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6 one-tank road trips from Madison you need to take this summer

Drive to one of these six ideal destinations

As summer returns, so does the desire to hop in the car, roll down the windows, crank up the tunes and hit the road. Within a few hours drive are six ideal destinations only a tank of gas away. 

St. Louis: Fun for the Family

Exploration abounds in the Gateway City.
Drive Time: 6 hours, 6 minutes, Distance: 359 miles

Cross the western Illinois border into historic St. Louis, Missouri, a cultural gem along the Mississippi River. St. Louis is a great spot for the whole family to visit museums, outdoor attractions and restaurants.

Kick off the trip at City Museum, a 600,000-square-foot, real-life fun house located in the former International Shoe Co. building. There is something new and exciting to explore at every turn, so kids and adults alike can spend an entire day there. Features include a series of enchanted caves, a 10-story slide, a skateless skate park (an indoor skate park where visitors run, slide or jump instead of skateboarding), a treehouse and an aquarium.

If your group isn’t tired after exploring the museum, less than a mile away is Citygarden, complete with 24 sculptures, six rain gardens and a pool with a 6-foot waterfall. No visit to St. Louis would be complete without a trip to the Gateway Arch, the city’s crown jewel. See the city from 630 feet in the air at the tallest human-made monument in the U.S.

Enjoy the outdoors at Forest Park, known as the “Heart of St. Louis.” Forest Park is home to the World’s Fair Pavilion, the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Saint Louis Zoo — named the Best Zoo in 2018 by USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards.

Get a taste of St. Louis in The Hill neighborhood, which is known for its Italian cuisine and St. Louis-style pizza — thin pizza cut in rectangles with a cracker-like crust and topped with Provel cheese, a mix of cheddar, Swiss and provolone. Take the kids to Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a culinary staple in the city for more than 80 years.

For a meal that comes with a side of St. Louis history and pop culture head to Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and music club made famous by Chuck Berry, who performed there more than 200 times. The restaurant is in the Delmar Loop, which has plenty of other attractions including the St. Louis Walk of Fame, the Loop Trolley and Tivoli Theatre.

End a day in St. Louis by catching a game at Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis was named the third-best city for baseball fans to visit by U.S. News & World Report. Cardinals games are some of the most-attended MLB contests in the country behind Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees games. —MI

Marquette in the UP: Head Up North

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula provides respite from the daily grind.
Drive Time: 5 hours, 35 minutes, Distance: 310 miles

As the largest city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Marquette features a unique combination of urban and rural elements that make it a great getaway. The UP stretches along the south shore of Lake Superior, so expect gorgeous lake views at almost every turn.

There are more than 300 waterfalls in the UP, which is home to all but one of Michigan’s waterfalls. Hike around the area to see some of the falls within an hour’s drive of Marquette: Morgan Falls, Dead River Falls, Yellow Dog Falls, Pinnacle Falls, Alder Falls, Wagner Falls, Black River Falls and Munising Falls.

If you travel to only one location outside of Marquette, visit Munising for the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Pictured Rocks stretches 42 miles, with 15 miles of sandstone cliffs and nearly 100 miles of trails. To see as many sights as possible, take a Classic Cruise boat tour from Pictured Rocks Cruises LLC on a 32-mile trip along the coast and past iconic sites like Painted Coves, Lovers’ Leap, Indian Head and Chapel Rock.

Back in Marquette, one of the most-visited sites in the area is Presque Isle Park, home to the Black Rocks, a popular site for cliff diving. For some of the best overlooks of Lake Superior, hike the Harlow Lake Recreational Area, complete with four vistas — Hogback Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, Top of the World and Bareback Ridge.

If spending the weekend outdoors isn’t for you, stay in the city and get a taste of nature by driving or hiking up Mount Marquette, a 1,200-foot-tall mountain with breathtaking views of the city and shoreline. Stay on flat land with 12 miles of paved trails weaving throughout the city on the Marquette City Multi-Use Path.

Go on a brewery tour at Blackrocks, Cognition, Jasper Ridge, Marquette Harbor and Ore Dock breweries. While Superior Culture also brews beer and hard cider, the spot is better known for its kombucha and jun, a beverage similar to kombucha using green tea and honey as opposed to black tea and cane sugar.

When in Marquette, make sure to try a pasty — a handheld pie filled with meat and vegetables. After more than 70 years, Lawry’s Pasty Shop is still going strong with two locations in Marquette and nearby Ishpeming. Also serving tasty pasties is Jean Kay’s Pasties & Subs. Order a couple pasties for the drive home, too. —MI

Chicago's Wicker Park/Bucktown: Big-City Hideaway

Feel like a Chicagoan by exploring Wicker Park.
Drive Time: 2 hours, 18 minutes, Distance: 147 miles

The Idea of Chicago as a weekend getaway can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re not dead set on being downtown, exploring one of the city’s neighborhoods can be just as fun.

