10 Ways to Celebrate in Madison, Wisconsin | Midwest Living

10 Ways to Celebrate in Madison, Wisconsin

In Wisconsin’s quirkiest city, Christmas trees and Festivus poles reside under the same roof, and fried cheese joins charcuterie on appetizer menus. Madison visitors can craft a holiday trip that embraces tradition, celebrates the unusual or weaves together an only-here mix of both.

See inspired holiday displays

A true tradition | For the 99th year in a row, a Balsam fir sparkles in the Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda. The tree shows off more than 1,400 ornaments crafted by Wisconsin schoolchildren for the ultimate display of cuteness. 

The State Capitol houses a Balsam fir.

Fresh additions | On the second floor, more seasonal installations await. They might include a Christian Nativity with the three wise men; an irreverent Nativity with “wise men” Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain; and a Festivus pole (inspired by a crabby-about-Christmas character from a 1997 episode of Seinfeld). Drop in to see the tree and Nativities, or sign up for a free tour to get access to the art galleries and observation deck and hear fact-packed stories about the building.  

Support the arts

National acts | If museums are your thing, stop into the juried Holiday Art Fair (November 18-20, 2016). More than 75 fine artists from across the nation take over the galleries and lobbies of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) and the Overture Center for the Arts to sell their works; you might get a great deal at the silent auction. Along with the summer Art Fair on the Square, the market raises funds to keep the MMoCA admission-fee free.

Local makers | For a nonjuried and more grassroots approach to arts patronage, visit Art Fair Off the Square. The annual holiday event in Monona Terrace (November 19–20, 2016) welcomes more than 130 Wisconsin artists selling their jewelry, paintings and woodwork. Proceeds benefit the Wisconsin Alliance of Artists and Craftspeople.

Entrance to the MMoCA is always free.

Hear clarinets and carols

On the stage | As the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra plays the classic score by Tchaikovsky, the Madison Ballet corps enacts the tale of Clara and her magical nutcracker soldier in Overture Hall (December 10–26, 2016). 

In a cave | Some 300 votive candles and dozens of strings of holiday lights illuminate a cappella carolers (and a standing-room-only audience) deep underground. Caroling in the Cave events take advantage of Cave of the Mounds’ acoustics to showcase the talents of area choirs and raise funds for local charities (in Blue Mounds,  26 miles west of Madison).

Get a good workout

Tie one on | Whether you’re trying to find your balance on the blades or trying to land a double toe loop, ice skating rinks across the city beckon. Outdoor rinks include the oval with Lake Mendota views at The Edgewater hotel.

Take it off | The Madison Santa Swimsuit Run offers a seriously entertaining workout for those with great fortitude and questionable common sense. Runners shed their warm togs in favor of swimsuits or other off-season gear, don provided Santa hats and jingle bells, and enjoy a brisk 1½-mile run through downtown in support of Make-a-Wish Wisconsin.

The Edgewater hotel skating rink

Enjoy a very Wisconsin dinner

A classic meal | The Old Fashioned (on Capitol Square) earns accolades as one of the city’s top destinations for that most Wisconsin of traditions: the Friday night fish fry. Never mind the upscale-tavern atmosphere; use your hands to dig into plates piled high with fried perch, French fries and thick slices of soft rye bread. Pair the meal with a brandy old-fashioned or a local brew. Not in town until Saturday? Other Wisconsin specialties include lake trout.

Upscale fare | Almost every menu item at Graze claims Wisconsin roots (sometimes quite literally). Local favorites include the pickle board (with kimchi and beets), a noodle bowl with braised pork shoulder, and steak caprese. All are served alongside Capitol Square views.  

Graze's bar serves craft brews and craft sodas (top); Friday night fish fry is a favorite at The Old Fashioned (bottom).

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