MADISON, Wis. — It’s tough being a football fanatic in a state besotted with basketball. While I love roundball at my alma mater, the University of Kentucky, my real passion began as a kid watching the Texas Longhorns and Dallas Cowboys slug it out on the gridiron.
Recently, my friend Rebecca, a University of Wisconsin graduate and fellow football fan, invited me to Madison for a football weekend, Big 10-style. Despite the less than stellar weather, it was quite an experience.
Rain was in the forecast when the Badgers took the field against Kent State at Camp Randall, the university’s 80,000-seat stadium. As stadiums go, this is one of the more unique ones, situated on the grounds of what was once a Civil War Union training camp. If you are wondering who Randall was, it was Alexander Randall, the governor at the time who went on to become postmaster general of the United States.
We made it through the first half before it began to pour, but the rain didn’t seem to quench the spirits of the noisy red-clad spectators who munched on brats and joined mascot Bucky the Badger in cheering on their team and its Heisman contender Jonathan Taylor.
If Taylor is an overachiever on the field (he ran for four touchdowns in the first half alone), consider this. His off-the-field aspiration is to be an astrophysicist, a desire he’s had since childhood when his mother took him to a lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
As impressed as I was by Taylor, Wisconsin football and the fans’ passion (they roll out the Big Red carpet for Badger fans and foes alike), I was even more impressed by Madison itself.
On the way in from the airport, a large billboard welcomed me to “Mad Town,” and over the course of the weekend, I discovered that Mad Town is indeed very welcoming. Everywhere I went, people were genuinely eager to show off their city.
And why not? Madison routinely tops the list of “Best Places to Live” in the U.S. While it’s undoubtedly a great place to live (U.S. News & World Report has ranked it No. 12), it’s also a great place to visit. Here are five reasons why.
It is one of only two American cities located on an isthmus between two bodies of water (the other is Seattle). In Madison’s case, it’s two lakes — Mendota and the smaller Monona, which offer plenty of recreational activities, from swimming in the summer to ice fishing in the winter.
My experience of Mendota came from staying at its lakeside hotel, the Edgewater (more on it later), while my experience of Monona came on a two-hour brunch excursion courtesy of Betty Lou Cruises. The cruise was the perfect way to see the lakefront estates lining Lake Monona, and to realize that as rural as they appear — isolated by trees and with private docks — they are actually just 15 minutes from downtown.
Madison is the site of both the state university and the state capital. The University of Wisconsin occupies a beautiful campus, part of which borders the lake. Follow the students’ lead and head for nearby Capitol Square, and its slew of restaurants, entertainment options and unique shops.
Dominating one end of the square is the Wisconsin Capitol building, the tallest building in Madison and visible from almost anywhere in the downtown area. This is due to legislation passed prohibiting any building taller than 187 feet, the height of the columns surrounding the Capitol’s impressive dome. Be sure to make your way to its observation deck for a bird’s eye view of the city.
Madison has a number of “Essential Experiences” designed to give visitors an insider’s eye view of the city. My Essential Experience was the previously mentioned Betty Lou cruise, but it could just as easily have been learning how to build a Wisconsin cheese board or meeting the cows that provide milk for the cheese at Sassy Cow Creamery.
I’m sorry I didn’t have time for Bitters Boot Camp at the Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar, or for navigating the world of mustard at the National Mustard Museum. Did you know there’s even a dessert mustard?
I wasn’t able to do the Garden to Glass experience at Olbrich Botanical Gardens (it’s only offered through September), but I was able to catch GLEAM, a neon sculpture installation now in its fifth year.
The pieces, seen in all their shimmering glory throughout the artistically lit garden, are spectacular. Some, like Breathe, depicting a young girl who — depending on which direction you viewed it from — was either blowing the seeds off a dandelion or smelling a rose, were just for admiring. Others — such as Color Currents — where participants created a constantly changing mural using their bodies and motion, were interactive.
When it comes to “supper” it’s a family affair in Madison. One of the city’s most charming traditions is the supper club, beloved by locals and visitors alike. I was told that a traditional Wisconsin supper club is frequently found in obscure, out-of-the-way locations, often hidden in a grove of trees in the North Woods.
This dates back to Prohibition when those wanting liquid refreshment with their dinner found it prudent to enjoy it away from prying government eyes. These days you can have your adult beverage out in the open, but the appeal of the supper club has never waned.
On the night I dined at Avenue Supper Club, it resembled a cross between Sunday dinner with the whole family and a pep rally. The latter because red and white streamers were suspended from the ceiling and “Go Badgers” shirts were donned by staff and customers alike. The former because everyone in the restaurant seemed like one big happy family.
While the Avenue has been modernized, it retains its traditional feel with plenty of beer, brats and cheese curds, Friday night fish frys and Sunday roast or chicken. You can’t really say you’ve experienced Madison unless you’ve eaten at Avenue or one of the city’s other supper clubs.
It has a world-class hotel in the Edgewater. “I’ll meet you at the Edgewater” has been a commonly heard phrase since the hotel opened in 1948. Beautifully situated on the shores of Lake Mendota, next to the University of Wisconsin campus and facing Capitol Square, the Edgewater is the kind of hotel that every city should have — equal parts history, charm and genuine hospitality.
Madison’s only urban resort is actually two hotels linked by an open-air courtyard that in summer is the site of concerts and other social gatherings, and an inside passageway for colder winter months.
The original structure is Art Moderne with its round windows and rectilinear curves reminiscent of a steamship. A 2014 multimillion dollar renovation re-opened with a second hotel tower featuring rooms, a spa and the Boathouse Restaurant.
While the accommodations are spacious (most have at least a partial view of the lake); the food at its three restaurants (in addition to the Boathouse, there’s Augie’s Tavern, a casual pub, and the more formal Statehouse) delicious, and the staff uber friendly and helpful, it’s the hotel’s history that will delight you.
Over the 71 years of its existence, famous guests from Carrie Underwood to the Dalai Lama have signed the hotel register, and many of them have become part of the Edgewater lore.
Sammy Davis Jr. reportedly fished from his hotel balcony; Elton John commandeered the piano in Augie’s for an impromptu concert, and Elvis Presley rented out two floors and departed with an Edgewater clothes hanger as a souvenir.
It’s hard to stop with just five reasons to visit Madison. There’s its Frank Lloyd Wright connection — you can see his legacy in his own design, the Monona Terrace Convention Center. There’s its local brewery trail and cheese factory tour. There’s its blossoming music scene. And who knows — some day there may be a Heisman Trophy-winning astrophysicist.