Chicago’s Wicker Park/Bucktown is one of those neighborhoods. Imagine Madison’s Monroe Street, Atwood Avenue and Williamson Street against a Chicago skyline, and that’s the vibe of this popular area within the third-largest city in the U.S. 

Right in the heart of Wicker Park where six corners meet, a fairly new boutique hotel, The Robey, offers trendy and upscale accommodations, including a rooftop pool, a swanky lounge and suites with breathtaking views of the Chicago skyline.

Downstairs is Café Robey, run by executive chef Kevin McAllister, who offers modern American small and main plates like pastrami-style duck and tempura fried shrimp. Raised in Wisconsin and trained at Milwaukee Area Technical College, McAllister says his Dairy State cooking influences endure. “Growing up, I said I would never cook in Chicago because it was too big, had too much going on,” he says. “I was wrong, I moved here and now it is home to me.”

For brunch in Wicker Park, walk to Dove’s Luncheonette —a diner with a hipster vibe and Tex-Mex options. Specials like enchiladas with yucca in garlic confit, topped with guajillo salsa, pepitas, queso fresco, scallions and cilantro will have you wondering why you haven’t always added a little spice to your morning meal. Dove’s sister restaurant, Big Star, is another nearby option for a taco lunch or a happy hour drink. 

If you’re just looking for a quick coffee, there are many close options, including Stan’s Donuts & Coffee, La Colombe Coffee Roasters and Brü Chicago. Surround yourself with books or catch a live reading at Volumes Bookcafe, or take a tour of the Flatiron Arts Building, which houses artists’ studios and local businesses and is open to the public daily. 

If you plan to spend at least a few hours downtown (and happen to be a “Hamilton: An American Musical” fan), you can check out an immersive, 360-degree exhibit on Northerly Island open from April 27 to Sept. 8. “Hamilton: The Exhibition” features Lin-Manuel Miranda as the audio guide through a deeper look into the life and times of Alexander Hamilton. Read more about the exhibit here. —AB

Indianapolis: Coming to the Crossroads

Embrace the Hoosier hospitality with a visit to Indiana.
Drive Time: 5 hours, 18 minutes, Distance: 327 miles

At the epicenter of Indiana — affectionately known as the “Crossroads of America” — all roads eventually lead to Indianapolis. Just five hours from Madison is an exciting hub for sports, arts and shopping. Tourism has grown with more than 28 million people visiting annually.

May is one of the most exciting months to visit Indianapolis. There’s a certain buzz in the air in eager anticipation of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500, a tradition since 1911. Events throughout the city will culminate on May 26 with the 103rd running of the Indy 500, one of the most celebrated car races in the world. If you can’t make the race, it’s worth driving past the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or stopping inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum during your visit. If you’re a sports fan, Indy is the place to be. In the coming years, Indianapolis will host many big sporting events like the NBA All-Star Game and the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournament championship, among others.

Take time for nature and the arts at Newfields, home of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Relax while enjoying the galleries surrounded by gardens, a mansion, a beer garden and more than 100 acres of woodland. If you’re looking to catch a live performance, visit Hilbert Circle Theatre, home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Before the show, venture to the top of Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Monument Circle for a 360-degree view of the city skyline.

One of the most buzzed-about areas in Indianapolis is Mass Ave, a shopping destination. Shop until you drop at local boutiques like Boomerang BTQ, Homespun: Modern Handmade, Silver in the City and Global Gifts. In between shops, stop at Penn & Beech to create your own custom-scented candle. 

Make sure to sample some of the unique fare in the city Food & Wine Magazine named one the best places to eat in 2019. Whether grabbing brunch at Milktooth or checking out Beholder — considered one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in 2018 — your taste buds will be delighted by Chef Jonathan Brooks’ creative flavors. Bluebeard is another must-try, thanks to Chef Abbi Merriss, a four-time James Beard Foundation Best Chef Great Lakes semifinalist. At the end of the day, venture to Hotel Tango Artisan Distillery to sample from a long list of cocktails using Hotel Tango’s own bourbon, whiskey, moonshine, limoncello, orangecello, gin, vodka and rum. —MI

Twin Cities: Twice as Nice

With two bustling cities to explore, you'll stay busy in the Twin Cities.
Drive Time: 4 hours, 6 minutes, Distance: 266.5 miles

With a visit to the Twin Cities you can experience two cities for the price of one tank of gas. In the Minneapolis and St. Paul metropolitan areas, there is so much to do that a long weekend might not be enough time to accomplish everything on your list.

