The history books record that MADISON, just over an hour west of Milwaukee, was little more than a wooded, mosquito-infested swamp when it was selected to be the political nucleus of the Wisconsin Territory in 1836. Today this stimulating, youthful metropolis is one of the most beautifully set cities in the US, with a handful of diverting museums.
Downtown is neatly laid out on an isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona, with the sumptuous white granite State Capitol sitting benignly on a hill at its center, surrounded by shady trees, lawns and park benches. Capitol Square itself is the site of a fun farmers' market (May–Oct Sat 6am–2pm); browse late for bargains. Madison Civic Center, close by at 211 State St, houses a professional repertory theater (box office tel 608/266-9055) and art museum (tel 608/257-0158) and also presents concerts and touring shows. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Unitarian Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, in the late 1940s. With its sweeping, dramatically curved ceiling and triangle motif, it's definitely worth a look (May–Oct Tues–Fri 10am–4pm, Sat 9am–noon; $3). The lakeside Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, 1 John Nolen Drive, is a more recently realized example of Wright's grand vision (daily tours 11am & 1pm; $2, free Mon & Tues). Surprisingly intimate and full of architectural detail, the Center, with its curves, arches and domes, echoes the State Capitol building just a few blocks away.
If the capitol is the city's governmental heart, the University of Wisconsin (average enrollment 46,000) is its spirited, liberal-thinking head, now mellowed since its protest heyday in the late 1960s. The Memorial Union, 800 Langdon St (tel 608/262-1583), holds a budget cafeteria and pub, the Rathskeller, with tables strewn beneath huge, vaulted ceilings and live music most nights. Out back, the spacious UW Terrace offers beautiful sunset views over Lake Mendota. Capitol and campus are arterially connected by State Street, eight tree-lined, pedestrianized blocks of restaurants, cafés, bars and funky stores. Williamson Street, on the city's near-east side a few blocks from Monona Terrace, happily evinces its countercultural community roots.