Once named the best place to live in America
The regional political ethos here is tolerance, and the city’s role as state capital and home base of the University of Wisconsin informs the community’s attitudes and its styles. About 60 miles due west of Milwaukee, Madison occupies an enviable position along a narrow isthmus between two picturesque lakes, Mendota and Monona. Biking and hiking trails crisscross the city’s gently rolling hills. It’s easy to see why Money magazine once named Madison the best place to live in America.
Other notable rankings – and there have been many – include being one of Outside magazine’s “Dream Towns,” one of Utne Reader’s “Most Enlightened Towns,” and one of Cosmo’s top cities for finding single men – presumably the focus was straight single men, but there are plenty of gay guys here, too. And here’s yet another fact about Madison – it has among the most unified and visible feminist communities of any U.S. city. Women, including quite a few lesbians, occupy influential positions in all walks of city life.
Although regaled mostly for its livability, Madison (population 200,000) makes for a great visit. The museums are excellent, and the University of Wisconsin (UW) lands top-name speakers and performers. The dining scene is on par with any city its size, and while queer nightlife options are few, they’re also convivial and friendly.
Engaging State Street, a transit-and-pedestrian mall, connects Madison’s two most important institutions: the capitol building and the university. If you have time, take a tour of the particularly regal, granite-domed Wisconsin State Capitol, which dazzles visitors with its ornate murals, glass mosaics, and marble detailing.
Up near Capitol Square, State Street is largely the domain of suits and politicos, but closer to the campus of UW you’ll encounter a more collegiate scene – cheap ethnic restaurants, bike racks, coffeehouses, and scads of funky shops. Don’t miss A Room of One’s Own, a capacious, clean, and comfy bookstore with a comprehensive selection of lesbian and feminist titles, local resources, and a considerable gay male section, too. There’s also a coffeehouse.
Also within the parameters of State Street are six museums that constitute Madison’s Museum Mile. The best are the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum, which traces the state’s progressive political history, dairy- farming traditions, and rich ethnic heritage; the Elvehjem Museum of Art, which contains a tremendous range of works, dating as far back as 2300 B.C.; and the Madison Art Center, whose holdings focus chiefly on contemporary works. The Art Center underwent a major expansion in 2005; adjoining it and the Madison Civic Center, with its 2,200-seat performance venue – Overture Hall. Prominent architect Cesar Pelli oversaw the immense project.
In fact, Madison is noted for groundbreaking architectural achievements, most recently the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, completed in 1997 according to the Frank Lloyd Wright’s ambitious blueprints. Take one of the building’s daily tours or head up to the rooftop garden for a free concert and lake view. Additionally, eight Frank Lloyd Wright buildings within a two-hour drive of Madison are open to the public. The must-see is Taliesin, Wright’s sprawling home and studio complex, about 45 minutes away.
Back on State Street, head away from the Capitol to reach the gracious lakefront campus of the University of Wisconsin, the domain of 40,000 students. Start at the Old Red Gym Visitors Center for campus tours and general information. Then drop by the Wisconsin Memorial Union. Out back, overlooking Lake Mendota, is the seductive Memorial Union Terrace, one of the Midwest’s most intellectual pick-up spots, gay or straight.
The Lake Monona Bike Trail Loop is one of several well-maintained trails in this incredibly cyclist-friendly city. Another great option, southwest of downtown, is the UW Arboretum Bike Trail. Pick this up at Henry Vilas Zoo and follow it through the esteemed and quite beautiful UW Arboretum, which has 1,260 acres of trails, forest, prairie, and wetland. Another spot for taking in the outdoors, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens comprises 14 acres of lush plantings, plus a 50-foot-tall pyramidal conservatory.
The presence of a political scene has infused the city with a bounty of excellent restaurants at the high end and what feels like a thousand cheap eats for frugal budgets. Food buffs shouldn’t miss Capitol Square’s delightful Dane County Farmer’s Market (Saturdays and Wednesdays, late April-early November), one of the best in the country. Across the street, you can sample many of those fine ingredients, put to highly creative use, at Harvest restaurant – a standout from the ever-changing menu is oven-roasted wild king salmon with fennel, tomatoes, and rosemary with an olive vinaigrette.
