Madison, Indiana, Is a River Cruise Jewel

The Broadway Fountain, created for the 1876 American Centennial, graces Main Street in Madison, Indiana. // Photo used courtesy of Visit Madison.

Whether it's called a "hidden jewel" or an "unexpected treasure," any port destination that surprises or wows river cruisers is one that will keep them coming back for more. With the North American river cruise season just a few months away, here's one of our picks for a hidden gem -- Madison, Indiana, a slice of Americana on the Ohio River Scenic Byway in southern Indiana.

Journalist Charles Kuralt once wrote after a visit: "For me the princess of the rivers is unquestionably Madison. It is the most beautiful river town in America."

Both American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company will sail to Madison this year on Ohio River cruises. We visited on a recent American Queen port call and here’s why we loved this destination.

Americana Preserved

Most of Madison’s downtown surrounding Main Street is comprised of historic buildings, so the town has an appealing Americana look. In fact, Madison has 133 blocks encompassing more than 2,000 historic buildings, all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Much of the architecture is antebellum, some of the Federal or Greek Revival styling.  

Popular with cruise visitors are three National Historic Landmark sites open for tours: The Lanier Mansion State Historic Site, the Shrewsbury-Windel House, and Eleutherian College.

Exuding a decidedly American spirit and style, Madison is one of those "hidden gems" people discover on a river cruise. // Photo by Visit Madison

Many cruisers enjoy window shopping and popping into eclectic downtown shops. You’ll find gift stores, art galleries, wine tasting venues and even businesses selling rare musical instruments or hand-made natural soaps. To see antebellum structures, stroll around the First, Second and Third Street areas of downtown. One cultural highlight is Madison’s historic Ohio Theatre, 105 East Main Street; it opened in 1938.

The town has a good selection of antique stores and antique malls; a few are along Main Street, many on the town’s western end. The largest is Lumber Mill Antique Mall, 721 First Street, with three floors antiques to peruse.

Broadway Fountain

Want to see something you just won’t see most places? Madison’s ornate Broadway Fountain is one of only five left in the world. It was originated exhibited in Philadelphia for the centennial of the United States, and given to Madison in 1886 by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

Originally, it was cast in iron, but during the 1976 Madison bicentennial festivities it was recast in bronze. You can see it at North Broadway and Main Street in Madison.

Wine tasting along Indiana's Wine Trail is a popular visitor activity in Madison. // Photo by Visit Madison

An added bonus? If clients are visiting on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday, they'll find the Madison Farmers’ Market, consisting of local produce and artisan goods, set up around the fountain.

Indiana Wine Trail

Wine enthusiasts who enjoy tours and tastings might set up a private tour with a car and driver to head out along the Indiana Wine Trail consisting of six wineries in several southeastern Indiana river towns.

But Madison itself has three of those wineries -- Lanthier Winery, Madison’s oldest, at 123 Mill Street; the Thomas Family Winery, 208 E. Second St.; and the Madison Vineyards Estate Winery, just north of the city.

The Thomas winery is located in an interesting 1850's stable and carriage house.

St. Michael's is one stop on Madison's Stained Glass Walking Tour. // Photo by Visit Madison

Stained Glass Walking Tour

The destination has developed a great brochure making it easy to see stained glass art at 11 different houses of worship, many of different denominations – from Presbyterian to Episcopalian, Roman Catholic to Methodist and others.

Before clients leave on their cruise, they can download the Stained Glass Walking Tour brochure with an easy-to-read map.

Round Town Shuttles

American Queen Steamboat Company has a fleet of motorcoaches that will provide a complimentary “round town” trip for cruisers. The coaches stop at numerous attractions. We took this shuttle and found it extremely helpful and a great way to see the sites at Madison.

That said, some cruise guests simply used it as a touring vehicle and didn’t even get off. They just wanted an "around town" tour and it worked well in that regard. 

We did get off on Main Street and hopped back on later. These coaches cycle continuously through town. Just be sure you know the schedule and when the last coach departs from a specific stop.

But even if your river boat doesn’t offer an included shuttle, there is another option on weekends. The Madison Trolley departs from the visitor’s center, 630 West Main Street, on weekends at noon and 1 p.m. from May through September.

Other transport options? You might book a carriage ride in advance, so when the river boat docks, you’ll be met pierside and whisked on a tour of the historic downtown. And, for active, fit travelers, it’s just a short walk into town.

When the Munchies Hit

Downtown Madison has a slew of down-home eateries such as Miss Lilly’s on Main for good food and music. Got the munchies or need a good cup of java, or want to find a savory gift for a friend? Here are a few of the options:

• Hand-crafted chocolates and confections at Cocoa Safari Chocolates, 118 West Main Street;

• Frozen yogurt at Red Peppermint Frozen Yogurt Bar, 301 W. Main Street;

• Specialty bakery items and home-cooked breakfast at Horst’s Little Bakery Haus, 843 West Main Street,

• Savory coffee or tea and bakery goods at Madison Coffee & Tea, 100 West Main St.;

• Nostalgic candies, nuts, trail mix and more at Madison Nut and Candy Company, 207 E. Main St.

• Coffee, soups, salads, sandwiches and yummy desserts at the Attic/Coffee Mill Café, 631 W. Main Street. 

The Historic Broadway Hotel & Tavern is a popular spot for travelers who want to drop into Indiana's oldest tavern. // Photo by Visit Madison

The town also has a number of interesting “watering holes,” such as the Historic Broadway Hotel & Tavern, 313 Broadway Street; it’s Indiana’s oldest tavern, established in 1834.

To learn more about Madison, visit The website also has a link to its “app,” a hand-held guide that shows visitors what to see, where to go and what's happening around town.

Despite having just a few hours in town, we loved Madison as one of our favorite "hidden gems" on North America's rivers.

For travel agents only: What's your special discovery or hidden gem? Let us know what other destinations fit the category from your perspective; we will include in a future story. 

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