Experience Wisconsin

A Local’s Guide to Madison

Photo Courtesy of TravelWisconsin.com

Madison is home to many accolades—it’s ranked third in the top 100 places to live by Livability this year, it’s a best city on earth for biking according to Yahoo! Travel and it’s considered an unlikely foodie city by Fox News. Rankings aside, consider taking a trip to this mid-sized college town that’s got a big-city feel in a manageable size. Check out what to do in the five most happening areas in the city to plan out your perfect day.

CAMPUS COOL

The University of Wisconsin-Madison campus comprises a beautiful swath of the city and has one of the country’s only student unions on the water, plus an amazing array of food carts and historic monuments.

DON’T MISS:

A walk up Bascom Hill, where you’ll see Adolph Weinman’s famous Abraham Lincoln statue (a replica of the original sculpture that’s in Lincoln’s hometown of Hodgenville, Ky.). Here you’ll have an excellent view of State Street as well as the Capitol building about a mile away. If you walk behind Bascom Hall you’ll see the Carillon Tower at 1160 Observatory Dr. Free Carillon concerts are performed every Sunday at 3 p.m. when school is in session.

GET OUTSIDE:

The legendary Wisconsin Union is a required stop. It recently underwent a makeover for building upgrades and the outdoor Terrace’s construction will be complete in May. Grab a colorful sunburst chair and a scoop of Babcock ice cream, a beer or a brat and bask in the sunshine while watching the calm blue waters. Or get in the water by renting a canoe, kayak or standup paddleboard from Outdoor UW. Find their office on the west side of the building near the sailboats.

MUST-EAT:

Library Mall on lower State Street is a food cart connoisseur’s paradise. With carts peddling everything from Puerto Rican to Middle Eastern, you can get a great lunch to go for under $10.

INSIDER TIP:

Continue the campus vibe by booking a room at the Graduate Hotel mere blocks from the Wisconsin Union. The kitschy Wisconsin/collegiate décor plus two restaurant options (one of which is the rooftop The Blind), impart a cozy-cool city feel.

THE HEART OF IT ALL

State Street connects the UW campus to the Capitol building in a one-mile stretch. This pedestrian-only thoroughfare is what makes Madison famous.

DON’T MISS:

If you want local shopping and dining, this is where to find it. Stores run the gamut from women’s fashion to shoes to a shop solely devoted to hats. Tastes of the downtown’s bohemian, eclectic side can be heard in street musicians’ songs and seen in the unique, historic building facades that have been preserved.

GET OUTSIDE:

Your best bet for some fresh air is to sit at one of the many sidewalk cafes and enjoy the view. Most restaurants have outdoor patios with ample room—check out Hawk’s Bar & Grill, Buck & Badger’s, Michelangelo’s Coffee House or State Street Brats (among others) for the best seats in the house.

MUST-EAT:

It’s difficult to list just a few eateries because there are so many great places for every taste. State Street is chockfull of ethnic eateries like Himal Chuli (Tibetan), Tutto Pasta (Italian), Wisconsin Brewing Tap Haus (Wisconsin-themed) and much more. A new star on the scene is James Beard award-winning chef Tory Miller’s Estrellon, which serves Spanish tapas, pinxtos and paella.

INSIDER TIP:

Visit the (free!) Cesar Pelli-designed Madison Museum of Contemporary Art for a wonderful modern art fix. The Frank Stella Prints: A Retrospective exhibition runs through May 15 and details his amazing career in printmaking. After your visit stop up at rooftop restaurant Fresco for a happy hour cocktail or dinner—the views of State Street and the city are gorgeous.

NEAT NEIGHBORHOOD

This in-demand ’hood is the city’s other largest restaurant/shopping district with tons of options to see and do.

DON’T MISS:

Even if you don’t have kids in tow, the free Vilas Zoo is worth a visit and is open year-round. The Arctic Passage is the zoo’s newest exhibit and lets visitors see polar and grizzly bears as well as harbor seals up close. If you’re hungry, eat at the Glacier Grille, where you can dine and watch the polar bears.

GET OUTSIDE:

The UW Arboretum is a treasure with 1,200 acres of beautiful nature. Explore 20 miles of trails with multiple access points around the Monroe Street area. Or take a free guided walk on Sundays at 1 p.m. If you want to get out on the water visit Wingra Boats on Knickerbocker Street to rent a paddleboat, canoe, kayak or standup paddleboard (opens in mid-May).

MUST-EAT:

Similar to State Street, there’s a mind-boggling array of great eats here. In the mood for Mexican? Head over to Pasqual’s. Brasserie V is an excellent European-inspired brasserie. Pizza Brutta does Neapolitan pies, while Jac’s serves one of the best brunches in the city. And Freiburg Gastropub (the street’s newest eatery) has modern German cuisine.

INSIDER TIP:

If you want a uniquely Madison souvenir, stop by Zip-Dang for seriously cool locally made prints and other gifty items. And if you need a place to rest your head, HotelRED is where it’s at. The city’s original boutique hotel has modern, suite-only rooms and a great lobby restaurant called The Wise.

HIP TO BE SQUARE

The four blocks surrounding the Capitol building are nicknamed the Square. There’s a lot to explore here and on the surrounding streets.

DON’T MISS:

Take a free tour (offered daily) of the aforementioned Capitol. It’s the second largest capitol building in the U.S. after the nation’s capitol and is the only one with a granite dome.

GET OUTSIDE:

Monona Terrace’s rooftop is open to the public and offers a spectacular, unspoiled view of Lake Monona. Visitors can grab lunch or a glass of wine or beer during cocktail hour at the Lake Vista Café (open in May). If you’re a Frank Lloyd Wright fan, pop inside the building to view his work in action and visit the award-winning gift shop.

MUST-EAT:

If you love cheese, you must visit Fromagination, an artisan cheese and fi ne foods shop. Owner Ken Monteleone handpicks the best cheeses from largely Wisconsin makers as well as cheesemakers from around the U.S. Fine dining is in abundance around the Square. Try Harvest, the city’s original farm-to-table restaurant. L’Etoile (also owned by Tory Miller) serves excellent local and seasonal cuisine. Rare Steakhouse is one of the city’s most stunningly designed restaurants and plates up juicy, dry-aged USDA Prime steaks.

INSIDER TIP:

Context, a men’s clothing store on King Street, is one of the best boutiques in town. The owners have a tightly curated collection of American heritage brand goods plus jeans, shirts and accessories by under-the-radar brands that will explode in popularity soon.


This article originally appeared in the 2016 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.