Three Days in Madison, Wisconsin


A couple of weeks after our short vacation in Kansas City—the last couple of meal reports from which are still to come—we hit the road again for a brief getaway. Not on Highway 35 this time. Instead we went southeast to Madison, a shorter drive of just about four hours from our house to the hotel we were staying in in downtown Madison. We decided to go with a hotel as we couldn’t really find any viable AirBnB options—and as it turns out it was a lucky break given the weather we experienced on more than one day (more on this below). This trip was in many ways an inverse of our Kansas City trip. Those days were organized largely around the eating of barbecue. Madison has no equivalent local cuisine to tempt us—which is not to say that we ate badly. For us, however, there was a lot more to do in Madison as a family. A quick sketch of the trip follows below and then over the next several weeks I’ll have reports on the meals we did eat.

The drive from southern Minnesota to Madison is not quite as monotonous as the drive down Highway 35 to Kansas City, and parts of it are quite picturesque indeed. The shorter drive meant we could leave after a good breakfast at home, stop for a light rest area picnic lunch after a few hours and arrive in Madison ready  to get some touristy action in before checking into our hotel. And that is what we did with an hour or so at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum is only open from Friday to Sunday from 12-6 pm (this may be a covid thing, I suppose). And as we were going to be there from Sunday to Wednesday this meant right after arrival was our only shot at it. And I’m glad we took it as they had a couple of really interesting exhibits and the pieces from the permanent collection were very interesting too. This was a much larger museum, by the way, than the Kemper in Kansas City.

From the museum we went to the hotel, checked in, freshened up and then went out to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens which we wandered for a while before dinner. The next day saw us walking by lakes, paddle boating on a lake, and hanging out by the lake at the Memorial Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin—after both lunch and dinner. The following day featured more lake action—this time in a canoe—and a visit to the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin. We’d originally planned to spend most of the third day in Madison as well before heading home but ended up leaving early. We did, however, take a slight detour on the way back to stop at the Cave of the Mounds—a limestone cave complex I was somewhat unsure about before getting there but which we enjoyed thoroughly.

Why didn’t we do more in and around Madison and why did we leave early on the Wednesday? In one word: rain. Yes, we had bad luck with the weather. Madison got heavy rain both before we got there and through our trip. And when it wasn’t raining it was bloody hot. So we didn’t get do as much outdoors stuff as we’d hoped to do; and given the iffy covid situation going to places like the Children’s Museum—recommended from a number of directions—was also out. The hotel was a lifesaver here as it had a very nice indoor pool. On both Monday morning and late afternoon on Tuesday we were able to keep the kids occupied in the pool while it was raining. And with more rain forecast for Wednesday we didn’t see much point in hanging around longer in the city. Not that the weather spared us on the way home. We hit major thunderstorms and had to get off the highway on two occasions with visibility down to a couple of feet. On the first occasion this was accompanied by tornado warnings and the unhappy realization that the place we’d never heard of that a tornado had touched down in was just a mile or two from where we were.

The weather and Madison restaurant hours also complicated our dining plans somewhat. Thanks to the kind recommendations on the blog and from a number of friends who went to grad school in Madison and/or visit regularly—plus one fortuitous connection just a week prior to the trip with someone moving to our town from Madison—I was armed with a long list of recommendations. But we couldn’t get to many of them due to a number of factors: not open on Sunday; only open for dinner; closed for repairs while we were there; no outdoor seating; outdoor seating not set out because of uncertain weather etc. Thus no meal for us at the Old Fashioned or the Weary Traveler or Lao Laan Xang. But we did eat well nonetheless. Our meals included ramen, Indonesian food, pizza, burgers/sandwiches and takeout sushi eaten in our room while it rained outside (and after I failed to get through to Ha Long Bay to place a takeout order after almost 30 minutes of non-stop dialing).

And, oh, on the way back we stopped, completely fortuitously, for lunch at what turned out to be the location of the original Culver’s in Sauk City. This was hugely exciting for the boys, who are big fans of Culver’s. And a special treat for the younger one who discovered via the plaque we were sitting next to outside that he shares his birthday with Culver’s.

Detailed reports on Madison meals to follow. But first I’ll have my penultimate Kansas City report tomorrow and then on Tuesday a return to Grand Szechuan (we’ll be getting pandemic takeout from them again this weekend).

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