Even though Madison is smaller population-wise, what it lacks in size it makes up for in overall quality of life. The area is very much a college town, with the University of Wisconsin-Madison in its backyard. But people coming up for a short visit or a longer stay can still find plenty of things to keep the schedule full. With that in mind, there are some hidden gems that can make for a really memorable trip.
Madison is surrounded by several lakes that are great for water sports in the summer months. There are five in total: Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, Kegonsa and Wingra. Several have beaches and camping areas. Visitors can also rent paddleboats for a little exercise on the water. Monona Terrace is a great place to soak in the Madison skyline and get a view of the nearby Lake Monona. The rooftop of the convention center hosts a variety of events, such as a rooftop concerts and Tai Chi classes.
In the evening, dine at one of the waterfront restaurants. Paisan’s Restaurant on Lake Monona has served up classic Italian dishes in the area since the 1950s. Their menu hasn’t gone through any drastic changes, and it doesn’t need to. The variety of pizza and pastas are alone why people keep coming back.
Most of the activity in the city is centered on State Street. This is home to a cluster of bars, coffee shops, street performers and the annual Halloween “Freakfest.” Madison residents know Michelangelo’s on State Street is the place to go to relax and have a good cup of coffee. The walls of this store are covered with various artworks, giving customers an extra boost of inspiration beyond the coffee grounds.
Another State Street gem is Four Star Video Cooperative. This is one of the rare few video stores where people can rent movies new and old. The store’s friendly staff can help find that one movie that has been on the watch list forever, or they could recommend a great title that a person might not gravitate toward otherwise. Dan Savage, writer of the advice column “Savage Love” and director of Seattle’s “The Stranger” owes his beginnings to this store. He once worked there as an employee.
Get lost in the music at B-Side Records, another State Street business. This store has been selling music both popular and obscure to audio enthusiasts for the past 30 years. The owners have a lot of support in the community. So much so, that when one got into a bicycle accident a group of residents raised $25,000 to help the owner run the store as he healed. B-Side also has cassette tapes and cd’s, so it will be rare not to find a song or artist that isn’t represented.
Williamson Street, commonly known as “Willy Street,” is where the creatives congregate in Madison. This area is home to Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse. Visitors can check out local artists inside while trying fresh-baked goods or vegan-friendly soups. The venue also brings musical acts on the weekends. Nearby is the Crystal Corner Bar, which is where locals go to catch the best live music in Madison. On any night of the week, performers could be playing country, jazz or blues. The people at Crystal Corner know the music is great, but they like to brag about how the crowd is the true selling point. Everyone that comes to Crystal Corner is just looking to have a great time.
Self-proclaimed foodies will be in heaven in Madison. The sheer number of restaurants in this city means competition is stiff. Topping the list is L’Etoile. This restaurant is nationally acclaimed, selling food made with locally grown ingredients just selected at the farmer’s market. Try their menu a la carte, or the chef’s seven-course tasting menu. Just make sure to reserve a table in advance, as this place tends to fill up. Himal Chuli is another local favorite that serves Nepalese in a cozy atmosphere. The food is naturally on the healthier side, so it’s hard to feel that guilty going for dessert afterward.
The University of Wisconsin Arboretum is an expansive nature reserve that was completely man-made. It’s great for biking through in the summer or cross-country skiing in the winter. But many don’t know that the arboretum contains a city within the city. The Lost City was once planned to be “Venice of the North.” But a lot of factors contributed to its failure in the early 1900s. First, the company building the development had financial troubles. Second, the company with financial troubles was trying to build the development on swampland. Only seven of the planned 800 housing lots were completed when the company collapsed in 1922. Now, most of it is sunken into the ground. Guides can help visitors pick out what is left of this failed project.