Urban Weekend Getaway in the Capitol City

Make a visit to Madison’s Capitol the centerpiece of an urban weekend getaway

By Steven Wolter

The free tour of Madison’s majestic state Capitol takes only an hour, but you’ll remember it for years to come. The Wisconsin statehouse ranks among the most impressive public buildings in the country, and for good reason. The Capitol’s distinctive granite dome (the nation’s largest, by volume, and the fourth-largest in the world) is visible from vantage points around the city. As impressive as the dome is from the outside, the view within is even more so. For an unbeatably awe-inspiring moment, stand in the middle of the Capitol rotunda, tilt your head backward, and gaze up more than 200 feet to where the circular mural, “Resources of Wisconsin,” decorates the rotunda ceiling.

The guided tour begins in the rotunda and proceeds through both the Senate and Assembly chambers, the governor’s conference room, and the room where the state Supreme Court hears its cases. Along the way, you’ll see striking works of art in nearly every room and hallway, from mosaics and sculpture to stained glass and paintings. The building’s architecture is all the more impressive because of the way it incorporates 43 different varieties of stone, gathered from around the world.

Downtown Madison Attractions

Just across the street, on the Capitol’s west side, two museums highlight Wisconsin’s rich history. The Wisconsin Historical Museum presents the story of Wisconsin’s past with displays of artifacts, photographs, dioramas, and interactive multimedia programs. The museum has both permanent and changing exhibits, filled with some of the more than 500,000 historical objects and archaeological artifacts from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s collections. The nearby Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum collects artifacts and memorabilia that chronicle the history of the state’s military veterans, from the Civil War to the present. Lifelike dioramas depict the drama of America’s military conflicts and pay tribute to the sacrifices made by Wisconsin’s soldiers during times of war.

Two blocks southeast of the Capitol, on the shores of Lake Monona, you can visit the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, a stunning Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structure that complements views of both lake and city. The Convention Center’s rooftop garden terrace makes for a perfect outdoor picnic or spot to relax and watch the boats on Lake Monona. Take one of the daily tours, then stroll the path that traces Lake Monona’s shoreline.

Where to Stay in Downtown Madison

If you’d like to stay within walking distance of the Capitol, consider the Mansion Hill Inn, just four blocks away. Nestled on North Pinckney Street in downtown Madison lies one of the Madison's most charmed historic sites. This Madison hotel, originally crafted by Alexander McDonnell, the builder of Madison’s second capitol building, is etched with elegance and finesse dating back to 1857. This lovely representation of German Romanesque Revival architecture offers 10 guest rooms furnished with antiques, many of them dating to the 1870s and ’80s. A late-afternoon wine service is provided in the inn’s parlor, which boasts a fireplace made of hand-carved Italian marble.

With amenities like high definition flat screen televisions, Aveda bath products, the finest European bed linens, and rainfall showers, Mansion Hill Inn exudes a dignity and sophistication.

Outside, a Victorian garden with a fountain offers a quiet space for reflection. If you’re staying on one of the inn’s upper floors, you’ll have to take the curving mahogany staircase that winds upward, as the inn, true to its original design, has no elevator. Breakfast the next morning arrives on a silver tray, either in your room or in the parlor, whichever you prefer.

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