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Madison is a city built around two major lakes, Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, and one minor lake, Lake Wingra. This geography makes for challenging driving because the Capitol is built on a plaza called “The Square” on the isthmus between the two larger lakes. The system for streets is not a nice grid, but in fact is a lot like Boston.
But to get a feel for this geography and the city, start your exploration at the Capitol. At first glance, it looks like you are in Washington since the building is nearly identical to the our nation’s capitol, but it’s a few inches lower to defer to the national Capitol. There are free tours of the recently refurbished building. During the winter season, a huge holiday tree decorates the Rotunda. Tours start at the information desk Monday through Saturday at 9:00, 10:00, 11:00 a.m. and 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 p.m. A 4:00 p.m. tour is offered weekdays (Monday - Friday), excluding holidays, during Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Take the Martin Luther King Street Exit to walk two blocks to Monona Terrace Convention Center. Frank Lloyd Wright first proposed this building in 1938. Its doors were finally opened in 1997 after 60 years of controversy, public discussion being the favorite local indoor sport. Guided tours are offered daily at 1 pm for $3, adult; $2, student.
Then return to the Square, which is the location for the Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings from mid spring to late fall. Regional produce and products are sold there. The Concerts on the Square are held on Wednesday evenings beginning at the end of June, when the Madison Chamber Orchestra plays themed selections of popular and classical music for the crowds picnicking on the grass of the Capital. Another summer feature is the Art Fair on the Square in July, and as the summer season winds down, the Square hosts the Taste of Madison.
Then take the State St. exit to walk down State St. to the University of Wisconsin campus which is at the other end of State St. Look at the stores, restaurants, and bars that line the street. When you get to the end of State. St., University Book Store is on your left, the Memorial Library on your right and beyond that is a Mall with a fountain. Bear to the right and ask for the Memorial Union. Go to the Rathskeller and consider a beer or ice cream cone on the Union Terrace and enjoy your treat and people-watch as boats sail by in the background. During this walkabout, you will be introduced to the heart of Madison.