A Madison, Wisconsin Getaway

Just an easy two-and-a-half hour drive from the western suburbs of Illinois brings you to an interesting and lively location with what must seem – at first – a strange trademark: “Lake. City. Lake”.

Madison State Capitol - photo courtesy Gary Knowles

But it makes perfect sense. Named for the 4th president of the United States, Madison, Wisconsin is the only northern American city – at the same time State Capitol – located on an isthmus. And although there are actually a group of four lakes there – Mendota, Monona, Wingra, and Waubesa (The lakes are connected via the Yahara River which eventually flows south to Lake Kegonsa, then to the Rock River and eventually to the mighty Mississippi) – Madison is located right smack in-between glacial Lakes Mendota and Monona on a fairly narrow strip of land.

I am amazed and a bit embarrassed to admit that I have passed Madison on about two hundred occasions… but have never even gone through it; and not once have I stopped there. Don’t ask me why. But recently I had an opportunity to go there, and I was notably impressed with what I saw and experienced in a very short period of time. In fact, my plan is to return and sample additional bits of an incredibly refreshing and fun city. With a population of only about 218,000 people, Madison has an amazingly big-city feel to it.

Madison Accommodations

On this trip, I discovered exactly why the phrase “We’ve got to start meeting like this” is used in conjunction with a certain hotel. I booked a room at the Madison Concourse Hotel, and to borrow a phrase: “This is really livin’!” My room was on the 14th and top-most floor in what is called the Governor’s Club Executive Level: 100 luxurious rooms occupying the top three floors of the hotel.

The rooms entitle the occupants to enjoy complimentary top-shelf cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, desserts and continental breakfast in the private Governor’s Club Lounge, in a setting on the twelfth floor where a marvelous view of the Capitol and downtown skyline is supplied just outside the windows.

Although on this particular excursion, I had little opportunity to take advantage of either the Governor’s Club or the other incredible amenities that the Concourse Hotel had to offer – as the city’s largest convention hotel, they offer the unique ability to cater to a variety of associations, conventions, corporate meetings, and social events, the excellent fine dining venue Ovations and the marvelous pool and state-of-the-art fitness center – my plan is to return soon and spoil both myself and my wife!

Fireside Dinner Theatre in Fort Atkinson, WI

Dinner and a Show

My main goal while in the area was to attend the Fireside Dinner/Theatre in Ft. Atkinson on Saturday evening. And since my arrival was late on Friday afternoon, I decided to simply check out the downtown area of Madison and make some notes as to which things I would return for when the weather warmed.

This is not to say that there aren’t a ton of things to do doing the winter months… I observed numerous hardy folks out on the ice, skating, ice-fishing and ice-boating. I was also about a week early for the Capitol Square Sprints (cross-country skiing), where

“the best athletes from North America will circle the Wisconsin State Capitol in the heart of downtown Madison. The race will be part of the SuperTour and is the first qualifier for the 2006 U.S. Olympic Ski Team.”

Fish Fry at the Orpheum

I did however have the opportunity to visit – accompanied by two of Madison’s finest reps from the Greater Madison Convention and Visitor’s Bureau – a really neat venue on State Street, about two blocks from my hotel, called the Lobby Restaurant. It is actually an old theater (the Orpheum - originally opened in 1927, it has been totally redone and now offers dining as well as film festivals and brings live entertainment back to its stage.)

The menu has a full line of great sandwiches, salads, soups, appetizers and entrees at very reasonable prices. There are also ample selections for those who are vegetarian in their choices for dinner. I selected the Friday Night Fish Fry: Blue Gills - my favorite. Unbelievably tasty and plenty to eat!

Overture Center & State Capitol

After dinner, I got a quick tour of the immediate area, including a look at the incredibly stunning and beautiful Overture Center for the Arts and new Capitol Theater. With 400,000 sq ft of space, it is truly a world-class facility. We also strode past the Capitol Building.

Most impressive perhaps is the Dome itself. Modeled after the Nation's Capitol, the Dome is constructed of granite and is only slightly shorter than the one in Washington, DC and a gorgeous sight at night! The hour was getting late and there was much to do tomorrow, so my guides departed and I headed straight to bed.

Michael Feldman on his Wha'dYa Know Show

Wha'dYa Know?

Saturday dawned a beautiful and mostly sunny day; I looked forward to it since I was going to get a chance to attend a broadcast of one of my favorite radio shows: Michael Feldman's Wha'dYa Know?  (Now ended after 31 years on the air.) I had actually listened to the show on Public Radio during long road trips - at least on Saturdays when I was on the road - and I liked the show as well as the guy's sense of humor. So I was really glad that I had been given the chance to go.

It is broadcast (when the show itself is not on the road) from the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, a magnificent structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938 and not opened until 1997, 59 years after its inception! The 250,000 sq ft building is as breathtaking inside as out and offers spectacular views and flexible meeting and exhibition space.

The two-hour Wha'dYa Know show passed quickly by and I spent most of the time laughing out loud. Make some advance plans that include the show when you visit Madison - you won't regret it.

After the show, we first stopped at a small but extremely popular place near the Capitol called Marigold Kitchen on South Pickney for a quick bite to eat before heading out on a tour of the UW Madison campus and surrounding area.

Inside Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace

Monona Terrace

And speaking of Frank Lloyd Wright - a Wisconsin native born in nearby Richland Center - there are a number of Wright-designed structures in and around Madison, so make certain to find where they are and check them out. One of my favorites is the Unitarian Meeting House, but many others are available; he designed thirty-two works for Madison, a city to which he remained connected for most of his life.

Many are still there today. By the way, if you are a fan and are going to the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center anyway, there is a very cool and unique exhibit there called "The Wright Picture". It is a unique exhibition of photographs taken during the last 20 years of Frank Lloyd Wright's life by acclaimed architectural photographer Pedro E. Guerrero.

Well, I crammed a lot into less than twenty-four hours, and wasn't finished yet. But it was time to head back to the Hotel and get ready for the evening's dinner and show (Those Fabulous Fifties) at the Fireside. But I will be back to "Mad City" when the weather warms. There are far too many things that I have yet to see and do.

R. Karl

Thanks to

  • The Concourse Hotel for some great accommodations
  • The Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Center... especially Kim and Sara
  • The Wha'd Ya Know show
  • Gary Knowles, who always finds a way to make great things happen...

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