This post was originally published in September 2019 and updated in October 2021 after a return trip.
Madison, Wisconsin is one of those travel destinations that seems like one thing on the surface — a college town, a state capitol, a Midwestern city — but the more you dive into it, the more that Madison bucks the trend of any of those labels. Madison is a city that is quintessentially Wisconsin, but it is also unabashedly itself.
I lived in Madison for nearly 8 years, so I have tried most of the restaurants, done most of the tourist activities, and explored most of the neighborhoods. This is the city that taught me how to be a foodie and the first city that truly felt like home to me. Madison has a special place in my heart and it always will.
I love Madison because it is an amazing place to live, work and explore in a way that is distinct from other cities in Wisconsin. I want to help share my knowledge of Madison, in the hopes of encouraging more visitors to come and explore this liberal hub for food, art, and beer in the heart of the Midwest!
Morning: Farmers Market
One of the most iconic things to do during a 48 hour visit to Madison is the Dane County Farmer’s Market. It is the largest producer-only farmers markets in the US, with over 250 vendors showing up every Saturday from mid April to mid November. Don’t worry, it moves indoors for the winter! Farmers pop up tents selling everything from vegetables to cheese along the perimeter of the State Capitol grounds. You couldn’t ask for a more picturesque background!
Even though it runs from 6:30am – 1:30pm, you want to visit the market early, unless you love dealing with stroller blockades, socializing suburbanites and coffee spilled on you by absent minded hippies too relaxed from their morning yoga, not to mention the picked over supplies. The ideal time to visit is between 8:00am – 10:00am. I highly recommend biking there because parking is a pain in the ass, but it is so worth a visit.
Early Afternoon: State Street
State Street is just off of the Square, and is a Madison must-see, although you will often be hard-pressed to find locals there. A pedestrian only passageway, State Street is 6 blocks of shops and restaurants on one of the oldest streets in the city. It runs straight into the UW-Madison campus, and is a great place for people watching.
Although it has increasingly been co-opted by big box brands and chains, there are a few local shops still in business. I recommend shopping at Anthology for cute local print & typography pieces, ReThreads for some awesome thrifted finds, and Little Luxuries for some quirky gifts.
If you’re hungry, stop at one of State Streets many fast-casual restaurants. Avoid the chain shops in favor of one of the locally-owned Tibetan, African and Middle Eastern restaurants. My favorite is Mediterranean Café in the 100 block. It has awesome falafel and shawarma. It’s cash only and closes as 2pm, so get there in time to enjoy.
Late Afternoon: Union Terrace
State Street will end at Library Mall and Alumni Park, the heart of the UW-Madison Campus. A liberal powerhouse and the largest university in the state, the home of the Badgers is a major contributor to the city’s youthful vibe and educates nearly 40,000 students annually. You’ll also see Bascom Hill, the central green space on campus, and the most historic part of the university. At the top of the hill, you’ll overlook a beautiful view of the downtown area.
By this point, you’re probably thirsty for something other than coffee. Head to the Memorial Union Terrace on Lake Mendota and you won’t be disappointed. The terrace recently went through a multi-year, multi-million dollar renovation that has resulted in what might be the most beautiful patio space I’ve ever seen. One of the only universities to serve beer on school grounds, the Badgers are proud to serve pitchers of beer from Wisconsin’s many independent breweries.
The Union Terrace is packed throughout the summer and you’ll be surrounded by a mix of students, alumni, local Madisonians, and young families all enjoying an afternoon on the lake. There is usually live outdoor music, and sometimes they even welcome big name bands. Just keep ordering pitchers, playing cards and enjoying the sunset until you’re good and ready to leave. There’s no rush here, life can just pass on by. If you get too warm, grab an ice cream cone from Babcock Creamery, a campus based ice cream shop nearly the entrance of the union.
Early Evening: Dinner Downtown
The heart of Madison’s strong restaurant scene clusters around the Capitol Square and in the eastside neighborhoods, which we’ll explore on day two of my 48 hour Madison itinerary. For your first night in the city, stick to the downtown Capitol Square area. There are lots of restaurants on the square, so you’ll have a bevy of choices for dinner. Places worth missing are the Great Dane and 107 State. They’re just not as good as the others, and you’re in a food lovers’ city. Don’t cut yourself short or settle for less than great.
