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A Fun & Festive Weekend in Madison, Wisconsin

Known as one of the more raucous college towns in America, Madison, Wisconsin’s reputation as a party place precedes it. But there’s a lot more than beer and cheese curds going on in this isthmus town (let’s be honest: beer and curds are enough to get me there).

Here’s how to have a fun weekend in Madison, Wisconsin.

Where to stay:

It's known as one of America's more raucous college towns. However, there's more to Madison, Wisconsin than beer and cheese curds.
The Graduate

Looking to re-live your college days? Book a room at The Graduate. This super-stylish Langdon Street hotel puts you right in the center of party town. Common areas are stylish and fun, as are the rooms. Hello, throw pillows that say BRAT (I’m talking about the encased meat variety) and CURDS (I’m talking about the cheese variety)! You’re walking distance from State Street, Memorial Union, campus and more… which is fun, and likely noisy. I would venture most adults know if this type of hotel stay is for them.

Fun weekend in Madison, Wisconsin
The Edgewater

If the thought of listening to co-ed shenanigans outside your window at 4am sounds less than ideal, check out the Edgewater. This iconic hotel first opened in 1948, and perches right on the edge of Lake Mendota. You’re just up the street from campus and the State Capitol, but in your own little oasis. In summer, dine waterside at the Boathouse. In the winter, they flood a skating rink, with casual food options served outdoors.

It's known as one of America's more raucous college towns. However, there's more to Madison, Wisconsin than beer and cheese curds.
The Edgewater

For something a little more romantic, stay at the Mansion Hill Inn. Originally built in 1857, his elegant 10-suite bed and breakfast, was renovated by the Trek bicycle in 2008.

It's known as one of America's more raucous college towns. However, there's more to Madison, Wisconsin than beer and cheese curds.
Mansion Hill Inn

The 9,000-square-foot German Romanesque Revival building, considered by some to be the finest of its type in the country. Rooms are cozy, comfortable, with nary a doily or creepy doll in sight.

There's more to Madison, Wisconsin than beer and cheese curds.
Mansion Hill Inn

Where to Eat

There's more to Madison, Wisconsin than beer and cheese curds.
Mickie’s Dairy Bar

I love a classic diner, and Mickie’s Dairy Bar seriously delivers. Open since 1946, little has changed about this place since your grandparent’s day. Inexpensive staples, like steak and eggs, pancakes and egg sandwiches. For a more modern breakfast, check out Basset Street Brunch Club. Try coconut cream pie French toast; fried chicken and a donut; breakfast nachos and more.

There's more to Madison, Wisconsin than beer and cheese curds.
Basset Street Brunch Club

Those in town on a Friday evening will be handsomely rewarded with the finest Wisconsin culinary tradition: The Friday Fish Fry.  I’m talking fried cod or perch, potato pancakes, coleslaw, tartar sauce, rye bread and maybe even a side of applesauce. There are so many great places to get yours including the Old Fashioned (on the Capitol Square) or Mint Mark in the Atwood neighborhood. Order an old fashioned or local beer with your dinner and you’re doing Wisconsin right. It’s worth noting all these restaurants are fabulous any day of the week (and in fact, the Old Fashioned does a daily fish fry!), but you’d be a fool to skip the fish fry.

There's more to Madison, Wisconsin than beer and cheese curds.
Mint Mark

For a celebratory dinner, make a reservation at L’etoile, which is for-sure-hands-down the fanciest resto in town. Think white tablecloth, celebrating the best of local farmers (something Wisconsin has A LOT of!).

There's more to Madison, Wisconsin than beer and cheese curds.
L’etoile

For something more classic, check out the Tornado Steakhouse. Leather booths, candlelight, wood paneled walls create an atmosphere so cozy and charming that it can serve as the backdrop for anything from romantic date night to a business dinner and anything in between.

An old fashioned at the Tornado Room.
An old fashioned at the Tornado Room.

UW-Madison is known for its work hard, play hard mentality. To see the latter, check out State Street. This mile-long main drag connects campus with the capital, and is a series of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and more. Pretend you’re in college again at State Street Brats, the Kollege Klub (technically just off State Street, but same diff). For a burger that will give you needed stamina, check out the Plaza for their famed Plazaburger. And take note from the actual college students: nothing tastes better late night (or takes the sting out of a hangover) like a slice of Ian’s Pizza. The mac and cheese is a local favorite, and for good reason.

State Street Brats

Art, Culture, More

With all that partying, you might think this town is void of culture. Au contraire! There’s a lot to do, starting with the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Designed by world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli, the museum offers 51,500 square feet of interior space, as well as a 7,100-square-foot rooftop sculpture garden. Galleries are open Fri-Sunday, and admission is free.

The MMoCA

When it comes to live entertainment, you’ll find a lot of options. The new Sylvee theater is the place to see the biggest names in indie music. The High Noon Saloon, a more casual venue, showcases more up and coming acts. The Orpheum on State Street always has something interesting going on, from the biggest names in standup comedy to live music and even podcasting.

