Weekend Getaway: Madison, Wisconsin

What to do and where to eat and drink in Wisconsin's capital city

With Valentine's Day and Presidents' Day weekend right around the corner, there's no better time than now to drop what you're doing and plan a well-deserved weekend getaway. Somewhere that's just far enough outside of Chicago to feel like a real vacation. Somewhere like, say, Madison, Wisconsin.

An easy, three-hour drive straight up I-90, Madison is a lively town teeming with young people (it's home to the University of Wisconsin), culture and a surprisingly bright food and nightlife scene. While it's certainly at its prime in the summertime, there's plenty to do and see year-round.

Book your stay at The Edgewater, a historic hotel located right on the shores of Lake Mendota and a mere stone's throw from the State Capitol. The charming hotel underwent a thorough renovation last year, which included a major tower addition and greatly improved amenities. Even in the dead of winter, the lakeside views can't be beat.

Farro Salad at L'Etoile and local honey at the Dane County Farmer's market | Photos: Samantha Egelhoff and Bill Keaggy

Kick off your weekend with an elegant dinner at L'Etoile. This upscale American restaurant has upheld a commitment to locally sourced ingredients since it opened in 1976 and remains Madison's poster child for the sustainable food movement. Chef Tory Miller's thoughtful seven-course tasting menu ($125 a person) includes dishes like Willow Creek pork shank prepared with a quail egg, soubise, mustard seed and sherry jus, and a cheese course featuring Hook's 15-year cheddar with an apple fritter, maple brown butter and hazelnuts. Ask your server about wine pairings, as the restaurant houses some 500 international and domestic labels.

The next morning, soak up the remnants of said wine pairings with a hearty meal at Monty's Blue Plate. The old-school diner serves breakfast all day, every day, including everything from classic corned beef hash ($9) and sourdough brioche French toast ($7) to house-baked doughnuts ($.89).

Be sure to check out the Dane County Farmers' Market on Saturday at the Madison Senior Center. Hailed as the largest producer-only farmers' market in the country, the market runs from 8 a.m. to noon and boasts dozens of local purveyors. Load up on as many provisions as you can carry home for the following week.

And since no trip to Madison is complete without a visit to legendary burger joint Dotty Dumpling's Dowry, make a point of stopping in before you leave. Dotty's originals, like the Heart Throb ($8), loaded with pepper jack cheese, bacon and cream cheese-based Heart Throb sauce, have been campus favorites since the 70s; wash one down with a classic chocolate malt and a side of Wisconsin cheese curds to complete the experience.

Other worthwhile sites between meals include the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the Wisconsin State Capitol Building and Old Sugar Distillery—a sweet ending to a glorious weekend in cheese country.