Last weekend, my little sister and I packed up the car and went on an impromptu road trip to Madison, the capital of our next-door and “rival” state, Wisconsin.
I hadn’t gotten enough of the beautiful green fields on my trip to Eau Claire and Beaver Dam a few weeks ago—I wanted to go back before the summer ended. And Madison has been on my list for a while now. I’d seen beautiful pictures of the capitol building, and I know plenty of people who attended UW-Madison, which is located right in the middle of the city. I was excited to finally visit for myself.
I was also trying to solve a riddle that’s been bugging me since I drove through Wisconsin to get to Chicago in February—where do all the people live? From the highway, all I could see throughout the entire state was trees and farm fields. But somehow the population of Wisconsin is slightly higher than Minnesota’s. I was baffled.
The four-hour drive to Madison took us back through Eau Claire, where we stopped for lunch and drove around a little bit. We drove down by the river and the UW-Eau Claire campus as well as through a few neighborhoods. The streets, especially near the university, were lined with beautiful old houses. Some looked like miniature castles; others boasted antique, colorful ornamentation. I was surprised to find that the town was a lot more sprawling than the little downtown/main street area I had visited before suggested. Neighborhoods spread out from the center of town. The day was sunny and peaceful; I could picture a quiet life by the river in Eau Claire.
We drove on, veering south and passing Black River Falls and Tomah and Wisconsin Dells. Signs along the highway pointed towards smaller roadways that led to towns I had heard of but never been to. North to Wausau and Stevens Point. East to Waukesha and Milwaukee. We giggled at the town called Baraboo.
Minneapolis is sort of unique because it’s surrounded by a suburbia. I’ve driven the entire highway loop around the Twin Cities, and you can almost always tell you are in an urban place–you can see lights and buildings and neighborhoods. Madison, in contrast, felt fairly rural right up to the minute we were in the city. I could see farm fields from the road. We drove into Madison from the north, past the airport. I suspect the southern suburbs might be a little more bustling. But the northern ones, at least, felt much smaller and quieter than what I was used to at home. We stayed in a hotel in the suburb of Windsor, which felt massively rural.
And downtown Madison felt, to me, like a suburb. The quiet streets as you entered town had some older houses that looked like the one I had lived in as a college student in Minneapolis–probably housing for UW. And then you were right at the capitol.
We parked about two blocks from the capitol—easily, and for free! Very different from at home. The capitol in Madison is truly striking. It sits in a block of streets, so there are views of it down the road on all four sides.
The square downtown has pretty architecture. The buildings were not super tall, but they looked like offices and banks. There were some restaurants here and there, which had a handful of customers.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon—the weather was beautiful. And downtown was eerily quiet.
“Where are all the people?” I whispered to my sister, as though speaking loudly would break into the silence inappropriately. “This is weird, right?”
We wandered down the hilly, diagonal streets in any direction that looked interesting. Madison is situated on a bridge of land between two lakes, Monona and Mendota. It is easy to walk from one to the other. We attempted to visit a terrace that overlooks Monona, but the main part of the terrace was blocked off for a wedding. Still, the lake looked pretty, and there were a bunch of people jetskiing and swimming down below.
Next, we decided to walk to the UW-Madison campus, about a 15-minute walk from the capitol. On our way, we ran right into State Street, and we found all the people.
State Street is essentially a High Street, or one of the closest equivalents I’ve found in the US. It was actually really nice—I think Minnesota misses out on that because our cold weather and snow prevent us from being outside the majority of the year. All our malls are indoors. Madison is farther south, so maybe their winters allow the people there to spend more time walking around outdoors.
I recognized places like Ragstock, Francesca’s, Urban Outfitters, Sencha. A couple classy Madison souvenir stores made an appearance as well. There were a bunch of cafes, restaurants, and ice cream places with people sitting outside. People skateboarded down the sidewalks and music played from the restaurant patios. There were, like, a million young couples—it looked like just about everyone was paired off, which felt distinctive from Minneapolis. The air was filled with the buzz of conversation. Finally, a normal city atmosphere.
The structure of the UW campus reminded me a lot of the U of M campus back home, although because Madison is smaller, UW doesn’t feel as much like its own little city-within-a-city like the U of M does. It looked pretty busy for a summer day—maybe there were orientations going on. There was also a weirdly high amount of cops, given that we hadn’t seen a single one on the entire drive there.
UW has a terrace on Lake Mendota, which we did not get to see, but I wouldn’t mind going back to find it. It seems like a fun place to hang out during the school year. I could definitely see the draw of UW-Madison, with the two lakes right there and a pretty little downtown area. The U of M only has Dinkytown in terms of food/shopping that you can reach without taking a bus, which mainly consists of Starbucks, a couple pizza places, like two bars, and a tiny Target (and the salon where I used to work 🙂 ).
But I still felt a little claustrophobic my whole time in Madison. Returning to Minneapolis with its skyscrapers and concrete barriers on the freeways and plenty of streetlamps felt like breathing a sigh of relief.
The rest of our brief time in Madison was spent relatively unproductively. I looked up things to do, and the list included 1) The National Mustard Museum (? No thanks), and 2) the art museum, University arboretum, zoo, and botanical gardens, all of which we have in Minnesota too. Madison is a nice, small city that’s fun to explore for a weekend, but if you’re visiting the Midwest, there are places I’d put higher on the list. And I’m still not sure where all the people in Wisconsin live. Small towns? Milwaukee? Farms? Up north? Someone please enlighten me!
There’s one thing Minnesota can’t beat Wisconsin in, though, and that’s dairy. On our drive home, we stopped in the tiny town of Osseo for sour cream pie. Delicious.
Thanks for reading!