Wisconsin Treasure: City of Madison

Last Updated on January 13, 2020 by Janet Frost

The City of Madison would not be considered a “hidden” treasure. As the capital of Wisconsin, Madison is recognized throughout the state and across the country. Nevertheless it is a Wisconsin Treasure. Madison is a beautiful city with eclectic architecture, a vibrant Big Ten campus, and a progressive soul. The heart of Madison sits on a thin isthmus between two sparkling lakes. Two additional lakes and the Yahara river flow through the surrounding community. Somehow, this town mixes the atmospheres of college town, political epicenter, agricultural hub, historical site and recreational destination into one unique and cohesive community.

Let’s Go learn things about the city of Madison Wisconsin…

Political epicenter of Wisconsin

City of Madison
Political epicenter: State of Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, WI

This Neoclassical/Beaux Arts style building has undergone a huge fire, numerous renovations and countless political battles. I have visited when my feet fell softly on the hushed marble atrium. Then again, I have visited when the rotunda echoed with protest chants. I have even proudly mounted the majestic stairs to see my son inducted into the Wisconsin Law Association. You never really know what you might encounter in this dramatic building. This structure is magnificent inside and out. Even the gorgeous grounds, originally designed by John Nolen, tell fascinating stories of Wisconsin. The Capitol Building is a perfect historic site for a tour. There are free guided tours several times a day with some holiday exceptions.

Historical sites in the City of Madison

Beyond the historical significance of the State Capitol building, the city of Madison is the home of the Wisconsin State Historical Society. There are 144 Madison sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wisconsin First Peoples

The region around Madison was called, Taychopera (Ta-ko-per-ah), meaning “land of the four lakes” (Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa) by the native tribes of Ho-Chunk (Winnebago). Archeologists report human activity in the Madison area as far back as 12,000 years ago. During the Early Woodland Era (800 B.C.) up to 1,500 effigy mounds existed in the region.  Unfortunately, nearly 80% have been destroyed. However, preservation of these mounds has become a priority over the last several decades and it is possible to experience them within the greater Madison area. In my research I found this informative booklet from 1994 about the Madison mounds; Native American Mounds.
Travel Wisconsin also has list of all Wisconsin effigy mounds that would be an interesting itinerary; Wisconsin effigy mounds.

European Settlers and Westward expansion into the Wisconsin Territory

Already in 1838 while the state was still just a territory, Madison was a hotbed of political drama. Initially, the Capitol was to be in Belmont, WI. But political and financial wrangling  by Judge James Duane Doty, brought it to the Land of Four Lakes. He coaxed the Pecks from Blue Mounds, WI to his new project. In 1838, Roseline and Eben Peck settled into the first home, inn, post office, and general all around meeting place, of the newly minted city of Madison. The Pecks served the construction workers as they built the official Wisconsin State Capitol on a hill crossed by Native American trails.

City of Madison Museums and Historic Architecture

n 1848 Wisconsin acquired official statehood and established the state’s first public university, the University of Wisconsin. Today the city of Madison is packed with historical state buildings, campus buildings, business buildings and homes dating as far back as the 1840’s.

City of Madison

The State Historical Museum sits directly across the street from the Capitol. This is a fun museum with informative and quirky details of Wisconsin history.

Visit Madison has a great list of other Madison museums, the Madison Children’s Museum, the UW Geology Museum and Chazen Museum of Art to mention just a few.

City of Madison

Bascom Hill is the historic centerpiece of the University of Wisconsin
campus. Three landmark buildings border this ancient drumlin.
North Hall built in 1851
South Hall built in 1855
Bascom Hall 1875

city of Madison

Grace Episcopal Church was the first congregation in the tiny new town of Madison.
The church established in 1839. This Gothic Revival beauty built in 1858 .
The famous Louis Tiffany created some of the original stained glass windows.

This page shares a number of self-guided Historic Walking Tours. The Madison Trust for Historic Preservation also offers guided historic architecture tours on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings.

College Town

City of Madison-College Town
Alumni Park next to the Red Gym and UW Memorial Union on Lake Mendota

The University of Wisconsin at Madison is the flagship campus of the University Wisconsin System. Mascot, Bucky Badger, leads this raucous campus in a dizzying array of athletics. University of Wisconsin-Madison is a leader in academic research and degrees.  The campus is packed with historic and ultra-modern architecture.

The Memorial Union is truly the “heart” of this Big Ten campus. The original structure was built in 1928 right on the shores of Lake Mendota. There are quiet study spaces, friendly media lounges, information stations, and dining options. But what makes this Union stand out is its popular social spaces. Crowds of students, families and visitors relax on the colorful outdoor Terrace facing Lake Mendota. They enjoy beverages and food from the Lakeview Lounge, Der Stiftskeller, The Brat Stand and Babcock Ice Cream Stand. Even in inclement weather you can enjoy the Union’s Der Rathskeller, a traditional German Beer Hall. Watersports rentals and lessons are available and add another layer of entertainment to Terrace visitors.

