After an abysmal year last year for Penn State Football (and college football fans everywhere), this opening weekend brought new hope. New hope that fans could sit in the stands and cheer on their team. New hope that they can catch up with their friends before, during and/or after the game – at tailgates, bars or restaurants. And new hope that their team would challenge Alabama and Clemson for the National Title. You could see the hope and optimism everywhere.
We were anxiously awaiting the new season. With Penn State coming off a very poor season, even after winning their last four games, we couldn’t wait for the new season to open up. To put 2020 behind us. To have fun again.
The “anxiously” part is because COVID is still lingering. Fears of a new wave cover the news. Kindergarteners in masks sit isolated at their desks, socially distant for their classmates, while millions of college football fans (many of them kindergarteners) pack stadiums and cheer wildly. Time will tell where we go from here, but we opted to take our chances and dive back in!
For us, a trip to Madison is just what the doctor ordered. A return to normal. Visiting college campuses. Checking out all of the sites. Eating all of the local dishes and drinking the local beverages. Casually saying “We Are” as you pass “friends you haven’t met yet” on the street. It was awesome!
An early arrival into Wisconsin’s Capitol City allowed us enough time to explore the “town” side before the “gown” side. We felt bad for booking a room at the University’s on-campus hotel, The Fluno Center, and showing up in enemy attire, but we were welcomed at the front desk by a host that was probably happy to see a full hotel again. Before long, we noticed we were not the only Penn Staters in the hotel.
After checking in, we took a quick walk up State Street and we were at the steps of the Capitol building.
The building was built over a decade, starting in 1906 and completing in 1917 at a cost of just over $7M. I can’t imagine the cost today. Inflation adjusted says $193M, but my guess is it’s waaayyyy more than that.
Surprisingly, we were able to walk right into the building – no security checkpoints here! The architecture and design were stunning – and the place was immaculate.
On the fourth floor, you can walk around the interior of the rotunda and take in the many historical pieces they have set up in the mini-museum – like this Badger fire hose holder.
Madison sits on an isthmus. I’m guessing if you’re not from Madison, it’s been a while since you’ve heard the term isthmus. I’ll explain it as sort of a “land bridge” that’s a narrow piece of land between the two lakes that mark the north and south boundaries of the city.
Outside the rotunda, you get spectacular views of the city and lakes below.
From the inside of the rotunda looking down, you can appreciate the design details of the building. Marble from Italy, France, Greece, and Algeria. Limestone from Minnesota and Illinois. Granite from Wisconsin and Minnesota. Absolutely stunning!
They were closing the building just as we got there so we didn’t have time to take in the full tour – but if you have time, I’m sure it’s worth it.
Sure, everyone in College Football knows this to be an Auburn chant, but did you know that Wisconsin had a War Eagle before Auburn? Old Abe as he was known was originally captured by an Indian named Chief Sky, a member of the Flambeau band of the Chippewa tribe. The yet-to-be-named eaglet was traded to a Wisconsinite for a bushel of corn. When the bird became too expensive to feed, the man sold it to a group of men passing through on their way to muster at Camp Randall in preparation for the Civil War. The eagle became the mascot of Wisconsin’s 8th Volunteer Infantry Regiment and given the name Old Abe.
Old Abe is still recognized throughout the city and campus today. A replica still sits in the Senate chambers and a statue sits atop the Camp Randall Arch. Old Abe is also memorialized on the 101st Airborne’s Insignia patch.
Bucky the Badger
Walking around campus and in town, we saw several Bucky statues, the mascot of the Badgers. None were dressed up nicer than the one outside the steakhouse on the Square.
It’s actually a pretty cool site to see so many mascots around town – there’s no lack of photo opportunities for Bucky fans.
Food and Drink
After our culture tour, it was time for some local eats. Just across the street from the Capitol sits one of Madison’s local institutions, The Old Fashioned. Even though relatively young, opening in 1994, it throws off an old-school supper-club vibe that seems to date back generations.
