We Americans are notorious for leaving vacation days on the table. What are we thinking?! Burn a few days in our vacation training ground by tacking on some easy day trips to five locations all within an hour drive or less.
There’s Lake Mendota on one side and Lake Monona on the other and an isthmus in the middle that is such a happening spot thanks to the convergence of college students, professors, politicians, foodies, hippies, fitness fanatics, artists, entrepreneurs…well, you get the picture. Here are our picks for must-do’s in Mad Town.
- Tour the Wisconsin State Capitol, where the dome reaches over 200 feet tall. The restoration is absolutely spectacular.
- Rent a stand-up paddleboard, canoe or kayak at Paddleboard Specialists and get out on the water.
- Take your yoga practice outside with a free group yoga organized by Madison Outdoor Yoga.
- Bike already. Madison was named one of the best cycling towns by USA Today and you can rent from B-cycle,
Machinery Row Bicycles and Budget Bicycle Center. The urban trails are terrific.
- Soak in the glory that is the Olbric Botanical Garden. Same goes for the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. To rightly call yourself a foodie you must go to the Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Capitol Square. It’s where all the locals go on Saturday morning. Why? Because it’s the nation’s largest producers-only market. By the way, the sellers love to share the stories behind the food.
- Grab a casual bite to eat and listen to live music five nights a week during the summer months at the Memorial Union Terrace. The iconic terrace chairs in crayola colors are very cool.
- Get your fill of farm-to-table at restaurants like Fresco and Sardine. Here’s a culinary tradition: Order a brandy old fashioned from The Old Fashioned Tavern and Restaurant Tavern and Restaurant (they have more than 50 beers on tap). Speaking of brews, check out microbreweries like Ale Asylum and nanobreweries like One Barrel Brewing Company, plus there’s Old Sugar Distillery and Yahara Bay Distillers. Cheese please, at Fromagination, featuring a mouthwatering display of Wisconsin artisan cheeses .
- For artsy types, try the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chazen Museum of Art. The annual Art Fair on the Square is incredible .
- Concerts on the Square happen six Wednesday evenings during the summer and they’re free, courtesy of the Madison Chamber Orchestra. Get there early (concerts start at 7 p.m.) and patronize a restaurant on the square that offers preorder picnic meals. Then spread out on a blanket on the Capitol lawn and enjoy.
- Score some tickets to any UW athletic event – football, basketball, hockey, they’re all crowd-pleasers with tons of traditions at every game. The UW Marching Band puts on some epic performances.
- Insider tip: Take a run out to Picnic Point and back.
Yes, this is The Waterpark Capital of the World. But did you know that visitors first started flocking here more than 150 years ago because of the natural beauty? Some even call it The Yellowstone of the Midwest.
- Do some kayaking on the calmer waterways of the Perupper Dells of the Wisconsin River. Vertical Illusions has guided tours that take you right next to the bluffs where you can see Native American glyphs. This is an amazing paddle.
- Mirror Lake is a restricted “no wake speed” lake, making it awesome for stand-up paddleboarding. Sandstone bluffs smothered in pines serve as the scenic backdrop. Mirror Lake Rentals is right there. After your workout on the water, dine at Ishnala perched over the water and with a old-school supper club vibe (note – it’s only open seasonally).
- Golf 18 at Wild Rock Golf Club, one of the few quarry courses in the Midwest.
- Get a post-golf massage at much-awarded Sundara Inn & Spa.
- Shop the Outlets at the Dells. Our favorites are the Nike Factory Store, Adidas Outlet Store, Eddie Bauer Outlet, Under Armour, and the New Balance Factory Store. The Sunglass Hut is another nice shopping find if you’re in the market for sport sunglasses.
- It’s kitschy, yes, but a land-to-water tour aboard an amphibious WWII-era Duck boat is practically de rigueur.
- Here’s where the locals like to go to eat: High Rock Café (ask to sit upstairs to watch the comings and goings on the main drag) , Cheeze Factory Restaurant (in a former cheese factory with a 100% vegan menu) , Monk’s Bar & Grill downtown (best burgers ever) , Del-Bar supper club for a memorial evening meal (allot plenty of time for cocktails, relish tray, main course and dessert).
- Wisconsin Dells pioneered the waterpark craze and, if this is your thing, then spend a day at Noah’s Ark, the largest outdoor waterpark in the country. Chula Vista Resort on the Wisconsin River offers day passes to both their indoor and outdoor waterparks.
- Insider tip: Stroll the RiverWalk downtown for views of the river and bluffs previously not accessible for 75 years. Goes without saying, bring your camera.
For such a small town, you’ll be in awe of the choices here. The connection to the earth is palpable.
- Challenge yourself with a hike up the quartzite cliffs at Devil’s Lake State Park. The views at the top will make it all worth it. There’s also Parfrey’s Glen, Wisconsin’s first State Natural Area. And Pewit’s Nest Gorge where your hike will take you to a waterfall.