Film buffs should check out the Marquee, located on the second floor of Union South on campus. This 330-seat cinema hosts hundreds of film screenings every year, the majority of which are programmed by the WUD Film Committee. Film screenings are held almost every day during the academic year, from featured new releases to old-time favorites. All screenings are free.

The State Capitol is hard to miss (it’s the tallest building in town). Tours of the building itself are offered daily. However, there’s a lot more going on here than politics. You’ll find one of the country’s largest producer-only farmer’s markets around the square (April – November).

Farmer’s Market on the Square

Other locales on the square include the Madison Children’s Museum (there’s a human-sized gerbil wheel for both kids and adults), the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, and the Wisconsin Historical Museum.

Where to Shop

There’s plenty of shops along State Street, but for something less…collegiate… check out Hilldale Shopping Center. Hilldale’s not a regular mall, it’s a cool mall. From woman-owned EVEREVE to the Instagrammable Wildewood houseplant emporium and Glitter Workshop, a place devoted to DIY crafting, there’s something for everyone. And lots of great food, including local favorite brewpub the Great Dane, Muramoto sushi and fresh, ingredient-driven dishes at Forage Kitchen.

Best Places to Get Fresh Air

When the weather cooperates, there’s no better place to enjoy it than the Memorial Union Terrace. Grab a seat at one of the iconic yellow, orange or green tables and chairs, and enjoy a pitcher (or two) of beer.

Memorial Union Terrace

If you happen to be in town during a Wisconsin Badger Game Day (you’ll know it based on hotel rates alone), get thee to Camp Randall. You don’t really need a ticket to the game to feel like a part of the show—from multi-generational parties on Lathrop Street to fun nearby bars, there’s more to game day than the game. If you don’t mind missing kick-off, you can probably score a cheap ticket from someone having too much fun to make it to the main event.

Bolz Conservatory

Another highlight? The Olbrich Botanical Gardens & Bolz Conservatory. Explore sprawling 16 acres of flowers, fountains and more. The outdoor gardens are free, while the indoor conservatory has a small admission fee.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Best day trips

New Glarus

new glarus
New Glarus

Have a little more time? Check out the quaint hamlet of New Glarus, about 45 minutes southwest of Madison. Dubbed America’s Little Switzerland, you’ll find everything Swiss (aside from the alps). You’ll find historic sites, cute shops and, of course, New Glarus Brewing—home of Spotted Cow, the beloved and impossible to get out of state beer.

The Wisconsin Dells
Think of Wisconsin Dells as Disneyland on a beer budget. Huge resorts with indoor waterparks, lots of golfing, cheap t-shirt shops, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, go carts, mini golfing, greasy pizza joints… you may not love it, but your kids sure will.

Spring Green

taliesen
Taliesin in Spring Green

I love Frank Lloyd Wright, so for me, a visit to Spring Green is a must (see my trip to Taliesen West here). Located about an hour west of Madison, this small town has a reputation that far outranks its size, thanks to its most famous native son, architect Frank Lloyd Wright. First built in 1911, Taliesin was the principal residence of Wright, and is considered the most complete embodiment of Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture.

Have you visited Madison? Share your favorite spots in the comments!

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Known as one of the more raucous college towns in America, Madison, Wisconsin’s reputation as a party place precedes it. But there’s a lot more than beer and cheese curds going on in this isthmus town (let’s be honest: beer and curds are enough to get me there). Here’s how to have a fun weekend in Madison, Wisconsin.
photo by Jonah Brown

Photos courtesy Destination Madison unless otherwise noted.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. How on Earth did you miss Madison’s theaters? They have an amazingly talented live theater community as well as gifted musicians.
    This piece needs an update.
    (You might want to add Visual Arts, Sports, etc.)

  2. Our daughter lived in Madison for several years, and we loved visiting! Always stayed at the Ruby Marie, which is funky and affordable with a wonderful location. (There are trains running by in front of the hotel that sound their horns during the night, which is the only drawback..) Shopping on Willie St. was a favorite activity, and our absolutely favorite place for brunch, lunch and dinner was Sardine. Also notable in this foodie town- Alchemy (best stuffed grilled cheese sandwich ever!) Madison Sourdough, and Papavero.
    She moved to San Francisco 3 years ago, so now we have a another fabulous city to explore, but we miss Madison very much.

  3. We are headed there this weekend cto celebrate our 22th anniversary 28 together. Our daughter is a freshman at UWmadison. I can’t wait. Daughter has things planned for us.

  4. I’m so glad to see MADISON featured on your Places To Love.! I’ve lived here for over 15 years, after living all over the world. Madison – and WI – are hidden hotspots. I would also add to your lists: MADISON Concourse Hotel, Camp Randall, Barriques Coffee and Wine, Monona Terrace, and all locations of the Great Dane.

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