Outdoor markets, warmly lit downtowns, cozy restaurants, cheerful locals... there is something special about American…
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:
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 a 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.
If the thought of listening to co-ed shenanigans outside your window at 4 AM 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.
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.
The 9,000-square-foot German Romanesque Revival building is considered by some to be the finest of its type in the country. Rooms are cozy, and comfortable, with nary a doily or creepy doll in sight.
Where to Eat
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 are 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.
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.
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.
Best day trips
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 an 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.
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!
Like this post? Save it on Pinterest!
Photos courtesy Destination Madison unless otherwise noted.