Madison, WI, is a Midwestern college town with friendly people and bicycle-friendly streets. Lake Monona and Lake Mendota dominate the city and shape what the locals do in their spare time. In winter, that could be ice skating or ice fishing, and when the frost melts, swimming and boating for starters. You'll find folks working up an appetite on park trails, gobbling up Friday fish fry, or visiting quirky attractions like the Mustard Museum when they're not on the water. Chilled-out Madison is neither too big nor too small, and you'll need at least a few nights to do it justice.
The Memorial Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin is all about relaxing, with your beverage of choice in one hand and a sandwich to fill your belly in the other. Take a seat on one of the brightly-colored sunburst chairs and feast your eyes on Lake Mendota, where, should you feel so inclined, you can participate in sailing, canoeing, and kayaking. This waterfront space hums with a different energy during summer evenings when film, musical events, and the lights come on.
Madison stakes a claim on renowned architect and Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright. You can see his touch in various buildings around town, including the Unitarian Meeting House with its triangular symbolism and his summer home Taliesin East. The property was a work in progress for almost five decades. It's now a museum that deserves a spot on your itinerary, even if it is 35 miles from the city. There's also the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center which was initially rejected and built posthumously.
In Schenk-Atwood, you'd be remiss to skip the 16 acres of Olbrich Botanical Gardens that Horticulture magazine dubbed one of North America's most inspiring gardens. A glass pyramid houses the Bolz Conservatory, which is very zen and tropical, with occasional butterflies fluttering by, gurgling streams, and a transporting warmth that urges you to close your eyes and breathe. There's a rare pavilion gifted by the Thai government. And next door, Olbrich Park overlooks Lake Monona and checks all the leisure boxes: basketball court, pickleball court, hammocks, ultimate frisbee, and more.
Madison gets cold and windy, so you'll need indoor recreation options when the weather turns. MMoCA is free and a stone's throw away from the Capitol. The building's glass walls are faintly reminiscent of the Titanic, but its contents are far from tragic. You can expect to see modern labors of love—drawings and paintings, and sculptures atop a roof garden. The exhibits don't stay up too long, and frequent events draw foot traffic and encourage engagement with the arts.
State Street, the Capitol Building, and Capitol Square are integral to Madison's look and feel. Depending on your viewpoint, the Capitol Building foregrounds the lakes in an inimitable fashion, and its interiors and skylight are as awe-inspiring as they're designed to be. There's handcrafted furniture, ornate statues, subtly varying marble, and an observation deck looking out over the distinct isthmus. Capitol Square is one of Madison's most happening spots, with shops, music venues, and numerous dining options to keep Madisonians fed and entertained.
Williamson Street, AKA Willy Street, is chock full of art studios, comic book retailers, artisanal shops, thrift stores, and eco-friendly boutiques that champion conscious consumerism. You'll also be glad to find vegan food and bakeries to fix bouts of shopping-related munchies.
Formerly known as 'Big Bug Hill,' this area was home to Madison's upper crust—the politicians, industrialists, and professionals. The mid-19th-century homes in this corner of Madison are large sandstone and brick mansions, some of which are modeled after the Second Empire style favored by Napoleon III. After several demolitions over two decades, Mansion Hill became an official landmark in the 1970s to preserve its architecture and Madison's urban history and context.
With 2.5 floors, this budget-friendly museum has lots of sensory play and interactive elements. You can keep kids occupied here for at least two hours, and the wide range of activities caters to various age groups. There's a craft area, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, play kitchens, musical instruments, water tables, and climbing toys, and the staff members are super friendly and helpful.
The college's arboretum comprises 1,260 acres that border the southern section of Lake Wingra. You can hike this lush reserve or go cross-country skiing during winter, and the wooded trails and prairies are safe and scenic for solo strollers and families throughout the year. Gorgeous lilacs and cherry blossoms jostle for attention, and you may see fauna like baby cranes and turkeys. If you're keen on gardens, check out the Allen Centennial Garden too. It's half an hour away by foot.
Dane County Farmers' Market is America's largest producer-only farmers' market, so you're buying straight from the source. Get some pastries and cheese curds to go with your fruit and veggies—Madison is big on cheese, as evidenced by the popular store Fromagination. The winter iteration of the market is sometimes held in Garver Feed Mill, where you can do yoga or book glorious treatments at Kosa Ayurvedic Spa.