08 June 2012

If it doesn't squeak, is it still a cheese curd? Taking in the sights in Wisconsin's capitol city...

I recently had the good fortune of travelling to Wisconsin's capital city for some concerts in May, and I did indeed eat my proverbial heart out.  Non-Midwesterners may scoff at the idea of looking for fun and good food in Madison, but those from the Great Lakes region know it's a great college town with fresh produce stands all over in the summer, not to mention the locally made artisan cheeses and ice creams.  It's worth the drive if you're already in the Chicago or Milwaukee areas, and if you're in those areas to visit family this summer, it's a great short-term escape from Grandma's guilt trips and casseroles.

The view from Lake Mendota on UW-Madison's campus. 

The cheapest way to get there is to fly in to Chicago at O'Hare or Midway (O'Hare is slightly closer to the Wisconsin border) and take the shuttle up to Madison.  Coach USA runs a bus with stops at both airports and the Amtrack terminal (union Station) in the heart of downtown Chicago, dropping you near two stations with multiple "L"  and Metra lines, if you decide to go that route.  They run an on-time (or early) ship and it's $58 round-trip/ $29 one-way.

[By the way, I'm not going to waste a lot of time saying nasty things about airlines in this post; I've done enough of that already.  But I would just like to warn you, in case you didn't know, that Spirit Airlines charges $35 per carry-on.  I did not know this when I booked my tickets through Priceline, and if I had, I wouldn't have thought they were the cheapest deal.  So don't forget to check baggage fee policies with the company before booking through an aggregate sight, kiddies!]

Mostly I practiced and performed, but I can give you a few tips.  Frank Lloyd Wright spent many years in the area, so if  you're into that sort of thing, check out his handiwork near campus at the First Unitarian Church, which he built in 1951.  Monona Terrace Convention Center was not built while FLW was alive, but he did draw up the plans, and it's also where they record Michael Feldman's NPR show, Whad'Ya Know?, every Saturday.  There is a fee to be in the audience, but the free coffee and doughnuts are pretty tasty.

Monona Terrace

Olbrich Botanical Gardens are free to the public from dawn until dusk and contain the only Thai Pavilion in North America.  It is beautiful, and the gardens are really stunning (plus they're a fun way to learn what grows in this part of the country).

Did you know that University of Wisconsin has a big, honkin' LAKE right on campus?  For a reasonable fee, you can rent a sail boat from the boat house on campus and act all fancy.  Or you can just wander along the mostly wooded trail that rings the lake and enjoy the many Gothic-inspired buildings on the heart of campus for free.  If I had attended this school, I don't think I would have done much homework.

This is the student union building at UW-Madison!
There's a good ice cream shop in here, too. 

This is the most important activity when visiting a town, isn't it?  It tells you so much about whether or not that town deserves to exist (the town where I reside, for instance, probably does not).

The Dane County Farmer's Market is the largest producer-only farmer's market in the US.  Wander around the charming downtown area every Wednesday and Saturday in the summer and eat your weight in fresh cheese curds and other artisanal cheeses, homemade salsas, samples of locally raised meat, and so much more.  There are food stands, too, so you can get a more balanced diet if you want.  This is actually a great place to go for lunch.

If you don't make it to a farmer's market, Brennan's Market is your next best choice. These sort of overgrown roadside stands are all over town, and they carry loads of local produce, wine, beer, and some groceries, along with a deli counter and another lifetime's worth of Wisconsin cheese (and yes, you can eat your weight in free samples here, too).  Local cheese, locally made wine, and a big loaf of crusty bread can all be purchased here and brought to any one of the several lakes in town for a perfect picnic lunch.

Lao Laan-Xang at 2098 Atwood Ave. offers beautiful Laotian food in a slightly gentrified Capitol-area neighborhood and a reasonable price.  There's a little outdoor seating, but it goes fast during Madison's short summer.

Across the street, get your dessert at Monty's Blue Plate Diner (that is seriously what we did).  They actually have a terrific-looking menu, with tons of egg dishes and healthier, often vegetarian versions of diner classics, reminiscent of Sweet Melissa's in Laramie or the Chicago Diner.  But I only went for the homemade pie, which was glorious in every way.

There is a lot more to do in this diverse, education-rich, politically active town, I'm sure.  In the short time I spent there, I was overwhelmed by how much fun I had every single day.  Madison is a great place to hang for a weekend as a 20-something, 30-something, or as a whole family.  In mid-May, the weather was near-perfect every day, and there were plenty of places to go biking and running (in fact, you can rent bikes from the city for sight-seeing).  I highly recommend a visit.