The people in Madison are extremely friendly and easygoing, ready to strike up a conversation at any time. Despite the large college-student population, the demographics of locals’ age range varies greatly. With a population of fewer than 300,000 people, the city is on the smaller side, so two nights here is more than enough time to get a good sense of the town. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is larger than the main hub of the city itself and its beautiful campus is worthy of a couple of hours of your time to explore while you are in the area. Overall, we had a nice visit and enjoyed our walks through Madison’s streets. Unless one of our kids ends up in this extremely well-ranked university, I don’t see myself coming back for a second visit only because there simply isn’t that much to do here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cute place but it lacks the level of excitement and pace that I am naturally drawn to. I hope that the highlights of our visit that I share below will help you plan a wonderful visit to the capital of Wisconsin. I carefully curated a list of the most appealing draws of this college town.
TOP TEN THINGS TO DO IN MADISON, WISCONSIN:
1. Make your Way to Milwaukee:
Milwaukee is just a short, eighty-minute drive from Madison. We were unanimously charmed by this unique city that reminds us of no other place in the country because it truly has its own distinct character. During our short visit, we were able to spend some time in three neighborhoods that vary greatly from one another yet when visiting all three provide a comprehensive feel for all that Milwaukee offers, which is a lot of appeal and fun!
Historic Third Ward
This upscale and trendy neighborhood has seen a rebirth over the years. Former factories and warehouses have been converted into residential and commercial buildings. There are dozens of indie boutiques side by side with larger retail chains, a plethora of outdoor dining options, a bustling indoor market, and beautiful views of the Milwaukee River. This part of town is immaculate and the streets are lined with potted flowers adding to the quaint vibe. We were quite impressed by this neighborhood. It is definitely worthy of your visit.
Milwaukee Public Market is located in the Historic Third Ward District and was packed with shoppers who craved artisanal products ranging from locally made cheese to handmade confections. You can find anything from donuts to lobster in this market if you actually get a glimpse of the booths past the crowds that block them. The energy here is infectious. The sights and scents are splendid. Miraculously I left empty-handed, which is a first for me but when you’re on the road it’s hard to stock up on cheese and sushi-grade fish!
You’ll find Blue Bat Kitchen & Tequilaria right on the Milwaukee River in the Historic Third Ward. We were very satisfied with our lunch here. In fact, we ordered some dishes for a second round. We loaded up on their mushroom tacos, Brussel sprouts, sambusas filled with Impossible “meat”, Mexican corn, two types of salads, shrimp tacos, and Baja fish tacos. Everything hit the spot and refueled us for our further explorations of Milwaukee.
A popular beach for locals and visitors alike, Bradford Beach has plenty of sand to stretch out and create your own little space while you spend the day in the turquoise waters of Lake Michigan. The beach has a little Tiki bar, volleyball courts, and a soccer field. Just a few feet away you can hop on the well-paved Oak Leaf Trail (which covers an impressive 125 miles of trails throughout the city) to enjoy a stroll along with gorgeous water and skyline views. Even on a chilly, cloudy day, there were quite a few enthusiastic people set up for a day by the lake.
The Lower East Side / Brady Street
Brady Street definitely delivers a few blocks of eclectic shops, indie restaurants, and preserved colorful architectural gems in the styles of the Classical Revival and German Rennaisance periods. The neighborhood is very unassuming yet houses Ground Up, a high-end sneaker shop that sells kicks ranging from $300-$700. To get a real feel for the variety in the personalities of Milwaukee neighborhoods, head to Brady Street during the day, grab a seat outside at Brady Beach, and dive into people-watching that involves some seriously interesting characters.
While on Brady Street visit Brewed Cafe which perfectly captures the spunky spirit of the neighborhood. The cafe offers a wide selection of vegan food, freshly brewed coffees, live music, and plenty of tables to choose from.
2. Explore Campus Living at The University of Wisconsin-Madison:
Get lost roaming around the gorgeous, sprawling campus of The University of Wisconsin. The grounds of the university are possibly larger than the main hub of Madison itself. We randomly plugged in a walking radius into our google maps that helped us cover a lot of ground and get a strong sense of the student life here. We started our walking tour after we finished breakfast at Mickie’s Dairy Bar (see below). From there we crossed the street over to Randall’s Stadium, the college’s football stadium that seats 80,000 fans. We ventured further towards Porter’s Boat House to soak in some stunning lake views and made a stop at the serene gardens run by The Horticulture Department. The entire walk took about forty-five minutes and really immersed us into the offerings of this attractive campus. Make sure to explore Franternity Row as well. The homes are absolutely beautifully appointed and possibly some of the nicest you’ll find on a college campus.
3. Stroll Along State Street:
State Street links Capitol Square with the University of Wisconsin. Meander along half a mile worth of wide sidewalks and closed-off, pedestrian-friendly streets filled with shopping racks and dining patios. Peruse through the shelves of the locally owned stores selling vinyl, imported whiskey, and everything in between.
4. Soak in the Architecture at the State Capitol:
The State Capitol in Madison is one stunning structure! After your absorb the striking facade, head on in and explore the beautiful interior. Guided tours are offered for free on weekdays on the hour from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm. If you prefer to roam the building on your own, make sure to work your way up to the outdoor rotunda on the observation deck for 360-degree views of the city. On the same level as the viewing deck, walk towards the indoor rotunda or the “Trumpeter’s Balcony” for a breathtaking perspective of the ornate structure.