The Old Fashioned isn’t just the name of this restaurant, but it also happens to be the name of the unofficial cocktail of Wisconsin. Here, they serve up to 400 of the drinks each Saturday night – many of which are brandy-based as opposed to the more widely known bourbon-based drinks. And you have to pair it with Wisconsin’s famous Cheese Curds. These chewy little bites were ranked best of Wisconsin and featured on the Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate”.
It’s hard to believe that this place had to rely on a Go Fund Me to stay afloat during COVID.
With so much to see, do and eat around Madison, we moved on to our next destination, The Tipsy Cow, on another corner of the Capitol Square. Here, the beer list was the star of the show. Heck, even the poster in the restroom paid homage to the process of beer-making.
For however many craft beers there are in the state, for some reason, the one beer that defines Wisconsin is The Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewing Company. The Farmhouse Ale is the unofficial beer of Wisconsin – and is only sold within the state – helping to create the aura around the hazy beer.
Every college campus has its dive restaurant. Usually a small restaurant, cash only, cheap food, huge portions with lines out the door. Madison is no exception. Mickies Dairy Bar, which dates back to 1947, sits just across the street from the stadium – and if it didn’t have the reputation it does, I don’t think many would venture inside.
One of the smaller choices was the breakfast bagel with Yanks, aka home fries. For just $6 for the sandwich and $3 for the Yanks, this is what I’d call a stellar cash-to-calorie conversion.
As expected, Wisconsin would have to have a University-sponsored dairy. Their Babcock Dairy products are sold throughout the campus and surrounding area. Dairymen will know the name Babcock, for it was he who invented a test to measure fat content in milk when he was a UW Professor back in 1890. We had to stop in for some ice cream. Pretty tasty, but it’s no Creamery.
Brick cheese is something that’s used for pizzas in Northeastern PA. The easy-melting texture works great. The problem is, it’s hard to find brick cheese in the Southwest.
And yes, you can’t go too far downtown without running into a cheese and sausage shop. While we didn’t stop in, The Wisconsin Cheese Mart, promises to have the world’s largest selection of Wisconsin’s finest exports.
Of course, any Friday night in the Midwest calls for a Fish Fry. We opted for Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry. Sure, it was the easy pick because it was across the street from our hotel, but this place is another legendary location in Madison.
Yet again, the beer list is very impressive – stacked with locals – including some tasty Amber Lagers!
On the walk back to our hotel after the game, we stopped in Graduate Hotel to check out their rooftop bar. The Graduate is a chain of hotels that has properties on many college campuses – including Penn State and ASU. Each location has a unique décor or theme that celebrates the town. The theme for Madison’s? Camp Trippalindee – named in honor of Rodney Dangerfield’s “Triple Lindy” dive in the movie Back to School, which used UW’s Madison campus as the backdrop for the movie.
Unfortunately, the kitchen was closed so we couldn’t get the camp-inspired S’mores platter. We were told by the young bartender that they couldn’t get anyone to work 😦
But the rooftop nightcap gazing out at the glowing Capitol was a great way to end the day!
Camp Randall gets its name from Alexander Randall, the Governor of Wisconsin as the start of the Civil War. The site was a training facility for the Union Army.
In 1912, an arch was erected on the eastern side of the land as a memorial for those who were trained on these grounds. Today, the Badger Band marches through the Arch as they make their way to the stadium.
The grounds are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During the war, over 70,000 Union soldiers received their training here while at the same time, over 1,300 Confederate soldiers were held as prisoners of war in stockades like the one below.
Also in the park are a couple of Civil War-era canons and monuments to those that served.
Today, the lawn serves as an awesome tailgating spot for the few that are lucky enough to be invited to attend the corporate sponsored parties.
The stadium itself dates back to 1917 and remains the oldest stadium in the B1G.
Just outside the stadium are statutes of two of the more prominent men associated with the University of Wisconsin Athletics.
Pennsylvania native, Barry Alvarez, led the Badgers turnaround when he started as Head Coach in 1990. He was the first B1G coach to win the Rose Bowl in back-to-back years.
Pat Richter is a native son to Madison who played his college ball at Wisconsin before joining the NFL’s Washington Redskins. He later became the Athletics Director for Wisconsin. Richter was, if you can believe it, a nine-time letterman for the Badgers – earning three letters each in Baseball, Basketball, and Football. He was also responsible for hiring Barry.