My top favorites are Heritage Tavern, a new American foodie favorite, Graze which specializes in local farm-to-table dishes, or Graft, a posh bistro with Midwestern small plates. If you love sushi, RED Sushi is me and Sam’s “spot” because of their creative rolls and flavors. If you are looking for a nice view, Eno Vino at the top of the Marriott Hotel can’t be beat.
Looking for something quintessentially Wisconsin? The Old Fashioned is where you want to go. They offer cheap and tasty Wisconsin Old Fashioneds, which are made sweet with brandy instead of whiskey. A must try if this is your first visit to Wisconsin! Their cheese curds are amazing even if the rest of their menu is nothing to write home about. They also have a huge local beer list. In fact, they have only one non-Wisconsin beer, “imported” from Minnesota.
Late Night: Bar Hopping
You’re probably stuffed to the brim by this point from all the food you’ve eaten, but you’re in Wisconsin, so embrace the excess. That’s what we do. There are lots of people out at night on the square and there are a bunch of cool bars to check out.
If you want a hipster hangout, Genna’s has a great patio and quirky décor, or the Argus which is full of tattooed PBR drinkers. If you’re interested in craft cocktails, Merchant has an awesome selection. Be prepared for some pretentious service. If you want a more intimate place, Nattspil is just off the square on King Street. It has a cool dimly lit Asian speakeasy vibe and there is usually a live DJ. Their short but tasty drink list is sure to please.
If you need late night food, the Tornado Room has an excellent late night menu at a great price. Their steak sandwich is tasty, but my favorite is the escargot. If you want something quicker, Ian’s pizza is the college kids’ favorite thanks to their funky pizza by the slice flavors like Mac & Cheese pizza, philly cheese pizza or taco pizza. Parthenon Gyros is another popular late nightspot. Delicious at the time, you might regret your decision the next morning because their gyros are v greasy.
Morning: Brunch & Willy Street
I’m a big breakfast person, and there is one brunch restaurants that stands out above all the rest in Madison — Sardine. An upscale French seafood restaurant that looks out over Lake Monona, I love the crisp, clean design of Sardine with the exposed wood beams and natural light. There’s usually a wait, but it’s easy enough to grab a spot in the bar area or make a reservation ahead of time. You honestly can’t go wrong with their brunch menu, but my personal favorite is the bacon crab cakes. They are nothing short of perfection. If Sardine is a little too pricey for you, other great brunch spots include Lazy Jane’s (always get the special) or El Dorado Grill (the chicken fried chicken is the best).
Williamson Street, locally known as Willy Street, is a hippy neighborhood for Madison’s long term residents. After brunch, slowly meander along Willy Street to discover and assortment of coffee shops and stores, all tilted toward the crunchy local market. St Vincent de Paul is the local thrift shop with amazing people watching or pop into the adorable Hatch Art House or stylish fair trade boutique, Change. You’ll also see the Willy St Coop, a local health food grocery store with everything from kale to hemp seed butter. They’ve got a great juice bar, but steer clear of their vegan bakery.
Early Afternoon: Bike Ride
Madison is blessed with an advantageous location on an isthmus – a narrow strip of land with bodies of water on either side. Lake Mendota is the larger lake on the north side and Lake Monona on the south side is slightly smaller. One of the best ways to experience Madison’s beauty is a bike ride. Riding bicycles is common in Madison, and the bike infrastructure is good. You can feel safe riding regardless of your skill level. Rent a bike for the day from a cycling shop, or you can pick up a bike all around the city using the bike share program B-Cycle.
There are a number of nice bike paths you could ride throughout Madison. For the sake of this 48 hour Madison itinerary, I would recommend biking the Lake Monona Loop clockwise (eastern direction). It should take about 2 hours without stopping, but there are some nice attractions to visit along the way.
The first is Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a 16 acre outdoor botanical garden featuring thousands of native Wisconsin plant species. Of course there are other non-native species, such as a 10,000 square foot tropical conservatory filled with exotic plants, orchids, birds, and a waterfall. The gardens are open daily and admission is free to the public. A particular highlight at Olbrich is the Thai Pavilion and Garden. This is the only traditional Thai Pavilion in the continental United States. Its gleaming gold leaf paint and intricate details are stunning.
