Best Driving Vacations: Madison, the Cultural Capital

Lindsay Christians
The Wisconsin State Capitol, with the Forward statue in the foreground

When artists Bird Ross and Brenda Baker agreed to create artwork for the 100th anniversary of Wisconsin’s Capitol building, they found inspiration in one of the most visible places in Madison—a proud, welcoming statue called Forward.

Standing 7 feet tall in bronze, Forward poses at the intersection of two of the city’s most iconic spots: the Capitol building and State Street, a half-mile-long pedestrian mall to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Sculpted by Wisconsin artist Jean Pond Miner at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, Forward was named for the single-word state motto, funded entirely by a women’s group and installed as Madison’s first official piece of public art. Today, she’s a touchstone. Protesters give her signs to carry. During the Women’s March in 2017, Lady Forward wore a pink hat.

“Forward became a woman we thought was worth educating people about,” Ross says. “The story really piques people’s interest.”

For their Being Forward exhibition, Ross and Baker shot black-and-white photographs of more than 100 women who create or support visual arts in Madison, each draped and posed like the statue herself. The 5-by-7-inch images continue to grow in number, as does a new endowment called the Women Artists Forward Fund. The pair will display their photography this fall at Madison’s Central Library, and if Forward could step off her pedestal, she’d have to walk less than two blocks to see it.  

“We feel honored to work with what Jean Pond Miner has done for us,” Ross says. “It seems natural to move it forward in this way, with more meaning. We want to honor women who have come before us … we feel lucky that she’s a part of Madison history.”

Being Forward reflects a cultural aesthetic that feels particular to Madison—progressive values, deep local ties and looking to the future with a healthy respect for the past. It encourages viewers to look closely, an apt theme for exploring the city’s cultural landscape.

Music-lovers enjoy Concerts on the Square. (Photo by Christopher Klinge)

Circle the Square

Located about 500 miles (7.5 hours by car) northwest of Columbus, Madison was designated as the capital of Wisconsin in 1836, 20 years before it incorporated as a city. Now home to about a quarter-million people, it boasts the state’s flagship university, the aforementioned UW-Madison. Water borders the city on many sides. To the north is Lake Mendota. Lake Monona, where water-skiers practice their pyramids every Sunday all summer long, is to the south. Little Lake Wingra, on the near west side, is best for boat rentals if you want to see a whole lake on a kayak, and it borders the tiny, free Henry Vilas Zoo.

The Capitol building is perched on a hill on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. A cultural tour of Madison would do well to start here, at the city’s functional epicenter, with a walk around the Capitol. Guides lead free, 45-minute tours daily, and in summer the Lantern Observation Deck on the sixth floor offers a stunning bird’s-eye view.

Just one block down State Street, visitors can see a serious amount of art with little walking. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, at 227 State St., is free and open every day but Mondays. Designed by world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli, the museum hosts rotating shows by artists such as Do Ho Suh, Frank Stella and Jeffrey Gibson, whose first major museum exhibition, Like a Hammer, opens in June.

Tucked onto the second floor next to the main galleries, the Imprint Gallery is among the state’s only dedicated spaces for constantly running video installations and multimedia work. Seek it out; there’s almost always something extraordinary running. In the museum’s rooftop sculpture garden, artist Meg Mitchell grows hops that are brewed into museum-branded beers, including an IPA, a cider and a black tea porter. Look for Civic Exchange Society’s beer cans, covered in quotations by Alfred Lord Tennyson and Emma Goldman, in Madison-area liquor stores.

Next door, Overture Center for the Arts has four floors of rotating gallery space among its many performance venues. Start in the James Watrous Gallery run by the Wisconsin Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Watrous wraps around Overture’s third floor and hosts side-by-side solo exhibitions by Wisconsin artists spanning a range of media, from abstract cyanotypes to large sculptures inspired by a rural cemetery.

