Madison, Wisconsin, has the benefit of being home not only to Wisconsin’s state government but also a Big Ten university -- and that combination gives the city of 230,000 a real vibrancy. Madison is always showing up on various “best places to live” lists, and it makes a wonderful spot for a weekend getaway, too. Plus, it’s just a couple hours’ drive from much of the Fox Valley. We’re lucky to have family and friends there, and everytime we visit, we find something new to experience.
Before you plan your trip, it will help to understand a bit about how Madison is set up. It is home to five lakes, with Lake Mendota and Lake Monona flanking both sides of downtown, resulting in downtown being located on an “isthmus.” (That’s a word you never thought you’d use after 8th grade geography, right?) The university campus is less than a mile away from the Wisconsin State Capitol, and the State Street pedestrian mall links the two, resulting in a downtown area that is lively and full of restaurants, bars and boutiques.
WHAT TO DO
Depending on what day you arrive, you might want to make your first stop the Welcome Center (21 N. Park St., 608-262-4636), located on the university’s campus. There, you can pick up maps, guides and see if there are any special events you’ll want to check out. The center closes at 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, and is unfortuantely closed on weekends.
While on campus, you can stop by the Student Union to check out the lively, scenic Memorial Union Terrace overlooking Lake Mendota. You can grab a snack in the union and rest a bit in one of the terrace’s famous colorful sunburst chairs -- make sure to bring the camera to take a photo of your kids in the oversized version.
Also on campus is the Babcock Hall Dairy Store (1605 Linden Drive, 608-262-3045). This dairy and store has an observation window where kids can watch ice cream and cheese being made and packaged. Visit the dairy store after for yummy treats. It is open til 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 11 a.m to 4 p.m on Saturday, but closed on Sundays. (The food is also available in the union and Wisconsin House of Cheese on State Street.)
The Madison Children’s Museum (100 N. Hamilton St., 608-256-6445) is located downtown, across the street from the State Capitol. It’s honestly worth a trip to Madison just to check out this museum. It was named one of Parents magazine’s “!0 Best Children’s Museums” for 2011. My daughter and I spent an afternoon there on a recent trip to Madison and only saw about half of the exhibits. The art studio was especially impressive, and we spent a lot of time in the “Wildernest” designed especially for children from birth through age 5.