This has been a great sojourn in and around Madison, Wis., where there’s lots to love.

Madison Adores Frank Lloyd Wright

Last time around, we enjoyed a fantastic tour of the 600-acre estate of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, located in Spring Green. Two of his other landmarks here are the historic Unitarian Meeting House and Monona Terrace Community Convention Center.

Recognized as one of the most innovative examples of church architecture and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the historic Unitarian Meeting House was commissioned by the First Unitarian Society of Madison. The original structure—constructed of native limestone, copper and glass, with a unique angular sanctuary and hall—was completed in 1951. A major expansion in 2008 added a second, 500-seat auditorium and new community spaces. Tours of this amazing facility take place year-round and, like Taliesin, really provide visitors with another example of Wright’s lifelong desire to have his designs improve lives and influence how others feel and think.

Monona Terrace Community Convention Center also offers tours that extol the meticulous and loving details Wright bestowed upon his original designs for this structure in 1938. Unfortunately, he never lived to see it come to fruition. Nonetheless, thanks to his understudies, the building was finished in 1997, resulting in a stunning, curvilinear, 250,000-square-foot, architectural masterpiece that links the shore of Lake Monona with the State Capitol. The highlight here is that the building spans 90 feet out and over the lake to capture its breathtaking views while featuring Wright’s signature organic design, which incorporates dramatic, open spaces, circular forms and an expansive rooftop garden.

Attractions Galore

Just up the street on Capitol Square, you’ll find the Wisconsin State Capitol. Completed in 1917, reaching 284-feet-high and featuring the only granite dome in the U.S., the capitol sits on the downtown isthmus bordered by lakes Monona and Mendota. The free tours, offered daily, provide a wonderful overview of the structure, which encompasses 43 varieties of stone from around the world, glass mosaics, hand-carved furniture, decorative murals and a great deal more.

The architecture is absolutely stunning, and it was very fun and interesting to sit in the governor’s office and the hearing room, among other rooms, plus take in spectacular 360-degree views of the city from the observation deck outside of the dome. One additional tidbit: This is the only state capitol I have been to where there are no security checkpoints—you just walk right in. I asked a local about it and they responded, “We really feel like this is the people’s house, and we want people to feel welcome.” Well, that’s what I’ve been saying all along about how Madison possesses such a relaxed and welcoming vibe.

If you are in town on a Saturday from late April through the first of November, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.–rain or shine—you can enjoy the Capitol and the Dane County Farmers’ Market on the same day. One of the finest and largest farmers’ markets in the country with 18,000 visitors every week, the market is a true Madison tradition.

But don’t get scared off by the sheer number of people, because what makes this one unique is that not only is it a producer-only farmers’ market, one where the vendors—some 160 to 170 each week—can only sell items they grew or were produced from their crops, but the action is situated in a huge ring around the Capitol loop (which is a state park—another unique aspect), with a one-only flow way, so you really have lots of time to leisurely meander, sample, peruse, buy and enjoy a wide variety of Wisconsin products.

You’ll find everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to homegrown meats, specialty cheeses—lots of it too; it is Wisconsin after all—jellies and jams, breads, honeys and marinades, juices, pastries, flowers, herbs and spices … you name it. On the outer ring on city property is where you will find a bevy of retail booths selling jewelry, clothing, pottery, purses, shoes and a great deal more.

Within a few blocks walk and all over town are numerous restaurants, bars, cultural entities, retail shops and more, each offering its own distinctive Madison flavor and flair. To get your culinary exploration on its way, check out the Food Fight Restaurant Group, a who’s who of about 20 of Madison’s favorite eateries. Two great places I would give honorable mentions to are Cooper’s Tavern, offering an extensive variety of over 200 beers, pilsners, ales, wines, scotches and excellent European-inspired fare; and Graze. Inspired by the New York gastropub scene, Graze features a range of comfort food classics (do not miss the Beet & Walnut Burger or the mac and cheese with smoked kielbasa—oh my god!) that go above and beyond traditional pub food while incorporating meats and products only from grass-fed animals.

Overall, you’d be hard pressed to find anything but an excellent meal at any level anywhere in Madison.

So much to see, so little time

Yikes! I get so excited recounting my travel adventures that I often run out of space and agonize about not leaving anybody or anything out! So here is an abbreviated but no less noteworthy list of places you should be sure to add to your Madison exploration list:

  • A ride on a Madison B-cycle, a 350 Trek bike sharing program with easily accessible bike stations all over town. It is a great opportunity for visitors to take in the sites and sounds of the bike capital of the Midwest, which boasts more bikes than cars!
  • A cocktail, meal or stay at Hotel Red, Madison’s first and No. 1 true stylish boutique hotel and restaurant—it’s awesome!
  • Death’s Door Spirits, producers of high quality gin, vodka and whisky made from Wisconsin-farmed products, the largest craft distillery in Wisconsin, and one of the largest in the region with an annual capacity of 250,000-plus cases. Be sure to take a tour of the facility for up-close and personal insights into their products and passion, plus samples.
  • The Overture Center for the Arts, an impressive 400,000-square-foot, world-class visual and performing arts facility and home to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and the newly renovated Capitol and Playhouse Theaters.
  • The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, a spectacular 51,500-square-foot facility highlighting modern and contemporary art, as well as a 7,100-square-foot rooftop sculpture garden and adjoining restaurant.
  • The Chazen Museum of Art, situated on the University of Wisconsin campus and home to the second-largest collection of art in the state with more than 20,000 works, including paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, photographs and decorative arts. (This is one of the best museums I have been to in the country.)

Madison, Madison, Madison! I love it and I’m sure you will too!

Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.Examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for SoulOfAmerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website. Lysa can be reached at lallmanbaldwin@kc.rr.com.

Reference list

  • Chazen Museum of Art: 608-263-2246, www.chazen.wisc.edu
  • Cooper’s Tavern: 608-256-1600, www.thecooperstavern.com
  • Dane County Farmers’ Market: http://dcfm.org
  • Death’s Door Spirits: 608-831-1083, www.deathsdoorspirits.com
  • Food Fight Restaurant Group: 608-246-2719, http://foodfightinc.com
  • Graze: 608-251-2700, www.grazemadison.com
  • Hotel Red: 608-819-8228, www.hotelred.com
  • Madison B-cycle: 800-473-4743, http://madison.bcycle.com/
  • Madison Museum of Contemporary Art: 608-257-0158, www.mmoca.org
  • Overture Center for the Arts: 608-258-4177, www.overturecenter.com
  • Unitarian Meeting House: 608-233-9774, www.fusmadison.org
  • The Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau: 608-255-2537, www.visitmadison.com
  • Wisconsin State Capitol: 608-266-0382, www.wisconsin.gov/state/core/wisconsin_state_capitol_tour.html