Continuing following the loop around Lake Monona. You’ll pass through some other city parks and a few neighborhoods before you come around to John Nolan drive. This is a major highway used for coming into and out of Madison. Thankfully, the bike path here is separate and protected from the road, so you’ll have nothing to worry about. What is fantastic about this route is the views of the isthmus as you come back into the city. You’ll be able to really appreciate the Madison skyline, and I can almost guarantee you’ll want to stop for a picture of 12.
Late Afternoon: East Johnson Area
Just across E Washington Avenue, you’ll find another trendy area running along E Johnson Street. A little more hipster and less crunchy than Willy Street, this area is currently undergoing massive transformation as development moves east from the Capitol. This is the part of the city where I used to live, so I am particularly fond of the businesses in this area. If you didn’t get enough to eat for lunch, enjoy Madison’s best pizza at Salvatore’s which always has new and delicious specials to sample. Pop into Robin’s Room for a quick happy hour because you don’t want to miss their amazing assortment of cocktails.
Start with some tranquility at James Madison Park or Tenney Park, both of which reside on the shores of Lake Mendota. Tenney Park offers beautiful capitol views near the Yahara river. Then start walking along E Johnson to find my favorite second-hand shop Good Style Shop, which always has a great selection of vintage treasures. Pick up your next favorite house plant or home decor accessory at Wildewood, and definitely peek into the quirky Bernie’s Rock Shop for a unique assortment of crystals and gemstones.
Evening: Chic Dinner
For your last night in Madison, there are two places that are worthy of your last meal in Madison — Pig in a Fur Coat or Mint Mark. Pig in a Fur Coat is helmed by chef Dan Bonanno who cooks up an amazing pork laden fare. Sam and I used to live only a few blocks from here, and have watched this restaurant skyrocket in fame over the years. Chef Dan mixes French & American food into a head-to-tail menu. We’ve probably eaten here about 10 times, and I’ve had dreams about the Carpaccio. The duck egg ravioli is also crave worthy! Their fries are excellent, and the torchon was featured on the Food Network.
A newer restaurant on the Madison scene, Mint Mark is dishing up what is probably the best food in Madison right now. Their constantly changing small plate menu offers creative takes on classic dishes, as well as out-of-box combinations that work every time. Their tropical Palm Springs-inspired decor is a refreshing change of pace from the normal “Madison” look. They are one of the few restaurants in Madison that offers a tasting menu at a chef’s table, and it is worth the (in my opinion as a Chicago resident) affordable price tag.
Day 3 Bonus!
Depending on your travel schedule, you might find yourself with a little bit of extra time in Madison. There is plenty more to do in Madison that I left off this 48 hour itinerary, such as activities on the western side of the city. Monroe Street is a great area for wandering around or doing some more boutique shopping. It offers a slightly more upscale shopping experience, with clothing boutiques and art galleries. Good Day Shop is a favorite, offering a curated selection of mindfully-made home and lifestyle products. I used to buy large stone jewelry from the Asian-inspired Art Gecko or cute screen-printed clothing from Zip Dang.
Also on the westside is one of my all-time favorite places in Madison: the UW-Madison Arboretum. This is the place my husband proposed to me! The arboretum is an outdoor nature center and research facility for the university, specializing in ecological restoration and endemic plant species. Fall is a wonderful time to visit the city’s largest park, but it is pretty lovely all year round. Spring is especially nice in the flower garden section. The smell is AMAZING! There is a parking lot at the main visitor’s center if you drive. There are paved trails heading into the arboretum, and then gravel or wood chip paths inside. Bikes are allowed on the trails.
Where to Stay in Madison
There are plenty of hotels to choose from around Madison. Many of them are clustered around the State Capitol, for obvious reasons. The AC Hotel by Marriot is a nice option, and it has a great restaurant on the roof. A more affordable option is the Park Hotel by Best Western. A hotel near the capitol makes for lovely views and a convenient location, but parking is expensive and it can be a little rowdy at night. I prefer something a little further away, and the Indigo Hotel is my personal favorite. It is housed in a former paint factory and has really unique decor and an industrial vibe that is rare in Madison.
Where to Eat in Madison
I have already listed a lot of restaurants in this article, because Madison has so many great options! This is a city that loves good food, and you should definitely sample as many places as you can during your 2 day stay in Madison. Although I mentioned a lot of my favorite spots in this article, there are definitely a few I missed. You can find all of my favorites in a separate blog post all about Madison’s restaurant and culinary scene.
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