The merch store inside the stadium offers a unique view. The windows look out onto the field where the Fox Big Noon Kickoff Show was setting up.
I will say, Gameday at UW was not as electric as I expected. Sure, there were plenty of fans, but the “city campus” feel seemed to divide the crowds and make it appear much smaller than it actually is. Most of the pregaming was taking place in bars along the streets – not in open parking lots like at Penn State or other classic college campus stadiums.
Their Badger Bash is located at Union South, just across from the Camp Randall Arch.
There, fans gather as the band and cheerleaders entertain.
The Band’s entrance is pretty interesting… They have a few songs that have some unique lyrics and interactions. Like this guy that cleverly points out that “Penn is not a state”…
Today, Wisconsin chose to have a “Stripe Out”. Usually Penn State fans wear white for road games, but we had to adjust to wear blue so as to not blend in with their fans. Stripe Outs always make for a great view, but between the blue of Penn State and others who didn’t comply, it wasn’t as crisp as I’ve seen others.
The game was a defensive struggle – to say the least. The first half ended 0-0 and the fans seemed to be somewhat quiet. It wasn’t until the third quarter that we had actually heard the crowd come to life. Even so, for 80,000+ fans, it didn’t seem too engaged. The one thing I really didn’t like was early on and throughout the game, the student section would chant “F&*^ Penn State”. I just don’t understand this. Later in the game, they would chant at each other, ala “Less Filling. Tastes Great”, but would change the words to “F&*@ You” and “Eat Sh*t.” Kids. I guess I’m getting older.
The one gameday tradition that gets a ton of hype is Wisconsin’s Jump Around. Between the 3rd and 4th quarters, they fire up the 1989 hit from House of Pain and the place goes wild! The student section no doubt carries this tradition while the rest of the stadium casually plays along and watches the optical magic in the student section. Maybe it’s a good thing that many people in the upper deck don’t all jump – as you can feel the entire stadium bouncing.
After a somewhat uneventful game, Penn State was able to pull it out after halftime adjustments allowed their offensive stars Jahan Dotson and Noah Cain to shine. The defense held strong and picked off a 4th and goal pass late in the game to “almost” ice it. But shades of the 2016 Rose Bowl were still in my mind. They needed a first down to run out the clock, but couldn’t get it done given the stingy defense of the Badgers.
The Lions gave the ball back to Wisconsin but again picked off a pass as time expired. 16-10 final. Penn State escapes Madison as a 5.5 point underdog and notches another signature road win for Coach Franklin.
We stuck around for another Wisconsin tradition – the Fifth Quarter, when the Band comes back out to have some fun as the stadium empties out.
The best place on campus!
Hands down, the best place on UW’s campus is the Memorial Union Terrace. This place overlooks Lake Mendota and is jammed with students and adults alike. Why? Well, they serve beer! The Union is a collection of restaurants and counter-service beer stands offering a wide range of food and beer. From brats to salads to pizzas and Asian, you’ll find something to eat here – even some Babcock’s Ice Cream. And the collection of local craft beers is amazing considering you’re on a University campus! It was here that we checked the box for Wisconsin’s other famous food, the Brat!
After the game, the place was jammed with Penn Staters and Badger fans.
They even have a stage set up for live music, though no one played while we were there.
The skies cleared just in time for sunset.
On Sunday, the skies cleared up and we opted for the bike ride out towards Picnic Point – an area that juts out into the lake with views around the city. The bike trail along the lake was packed with joggers, walkers, and bikers on this gorgeous morning.
Overall, it was a great trip to Madison. The city was hoppin’ and the stadium was packed. It’s great to see the bars and restaurants busy again. Hopefully the Old Fashioned won’t have to resort to another fundraiser to stay open any time soon.
Penn State opened the season with a win and we knocked a bucket-list college town off our list! The local bars and restaurants were raking in cash and the hotels were full. A win all around. Now, if we can all just stay COVID-free!
Stop wondering. Start wandering!