MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Madison

Madison for all ages

Famous for collegians, Wisconsin's capital also fascinates children.

If it wasn't for the climate, Peter Pan would feel right at home in Madison, Wis.

It's the NeverNeverland of the Midwest, a town whose zany exuberance is appreciated by everyone but Republicans, whose outnumbered governor once called it "57 square miles surrounded by reality.''

Inhabited largely by college students whose political zealotry is matched only by their zeal for a party, downtown Madison is a place where it's easy to get in touch with your inner child.

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10 great day trips from Madison

See the circus, visit Swiss towns or ride a rail trail: There's fun in every direction.

Madison has the state Capitol, the largest university, two big lakes and all kinds of attitude. There's plenty to do if you want to stay put. But sometimes, you just have to hit the road and explore.

Madison is surrounded by great candidates for a day trip — or a mini-vacation, if you prefer. It’s got cheese country to the south, Old World towns to the west, bicycle trails on three sides and good eating all around.

Here are some great ways to spend a day in south-central Wisconsin. If you get out the door early, do lots of stuff and stay late, it really will feel like a vacation.

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A chocolate tour of Madison

For people who want the best in bonbons, this town is a decadent destination.

No one knows why Madison is the fine-chocolate capital of the Upper Midwest.

We do know that Europe played a big role. Gail Ambrosius, who grew up in Wisconsin's hamburger capital, tasted her first artisanal chocolate on a high-school field trip to Paris. “And I understood — eating this is the best thing you can do,'' she writes.

Markus Candinas studied chocolate-making in his parents' hometown of Thun, at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Ton Stam came from the Netherlands to join the Madison Scouts drum and bugle corps, then started Chocolaterie Stam.

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Shopping in Madison

In this colorful college town, materialism and muckraking co-exist.

In Madison, a visitor is exposed to many messages: Resist corporate globalization. Fight for social justice. Housing is a RIGHT!

But when I was there one November, no one said anything against materialism.

Madison — sometimes called the People’s Republic of Madison — is so anti-establishment and anti-corporate that a Starbuck’s caused an uproar when it opened on State Street.

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Summer in Madison

In warm months, head for the brewpubs, bicycle trails and lakes of this exuberant college town.

In summer, it's hard to know what to do first in beer- and bicycle-loving Madison.

Bike along Lake Monona, or on the Capital City State Trail? Have a beer and listen to blues on the lakeside terrace of the Memorial Union, or in the Bier Garten of Capital Brewery?

In summer, this college town is in its element. Its Great Taste of the Midwest in August is the largest beer festival in Wisconsin and the second-longest running craft-beer festival in North America.

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Troll-hunting in Mount Horeb

A little town near Madison wins friends with a mix of old and new attractions.

In Mount Horeb, Wis., trolls are revered, not reviled.

The little town west of Madison calls itself the Troll Capital of the World, for its many mascots — most wooden, but one live — and Norse traditions.

It doesn't have the medieval Norwegian stave church that has been the town's pride and joy since 1937. The ornate wooden building has gone back to Orkdal, Norway, whose residents built it for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and will reassemble it as an attraction for Orkdal.

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Foodies in Madison

From street carts to fine-dining shrines, Wisconsin's capital city worships food.

Everyone knows what people in Wisconsin like: beer, cheese and bratwurst.

But they also like foie gras, frisée salad and seared pork belly. Southern Wisconsin is a fertile quilt of artisan farms, and their lovingly grown produce goes straight to the Dane County Farmers' Market and the restaurants of Madison.

I've made a lot of delicious memories in Madison: the celeriac soup at L'Etoile, the raspberry truffles of Candinas, the Hopalicious pale ale from Ale Asylum.

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Syttende Mai in Stoughton

In May, everyone turns Norwegian in this southern Wisconsin town.

In the small Wisconsin town of Stoughton, red, white and blue flags fly everywhere on Independence Day.

Except here, the patriotic holiday is celebrated in May, and the flag is Norwegian, not American.

Norway had been under Denmark's heel for more than 400 years when it signed a new democratic constitution on May 17, 1814, a day that became known as Syttende Mai.

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At home in a hostel

Feeling adventurous? The dorm-style lodgings are open to everyone, and you can't beat the price.

To get a bargain on lodgings, you can try Priceline or Hotwire. You can clip coupons or use AAA or AARP discounts.

You can try every angle, but a single traveler still won’t find a bed that’s cheaper than those at hostels.

Many Americans think hostels are used only by college-age backpackers in Europe. That’s how most of us discover them.

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