The quintessential college town -- it's not just for kids anymore. Mature adults are looking for good food and culture, not to mention the tax base a college brings in.
Madison and Berkeley are two towns that top the list. Both are progressive, with politics that often make the news. But I've been to Madison, and it's not Berkeley.
"Madison, the Berkeley of the Midwest? We don't like that phrase," said a thirtysomething on my recent visit to Wisconsin's capitol city. "We say that Berkeley is the Madison of the West."
Both towns have hippies and hipsters and foodies and geeks. But Madison shines with a strong sense of Midwestern pride -- found in everything from its impressive domed capitol to its noticeably clean streets.
The capitol is to Madison what the Campanile is to Berkeley. Both are symbols of the freedom to protest, something I witnessed in Madison when a vocal group of environmentalists turned out against hydraulic fracturing. But this handsome granite structure is also the community center -- prominent for blocks with its soaring white dome, just three feet shorter than that of our nation's capitol.
The Dane County Farmers Market rings the state house with purveyors who, by law, must be the growers themselves. It's the largest of its kind in the country and in mid-November moves inside another building of prominence -- the nearby Monona Terrace convention center. Monona is one of several Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in and around Madison. He is to this town what Julia Morgan is to Berkeley.
Both cities have their share of watering holes. But Wisconsin has more of a tavern culture. You don't have to be 21 to have a beer with your folks or your legal guardian. In fact, corn roasts and keggers -- even frat parties -- are multi-generational events. And on UW game days, the air is perfumed with the smell of grilled brats as some 80,000 fans wind their way through the tailgates to the massive stone stadium.
When it comes to food, Berkeley has Alice Waters but Madison has Odessa Piper. Every notable chef can be traced back to Piper, with Madison's L'Etoile and companion restaurant Graze often being compared to Chez Panisse. Even in winter, some 85 percent of the restaurants' offerings are Wisconsin grown products -- everything from butter to beets to beef. The chefs pickle and can and use old school methods so they can have farm food all year long.
Berkeley has the bay and Madison has two downtown lakes. And both cities still have a love affair with Volkswagen. In Berkeley, it's the occasional hippy van parked along Telegraph Avenue and in Madison, it's the fleet of pink beetles, dressed up in pig snouts and ears to advertise the local barbecue joint.
Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau: www.visitmadison.com
The Madison Concourse Hotel: www.concoursehotel.com