One restaurant turning nearby King Street into a dining destination, Cafe Continental charms patrons with an imported zinc bar and burgundy banquettes. The menu leans toward Mediterranean, with a variety of pizzas, pastas, and grilled meats. The Opera House restaurant also serves exciting regional American fare – typical is maple-glazed Canadian goose breast with walnut bulgur and dried-fruit compote. There are also extensive cheese and wine menus.
For fresh sushi as well as nicely prepared teriyaki, sukiyaki, and tempura dishes, tuck into Wasabi on State Street. Noodle joints are another Madison specialty, a funky favorite being Wah Kee Wonton Noodle. And don’t leave town without stopping by Michael’s Frozen Custard to scarf down a cup of Madison’s favorite dessert – in addition to serving custard so thick you could anchor a flagpole in it, Michael’s serves up fries and juicy burgers.
Shrouded within a vintage redbrick factory warehouse on the east side, bustling Fyfe’s Corner Bistro draws gays and straights for drinks and live music at its circular bar. The menu – black Angus steaks, stir-fried pasta dishes, crab cakes – is unpretentious and eclectic. Monty’s Blue Plate Diner is a fabulous home- style diner serving both tried-and-true and more inventive fare, from roasted- veggie sandwiches to luscious vanilla malts. Near the Capitol, Michelangelo’s Coffee House effectively captures Madison’s boho personality. This elegant, art-filled space has comfy sofas and small tables and draws lots of “family” – you can also get savory veggie wraps bursting with lentils, rice, spinach, and hummus.
Madison’s biggest and most popular gay night spot, Club 5 is a spacious spread offering a little something for everyone: a pulsing video dance bar; a patio, and separate dart and pool lounges for both lesbians and leather-and-Levi’s guys. There’s also a restaurant – the Fabulous Wednesday Fish Fry is a great way to sample Wisconsin’s most famous culinary tradition alongside a room full of dishy queers. On the east side, Ray’s Complex also draws sizable crowds – key amenities are the patio, volleyball court, casual restaurant, and spacious dance floor. Downtown, more guy-oriented locals joints include the Rainbow Room, which has a small dance floor and a cozy fireplace lounge, and the mellower Shamrock, a good old-fashioned drinkin’ and smokin’ bar.
There are several gay-friendly B&Bs here. At Arbor House, innkeepers Cathie and John Imes have turned one of Madison’s oldest houses into a remarkably eco-friendly B&B. There are two buildings, an 1853 stagecoach tavern – with original wood floors and natural-stone fireplaces – and a light-filled contemporary annex outfitted with thick walls made with reused wood and concrete, ceramic tiles fashioned out of recycled glass, and low-toxic building materials. Rooms are quite cushy, the top units with CD-stereos and whirlpool tubs.
Just south of town, the women-owned Hawk’s Nest Resort consists of a pair of beautiful, airy timber-beam cabins that are ideal for groups of friends seeking a getaway. Both units have three bedrooms and can sleep up to eight guests. A tranquil lake is just down the street, and this is a terrific area for biking. You’d never know you’re less than a 20-minute drive from downtown Madison.
Just 5 minutes’ walk from the Wisconsin State Capitol building, Hyatt Place Madison/Downtown boasts several on-site dining options and an indoor pool. Free WiFi access is available, and a 42-inch flat-screen TV is in each room.
Sheraton Hotel Madison is 20 minutes walk from the beach. Overlooking Lake Monona, this Madison hotel features an on-site restaurant and coffee bar. Each guest room features a flat-screen cable TV. The Alliant Energy Center can be reached in 9 minutes’ walk.
On the edge of the Town of Ennis, Montana, where the sweeping Madison River Valley opens wide, you’ll find the Rainbow Valley Lodge. Warm, welcoming hosts, Ed and Jeanne Williams, will make your visit to the Old West Town of Ennis, Montana a special one.