Downtown is also the prime gathering place for large-scale outdoor performances during the summer. After six weeks of orchestral pops at Concerts on the Square every Wednesday from late June through early August, Jazz at Five takes over the top of State Street.

On Fridays in August, an all-ages crowd moves in unison to the “Cha Cha Slide” and jams to cover bands on the roof of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace. The Dane Dances concert series alternates DJs and live bands throughout the night, and like the rest of these shows, it’s free.

For artsy souvenirs and gifts, head across Capitol Square to Anthology, a Wisconsin-centric gallery packed with locally made treasures. Near a rack of dangly earrings in the shape of the iconic sunburst chairs on the Memorial Union Terrace (more on that later), Anthology stocks cheeky prints and linen towels inscribed with, “My heart is clogged with cheese curds and love.” If you happen in on a Saturday morning, buy a tote to schlep around the Dane County Farmers’ Market, the largest producer-only farmers market in the country.

Madison’s farm-to-table movement was one of the first in the nation, beginning in the 1970s with the opening of L’Etoile. Two of the restaurant’s leaders, founder Odessa Piper and current executive chef Tory Miller, have taken home James Beard Awards for Best Chef in the Midwest. That fresh-from-the-farm sensibility has pervaded the local scene, resulting in an explosion of excellent restaurants. It takes minimal effort for visitors to find fresh eggs in crêpes at coffee shops (Bradbury’s) or bloody marys built with local tomatoes (Marigold Kitchen).

For a quick lunch, grab a sandwich at Casetta Kitchen and Counter, a friendly deli with an Italian-American slant that also has a surprisingly good wine selection. Or sit down at Graze, L’Etoile’s more casual sister, with floor-to-ceiling windows and the same great Wisconsin products.

No trip to Capitol Square should omit Fromagination, a sweet little cheese shop that’s packed edge-to-edge with treats. Grab some Hook’s aged cheddar and sheep’s milk cheese from Landmark Creamery, but don’t sleep on Nutkrack’s sweet-salty caramelized pecans, silky dark chocolate from Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier and a jar of Quince and Apple’s preserves.

Dinner downtown can go in a dozen directions, but you won’t go wrong at the bustling Heritage Tavern, led by a classically trained chef who now raises heritage hogs, or Osteria Papavero, a cozy, romantic spot serving rustic northern Italian dishes from a Bologna-born chef. Graft is sleek and elegant, with half-circle booths and a fantastic cocktail list. Merchant, ground zero of the city’s craft cocktail movement, hosts the happiest hour in town.

For a taste of the Wisconsin supper club tradition, make a reservation at Tornado Club Steak House. Its best kept secret is a late-night menu served all week (even Mondays). On weekends, slip down to a speakeasy on the lower level called The Corral Room, which features plush, scalloped banquettes and historic maps on the walls.

If the weather turns a little chilly, put your name in at Morris Ramen, where the tonkotsu is silky and service is swift. Bide time until your table is ready next door at Restaurant Muramoto with edamame and a glass of sake, or get a beer and goat cheese curds—a fun twist on a local standard—at The Tipsy Cow.

People relax at Memorial Union Terrace along Lake Mendota at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and watch the 1978 movie “Animal House.” (Photo by Jeff Miller)

Bucky’s Backyard

State Street is Madison’s answer to High Street, and it’s similarly populated by boutiques, bars and, increasingly, chains. But there’s plenty of cultural life on campus proper and lots to see even if your college days are well behind you.

Recently renovated and expanded, the Memorial Union Terrace facing Lake Mendota hosts outdoor movie nights all summer long, as well as music from a wide range of performers—jazz trios and open mic nights, dance groups and DJs. Scott Gordon is the editor and publisher of the website Tone Madison, which covers local arts and culture, and he recommends the Isthmus Jazz Festival in June and the World Music Festival in September.

“Sometimes the music that’s booked out there is really surprising,” Gordon says. Visitors are as likely to hear a big band playing American songbook standards as they are a folk group or a calypso steel-drum band, so check the listings.

Head away from the lake for one block and you’ll be at the door to the Chazen Museum of Art, two buildings connected by an overhead pedestrian walkway. If you only have a few minutes, check out the main gallery on the first floor, which hosts traveling exhibitions like Samurai: The Way of the Warrior, or, through May 2019, Gillian Laub’s new photography series, Southern Rites.

Easily the most controversial piece of public art in recent Madison history can be found on campus at the Camp Randall football stadium, home of the Wisconsin Badgers and their mascot, Bucky. Donald Lipski’s “Nails’ Tales,” a lumpy, hotly debated tower of limestone footballs, was erected outside the stadium in 2006. Allegedly, former athletic director Barry Alvarez wanted something “virile” that projected “power and strength.” Draw your own conclusions about what it looks like.

Campus-area dining is dominated by pubs and fast food, but in the midst of the lowbrow fare, the Library Mall food carts are a warm-weather oasis. These carts—not trucks, which would surpass city size limits—span the globe and play with flavors, from Korean-style tacos to Indonesian nasi goreng. Try green-flecked falafel from Banzo, co-owned by a young Israeli woman, or arepas filled with reina pepiada (Venezuelan chicken salad) from Caracas ArepasFresh Cool Drinks sells massive spring rolls the size of a burrito. Mix and match beef, pork and tofu buns at SoHo Gourmet Cuisines, or enjoy some shrimp at Cali Fresh.

If you’re close to campus at dinnertime and not already booked for a burger at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry, Italian is the way to go. Lombardino’s is a local classic, a former red sauce joint that evolved into something more elevated without losing the kitschy Venice mural or family-friendly vibe. Don’t let the Chef Boyardee-esque artwork on the outside of the building fool you; the Chianti is actually good here. Greenbush Bar beneath the Italian Workmen’s Club is dark, low-ceilinged and strung with multicolored Christmas lights, and the pizza is some of the city’s best.

The “Better Together” mural by Flavia Zimbardi, Caetano Calomino and Henrique Nardi in Madison Mural Alley (Photo: The Bubbler at Madison Public Library)

East Side Flavor

Madison has a crunchy, hippie history as well as a rich industrial past. Both of those traits have influenced the creative life of the city, visually and musically, and nowhere more so than on the east side.

Public art is highly concentrated as you drive east, first visible in metal sculptor Erica Koivunen’s 32-foot Gateway tree that welcomes traffic from the Capitol onto Williamson Street. The mural wall on the western side of Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse at Willy and Paterson streets changes a dozen times a year. Permanent murals include the bold piece by Panmela Castro on the side of the Willy Street Co-op, Michael Owen’s sign language “LOVE” mural at Plan B and Stefan Matioc’s cartoonish, graffiti-inspired faces on Banzo Shuk and Next Door Brewing Co.

To find the most exciting new cluster of public art, you’ll have to hunt for it. Madison Mural Alley, dedicated in summer 2018, isn’t on the map yet. Search for Hermina Street behind the East Side Shopping Center to see a series of five murals, each designed by a professional muralist and created in collaboration with local teens. The murals honor musicians, factory workers and the first African-American graduate from UW-Madison, among other subjects. It’s a burst of color behind a drab shopping center, and you’ll only find it if you know where to look. 

The east side’s innovative art spaces are tucked away, too. Communication, an arts nonprofit and event space open since 2018, hosts exhibitions and shows in a tiny former blinds shop across from a bourbon bar. Arts + Literature Laboratory resides in an unassuming red brick building that hosts creative installations and writer’s workshops.

Madison’s jazz scene has reached a critical mass of musicians who are doing innovative and interesting work. On Tuesday nights, the New Breed Jazz Jam at the North Street Cabaret is anchored by a trio of solid local jazz musicians. It’s worth seeking out, Gordon says. “They suavely start off with a set that has a theme, a jazz composer or something more whimsical,” he explains, “and they have people who signed up to come play with them.”

