Weekending in Madison, Wisconsin

Behold: There’s more than just cheese curds in this capital city.

madison wisconsin

The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison / Photograph by Sean Pavone/Alamy Stock Photo

You know what charming Midwestern city has a lot in common with Philly? Madison, Wisconsin. Okay, it’s tinier, and surrounded by dairy farmland. But like Philly, it’s sandwiched between two bodies of water (instead of a pair of rivers, on an isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona). Its food scene punches well above its weight. And it exudes the breezy confidence of a place that knows it’s cool. Still dubious? They’ve got their own Liberty Bell (a replica gifted by France). See for yourself — American Airlines runs two-and-a-half-hour flights direct to Madison.

Where to stay

Cheese-heads can’t miss the opportunity to sleep in a restored dairy factory. Seven Acre Dairy Company (rooms from $319) is located in Paoli, a quick drive from downtown Madison. Book the Bur Oak suite, once the receiving room for the factory’s milk, overlooking the Sugar River. On-site, the Dairy Cafe slings soft-serve made with local milk, and Landmark Creamery’s micro-dairy churns out small-batch butter.

Where to eat

madison wisconsin

The Harvey House / Photograph by Martinique Lewis

The Harvey House, in a former train depot, is a modern ode to Wisconsin’s iconic supper clubs. At James Beard Award-winning chef Tory Miller’s Graze, score a table by the floor-to-ceiling windows, so your lunch of bibimbap and fried cheese curds comes with a view of Capitol Square. Later, sample sips from family growers at Square Wine Co. Standout frozen custard abounds in Madison, but nothing beats the soft-serve at the Southeast Asian-inspired Ahan. A must-try: the pandan and pineapple swirl doused in a house-made chili oil.

What to do

The Wisconsin State Capitol is the grandiose heart of Madison. Take a free guided tour of the building, or just walk through to see the home of the state Supreme Court. Find the Liberty Bell in the south wing, then climb to the sixth-floor observation deck for 360-degree views. Producers selling fruit, honey and farmstead cheese fill Capitol Square on Saturday mornings for the Dane County Farmers’ Market — arrive early to beat the local chefs.

The Can’t Miss List

madison wisconsin

Fromagination / Photograph by Nick Berard

1. Experience a fish fry at The Kitchen restaurant at Seven Acre Dairy Company. Here, the Friday feast of beer-battered fish is on the menu nightly.

2. The Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, designed by famed architect and Wisconsinite Frank Lloyd Wright, is open to the public and hosts year-round events.

3. Drink an old-fashioned at Tornado Steak House. The local version is made with brandy and lemon-lime soda.

4. Sample cheeses from America’s Dairyland and beyond at Fromagination.

5. The Madison by Bike Capital City Trail has lakefront views and includes a stop at Starkweather Brewing.

Published as “Jaunt: Weekending in … Madison, Wisconsin” in the June 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.