Madison, Wisconsin

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Who says the Midwest can't be hip or stimulating? For a portrait of a one-week vacation destination that excites the mind without depleting the wallet, Madison says "cheese"

In recent issues of Budget Travel, we've profiled two top college towns - Cambridge (Harvard, MIT) and Amherst (Amherst, Smith, UMass, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire) - for brainy budget holidays suited to the public at large. Our criteria: a sparkling university atmosphere; extra-low student-level prices for rooms and food; and lots of stimulating activities, performances, and attractions. Now, the series' first foray into the Midwest takes us to southern Wisconsin and the dynamic town of Madison. With a handsome lake-country setting, an active arts scene, and the storied University of Wisconsin (17 Nobel and 23 Pulitzer Prize-winners), Madison indulges both cerebral and cheapskate instincts, even in midsummer when many other university towns go into mothballs. Also the state capital, it's filled with an array of intrigues, accommodations, and eateries that fit a pauper's budget - or at least a student's. And because its college is paid for with tax dollars, many major events, attractions, and even some classes are absolutely free and open to everyone.

Upon arrival, your very first stop should be the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau (615 E. Washington Ave., 800/373-6376, visitmadison.com) for free brochures and maps about museums, restaurants, concerts, and other amusements. Next up is the even more valuable UW-Madison Campus Assistance and Visitor Center, known as "the Red Gym" (716 Langdon St., 608/263-2400, visit.wisc.edu), where you orient yourself with a free campus tour (3 p.m. weekdays, noon weekends) and get a list of free campus events.

At most campus buildings and at shops in town, you'll find several free publications listing free or cheap events - always too many for one person to handle. Check The Daily Cardinal, a student paper, for a list of lectures, films, concerts, and discussion groups over the next few days. (Yes, nonstudents can attend most events, usually for free.) One week last October, those included seminars on topics ranging from molecular studies to Spanish Roma, and political lectures from visiting professors and nervy filmmaker Michael Moore.

Other free schedules appear in The Badger Herald (another student rag) or Isthmus (Madison's version of New York's The Village Voice). Note, too, that Madison is becoming famous as a breeding ground for comic writing: The Onion, a nationally celebrated mock newspaper (distributed free) originated here, and it also publishes real event schedules.

Nice wheels

Spend a few minutes in any part of Madison and the city's love affair with bicycles quickly becomes evident. There are miles of lanes dedicated to two-wheel traffic, as well as plenty of bike racks. You can even fill flabby tires for free at the Memorial Union student center (next to the Red Gym). In anything nearing nice weather (be warned that January and February are famously frigid), do as the locals do. Budget Bicycle Center (1230 Regent St., 608/251-8413) rents ten-speeds for $7 per day.

Most action in Madison centers on State Street, a one-mile pedestrian mall linking Capitol Square and campus that's lined with pubs, coffee shops, bookstores, and restaurants. Biking is easier than maneuvering by car, and there are plenty of scenic spots to pedal nearby. Since it's situated on a series of hills riding an isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona, Madison is blessed with surprising natural beauty.

Campus, Capitol, & between

The University of Wisconsin's main campus stretches over 930 acres along lovely Lake Mendota. The prettiest spot on campus is probably behind the Memorial Union, where visitors plop down on an extensive outdoor pavilion to enjoy a fine view of the lake and sometimes free music. When colder months come, the action turns to the Rathskellar, a German-style cafeteria/alehouse inside the Union that also hosts free concerts and events (look for posters or ask at the Red Gym).

Among other campus-affiliated spots free and open to the public are the Elvehjem Museum of Art (800 University Ave., 608/263-2246) and its 15,500 exhibits (from 2300 B.C. to modern times, including an Andy Warhol print of Marilyn Monroe); the Geology Museum (1215 W. Dayton St., 608/262-2399), where you can eye the skeleton of a 33-foot-long duck-billed dinosaur; and the Arboretum (1207 Seminole Hwy., 608/263-7888), a 1,240-acre preserve that's heaven for hiking and cross-country skiing. Campus libraries are also free for visitors.

You can even sit in on classes, even in summer. Have in mind what kind of class you'd like to attend, and someone at the Red Gym will find a match. In bigger classes (which tend to be straightforward lectures like Biology 101), no one blinks when a stranger shows up. For small seminars (the more disciplined stuff, usually), it's a good idea to get an OK ahead of time. If you have something specific in mind, don't barge into a classroom unannounced, but ask the Visitor Center to contact the department that interests you.