- Tour the International Crane Foundation, the only place in the world where you can see all 15 species of these majestic birds, including the most endangered, the Whooping Crane. You might even get to see crane chicks if you’re lucky. The restored prairies are a sight to behold too. Their mission is the worldwide conservation of cranes and their habitats.
- Visit the nearby Aldo Leopold Center which stands as legacy to the man many consider the father of wildlife management. The grounds include the greenest building in the United States. It’s the place that inspired Leopold’s much beloved book, “A Sand County Almanac.”
- Run away to the circus, more specifically Circus World, a national landmark site and original winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. Circus, located on the Baraboo River. View the expansive collection of magnificently restored antique circus wagons, costumes and posters. Take in a live performance in the Hippodrome.
- Lots of great shops on the Courthouse Square, like Cornerstone Gallery, located in a building on the National Register of Historic Places and specializing in contemporary American fine art. Bekah Kate’s is another great find, with a sophisticated selection of gourmet cookware.
- For dining, try the distillery cuisine at Driftless Glen Distillery (it’s the next-door neighbor to Circus World). Little Village Café is where the locals go for made-from-scratch lunch entrées and to-die-for desserts.
- Insider tip: Take the Merrimac Ferry across the Wisconsin River. Trip time is about seven minutes. Carries up to 15 cars. Bikers and hikers welcome too. And it’s free.
Prairie du Sac and Sauk City nearly sit on top of each other, so no need to call them out separately. This is a day trip itinerary for Sauk Prairie.
- Wine aficionados take note, Wollersheim Winery is showing up the Napa Valley snobs by taking home “Small Winery of the Year” honors at the 2015 Riverside International Wine Competition. In 2012, it was named Winery of the Year at the San Diego International Wine Competition. The winemaker here hails from France and comes from a long line of vintners . In late summer 2015, the brandy will be flowing as Wollersheim opens its new distillery. This is a National Historic Site overlooking the Wisconsin River Valley and you’ll swear you’ve been transported to Europe the moment you catch sight of the hillside vineyards.
- Birders take note, this area is favorite winter destination for your likes, as a power plant just north of town keeps a large pool of the river open in the winter, attracting dozens of eagles who swoop in to fish.
- Curiosity seekers take note, Dr. Evermor’s Sculpture Park is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s filled with giant, whimsical, welded creations made by outsider artist Dr. Evermor. You’ll be wowed by the Forevertron, a celestial something (it defies words, really) that is also the world’s largest scrap metal sculpture. You’ll see elements of Prairie Style in his work, evocative of Frank Lloyd Wright. For a more conventional display of art that is no less visually arresting, visit River Arts on Water Gallery in Prairie du Sac.
- Stretch your legs with a hike at Ferry Bluff State Natural Area near Sauk City with bluffs that rise 300 feet above the Wisconsin River.
- Dine at Blue Spoon Café in downtown Prairie du Sac. It’s a casual, Euro-style eatery offering what they call “food with personality. “ Check out the three-tiered patio which overlooks the Wisconsin River. Serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Grilled Tuna Tapenade sounds tasty. For a pub with a deck view of the river and a nice microbrew selection, wheel in to Que’s.
- Insider tip: If quirky is what you want, then quirky is what you’ll get at the State Cow Chip Throw event. Takes place in early September in Prairie du Sac and it’s exactly what the name implies – people vying for distance records in throwing cow chips. There’s a 5K and 10K run too. This thing is popular to the tune of 40,000 spectators.
Does the name Taliesen ring a bell? How about Frank Lloyd Wright then? The legacy of the city’s most famous native son may have helped attract such a large arts contingent to the area.
- Tour Taliesen, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home that today houses a still-functioning school for architects. Important note on this one – purchase tickets online in advance, as these tours almost always sell out.
- Take in a performance of Shakespeare under the stars at the nationally recognized classical theater company, the American Players Theater. Start with a gourmet picnic dinner before taking your seat in the outdoor amphitheater.
- Staying with the arts theme, visit No Rules Gallery, featuring the work of more than 70 local and regional artists. There’s also Art on 23 Gallery.
- South of town is a place called House on the Rock, built atop a 60-foot chimney of rock and chock-a-block full of mind-boggling collections, including the world’s largest carousel.
- Test your hiking prowess on the bluff trails of Tower Hill State Park.
- Head underground for a tour of Cave of the Mounds, a National Natural Landmark in nearby Blue Mounds. The cave is marked by a stunning array of colorful crystal formations.
- Bikers will want to pedal the Military Ridge State Trail, a 40-mile rails-to-trails corridor that also takes you to Governor Dodge State Park.
- For handcrafted organic and artisan cheese made using environmentally sound production techniques, it’s Cedar Grove Cheese, just a short drive away in Plain.
- For comfort food, try the family-owned Spring Green General Store. It’s a farm-to-table café, coffee shop and gift boutique all rolled into one.
- Insider tip: Arcadia Books & The Kitchen at Arcadia Books is a combo independent bookstore and eatery where the food is made fresh on-site using local ingredients. Plus they have great fixings for a picnic lunch.