Exquisitely situated on an isthmus between two glittering lakes, Wisconsin’s capital is a haven for its outdoor-loving residents. The behemoth University of Wisconsin anchors the center of town, which may be why so much of the action clusters near the hilly campus and flows east toward Capitol Square. On Wednesdays in June and July, locals gather at the square for open-air concerts under the stars. On Saturdays, the Dane County Farmers’ Market—with its seemingly endless rows of vibrant produce and other locavore goodies—takes over. The market, perhaps the best in the country, is only one of many reasons to go.
The Dane County Farmers' Market rings the Capitol Square April through November
On the western edge of campus, the leafy residential neighborhood of University Heights is worth driving through. When the University of Wisconsin’s first professors built their homes there in the 19th and early-20th centuries, they created a surprisingly seamless mix of Victorian, neo-Gothic, and Mission structures, among them houses by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. While you’re there, have dinner at Lombardino’s (2500 University Ave., 608-238-1922; entrées from $16). While the dining room hasn’t changed much since the 1950s—the kitsch replica of the Trevi Fountain remains—the pastas have been reborn under Patrick O’Halloran. Now al dente spaghetti comes wreathed in a Bolognese made from Cates Family Farm beef, Jordandal Farm ground pork, pancetta, tomatoes, and white wine.
On campus, start at the Chazen Museum of Art (750 University Ave.; 608-263-2246), which opened its airy new wing in 2011, making more room for its smartly curated overview of global art, from ancient Greek to contemporary American. Stroll across the library mall and stop at the Memorial Union (800 Langdon St.; 608-265-3000), where at Babcock Hall Dairy (1605 Linden Dr.; 608-262-3045) you can buy a scoop of ice cream produced by the university’s Department of Food Science. (Sample the Badger Blast, a triple threat of chocolate ice cream with chocolate flakes and swirls of fudge.) Grab one of the signature starburst chairs on the lakeside Memorial Union Terrace, where the entire student body seems to congregate for grilled brats and alfresco music jams.
State Street, which cuts through campus and ends at the Capitol Square, offers more coffee shops per square block than an entire season’s worth of Portlandia. Espresso Royale (224 State St.; 608-259-0800) serves a couple of caffeinated showstoppers: a raspberry-mint mocha and its signature caramel-vanilla latte. A few streets down, shoppers should detour to Bop (222 W. Gorham St.; 608-255-2570), a women’s clothing boutique known for its popular online store (shopbop.com) and exhaustive selection of designer jeans. Eventually you’ll arrive at Overture Center for the Arts (201 State St.; 608-258-4177), a cavernous multipurpose art center; catch the Delta blues rockers Tedeschi Trucks Band on June 27. Families will get a kick out of the authentic re-creation of a pioneer log cabin and the rooftop chicken coop at the Madison Children’s Museum (100 N. Hamilton St.; 608-256-6445).
The Capitol Square and the blocks surrounding it have become the epicenter of Madison’s locavore restaurants. The revolution began in the 1970s when Odessa Piper, who ran a tiny restaurant called L’Etoile, helped the fledgling farmers’ market grow. Now located a block down from its original digs, L’Etoile (1 S. Pinckney St., 608-251-0500; entrées from $32) still produces an impeccably sourced menu. Here the signature salad—a heaped plate of frisée and arugula tossed with warmed Crave Brother Petit Frère cheese, cherries from Jim Barnard, and Moonglow pears from Future Fruit Farm—is a map of Wisconsin’s heartland. Adjoining L’Etoile is the buzzier Graze (608-251-2700; entrées from $10), offering more-affordable plates that globetrot from bibim bap and sautéed gnocchi to crawfish beignets and mac and cheese made with Hook’s ten-year-aged cheddar.
Also on the Capitol Square, Nostrano (111 S. Hamilton St., 608-395-3295; entrées from $20) is the new home of Tim Dahl, a Chicago transplant and veteran of NoMI, Blackbird, and Avec. Dahl’s chic version of farm food is exemplified by a rabbit boudin blanc served with spinach and hedgehog mushrooms. Just as good, in an old-school way, is the neighboring Tornado (116 S. Hamilton St., 608-256-3570; entrées from $19), where you can get a perfectly charred strip steak, topped by a fat onion ring, in a knotty pine dining room that channels a Northwoods cabin. Another locavore haven, Harvest (21 N. Pinckney St, 608-255-6075; entrées from $19) is known for its beautifully composed Midwestern still lifes. Chefs Nate Hamilton and Ian Stowell pair small-farm pork loin with chokeberry compote and Door County cherry gastrique.
Later in the evening, head to Great Dane (123 E. Doty St.; 608-284-0000), famous for its impressive list of house-brewed beers. For a lively brush with freethinking Madisonians, finish at The Cardinal Bar (418 E. Wilson St.; 608-257-2473), a venerable local institution whose long mahogany bar is always lined with tireless activists drinking what owner Ricardo Gonzalez calls the best sangría this side of the Atlantic. Or at least Lake Mendota.
Photography: Bill Lubing