Hanah Jon Taylor’s intimate jazz venue, Café Coda, holds its Night of the Improviser on Thursdays, when the music can be slightly further out. “It’s the free jazz school of things … they don’t play off compositions or chord progressions,” Gordon says. If that sounds like a riff too far, Coda also hosts more traditional jazz quartets and Latin dance nights.

East side dining bustles in the morning, particularly on weekends. Madison Sourdough, a popular bakery with a fine café run by Molly Maciejewski, runs two separate lines on Saturday mornings, one for coffee, bread and pastry and the other for sit-down service. The queue may look long at Lazy Jane’s Café but it moves fast, and Jane Capito’s scones are a local treasure. Start with the lemon cream.

The funky charm of the Weary Traveler Freehouse, along with its eclectic menu, has made it an east side standard. Go in the side door and order the West of the Andes Sandwich or, if you’re looking to ward off vampires, Bob’s Bad Breath Burger, a garlic-lover’s dream.

For dinner, Mint Mark is a charming new neighborhood spot with a vibe akin to a tiki bar. It operates as a coffee shop during the day (the nitro is great, and the cortado is perfect) and has been known to host martini lunches on Fridays. At night, chef Sean Pharr rotates a dozen-plus dishes featuring whatever’s in season. If the cauliflower with bagna cauda and golden raisins is still on the menu, do not hesitate. On a busy weekend evening, put in your name early at Forequarter, Underground Food Collective’s highly creative, dimly lit spot, where chef Jonny Hunter has been long-listed for a James Beard Award several years running. Or see what happens when a New Jersey chef falls in love with Wisconsin cuisine at Salvatore’s Tomato Pies, where the fig and bacon pizza has been known to change lives.

Any trip to Madison should wind down with a drink. Mint Mark co-owner Chad Vogel also runs The Robin Room, a cocktail bar on East Johnson Street, which is an ideal place to stop for a Manhattan. State Line Distillery has a pretty, new tasting room on the east side and makes everything in-house for creative punches and gin and tonics. The Old Fashioned is named for the state cocktail, and bartenders there make a great one. But any bar in town will serve a Wisconsin Old-Fashioned: muddled orange and cherry with bitters, Sprite and booze—an order of “brandy Old-Fashioned sweet” gets you the local favorite.

The statewide love affair with brandy began in the same place Forward did, at that world’s fair in 1893, when Korbel brandy rolled into town. Every bar worth its bitters has a version of an Old-Fashioned, as if it’s written into state law. Wisconsinites and visitors alike may find it comforting, a sweet symbol of the past muddled in their modern tumblers.

Lindsay Christians is an arts and food writer for The Capital Times in Madison and a native of Toledo, Ohio.


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Founded in 1979, American Players Theatre is a top-notch classical theater company in Spring Green, Wisconsin, about an hour’s drive west of Madison. With the addition of the 200-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre to its flagship outdoor Hill Theatre, APT’s full season runs June through October.

Opening in June, John Langs directs “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare’s comedy of twins, shipwrecks, cross-dressing and misguided love. In the bawdy comedy “She Stoops to Conquer,” a daughter of society pretends to be a barmaid to find out if the man she’s supposed to marry is a good guy.

In recent years, APT has looked beyond its Shakespearean roots to more contemporary classics. This season offers the company’s first August Wilson play, “Fences,” and Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will,” a 2017 play that imagines how the king’s men saved Shakespeare’s work from theft and obscurity.

Visitors should allow extra time to picnic on the grounds before the show and make the quarter-mile trek up the hill to the theater. APT has a shuttle and accessible seating at all price levels. Tickets cost $50-$95, with discounts available during preseason sales. Find out more at or by calling 608-588-2361.

Play in the Woods