Madison is an agricultural hub

Although the city of Madison has a population of 247,000, it still remains faithful to it’s agricultural roots. You encounter farmland  within a few miles beyond the city limits. The State’s largest farmers market takes place on Madison’s Capitol Square  every Saturday from May to November. This is one of my favorite summer events. The market covers all four blocks around the Capitol with fresh and local produce, organic meats and cheeses, and tantalizing food trucks and an overall fascinating milieu. Get there early because this everybody’s favorite!

City of Madison
Madison’s Farmers Market, a must do for fresh produce, local flavor and amazing people-watching.

The City of Madison is a popular Midwest Recreational Destination

Madison is a town for the young at heart. They run, hike, bike, swim, kayak, snowshoe and ski every chance they get. The city is full of bike paths, parks and beaches.

Madison Bike paths

Known as the biking capital of the Midwest, the city of Madison offers over 200 miles of biking and hiking trails. They even offer BCycle, the city’s bike-sharing program with over 40 stations around the city. You can circle Lake Mendota, going past UW Memorial Union and out to Picnic Point. Circling Lake Monona will eventually lead to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. The website BikeMadison has itineraries, maps and everything you need to plan a day of biking.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Botanical gardens are a peaceful and beautiful oasis. The Olbrich Botanical Gardens sit on the Starkweather Creek. The outdoor gardens are free. When I visited the indoor gardens were closed for preparation of the Annual Butterfly Exhibit. This special exhibit will runs July through August. The outdoor gardens were showing off their colors on this July day.

Water sports on Madison’s lakes

Watersports of every form are popular on Lakes Mendota and Monona. The mouth of the Yahara River empties into Lake Monona in the northeast corner. Olbrich Park has facilities for paddle sport rentals, launching boats, and fishing. UW Union Rentals and Rutabaga Paddlesports are other options for watersports rentals.

Beer and Food in Madison

Certainly any college town will have beer and a college town in Wisconsin should have great beer. The city of Madison also has an extraordinary offering of eclectic dining options. From food trucks to upscale French cuisine, Madison serves the struggling student and the powerful politician alike. I will share just a few of my favorites. This topic warrants several posts on its own.  Just keep in mind, new very cool venues are opening all the time.

  • The Old Fashioned sits on a popular corner of Capitol Square. They of course serve the best Old Fashioned, a drink icon in Wisconsin! Plan on a wait because this comfort food-with-a-twist venue is a favorite.
  • Graze is down the block from The Old Fashioned, in contrast it should be called The Modern. Farm-to-table, small plate creations are served in this glass-walled modern spot.  – “the kind of stuff chefs and foodies love to eat”.
  • The Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co’s flagship location is just 2 blocks off Capitol Square. This is a student and alumni standard.  Everyone loves the casual menu and one of the original craft breweries in the region.
  • Glass Nickel Pizza and Ian’s Pizza.  Any UW Madison graduate I know falls into one or the other of these pizza camps. Personally I prefer the ambiance of Glass Nickel.
  • Blue Plate Diner will fix your  retro-sweet tooth. Located in the Atwood neighborhood, this homey spot has an upbeat identity that’s a cool combination of hip and traditional. Serving old school fountain style food with the twist of a large selection of vegan options.

Craft Breweries in Madison

I have saved the best for last. A craft beer tour in Madison area could fill a whole week, assuming your liver can take it. The city of Madison is an incubator for progressive ideas, experimental foods, academic breakthroughs and edgy craft beer. Several breweries have launched in the warm environment of Madison and then moved into the bigger market of Milwaukee. Again, this will have to be a separate post to truly do it justice. For now, here is a brief overview.

  • Ale Asylum remains one of my favs. It was a front runner in the area.
  • Karben4 moved into the facility vacated when Ale Asylum expanded. This seems to be a good spot because Karben4 is creating some great beer.
  • Next Door in the quiet Atwood neighborhood combines good beer with a local’s hangout atmosphere
  • One Barrel is committed to keeping it small and edgy.
  • ALT Brewing a completely gluten-free facility
  • Vintage Brewing is on the far west side of the Madison area
  • Working Draft Brewing Co is a relative newcomer with a selection heavy on IPAs.
  • Capital Brewing also on the west side in suburban Middleton. As I am researching this I see that they have a new female brewmaster that went to school with my kids. Time to pay a new visit!
  •  Funk Factory Geuzeria, and Giant Jones are all still on my to-do-list

Summer in the City of Madison is a treat!

Are you convinced? Ready to make your own summertime memories in Madison, WI? I have only scratched the surface here. Check in with Destination Madison for a full and up-to-date collection of Madison’s treasures. Come visit soon!

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