I was raised in Wisconsin and if someone asked me what my favorite city in Wisconsin is, the answer would be easy: Madison. I like it so much that I decided to live there for eight years! Madison is one of those places that seems like one thing on the surface—a college town, a state capitol, a Midwestern city—but the more you get to know Madison, the more it defies any of these labels. Madison is a city that is quintessentially Wisconsin, but it is also unabashedly itself.
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. There are a lot of actually cool things to do there, and yet there aren’t a lot of tourists familiar with the attractions or activities. 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!
The Very Best Things to Do in Madison, Wisconsin
Unique Activities to Do in Madison
Wander the Farmers Market
The Dane County Farmers Market (DCFM) is one of Madison’s most famous attractions and activities. This is the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the entire country with over 200 vendors selling everything from cheese and meat, to plants and fresh veggies. The main market happens every Saturday, rain or shine, on the Capital Square. The outdoor market runs from April through November, and then it moves indoors for the winter season. If you happen to be in traveling in Madison mid-week, there are daily farmer's markets scattered throughout the city too!
I volunteered at the market for two years, so I got really familiar with the different vendors. Being in Wisconsin, cheese is obviously one of the most prominent and popular items you can buy at DCFM. Don't miss a stop at Farmer John’s stand to pick up the freshest and squeakiest cheese curds. They come in lots of delicious flavors like original, garlic & herb or cajun. Capri Cheese has some of the creamiest goat cheese I’ve ever tasted. Hook's Cheese is an award-winning purveyor with a large variety. Their cheddars are something special. I dream about their 10 or 15 year aged cheddar with its crystalized goodness.
Shopping for seasonal produce is another thing I love about the farmer’s market. If you attend DCFM regularly, you will learn which fruits and veggies are seasonal. In spring, you can expect to find asparagus, morel mushrooms, zucchini flowers, and garlic scapes. Summer will have lots of lettuce, snap peas, berries and stone fruits. Fall is the most bountiful (and my personal favorite) with all sorts of things like onions, squash, eggplant, tomatoes and root vegetables.
Attend Concerts on the Square
One of the things I look forward to most about Madison summers, aside from the beautiful weather, is Concerts on the Square. A 35 year Madison tradition, Concerts on the Square occur most Wednesdays at 7pm from June through September on the Capitol Lawn. The public is welcome to come and hear the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra play classical and modern music for free. The musical theme changes weekly. I think my favorite one was movie soundtracks!
Everyone brings a picnic blanket, chairs and snacks to enjoy, and it is usually quite a social event. You’d be surprised how many people come! They estimate a few thousand every week. Alcohol is allowed on the Capitol Lawn during Concerts on the Square, so pack yourself a little picnic with cheese, fruit, and wine. Concerts on the Square is a fun date night or relaxing way to hang with friends. Be aware that some people get a little intense about listening to the music, so you might get scolded for talking too loudly.
Tour the State Capitol
Towering above picturesque Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, the majestic Wisconsin Capitol building serves as Madison’s icon. There is actually a law which states no buildings in the downtown area can be taller than the state capitol. It’s unique shape and profile accents Madison’s skyline and is a beloved local landmark. Modeled almost identically off the federal capitol building in Washington DC, the white granite exterior is like a gleaming statement of government, incredible in its detail and beauty. The gilded and ornate interior is almost as beautiful as the outside!
The interior is free and open to public (besides any Covid-related closures), but one of the best ways to learn about the building and Wisconsin’s history is to take a guided tour. The current capitol was built between 1906 and 1917 at a cost of $7.25 million. Reaching to a height of over 200 feet, the granite dome is a marvel. It is topped by an elegant gilded bronze statue, titled "Wisconsin." The interior style and decor is meant to reflect the state’s heritage, including murals about the state’s natural resources and glass mosaics portraying important moments in history. Madison has a strong culture of civic engagement, so you might even get to witness a protest in session or a Raging Grannies sing along.
