Bascom Hill on the west end of State Street  affords a view similar to the one from the State Capitol  rise. Crowning this is Bascom Hall, one of the original buildings of the university, established in 1848. North Hall, down the hill toward the lake, was the campus’s original building and served until 1850 as a one-room university.
A statue of a relaxed Abraham Lincoln sits in a tiled courtyard between Bascom and North Halls; the tiered hill is a favorite sack-out spot for students between (or skipping) classes. From a handful of students and wild animals in 1848, the university has grown to 1,000 acres and more than 50,000 students and faculty; it is a world-renowned institution.
Since its inception, UW has imbued the fabric of the community to a larger extent than even the state government has. The campus sprawls gorgeously for nearly two miles along the southern cusp of capacious Lake Mendota.
The nucleus of campus is Memorial Union (800 Langdon St., 608/262-1331, www.union.wisc.edu ). Perched beside Lake Mendota, it’s a must-stop for any visitor. Have but one night in the Mad City? You’ll never forget relaxing by the lakeside on the Union Terrace, sipping a refreshment in one of the legendary Union rays-of-the-sun metal chairs as the sun lazily sets.
A visitors information center (608/263-2400 or 608/265-9500, http://visit.wisc.edu , 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Sat.–Sun.) is available in the “Old Red Gym” next to the Union. Guided tours depart weekdays at 3 p.m. and weekends at noon. (The main visitors center is far south of here at 21 N. Park Street; it's closed weekends.)
Not far from Bascom Hall is a carillon tower with 56 bells and sporadic Sunday afternoon performances. Up the hill from the tower is Washburn Observatory (1401 Observatory Dr., 608/262-9274), one of the first observatories to use radio astronomy. It was also renovated in 2009 to restore its historic charm. Traditionally it’s open at 9 p.m. the first and third Wednesday of each month April–October (every Wednesday mid-June–late July); the rest of the year, it opens at 7:30 p.m. Note that it’s open only if skies are at least 75 percent clear. If for nothing else, hike up to the observatory to drink in the views of Lake Mendota.
A hundred yards away from the Union along Observatory Drive, at the corner of Babcock Drive, is a conglomeration of 22 gardens on a 2.5-acre Victorian estate that once belonged to the university deans. Another gem is just below Birge Hall on Bascom Hill; Botany Garden has nearly 1,000 plants arranged in evolutionary sequence.
The UW Geology Museum (1215 W. Dayton St., Weeks Hall, 608/262-2399, http://geology.wisc.edu , 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sat.-Sun., free) is rather small but has large exhibits, including a scaled version of a limestone cave, a 30-some-foot-long dinosaur, and a mastodon skeleton. Of course, you’ll also view the detritus of millions of years of the machinery of fossilization, meteorites, and minerals.
One retreat from throngs of folks that most people don’t know about isn’t really a museum. But Wisconsin State Herbarium (430 Lincoln Dr., 608/262-2792, http://botany.wisc.edu , 7:45 a.m.– 4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., free), in front of Bascom Hall atop Bascom Hill, is the nucleus of the botany department and its greenhouses are wonderful. The staff asks that you phone first, just to be sure someone knows you’re coming.
Lots of UW’s departments offer tours; it’s best to call ahead and verify it is possible. Or log on to http://vip.wisc.edu  for a full list of offerings.
This is the Dairy State, after all, so when you need to refuel, there is only the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant (1605 Linden Dr., 608/262-3045, 7:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.), where you can get up-close-and-personal looks at the creation of UW’s famed ice cream; the department also makes cheese and other dairy-related products. My personal fave is the legendary fudge-bottom pie, but walking away without an ice cream cone is a cardinal sin! Biotechnology is a new addition to the agricultural campus. But the aesthetics of the Dairy Barn (1915 Linden Dr.) aren’t to be missed. Designed in 1898 by a UW professor, its cylindrical style became a world standard. Tours focusing on the university’s crucial role in Midwestern agriculture, biotechnology, and veterinary science can be arranged through the information center at the Old Red Gym.
Where State Street  ends and the university begins stands the Memorial Library (728 State St., 608/262-3193, hours vary). Ranking in the top five nationwide for its collection (it holds more than five million volumes), it also has a few areas with rare books. A plan to add floors to the library raised a hullabaloo, since it would block the view of the Capitol.
Bus lines (many lines free within campus areas) serve just about everything. For general campus information, call 608/262-2400.
Picnic Point: A lakeshore path runs from the popular terrace of the Memorial Union, bypasses dormitories, boathouses, beaches, and playing fields, and winds up at yet another of the university’s gorgeous natural areas— Picnic Point. This narrow promontory jutting into Lake Mendota is split by a screened gravel path and is popular with hikers, joggers, and bikers. You can walk to the tip in under 20 minutes; along the way there are offshoot roads and trails as well as firepit picnic sites. The views of the city merit the stroll/jog.