There are plenty of free amusements around the State Capitol Building, starting with the impressive brass, glass, and Italian marble building itself, which boasts America's only granite dome (six free tours daily; 608/266-0382). Across from the Capitol, you can visit the Wisconsin Historical Museum (30 N. Carroll St., 608/264-6555) for a brush-up on America's frontier-era history. The Madison Art Center (211 State St., 608/257-0158) and the Henry Vilas Zoo (702 S. Randall Ave., 608/266-4732) don't cost a dime either.

As for live music, you'll find free concerts most Wednesday nights on Capitol Square throughout the summer. During the school year, $8 (seniors/students $6) will get you into one of the Faculty Concert Series shows at the Mills Concert Hall (455 N. Park St., 608/263-9485). If you're more of a drama fan, the Bartell Theatre (113 E. Mifflin St., 608/294-0740) plays host to regional troupes and locally produced works. Tickets normally range from $5 to $15, and you can often see rehearsal performances for free.

Madison prides itself on its many literary associations, with nearly 20 bookstores in the heart of the isthmus and a handful of best-selling authors who call the city home (among them The Deep End of the Ocean scribe Jacquelyn Mitchard). Canterbury Booksellers (315 W. Gorham St., 608/258-8899) has free readings by authors every week.

Lodgings

Madison hotel rates fluctuate with the weather (high on summer weekends, cheaper in deep winter), but be advised that every bed in town can be booked solid months ahead for certain events. Watch out particularly for graduation (mid-May) and home football games (schedule: uwbadgers.com), when you may pay at least 25 percent more than usual, if you find availability at all.

Between graduation and mid-August, visitors can not only pretend they're students, but also live as the students do. When students vacate for the summer, privately owned dormitory-style properties open to short-term renters. Two such facilities are The Towers (502 N. Frances St., 608/257-0701), offering suites with private bath for $45 per night-four people can fit into two sets of bunk-beds; and The Langdon (126 Langdon St., 608/257-8841), charging a flat $28 per night for a dorm room with two single beds.

The cheapest year-round digs in town can be found just two blocks from the Capitol at the HI-Madison Hostel (141 S. Butler St., 608/441-0144, hiayh.org). A big, slightly grungy old house, it has bunk-bed dorm rooms for $19 per bed ($16 for Hostelling International members) and private rooms with private bath sleeping up to four for a paltry $38 per night ($35 members).

The few chain hotels downtown regularly run over $100 per night, but two independently owned properties offer reasonable rates and good locations. The Ivy Inn (2355 University Ave., 877/489-4661) has clean, comfortable rooms for singles starting at $71; doubles $81. The University Inn (441 N. Frances St., 608/285-8040) sits at the corner of State Street and has rates that range from $52 for two in winter, or $99 on summer weekends. Venture a few miles away from downtown Madison for wider (and slightly cheaper) options. Seven miles east of the Capitol (near I-90 and I-94), you'll find nearly a dozen chain hotels that start at about $40 per night (such as Red Roof Inn, 4830 Hayes Rd., 608/241-1787).

Even some apartment complexes rent on a weekly or nightly basis, particularly in the summer. Countryside Apartments (2801 Coventry Trail, 608/271-0101) rents furnished one-bedrooms for $79 per night or $350 per week.

Madison Meals This may be the heartland, but the dining selection is neither flat nor boring. Madison even has two restaurants specializing in Himalayan cuisine - on the same block (Himal Chuli and Chautara, at 318 and 334 State St., respectively). For Chicago-style bratwurst ($2.50) and Midwestern frat boy atmosphere, try State Street Brats (603 State St.) Stop by Vientiane Palace (151 W. Gorham) for $4.95 lunches laden with portions of spicy Lao-Thai food big enough for two.

If you make your way down State Street and still don't find anything, cross Lake Street onto campus (near Library Mall) for the many food stands where $3 to $5 buys you a heaping plate of Cuban, East African, Jamaican, or Chinese grub. All-you-can-eat campus cafeterias are also accessible, and simply charge visitors double ($6 to $8) the regular student prices.

Before you leave, you've got to taste (and hear) the Wisconsin specialty - cheese curds - clumps of cheese eaten before they're pressed into blocks (get some for $2 per bag at any market or at House of Wisconsin Cheese, 107 State St., 608/255-5204). At their freshest, cheese curds squeak audibly when you chew. So in between those free lectures and concerts, pick up a few and by all means, squeak away.

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