Watch a Badgers Game
As a proud UW-Madison alumni, I am all too familiar (and nostalgic) about football weekends in Madison. I know attending a Badger game might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I understand if you roll your eyes at this itinerary suggestion. But the Badgers are a really important part of Madison’s local culture and economy. If you happen to be in the city during football season, it is worth checking out a Badger game. They can be really fun and lively! Famous for the “Jump Around” rally at the end of the 3rd quarter, UW-Madison students are infamous for their ability to drink, party and have a good time. You’re bound to experience some entertaining people watching. Tailgating happens all around the stadium at bars, in parking lots and at house parties.
Best Outdoor Activities in Madison
Hike to Picnic Point
One of the most picturesque places to admire the Madison skyline is at picnic point. Located on the far west side of campus, there is a small strip of land that juts out into Lake Mendota. The angle of the land gives an amazing vantage point to see the center of the city, isthmus and capitol building. You can bike out there, or park your car in the lot at the trailhead and walk out.
The hike takes about 20-30 minutes through a natural wooded area. It is flat, easy terrain appropriate for all fitness levels. You can admire birds swimming in the water or see sailboats taking off from the terrace. The most popular time to come out here is around sunset when the golden light hits the skyline and lights it aflame in red and orange hues.
Enjoy Tranquility at the Arboretum
The UW-Madison Arboretum will always have a special place in my heart. This is the place my husband proposed to me! We’ve had a number of important dates and milestones there. Plus it is just a beautiful, peaceful place. The arboretum is an outdoor nature center and research facility for the university, specializing in ecological restoration and endemic plant species. Basically, it is a large park with unique areas dedicated to certain types of plants and plant research.
Fall is a wonderful time to ride your bike around the city's largest nature reserve, 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.
Go for a 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. Cycling 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. You might consider combining your bike ride with some of the other activities on this list. For example, the Monona Loop trail is an easy, two hour ride around Lake Monona. It goes south along John Nolan drive, which has some of the best views in the city, going through B.B. Clarke Park and past Olbrich Botanical Gardens (mentioned below). You could also do a round trip ride out to the Arboretum and back. Even Picnic Point is a decent ride!
Meander Olbrich Gardens
I know what you might be thinking. What kind of plants are growing at a botanic garden in Wisconsin, a state with winter weather 6 months of the year? Well you’ll find out at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a 16 acre outdoor botanical garden featuring hundreds 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.
Best Food & Drink to Try in Madison
Farm to Table Dinner
Wisconsin’s capital city of Madison has a blossoming food & culinary scene that is recognized throughout the Midwest as a pioneer in farm-to-table, ingredient focused cuisine. My culinary awakening aligned with the larger farm-to-table movement that was spreading throughout Madison’s restaurants. These type of restaurants really resonate with me. You can expect restaurants to proudly display their local food purveyors and farm partners. A lot of restaurants have a chalk board on the wall listing them, or you’ll see it on the back of the menus. Regardless, you can rest assured that you will be eating well while traveling in Madison Wisconsin. Because there are so many great restaurants, I have a whole separate post all about the best restaurants in Madison!
Eat Cheese Curds
I already mentioned cheese curds once in this article, but you had to know it was coming again – I am a chedhead girl after all! Cheese curds might as well be synonymous with Wisconsin, because these beloved local snacks are available throughout the state. Curds are the cheese proteins separated from the whey during the cheesemaking process. It could be a waste product, but instead, we bag them up fresh to sell and eat.
Fresh cheese curds, like those from Farmer John at the farmers market, have a characteristic squeak when you eat them. It is caused by resistance from the protein strands rubbing against the enamel of teeth. This only happens with fresh curds because cheese cultures and coagulants break down the protein after about 3 or 4 days. Many Wisco newbies don’t love fresh curds on first try. The texture is sort of foreign. Personally, I think they’re amazing and it is one of the things I miss most about Madison, now that I live in Germany.
If it is your first time visiting Wisconsin, fried cheese curds might be a more approachable option to sample this unique Midwestern food. For the fried varieties, there are tons of Madison restaurants with cheese curds on their menu including Graze, Next Door Brewing, Tipsy Cow, and the Great Dane. They all herald their own dipping sauces and breading, which is usually a light beer batter. I think the best ones are at the Old Fashioned. I like their quality of cheese and their selection of dipping sauces are delicious, especially the roasted garlic aioli. If you happen to be on campus or at a street festival, the Curd Girl is a close second for best cheese curds in Madison.
Beers at the Terrace
The Union Terrace is a Madison institution, beloved by students and community members alike. Formerly the UW-Madison student union, the terrace recently went through a multi-year, multi-million dollar renovation that has resulted in what might be the most beautiful lakefront patio space I’ve ever seen. Madison has one of the only universities in the US to serve beer on school grounds. Proud of the state's brewing roots, the terrace serves pitchers of beer from Wisconsin’s many independent breweries.
You can expect the terrace to be packed throughout the summer with a mix of students, alumni, and young families all enjoying nice weather on the lake. There is usually live outdoor music, and sometimes there are even big name bands. I’ve celebrated birthdays here, along with many fun evenings with friends. Just keep ordering pitchers of beer, playing cards and enjoying the sunset until you’re ready to leave. There’s no rush and life can just pass by. If you get too warm, grab an ice cream cone from Babcock Creamery, a campus based ice cream shop.
Ice Cream at Chocolate Shoppe
This is not the place to go if you are on a diet. You will be reminded of this from the second you walk in with their painted mural talking about their full-fat dairy and rich ingredients. The extra creamy ice cream is WELL worth the extra calories. Chocolate Shoppe has several locations around the city, but I always walk to the one on State Street when I'm in the mood for a sweet treat. They have (by far!) the largest and tastiest selection of ice cream in the city, including some really quirky flavors. Examples include "$H*T JUST GOT SERIOUS" which is a salted caramel ice cream swirled with rich sea salt fudge and salted cashews or "Exhausted Parent" which is a bourbon-espresso ice cream and bittersweet chocolate chunks. You really can't go wrong with any of the choices.
Unique Boutiques and Shopping in Madison
East Johnson Street Shops
I am passionate about supporting small businesses, especially shops and boutiques, when I travel. It is an important source of revenue for many business owners. One of the most recent areas for new development (and gentrification) in Madison is the east Johnson corridor. This part of the city has changed a lot since I first moved to Madison.
It is no secret that I love a good vintage clothing find, which is why Good Style Shop is a favorite e Johnson shop. It is a little expensive, but the quality is always good. Pick up your next favorite house plant or home décor accessory at Wildewood. The staff here is super friendly too! Get lost in the quirky Bernie’s Rock Shop as you admire the unique assortment of crystals and gemstones. Further down, support local Black business owners at African & American Store, a quaint and humble shop featuring African clothing & fabrics, and food products.
Willy Street Shops
For a more alternative and budget friendly vibe in your shopping, take a wander down Williamson Street. Locally called Willy Street, I used to live in this area. I always loved all the secondhand shops. The most well-known thrift store here is St. Vincent DePaul. This location is large, so there are tons of books, clothing and housewares to look through.
My favorite secondhand clothing boutique on Willy Street is StillGoods. They follow a consignment model, so the collection is more selective and curated. I can always find something I love here! Hazel offers a great selection of handmade gifts and décor from local Madison makers. If Fair Trade and ethically produced goods are important to you, the women’s clothing boutique Change offers an excellent selection. Finally, GreenLife Trading Co is a zero-waste concept store with tons of products for eco-living and refillable body products.
Monroe Street Shops
I used to work at a boutique on Monroe Street. I always loved the camaraderie along this corridor. The business owners are friendly and there is a wide assortment of boutiques and shops to wander. Monroe Street 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. Orange Tree Imports is one of the longest standing businesses on Monroe Street, thanks to its quirky selection of seasonal and functional gifts. I used to buy large stone jewelry from the Asian-inspired Art Gecko or cute screen-printed clothing from Zip Dang.
Do you have any questions? Comment below and I can help!
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