History and culture surround the state's Capitol Square
Your tour guide: Laura Kocum, Wisconsin Veterans Museum, an activity of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs
Downtown Madison is a Wisconsin treasure filled with history, culture and art. A day trip to the state's Capitol Square and surrounding areas is sure to please all agesand also the pocketbook.
Start with Wisconsin's State Capitol and arrive by 9 a.m. to catch the first guided tour of the day (1 p.m. on Sundays). The free, 50-minute tour explores the working areas of the three branches of government, while pointing out several of the 43 unique varieties of stone from around the world, hand-carved furniture and glass mosaics. Murals can be viewed in the major rooms. Look for the fossils in the floors and walls, and the "ghost" in the mural where the State Assembly meets.
In the summer months, the observation deck is open to the public, offering a view of downtown Madison from 100 feet above the ground. After getting a good view of downtown, venture to the west side of Capitol Square, and enter the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. Enjoy wandering the museum's three galleries on your own, or with the assistance of an audio tour led by actor Gregory Peck and historian Stephen Ambrose.
The galleries are full of lifelike murals and rare artifacts. Each exhibit is based on Wisconsin's role in America's military past, and the murals bear images of true Wisconsin heroes. Examine one of the museum's rare Civil War battle flags, and then use the interactive database to find the Civil War records of people from your hometown. After leaving the 19th Century Gallery, look for the World War I soldiers celebrating with a nurse as they learn of the war's end, and soldiers facing combat in both jungles and snow on the two fronts of World War II. Look up to see a Sopwith Camel biplane, a Huey Helicopter and a P51 Mustang, all suspended from the ceiling of the 20th Century Gallery. Finally, imagine life in a submarine as you use a periscope to view Downtown Madison.
After viewing the Capitol Square from a "submarine," step outside again, cross State Street, and enter another downtown treasure: the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
For a suggested donation of $4 per person ($10 per family), you can walk through the four floors of exhibits on your own. Starting with "People of the Woodlands: Wisconsin Indian Ways," visitors can enter an Aztalan-style home and learn about the activities of the Woodland peoples. From there, venture to "On Common Ground: 200 Years of Wisconsin History." Explore themes unique to Wisconsin from settlement days to the present. Discover a frontier lead mine, track immigration routes through the state, explore work and play in a lumber camp, and examine Wisconsin's political heritage. Before leaving, check out the temporary exhibitions. The Wisconsin Historical Museum changes this area throughout the year. Topics have ranged from the Milwaukee Braves to Susan Frackelton pottery to the history of Earth Day.
When finished, take time out to enjoy lunch at one of the many varied restaurants along State Street, offering cuisines from around the world. Stop in some of the shops and enjoy the eclectic mix of gifts, clothing and other treats.
While browsing, be sure to venture one block down to the Overture Center for the Arts. Completed in 2006, the project was funded entirely by a gift from W. Jerome Frautschi to the City of Madison. The Overture Center provides an extraordinary place where artists of many disciplines can excel against a backdrop of a vital downtown scene. Stop in to the information desk to inquire about tours, or enjoy walking through the facility on your own.
Overture Center has ten resident arts organizations. In addition, the performing arts series, Overture Presents, offers a wide range of acclaimed traveling performers, fun family shows, free festivals and more. In addition to the performing arts, Overture Center also hosts exhibitions by local visual artists in the three community galleries, as well as the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy, which showcases top contemporary artists from around the state. All exhibits are free and open to the public.
When finished, visit the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired convention center at the end of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., on the East side of the Capitol Square.
All of these destinations are within reasonable walking distance of one another, and many are free or low-cost. A visit to downtown Madison is sure to please even the youngest visitor. The rich history of the State Capitol, shared by its neighboring museums, and the vibrant culture associated with the arts will have you coming back, again and again.