The first thing to know about Madison is that it is a created city, platted, supposedly in 48 hours, by developers who thought an isthmus between two lakes would be an awful pretty spot for a state capital and who, incidentally of course, just happened to own a lot of real estate there. They built a town in the middle of nowhere, and Madison has remained fairly isolated, psychologically as well as physically, ever since. New residents describe it as 25 square miles (actually 60 or so) surrounded by reality. The streets are clean, the buses run on schedule, and you can trust the old lady standing next to you in the grocery store not to yank the jewelry off your neck. Other provincial characteristics: a casual life-style (some say dressing up in Madison means wearing shoes), an overarching affection for all things dairy, and a dislike for city slickers, especially those from Illinois. Remove your license plates at the border.
Your first stop in Madison should be the University of Wisconsin, a premier educational institution with the cushiest campus north of Florida State. The Memorial Union Terrace (800 Langdon St.) has the best view in town of picturesque Lake Mendota, along with grilled bratwurst and tap beer. There's free live music on summer nights, and with a driver's license you can rent a canoe in the adjacent boat house. (You will also need a UW ID or Union membership card to buy beer.) You can hang out in the Union's game room, munch on meat loaf and mashed potatoes in the Lakefront Cafeteria, listen to up-and-coming small-label bands for free in the Rathskeller, catch a cheap movie in the Fredric March Play Circle, or hear a concert or speech in the swanky art-deco Union Theater (which has hosted such notables as Eleanor Roosevelt, Vladimir Horowitz, and in 1964 a barefoot, practically unknown Joan Baez). For Union information call 608-262-1331.
To share in one of the university's great intellectual achievements, stop by Babcock Hall (1605 Linden Drive, 608-262-3045), the site of the nation's first dairy school and the place where students churn out more than a thousand gallons a day of 12 percent-butterfat ice cream. Babcock's retail store sells cones, sundaes, shakes, malts, and packed quarts, as well as cheese and yogurt. Portions are generous and, since the school takes no profit, very reasonably priced. Visit the Dairy Cattle Barn down the road to see where it all comes from.
Just up the hill is Washburn Observatory (1401 Observatory Drive, 608-262-9274), a nifty old building that houses the telescope with which UW astronomers determined the size of the galaxy. After 112 years the machinery is obsolete but still provides a terrific view, and on the first and third Wednesday of the month the public is invited to take a gander. Showings are at sunset (9 PM) in the summer months and 7:30 PM in winter if skies are at least 75 percent clear.
Local kids are partial to the Geology Museum in Weeks Hall at 1215 W. Dayton (608-262-2399) and in particular to the 10,000-year-old mastodon skeleton found by farm boys in a creek bed near Boaz in 1897. There's also a neat collection of phosphorescent rocks--be sure to turn out the lights and bask in the afterglow.
When you get tired of the student hordes, which swell like yeast at regular intervals, take a stroll up State Street, the city's so-called urban mall. The street was closed to traffic, except buses and bikes, in the 1970s but somehow managed to remain a working retail district. Once you get past the fast-food outlets, you'll find trendy clothing and specialty shops, including Victor Allen's Coffee & Tea, founded by Madison's Victor Mondry, who dropped out of the UW medical school to bring real cappuccino to the upper midwest (401 State St., 608-255-0117); and the tiny Glaeve Gallery, a gem of a place crammed with African, Latin American, and American Indian art, as well as works by superstar Appalachian folk artists (125 State St., 608-255-3997).
At the end of State Street rises the Capitol Building, a popular tourist destination but an impressive building nonetheless. (Just don't visit in May, when it is overrun by fourth-graders on field trips.) Restorers have been hard at work the last few years polishing the brass doors, scraping scum off the gargantuan murals, and shining the 43 varieties of decorative stone that adorn the place. It's worth a visit just to wander around and notice the details, like lock plates on the doors that all say "Forward" (the state motto) and the intricate stained-glass skylights. (Guided tours are also available; call 608-266-0382 for info.) Even most locals don't know about the building's best feature--the outside walkway around the dome, with its spectacular view of the city, the lakes, and the countryside beyond.
On Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 2 PM between May and October, local farmers, bakers, and gardeners set up shop on the sidewalk around the Capitol Square and peddle just about everything that can be grown or made in the state, including asparagus, strawberries, tomatoes, bread, poultry, trout, herbs, flowers, chocolate, apples, doughnuts, popcorn still on the cob, sunflower seeds still on the sunflower, and cheese curds that squeak like a violin string. Last year a guy was selling buffalo meat from his local herd. Browsing--and grazing--the Farmer's Market is by far Madisonians' favorite pastime. If you know anybody in the city, you're bound to run into them here.
Other events taking place on the square: Cows on the Concourse (June 1, 608-221-8698), honoring you-know-whats and your best opportunity to learn the difference between a Holstein and a Guernsey; Concerts on the Square (Wednesdays at 7 PM from June 26 through July 31, 608-257-0638), during which the local chamber orchestra plays popular tunes, while throngs of picnickers try to drown them out; the Art Fair on the Square (July 13 and 14, 608-257-0158), one of the largest art fairs in the midwest; and the Paddle and Portage (July 20, 10 AM, 608-255-1008), a canoe race in which the underfit and weak of mind paddle one mile on Lake Mendota, portage 1.3 miles uphill across the isthmus, and then paddle another two miles on Lake Monona. I wouldn't drive 150 miles for this; but if you're in the area anyway, it's worth observing just for the insight it offers into the Madison psyche. Winters are long here.
When it comes to recreation, the lakes are great for canoeing, sailing, boarding, ice-skating, and swimming. (I'd check with the public-health department first regarding the latter--we're developing a problem with ducks who don't know where the bathroom is.)
Bicycling is the king of sports and the best way to tour the countryside. Dane County maintains hundreds of miles of secondary roads so milk trucks can lumber from farm to farm--that and the rural scenery has given the area a national reputation for superior biking. Pedal to Stoughton for the Norwegian bakery, to New Glarus for the Swiss bakery, or to Hyde, where a streamside mill still churns out enough electricity for the owner to get a $2 refund on his monthly utility bill. The Bombay Bicycle Club leads rides to various destinations every weekend from April through November. Pick up a schedule at any bike shop or call their hot line at 608-255-9671.
Local strollers favor the Lakeshore Path, which starts at the UW Memorial Union and skirts Lake Mendota for more than two miles, and the UW Arboretum, a 1,200-acre scientific area in which notable botanists such as Aldo Leopold and John Curtis re-created all the major habitats of Wisconsin (at the south end of Mills Street, or 1207 Seminole Hwy., 608-263-7888). Best times to visit: early spring, when delicate wildflowers carpet the woods, and fall, when the tall-grass prairie is in bloom.
Madison's art scene is not quite up to big-city standards, but events are cheap and you can always find a place to park. The usual touring companies drift through the Madison Civic Center (211 State St., 608-266-9055) and the Wisconsin Union Theater (in the Memorial Union, 608-262-2201), and the university abounds with student and faculty recitals. (Wisconsin Week, the campus newsletter, has a good listing of events and is available at the unions.) Rock-music hounds pack O'Cayz Corral at 504 E. Wilson (608-256-1348), which draws top-name alternative acts (the floor collapsed under the weight of their enthusiasm last year but it has since been reinforced). Locals also gravitate to the Crystal Corner at 1302 Williamson St. (608-256-2953), especially on Thursday and Saturday nights when Chicago blues acts lend a touch of hipness.
Folk music is hard to come by, except for what's playing at the Wild Hog in the Woods Coffeehouse, an out-of-the-suitcase organization that sets up in the YMCA on Thursday and Friday nights (306 N. Brooks, 608-233-9773). Folk dancing, on the other hand, is a local obsession. You can get free instruction in Scottish Dancing on Sunday at the Memorial Union (608-238-1227) and Scandinavian dancing on Tuesday at Union South (227 N. Randall, 608-924-9391). Or on summer nights you can join the international folk dancers who prance like nymphs to scratchy records on the library mall. A good ol' time can also be had at the barn dances held in the American Legion Hall (116 N. Few) in winter and in Olin Park pavilion (Lakeside Street and John Nolen Drive) in summer. There's always a live band with fiddle and banjo, and patient callers lead the crowd through reels, squares, and waltzes (608-255-2254 or 608-242-0373).
Two other one-of-a-kind entertainments: Broom Street Theater (1119 Williamson St., 608-244-8338), the oldest experimental theater in the midwest, which stages locally written plays that are often provocative, sometimes hilarious, and almost always long and loud; and "Whad 'Ya Know?", the American Public Radio show that originates in Vilas Communications Hall on the UW campus (821 University Ave., 608-263-5635). Host Michael Feldman is a former Madison schoolteacher and cabdriver who made good as a comic. Be a part of his audience and laugh for two hours. For other local happenings, check Isthmus, the city's free weekly newspaper.
There was a time when the best food in Madison was in your own refrigerator, but that's changed, largely due to a growth spurt in ethnic restaurants. Wisconsin has one of the country's largest populations of Southeast Asians, many of whom settled here after the Vietnam war. You'll find the hottest peppers at the excellent Vientiane Palace (1124 S. Park, 608-255-5538) and the Bahn Thai (2809 University Ave., 608-233-3900), which serve Lao and Thai dishes. Also highly recommended are the Saigon (6802 Odana Road, 608-829-3727) for Vietnamese food, New Seoul (2403 University Ave., 608-238-3331) for Korean food, Lu Lu's (2524 University Ave., 608-233-2172) for Arabic, and Kabul (541 State St., 608-256-6322) for North African. Wasabi (449 State St., 608-255-5020), a new Japanese restaurant, has been drawing raves for its affordable sushi and good selection of Japanese beer.
Other good values: Dotty Dumpling's Dowry for thick, juicy hamburgers (they're relocating to 116 N. Fairchild this summer and will reopen in mid-July, 608-255-3175) and Mickey's Dairy Bar for stick-to-the-ribs breakfasts (1511 Monroe St., 608-256-9476). The Wild Iris Cafe (1225 Regent St., 608-257-4747) serves memorable Italian dishes in a comfortable but sophisticated neighborhood setting. And if your sweet tooth is acting up, head for Cafe Europa on the Capitol Square (102 King St., 608-255-0770)--the pastries and cakes are incredible. This is also the only place I know where you can get a simple lunch of crusty bread, cheese, and fresh fruit. Find a table outside and watch the world (or at least the state legislators) walk by.
As the state's capital and a convention center, Madison offers the full range of accommodations. Most of the chain motels are clustered near the I-90/94 and Highway 151 interchange, a notable exception being the huge, plush Holiday Inn Madison West, which is actually one foot into the city of Middleton on the west side (1313 John Q. Hammons Drive, 608-831-2000). Lobbyists favor the Inn on the Park (22 S. Carroll, 608-257-8811) and the Edgewater (666 Wisconsin Ave., 608-256-9071), both of which are downtown (the Edgewater is also on the lake and has a great pier). Parents of university students gravitate to the Howard Johnson (525 W. Johnson, 608-251-5511), Best Western Inntowner (2424 University Ave., 608-233-8778), and Ivy Inn (2355 University Ave., 608-233-9717), which are near campus.
For a real experience, check into the Mansion Hill Inn, a restored mansion near the square built in 1858 by Alexander McDonnell, the architect who designed Madison's second capitol building (424 N. Pinckney, 608-255-3999). This was a majestic house for its time: it features a four-story spiral staircase, marble foyer, and lady's belvedere with a 360-degree view. The guest rooms are furnished in period pieces, with canopy and tester beds. Most have fireplaces as well and, to suit modern sensibilities, whirlpools.