Metro population: 870,000
Median 1BD rental: $833
Key stat: 17 million+, album sales by the band Garbage, formed in Madison
It’s a short list, overall, of American state capitals that contain the state’s flagship research university. That combo works to make places like Austin, Columbus, and the Twin Cities fantastic melting pots of grad students, policy nerds, and an array of overeducated bohemians. In Madison, long a hotbed of fiery politics, you’ve also got a battleground for the direction of middle America. Governor Scott Walker’s crusade against public unions has made purple-state-that-tilts-blue Wisconsin a focal point for how to imagine functional, fair state governance well into the future. Madison, as much as any town its size in America right now, is a place to stake out big ideas, defend them ferociously, and maybe put on some public theater, in the cold, when the legislature disagrees.
But this city named for a president, where 39 streets are named for the men who signed the Constitution, is about much more than the capitol building. Walk out its doors, a mile from the University of Wisconsin campus, and you’ll be on State St, the de facto main drag for college student shenanigans and a haven for live music, restaurants, and art. If you’re in a pensive mode, duck into Paul’s Book Store, a 1954-vintage repository of used books, or saunter past the offices of the century-old liberal magazine The Progressive. If you’re looking to dress up and raise hell, hit the strip on Halloween, when tens of thousands of students and other people with more creativity than sense pack the street for a street party the city a few years ago embraced and dubbed “Freakfest.” You can always get away from the crowds -- the city, concentrated on an isthmus between two large lakes, includes three more lakes within its borders -- but the promise of Madison is forever that you can jostle in a mob and perhaps emerge changed. -- Sam Eifling