Start in Minneapolis at the historic Stone Arch Bridge. Built with 2,100 feet of granite and limestone, the bridge gives pedestrians and bicyclists a panoramic view of the city and St. Anthony Falls, the Mississippi River’s only natural waterfall. In June, the Stone Arch Bridge Festival hosts more than 200 local artists, three stages for live music and an old-fashioned car show. 

The Mill City Museum is built from the rubble of the former world’s largest flour mill — at peak production the mill ground enough flour to make 12 million loaves of bread a day. Climb aboard the Flour Tower, a giant elevator journey through the history of the Minneapolis flour industry, or visit the baking lab for yummy treat samples.

The city has a spectacular outdoor adventure — Minnehaha Regional Park — featuring a stunning 53-foot waterfall in the center of the city. Within the park, you’ll also find wading pools, a pergola garden, an eatery, disc golf and hiking trails.

Rest your feet during a performance at The Guthrie Theater. Pro-tip: You can pick up last-minute tickets for $15 to $30 right before a show. This spring and summer, shows include “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Metamorphoses” and “Guys and Dolls.”

Set sail aboard a cruise on the St. Croix River, which borders Minnesota and Wisconsin. Choose from an array of cruises from St. Croix River Cruises, which board in nearby Hudson, Wisconsin. On a comedy cruise, you’ll eat, journey down the river and laugh at jokes from national headliners. Or try the Sunday champagne brunch tour, complete with champagne and a feast of vanilla waffles, beef pot roast, pastries and more.

For a more relaxed vibe, head to St. Paul. Start with a free 45-minute tour at the St. Paul Capitol Building featuring the second-largest self-supported marble dome in the world. Visit the legislative chamber and the “golden horses” at the entrance, and compare the Rathskeller Cafe to the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s own German-style lounge.

Before heading out, stop at Nina’s Coffee Cafe for a caffeine boost. Started as a brothel in the 1920s, the cafe has become a popular resting spot at the center of St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill. Guests enjoy a light breakfast, sandwiches, soup and conversation while admiring the high ceilings and arched doorways. —MK

Milwaukee: A Trip Close to Home

Escape Madison for the day with a visit to Milwaukee.
Drive Time: 1 hour, 19 minutes, Distance: 79 miles

Milwaukee has many sides. It’s the largest city in Wisconsin, a popular site for festivals, the birthplace of MillerCoors Co. and home to quirky memorabilia like the most extensive collection of microphones in the world. And since it’s less than an hour and a half away from Madison, it’s the perfect destination for a day trip.

Located in downtown Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Public Museum houses three stories of permanent exhibits and a rotating special display. The museum houses a planetarium with a six-story theater screen — and it’s the first venue in the world to use Digistar 6 technology, a groundbreaking dome technology used to project images.

Drive just outside the city to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which has more than 2,100 animals and more than 348 species. The first phase of Adventure Africa, a project that will transform 25 percent of the zoo’s current footprint, is opening in May. The exhibit brings a new elephant area and two mixed-species exhibits featuring zebras and impalas, and bongos and yellow-backed duikers. Expect even more changes as the hippopotamus and rhinoceros exhibits are updated in the coming years.

For dinner, Ardent in Milwaukee’s East Side neighborhood has a seasonal menu developed by chef and owner Justin Carlisle, a four-time James Beard Foundation Midwest: Best Chef nominee. He uses his family farm’s produce, herbs, beef and flowers in many dishes.

Even in a city of nearly 600,000 people, you can find ways to experience nature in Milwaukee. On Lake Michigan, the Bay View neighborhood offers beautiful lakeside views. Walk along South Shore Oak Leaf Trail, an 8-mile stretch in the 125-mile Oak Leaf Trail, which runs throughout Milwaukee County. During the summer, enjoy the South Shore Terrace Kitchen and Beer Garden or the popular South Shore Farmers’ Market, which features more than 45 vendors selling everything from tea and vegetables to maple syrup and doughnuts.

Go shopping in the Historic Third Ward, the city’s arts and fashion district. Milwaukee’s oldest center for commerce is home to the largest concentration of art galleries and some of the hippest industrial condos. While shopping, stop at the Milwaukee Public Market, where nearly 20 independent merchants sell high-quality products and food.

Milwaukee’s nightlife lends itself well to spontaneity, but if you plan ahead you can catch a show at the new Fiserv Forum. Some big names scheduled to perform there include P!nk on May 2, Carrie Underwood on June 20 and Ariana Grande on July 5.

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