Sunday, July 05, 2009

36 Hours In Madison

I see that the NYT (boy do I hate linking them, but it is an interesting article) spent 36 hours in Madison. I haven't done a good fisking in a long time, so here goes. My thoughts will be in italics after each activity. First off, I am happy they came when the weather was nice. Any time from November to May is usually too crappy to have much fun.

3 p.m.

University of Wisconsin football inspires obsession in Madison, and even in much of the off-season, you can share a little of the excitement with a tour of Camp Randall Stadium (1440 Monroe Street; 608-263-5645; Walk on the field, glance inside the locker rooms, check out a luxury box and pose with a statue of the former coach Barry Alvarez. The free tours are normally for groups of 10 to 75 people, but individuals can latch on with a scheduled group; check for availability at least two weeks in advance. There are no tours from mid-November through late Apirl, and dates are limited during the football season.

This is interesting if you have never seen the inside of a stadium before. If you are not interested in sports, there are a ton of better things you could spend your time on. By the way, the statue of King Barry is outside of the stadium, so if you really need your photo with it, that can be done without going on the tour.

5 p.m.

Drink in views of Lake Mendota, one of the lakes that give Madison its miles of waterfront, along with your pint at the Memorial Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin (800 Langdon Street; 608-265-3000;, an outdoor four-tiered space with candy-colored chairs, a lakefront path and live music in the warm months. Or for quieter outdoor relaxation, try the Allen Centennial Gardens (620 Babcock Drive;, 2.5 acres surrounding a Victorian building. Stroll Allen’s 29 gardens from a path lined with day lilies by the dozens to a French garden where the shrubs are trimmed in the shape of fleurs-de-lis.

Well, I have never been to that Allen Centennial Gardens, but it sounds neat. I have spent a lot of time on the terrace drinking beer, and I will tell you that it is one of the best places to have a beer in the universe. Skip the garden, and relax on the terrace.

7 p.m.

Madison’s growing culinary scene pulls diners in two very different directions: far from the prairie with dozens of ethnic restaurants and right back to it with an emphasis on the bounty of Wisconsin’s farms. Harvest (21 North Pinckney Street; 608-255-6075; offers sophisticated seasonal dishes and an extensive wine list in a soothing setting of soft lighting and buttery yellow walls. Try the porcini-salt-rub angus tenderloin with celeriac purée ($36) or the house-made tagliatelle ($18).

Harvest was a very good choice, I can't say a bad thing about it.

9:30 p.m.

Restaurant Magnus (120 East Wilson Street, 608-258-8787; has a cocktail menu that spans the world, from the Viking, a tincture of port, vodka and Giffard Blackberry Liquor ($7.95) that pays homage to the Caipirinha ($6.50), the national cocktail of Brazil. The cuisine is Scandinavian, and live music, mostly jazz, plays weeknights at 7 or 8, weekends at 9:30.

The last time I ate at Magnus was probably five years ago. It was incredibly loud in there and this is NOT a cheap date. The food was marginal but the noise was insane. I don't know if it is because of the way the place is laid out or what. I haven't been back since. Maybe I should give it another try. The jazz bands they have are pretty cool, if that is your thing.

9 a.m.

Centered on an isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona and surrounded by conservation land, Madison is a haven for outdoors types and one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the country. For some easy exploring, join the Madison biking crowd by picking up a rental at Machinery Row Bicycles (601 Williamson Street; 608-442-5974;; $20 a day), which sits on the bike path around Monona. Ride around the lake or head over to the 1,260-acre University of Wisconsin Arboretum (1207 Seminole Highway; 608-263-7888;

A great activity. I have written extensively about how Madison and Wisconsin are biking meccas. But I have one issue with the above "bike path around Monona". They are talking about LAKE Monona, and the bike path does NOT go all the way around it. There is only path around about a quarter of the lake, from the southwest to the north. The rest you would need a pretty good internal compass since it is all side streets. But there are plenty of paths that hook up to the lake paths that are there. It is a popular thing to run or bike around Lake Monona and I have done it many times.

1 p.m.
These days Wisconsin wants you to know it was the first and favorite home of Frank Lloyd Wright, though in his lifetime the state wasn’t so sure. Wright’s vision for a sprawling civic center was rejected in 1938 by one planning-commission vote and though it later won approval, remained unbuilt. In the 1990s, Wright’s design was resurrected, and Madison built Monona Terrace (1 John Nolen Drive; 608-261-4000;, a community and convention center, with a terrace that curves along the lake. Its open design and tinted windows reflect the water below, and its roof garden and cafe offer the city’s best water view. One-hour tours begin daily at 1 p.m. and are $3; $2 for students. One group in Madison that did appreciate Wright in his lifetime was the congregation that hired him to design the Unitarian Meeting House (900 University Bay Drive; 608-233-9774;, completed in 1951. It was built with native limestone, copper and glass. Tours, with a suggested donation of $5 to $10, are on weekdays and Sundays, but gawking from the outside is free anytime. It’s unmistakable, with a dramatic triangle roof. The building itself is a triangle, symbolizing hands clasped in prayer.

