GPS: 43°04'N, 89°23'W
Squeezed between Lakes Mendota and Monona on a thin isthmus, Madison packs a lot into its compact 69 square miles (179 square kilometers). The flagship University of Wisconsin campus dominates city proper, bringing in countless bars, ethnic restaurants, cafes, and bookshops, while the greater Madison area is characterized by wide open spaces: 260 parks, five lakes, 13 beaches, and hundreds of miles of trails surround town. To put that epic playground into perspective, Madison has one acre (.4 hectares) of parkland for every 39 residents. The national average? About one acre (.4 hectares) per 125 residents.
The action downtown revolves around State Street, a wide pedestrian avenue—closed to car traffic—that connects the State Capitol building to the Badger campus. Get acquainted here with some of the best eateries and shops in the city and the bustling Saturday farmers’ market. Then head to the landscaped lakefronts, and head out on the water in a canoe or kayak ($40 for a half-day rental), sail boat ($70 for a half-day rental), windsurfing board ($40 for a half-day rental), or paddleboat ($20 for an hour rental; www.supremewatersports.com). Madison is also home to one of the country’s best cycling scenes; it’s said there are more bikes than cars here. Rent a bike from Machinery Row Bicycles, and see for yourself (from $20 a day; www.machineryrowbicycles.com). Start with an easy 12.9-mile (20.8-kilometer) pedal around Lake Monona, through Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Or head to the five-star singletrack in the southern unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of town—yes, it’s well worth the drive! Kettle’s trail system has five loops of varying difficulty; beginners should start on the red loop, a short shot through open fields, pines, and hardwoods. More experienced riders can test their luck on the tight trails and steep rocky hills of the blue loop (www.dnr.wi.gov/org/land/parks/specific/kms).
It’s hard to beat the options along State Street, but the Memorial Union Terrace—or just “the Terrace” to locals—is the best place to taste true Madison flavor: local brews, sizzling brats, friendly folks, and live music take precedence on the outdoor patio (www.union.wisc.edu/terrace).
The downtown Edgewater Hotel has spectacular views of Lake Mendota (doubles from $139; www.theedgewater.com).