The vibrant college town of Madison, Wis., isn't just a city full of football-loving "cheeseheads" — it's also one of the greenest places in the nation to live. With an extensive network of winding bike paths and a full acre of parkland for every 35 residents, Madison is an urban nature lover's dream, and it's a lively eco-destination for travelers seeking sustainable food, lodging, shopping and activities.
The capital city of Wisconsin might just be one of the nation's best-kept eco-secrets, with an ambitious devotion to sustainability that has led it to become one of the first eco-municipalities in North America. Madison officials teamed up with the Natural Step, a nonprofit environmental organization, to build ecological and social justice values right into the city's strategic plan. Forbes also recently voted Madison one of America's best cities for job seekers, so it's a good bet for new graduates.
From the sheets on the beds to the recycled tiles in the bathrooms, practically every item at Madison's Arbor House Inn is not only sustainable but also comfortable and elegant. Featured as one of the top 10 eco-hotels on the Fine Living Network, the Arbor House Inn boasts eight distinct, modern rooms designed with the environment in mind. The inn uses nontoxic cleaning products, energy-efficient appliances, sustainably harvested woods, water-efficient fixtures and native landscaping.
Another green choice within the city is the Speckled Hen Inn, a bed and breakfast on 50 private acres that bills itself as committed to both sustainability and the culture of south-central Wisconsin. Guests staying at the Speckled Hen enjoy breakfast made with many local ingredients, including some from the inn's property. The Speckled Hen Inn is a member of the Travel Green Wisconsin certification program.
There are three bicycles for every two cars in Madison, so it's not surprising to learn that residents love to ride their bikes all over town — and they can. Madison is bike-friendly, with more than 100 miles of bicycle paths. The Capital City State Trail is among the most popular, with 17 miles of asphalt that are also great for walking, jogging and in-line skating. Nine miles of the trail go through the Capital Springs State Recreation Area, which protects nearly a mile of undeveloped Lake Waubesa shoreline.
On Lake Monona, you'll find one of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's most unusual designs — Monona Terrace. This organically shaped waterfront convention center was the first in the nation to achieve LEED Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. It purchases 32 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and recycles 49 percent of solid waste materials.
Head to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum (pictured right) for a stunning variety of flora and fauna native to the area. Open daily to the public and free of charge, the arboretum has 1,260 acres of restored ecosystems including prairies and savannas, deciduous forests, conifer forests and wetlands.
The downtown shopping district is a great place to find local goods. Eighty percent of the retailers in Madison's central downtown district are locally owned, offering one-of-a-kind items that are often made within Wisconsin, if not Madison itself.
Outside of downtown, check out eco-friendly home and baby store Satara Inc., which features a luxurious variety of organic mattresses and bedding as well as clothing, toys and bath products.
Near Lake Wingra and Edgewood College is SERRV, a nonprofit fair-trade retailer with a shop stocked full of beautiful handmade goods including original art, jewelry, gifts, kitchen items and home decor made by artisans around the world.
One of Madison's most popular restaurants, L'Etoile, is also one of its greenest. L'Etoile is a passionate supporter of local farmers, sending employees to the Dane County Farmers Market with wagons to gather the locally produced meats, dairy, herbs, fruits and vegetables that form the basis of their menu. Menu highlights include basil and chive crepes filled with summer squash, Black Earth Valley mushrooms, sweet onions and fresh chèvre along with a tempting assortment of Wisconsin artisanal cheeses and a vanilla bean crème brûlée made with market-fresh black raspberries.
Harvest Restaurant was named by Organic Style magazine as one of the top 20 restaurants in America, and Gourmet Magazine also named it one of the nation's top farm-to-table restaurants. The menu changes seasonally, with a generous helping of locally grown and organic ingredients. Locals rave about the restaurant's expertly crafted dishes, especially the bread pudding.
Eating Well magazine named the Dane County Farmers Market the best in the country, and as you gaze upon row after row of fruits and vegetables in every color of the rainbow, local flower bouquets and displays of artisanal goat cheese, you'll be hard-pressed to walk away empty-handed.
There are plenty of vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Madison as well, including two exclusively vegetarian joints — Dandelion, a lunch cart located downtown, and Mother Fool's Coffeehouse on Williamson Street, which offers vegan soups and desserts.
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