Can't argue with this. You can find many examples of Wright's work in and around Madison. I might suggest a nice drive to Spring Green and Taliesin as well. As far as the Unitarian meeting house in concerned, I waltzed in there one day and asked permission to take some photos and the people there were happy to let me. I posted many of these in February 2005.

3 p.m.

The Old Fashioned (23 North Pinckney Street; 608-310-4545;, serves the food that “makes Wisconsin so Wisconsin,” so it’s no surprise that an entire section of the menu is devoted to cheese. The bar and restaurant is reminiscent of a late-19th-century saloon filled with Grandma’s antiques, but with a hipster flare. The cheese curds ($6.95) are a must for sampling, as is the spicy bloody mary ($7), which is served with at least three seasonal garnishes — one drink was festooned with a brussels sprout, a radish and an onion.

Can't comment on this one, never been there.

8 p.m.

The Inka Heritage (602 South Park Street; 608-310-4282; is one of the brighter spots on the city’s culinary scene, and it’s not just because of its fluorescent walls and lively art. Diners are transported to Peru via dishes like fire-roasted beef heart ($8) and fried yuca ($6). The sweet milk jam ($6), made with cinnamon and port wine, is a sinfully sweet way to end the meal.

Funny they mention this, my wife and I ate here just a few weeks ago and it was outstanding. We did have the beef heart for the appetizer and it was fabulous. The place is a bit spartan, but if you don't mind that, go for it. Cheesy music on in the background too.

10:30 p.m.

Madison is a late-night kind of town, especially for fans of live music. Check out a show at the High Noon Saloon (701A East Washington Avenue; 608-268-1122;, a large Western-tinged club with a balcony for catbird views of bands. The club opened in 2004 and is operated by the former owner of Madison’s well-known O’Cayz Corral, which was destroyed by fire in 2001.

Great place to see a band, as Carl will attest. This is where we saw the most important band in the world, The Electric Six, last fall.

10 a.m.

Any restaurant that spells out its name in large Scrabble tiles near the front door is bound to have a funky-nerdy-vibe. Lazy Jane’s Cafe and Bakery (1358 Williamson Street; 608-257-5263) becomes crowded and loud but exudes the coziness that comes with a lazy Sunday poring over the newspaper or catching up with an old friend. The food is similarly comfortable, with scones, grilled cheese sandwiches and a seitan scramble, filled with peppers ($6.50), onions and mushrooms and good enough to impress an avowed meat eater.

Never been there. But it would be good to get a little flavor of Willie Street before you leave. It is a pretty "eclectic" place, where many washed out hippies live, and you will see other strange sights as well.

11:30 a.m.

Lakes Monona and Mendota are usually the first choices for fun on the water in Madison, but Lake Wingra, tucked south of the university arboretum and the Henry Vilas Zoo, is also an option. Rent a canoe, kayak, rowboat or paddle boat at Wingra Boats (824 Knickerbocker Street; 608-233-5332;; starting at $12 an hour). Or for something landbound and livelier, stay downtown and stroll State Street, which links the Capitol with the university. It’s a pedestrian thoroughfare brimming with boutiques, restaurants, museums and bars. Many shops are open by noon on Sundays. Check out Anthology (No. 218; 608-204-2644;, a whimsical boutique filled with colorful crafts; the Soap Opera (No. 319; 800-251-7627;, a fragrant repository of soaps, lotions and potions; and B-Side Records (No. 436; 608-255-1977;, a trove of vintage vinyl and CDs, and a showcase for many of the city’s bands.

If I had my choice I would pick the canoeing. Lake Wingra is pretty beautiful and very small. Our family has enjoyed canoeing there many times. State Street has a bunch of shops with stuff you really can find in a lot of other places.

In general, I think the NYT did a pretty good job. Of course, living here for 15 years now there are some things I would substitute, but you could certainly do worse in 36 hours here. Whatever you do, DO NOT come here in the dead of winter, unless you have some strange fascination with feeling what a -50 wind chill feels like.


Mark said...

The Old Fashioned: The food is certainly good (with an "On-the-Square" price of course), but if you're downtown, why not visit a real Wisconsin supper club? It appears The Avenue Bar ( has been serving since 1971. We used to go there from time-to-time during lunch for an Avenue Burger. I wish I had a chance to go for Dinner, but the parking lot was always overflowing.

Dan from Madison said...

The Avenue is still a great place.