5. Breath in the Beautiful Scents at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens:
I can’t believe that access to sixteen acres of the stunning landscape is free at this incredible botanical garden. Yes, FREE. The Olbrich Botanical Gardens is perfectly planned to keep the interest of visitors piqued at all times. A major draw is the Thai Pavilion and Garden which is the only authentic Thai pavilion, or sala, in the United States and only one of four in the world. It was a gift from the government of Thailand to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I actually love botanical gardens and The Olbrich Botanical Gardens are one of my favorites yet. It’s approximately a fifteen-minute drive outside of downtown but totally worth venturing out of the city’s hub.
6. Fall in Love with Frank Lloyd Wright:
Wright proposed his design for the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in 1938. Almost one hundred years later it stands as a masterful example of architecture that is not only practical but well utilized in the lives of Madison’s locals. The outdoor, upper-level terrace overlooks Lake Mendota while incorporating other visually striking sights like an overflowing fountain, elevated lighting, gardens, and an outdoor cafe. The indoor area is quite magnificent as well. Wright never fails to stimulate the senses of visitors. This particular property does a spectacular job of weaving colors, shapes, earth, and air into one unforgettable masterpiece.
PS: I purposefully left out photographs of the interior because I think it is best to view this landmark in the flesh without any preconceived expectations.
7. Dive Into Madison’s Dining Options:
Graze serves farm-to-table dishes that are not only extremely fresh but overwhelmingly delicious. The open space creates a gathering place for diners to come together for a great meal that supports local farmers. As usual, we tried several outstanding dishes. Of course, we ordered the Wisconsin cheese board which came with a nice selection of three kinds of cheese, homemade butter, and a super tasty jam. We also noshed on the most incredible shishito peppers doused in garlic SarVecchio cream sauce and herbed bread crumbs. Three orders of macaroni & cheese were placed at our table- you’ve never eaten mac & cheese like this before. The noodles are huge and the cheese combination creates a heavenly, creamy result. Finally, the roasted beet salad is worth mentioning too. Field greens are topped with sweet cherries, Hook’s 10-year cheddar, and tossed in whole grain mustard vinaigrette. This salad is so simple yet so outstanding. There were a few other items we tried as well but the ones listed here were the stars of the meal. Graze was our first introduction to the Madison food scene and set the bar for our upcoming dining experiences!
Mickie’s Dairy Bar is Madison’s go-to place for a hearty breakfast. Whenever we mentioned that we had plans to dine here locals would light up and share their fond feelings for this neighborhood diner. Although it is summer, when most college kids are not in town, Mickie’s was full at 9:00 am on a Thursday. If you want to avoid a wait, head over as early as you can. Everything was really tasty but the banana, cinnamon, walnut pancakes left us wanting more.
The Boat House
The Boat House is located in The Edgewater Hotel and offers a lovely lunch right on Lake Mendota. For a solid lunch with spectacular water views, this is your spot. We thoroughly enjoyed our salads, croissant chicken salad sandwich, fish and chips, and coconut shrimp. The highlight of course was the view and then taking a walk on the deck that leads out into the green waters.
You cannot miss a dining experience at Fresco, located on the rooftop of The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The large outdoor patio has lovely views of downtown while allowing diners to sit amongst dispersed sculptures and pieces of art. The true artistic masterpieces though are in the presentation of the dishes which arrive like a true work of art created by some of the industry’s legends. We loved every bite of our decadent meal. My favorite dish was the chilled corn soup with blueberry sorbet, za’atar popcorn, and cilantro. The soup is simply outstanding. We also indulged in chickpea fries, whipped sheep’s feta with lavender honey, tuna crudo, pan-seared chicken, branzino, and tortellini. Every bite burst with flavors that harmoniously came together with the innovative ingredients carefully selected to deliver impeccable results. Dinner reservations here are tough to come by so make sure to plan ahead and ask for a table outdoors.
8. Treat Yourself to Wisconsin Made Ice Cream:
The Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream is a local staple known for its award-winning premium ice cream flavors made right in Wisconsin. The shop whips up creamy scoops of all kinds: vegan, non-fat, sugar-free, etc… We dove into three fantastic flavors: “THIS $&@! JUST GOT SERIOUS” (yup, that’s what it’s called) comprised of award-winning, smooth salted caramel ice cream brimming with rich sea salt fudge and salted cashews; banana cream pie made with banana ice cream churned with a marshmallow ripple and real Nilla wafers; Mackinac Island Fudge combined with sweet vanilla ice cream with a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate fudge ripple and chunks of rich chocolate fudge. A visit here is an excursion in itself as you’ll find yourself taking too much time deciding which flavor to order from all the wonderful options to choose from.
9. Stay Somewhere Central:
The Edgewater Hotel holds the reputation of being one of Madison’s best hotels. It’s a historic hotel, right on the shores of Lake Mendota, steps from the State Capitol, in the heart of downtown Madison. The hotel has three restaurants, a market, a fitness center, and a full-service spa. They also have a Cadillac to shuttle guests to nearby destinations. The Edgewater has all the ingredients necessary in a luxury hotel but I have to admit, I was not easily impressed by the decor which I found to be outdated. Once we settled in, the charm of this iconic hotel grew on me especially because of its walking proximity to the many places we visited. The lovely lake views won me over as well. Overall, the hotel has everything you’ll need for a comfortable and enjoyable stay. It’s not bad. But it’s not luxury. Regardless, you won’t find lake views or facilities like the ones at this property anywhere else in the area.
10. Wrap it Up With a Sensational Sunset
You’ll find a perfect summer evening at the Memorial Union Terrace just as the sun begins to set along with the throng of dancers getting lost in the beats of the live music right on the lake. The scene here is spectacular and is probably the most energetic spot in Madison. Children play on the grass, lovers sit along the water sipping wine, friends grab chairs near the band, it seems like everyone gathers here to pay homage to the setting sun. Catching a sunset here is absolutely the best way to end your visit to Madison. For a quick moment, I thought perhaps we could stay one more night after all.