In spring and summer, sailboats dot the horizon while in colder months, the lakes freeze and often host ice skaters.
The city enjoys a vibrant downtown with plentiful cultural landmarks, shops, and nightlife scene fueled, in part, by the nearby campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison located along Lake Mendota.
With a growing number of jobs in the tech sector, Madison has a young and educated workforce. The National Association of Realtors recognized the Wisconsin capital as a top location for Millennial homeowners (75 percent of recent movers to the city fell in that age group).
The city is extremely bike-friendly (many downtown hotels loan bikes to guests) with more than 240 miles of bike paths and trails to pedal. A rentable electric bike program known as BCycle is another easy option to get around.
There are also 284 parks and five lakes around which visitors can explore. An especially innovative move was the creation of food delivery stations where mobile food and delivery services can drop off food in the parks to enjoy as a picnic.
Whether you are here for work and have a few extra hours or planned a road trip to Madison, these entertaining suggestions should give you plenty to do for several four hours. Mix and match your favorite activities, or choose one and save the rest for your next visit.
This is the heart and soul of Madison, and it serves as the perfect hub or starting point for any visit. Business travelers may likely have work in this district, but tourists should make this an important destination on their itinerary as well. Outside of its regular festivals and weekly farmer’s market (the largest producers-only farmer’s market in the country) during the warmer months, it also is the spot for big events around town. During the summer months, outdoor concerts fill the square on Wednesday nights.
The State Capitol offers regular tours that are popular with visitors. You can also climb to the top of the cupola (more than 265 feet tall), which is one of the city’s most visited attractions. The dome is the largest granite dome in the country and among the largest in the world; inside, it is covered in a beautiful mural. If you look all the way to the top, you’ll see a gold statue, which is actually pointing the way to Washington DC’s Capitol building.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens
On the far edge of Lake Monona is the 16-acre Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Stop by the Thai Pavilion, a gift from the government of Thailand, as you get a bit of fresh air and snap photos of the variety of trees and plants. While spring, summer and fall offer plenty of color, the chilly winter months give the gardens an entirely different look when covered in snow. There’s also a winter concert series as well as year-round art exhibits. It’s a popular venue for meeting events and social functions.
Frank Lloyd Wright Trail
Well-known architect Frank Lloyd Wright hails from the area, and a collection of eight Wright-designed buildings forms a new road trip journey through nine counties of southern Wisconsin. It was recently named to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The self-guided tour has two stops in Madison including the city’s downtown, lakefront convention center, Monona Terrace.
In addition to hosting year-round conferences and social events (it’s connected to the Hilton Madison Monona Terrace), there are also guided tours that point out interesting details of the building and his signature architectural style.
The other Madison stop along the Frank Lloyd Wright trail is the First Unitarian Society Meeting House which sparked a global trend in church architecture. People travel from all over the world to explore his architecture, and Madison (and southern Wisconsin) is a popular place to visit for his fans and followers.
The downtown area has plenty of museums to keep every curiosity interested including the downtown Madison Children’s Museum and downtown Madison Museum of Contemporary Art which features a modern glass facade holding an impressive collection of modern art. The latter features a well-known oil-on-metal piece by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which is part of the constantly rotating exhibitions. A rooftop sculpture garden offers wonderful views of the neighborhood.
If you run out of time exploring the rest of town, you can still peruse the museum’s art via its online collection and virtual tours. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum has life-size displays plus visuals showcasing Wisconsin’s role in all of the U.S.’ military operations since the Civil War. The Wisconsin Historical Museum showcases the history of the many cultures that settled in Wisconsin.
To round out your day, no visit to Wisconsin would be complete without sampling the state’s hallmark export: cheese. Fromagination is a downtown cheese store and sandwich shop is the perfect finale to a day of touring. You can enjoy your reward for so much walking while dining on the terrace or take it to-go and explore all of the street art that many of the downtown neighborhoods have on display (especially easy if you have a bike). The store is just steps from Capitol Square and offers cheese tastings as well as a subscription club that will mail people a sampling of cheeses to their home each month.
The artisanal cheese, from Wisconsin as well as other global cheesemakers, features cow, goat, and sheep cheese, but don’t forget to sample the state’s famously “squeaky” cheese curds. If you want to learn more about cheese pairing and the art of designing cheese boards, the nearby Madison Concourse Hotel & Governor’s Club offers classes.
Of course, Madison has plenty of great dining options at all price points. It’s hard to beat cocktails on the rooftop terrace bar of the AC Hotel Madison Downtown, which looks directly toward the State Capitol. Eno Vino, the hotel’s top-floor restaurant serves tasty Mediterranean cuisine including tapas to share from an exhibition kitchen.
Midwestern hospitality and beautiful natural landscapes make Wisconsin’s state capital an ideal road trip adventure for the whole family or conference destination for business travelers who will surely want to return for some time off.