Madison, Wisconsin is defined by water. It’s only one of two cities in the US built on an isthmus (the other is Seattle), and it has five lakes. The population of just over a quarter million is overwhelmingly young and educated, thanks to the massive University of Wisconsin. Mad City is one of the Midwest’s more progressive places and regularly features on “best of” lists. But you have to be tough to live here. Winter temperatures regularly dive below freezing, while summer temperatures often top 90 degrees.

a bright gold and red piece of Thai architecture surrounded by snow

Outdoor activities in Madison

Madison’s outdoor recreation revolves around its lakes. If you like kayaking, stand up paddleboarding or water skiing, you’re in luck. This is also a place to try more extreme water sports, such as wakeboarding, kiteboarding and flyboarding (where water can propel you almost 50 feet in the air).

Those who are looking for something more contemplative will enjoy a trip to Olbrich Botanical Garden. The 16 acres look their best in spring and summer, but even in winter you can enjoy orchids blooming in the sun-filled glass Bolz Conservatory. The garden’s 30-foot high Thai pavilion was a gift from the Thai royal family. The red lacquer and gold leaf structure was built in Thailand, shipped by sea, rail and truck to Madison, then reassembled by Thai artisans without using screws or nails.

At the UW Madison Arboretum, you can meander through woodlands, wetlands, savannas and restored prairies on more than 17 miles of trails. You can also see rare effigy mounds built more than 1,000 years ago. The arboretum features events like fungi workshops and expert-led nature walks. In the winter, it’s a popular place to snowshoe and cross-country ski.

Wellness in Madison

a large brick building with several dark, rectangular windows

The Garver Feed Mill building is the latest wellness star in the Madison scene. After the US Sugar Company constructed this brick behemoth in 1906 for beet sugar processing, it became known as the Sugar Castle because of its dramatic arched gothic windows. Later it was a factory for formulating livestock feed, before sitting derelict for a couple of decades. But just last November, it reopened as a spectacularly popular event space, site of the farmers’ market during winter, and home of wellness providers and artisan food makers. The whole building is gorgeous, with lots of exposed brick walls, big windows and chandeliers.

an overhead shot of people walking around and shopping

For the perfect wellness-focused day at Garver, take a class at Perennial Yoga, eat a healthy meal at plant-based Surya Café, then visit Kosa Wellness Spa & Retreat to relax in the steam room and sauna or to get an Ayurvedic treatment. 

the inside of a yoga studio with people sitting, waiting for instruction

“Something society doesn’t afford us is quiet and space,” said owner Shilpa Sankaran, who aspires to provide Madison with just that. “Where do you hear your own voice? That’s where the remedy lives, in our own knowing.” She sources most of her spa products from Wisconsin and has a special interest in supporting women in business. Women in India who have escaped sex trafficking manufacture the spa’s robes. I especially liked how they left some of the more attractive graffiti in place on the treatment room walls from the years that squatters filled the building.

a room with brick walls, featuring a blue and white piece of graffiti art

If art uplifts you, the Chazen Museum of Art on the UW campus houses lots of work by famous artists, including Miro, Picasso, and Louise Nevelson, plus interesting installations by UW art faculty. This big museum is free and well worth visiting.

Dining out in Madison

two plates: to the left, a bowl of soup full of vegetables and topped with shredded carrot. to the right, triangles of roti on a plate with a metal cup of sauce.

Madison is an easy town for vegetarians and vegans. The Green Owl Café, Madison’s first all-veg restaurant, is a cheerful and comfortable hangout spot for bowls, veggie burgers, vegan wings and vegan desserts like lava cake and coconut cream pie. Surya Cafe, in the Garver Feed Mill, features more adventurous — some might say startling — combinations, such as a curried cauliflower waffle with maple-cumin kale and mango jalapeno sauce.

two plates: to the left, a bowl full of kale salad. to the right, a slice of pizza.

Himal Chuli serves Nepali food, with several veggie and tofu-based options. The roti is so excellent I ordered a second serving. Ian’s Pizza has several locations and is one of my favorite Madison eateries. You can custom order a gigantic salad with more than 40 mix-in options, and they often have vegan slices. For vegan dessert, don’t miss Bloom Bake Shop. This bakery has a whole case of vegan cupcakes.

Public transit

Since Madison is largely a college town, you’ll find lots of public transportation and bikes. It’s known as an extremely bikable city, so if you like biking, check out Madison BCycle, the local bike share program. This program is designed for short trips of under an hour. If you want a bike for longer-term use, the Budget Bicycle Center rents various kinds of bikes. Metro Transit is Madison’s bus company, serving the greater Madison area.

Eco-wellness lodging

The white dome of the Capitol filled my window at the Madison Concourse Hotel. In addition to this stunning view and a convenient downtown location, the Concourse has been refining its eco measures for a decade. The hotel uses energy-efficient lighting, offers reusable glass cups instead of plastic in guest rooms and is a member of REAP Food Group, which works on shortening the distance from farm to table. The Concourse’s Ozone laundry system and high-efficiency water heaters save an estimated 400,000 gallons of water per year.

a snowy forest with a person in a bright red jacket walking through

For an out-of-town sojourn, the Holy Wisdom Monastery in nearby Middleton has private rooms in its retreat house and two additional secluded hermitages. Holy Wisdom offers the choice of a communal spiritual experience or lots of solitude as you hike trails through its prairies or read in the library. You can even wear a silence tag if you want to take a silent retreat, and people won’t talk to you.

Images via Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat