Much more than a college town, Madison, Wisconsin stakes claim to an abundance of museums, festivals, parks, bars, collegiate-sporting events, and trendy restaurants. But given its locale, the city is best enjoyed once the weather gets warm. Here are five ways to spend a perfect spring weekend in Madison.
1. Stay at Graduate Hotel Madison. Open since spring 2015, Graduate Hotel Madison is situated in a prime location a half block off of State Street, a pedestrian-only zone lined with coffee shops and boutiques that’s close to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The 72-room property boasts collegiate-themed decor (think plaid rugs and vintage trophy cases), along with a rooftop lounge and eatery, a ground-floor coffee and breakfast joint, and free WiFi. It’s also pet friendly, and offers complimentary shuttle service around town. Room rates are from $179 in May and June.
2. Visit one of the country’s largest farmers’ markets. Held around the Capitol Square every Saturday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. (from April 16 to July 2 and July 16 to November 2), the Dane County Farmers’ Market is a local favorite. The market sells everything from artisan cheese and smoked trout to organic vegetables and decadent pastries. Pro tip: Check the website before you go to find out which businesses are participating that week.
3. Dine at a Tory Miller restaurant. Chef Tory Miller -- who won the 2012 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest -- has three restaurants within a few blocks of the Dane County Farmers’ Market, and he uses the market to source many ingredients for his menus. For fine dining, L’Etoile -- which Miller took over in 2005 -- has three menus, including a $125 seven-course prix fixe dinner. For a more economical meal, head next door to Graze for its wildly popular weekend brunch dishes, like chilaquiles ($12) and hominy grits ($9). Estrellon, Miller's newest venue, serves Spanish-style small plates alongside Wisconsin staples, like cheese curds with Korean chili ($3); and the eatery Pan-Asian Sujeo serves dishes like chicken ramen ($12) and Thai fried egg salad ($9).
4. Carve out a day for the arts. For such a small city, the art options in Madison are surprisingly vast. Capitol Square’s Art Fair on the Square (held July 9 and 10 this year) is a favorite annual event among locals: nearly 500 fine artists sell their works, from paintings and photographs to jewelry, clothes, and sculptures. Food vendors and live entertainers are on hand, too. For a more traditional art-viewing experience, there’s The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on State Street. Through May 22, it’s hosting the “Frank Stella Prints: A Retrospective,” which features more than 100 abstract prints spanning several rooms. Admission is free.
5. Get outdoors. Madison has plenty to do for the active traveler. At Memorial Union on the UW-Madison campus, you can rent kayaks, canoes, or stand-up paddleboards ($17 per hour) to experience Lake Mendota. If you're more of a land lover, Gaylord Nelson State Park ($8 to $11 admission) is north of downtown Madison along Lake Mendota and has a beach, picnic areas, and eight miles of hiking trails. For those who'd like to stay within city limits, the UW Arboretum has 20 miles of walking trails. Since Madison is continually ranked one of the country’s best bike cities -- Bicycling Magazine ranked it #6 in 2012 -- take advantage of the local bike share program, Madison Bcycle. The cost is $6 for a day pass.