A Local’s Guide to Madison, Wisconsin

I first visited Madison on a day trip in 2012 and had no idea what to expect of this mid-sized city. I remember visiting the Union Terrace, strolling along the lake, and thinking the college students at UW-Madison had it made. Years later, I’m a resident and can’t imagine living anywhere else. Here are some of the must-see places, along with a few off the beaten path personal favorites.

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Wisconsin Capitol & Capitol Square

I’ve been in the Wisconsin Capitol more times than I can count, and I never get tired of it. Decked out with real gold and marble from all over the world, this state capitol strikes me as particularly beautiful. Free tours are available daily and last about 45 minutes. Tour highlights include getting to see chambers you otherwise likely wouldn’t, spotting fossils (look for the starfish in one of the marble staircases), and of course learning all about Wisconsin’s history. If you visit during the late spring or summer months, the balcony will also be open, allowing for 360 degree views of downtown Madison.

Perhaps the best part of the Wisconsin Capitol is its proximity to the farmer’s market, festivals, museums, food, and nightlife of “capitol square.” Madison favorites in this area include farm to table fare at Graze and happy hour at The Old Fashioned. I’m partial to Canteen, a cozy and eclectic Mexican restaurant associated with Madison’s local restaurant group, Food Fight.

Wisconsin state capitol

capitol

Dane County Farmer’s Market

The Dane County Farmer’s Market takes place all around the capitol square on Saturdays, from April to November (there is also an indoor market during the winter months). One thing that makes this market special is that it’s the U.S.’s largest producers-only farmer’s market, with all products being Wisconsin grown. My personal favorite is Beloit-based Bushel & Peck’s, where you can sample all sorts of fresh, delicious condiments. If you like beets, try the beet ketchup! The best time to hit the market is early morning if you want to shop for produce. From about 10am-12pm, the sidewalks around the square get especially packed and slow-moving.

 

Vilas Zoo

Henry Vilas was a young man who passed away from complications related to Diabetes. After his death, the Vilas family decided to donate land for the Vilas Zoo and adjacent park, with the caveat that the zoo must always be free. Over a century later, Madisonians still enjoy the Vilas Zoo free of charge. Don’t let the fact that it’s free fool you into thinking it’s a small zoo. Home to over 100 species of animals, visitors could easily spend the better part of a day there. 

For those with kiddos, the Vilas Zoo also has an impressive children’s area. A gigantic outdoor play area is free of charge, and for a small fee your little ones can ride the carousel or a train. There’s also no shortage of picnic areas and food is allowed inside, so feel free to bring lunch or snacks.

The zoo also recently added more lights to their aptly named, “Zoo Lights,” which happens in December. Zoo Lights costs $7 and is a great way to support our zoo.

Bear at Vilas Zoo

Polar Bear at Vilas Zoo

Memorial Union Terrace

The Union Terrace is a universally-loved place in Madison. It’s part of the behemoth of the University of Wisconsin Madison, but attracts other residents and visitors on a daily basis. This expansive outdoor space features its signature colorful chairs, a stage for local musicians, and stands selling food and drinks, all set on the beautiful Lake Mendota. Grab a coffee there in the morning for a relaxed vibe, or go on a summer afternoon or evening to enjoy a buzz in the air.

Shadow from a Union Terrace Chair
Shadow from a Union Terrace Chair

 

Lakes

Move over Minnesota, because Wisconsin actually has more lakes! The Madison area is home to five: Lake Monona, Lake Mendota, Lake Wingra, Lake Waubesa, and Lake Kegonsa. The most popular (and easily confused) are Monona and Mendota, with the city’s Isthmus being formed in-between.

Lake Mendota is home to the aforementioned Memorial Union Terrace, as well as one of my favorite easy hikes in the area, Picnic Point, located within the UW Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve. If you’re up for a long walk, it takes about an hour to walk from the terrace to Picnic Point. On your way, you’ll marvel at the Residence Halls located directly on the lake and how many of the students probably don’t know how lucky they have it! Want a different view of Lake Mendota? Head to James Madison Park or Tenney Park.

picnic point
Picnic Point in Winter

Lake Monona, on the other hand, boasts some of my favorite walking and biking paths, boat rentals at Brittingham Boats, and the Monona Terrace. Not to be confused with the Memorial Union Terrace, Monona Terrace is a conference and event center that also hosts the free concert series, Dane Dances, on its rooftop in August. In the mood for something more mellow? Grab a coffee at Lakeside Street Coffee House and head to the nearby Bernie’s Beach.

Alternatively, Lake Wingra is my personal favorite, as it is smaller and lower-key but conveniently located by the Vilas Zoo and Vilas Park for a day full of activities. You can also hang out on Vilas Beach or rent a canoe, kayak, or swan paddle boat from Wingra Boats. Up the road is Wingra Dam; if you visit in the spring, see if you can spot the Muskies attempting to jump the dam.

Sunset over Lake Wingra
Sunset over Lake Wingra

 

The Isthmus

Now what’s this “Isthmus,” you ask? It’s the narrow piece of land between Lakes Mendota and Monona, which is home to Madison’s downtown (read about capitol square above), State Street, and Williamson (“Willy”) Street. These areas boast some of Madison’s best shopping and dining experiences, and have a distinctively local feel. Head to State Street to walk amongst college students, find some eclectic gifts, and grab lunch at one of the many outdoor food carts. Opt for Willy Street for unbeatable Southeast Asian food (try Bandung, Bahn Thai, Ha Long Bay, or Lao Laan-Xang), laid back coffee shops and bars, and the best St. Vinny’s in the city. Around in the late afternoon when Jeopardy is on? Head to the Crystal Corner Bar and answer the final jeopardy question correctly for a free beer.

 

Monroe Street

Monroe Street holds a special place in my heart since this is the neighborhood where my husband and I lived during our first few years in Madison. I love shopping at the Trader Joe’s, hanging out at Bloom Bake Shop where there are seemingly limitless vegan and gluten-free baked goods, shopping for kitchen gadgets at Orange Tree Imports, and wine-tasting at Barrique’s. For dinner, make a reservation at Everly to try some “California-inspired, vegetable-forward” cuisine, or for a more casual dining experience, head to Miko Poke for Hawaiian food.

Cupcakes from Bloom Bakeshop
Cupcakes from Bloom Bakeshop

 

The National Mustard Museum

The Mustard Museum is actually located in Middleton, one of Madison’s nearby suburbs. I find it to be one of the most random, quirky sights to see in the area, and it’s free of charge. Learn about the history of mustard, see a collection of mustard memorabilia from around the world, and taste-test more mustards (some of them spicy) than you can shake a stick at. I dare you to leave without at least one bottle of mustard.

Mustard Museum

 

Festivals & Events

Summertime in Madison is pretty magical, partially because everyone has been cooped up all winter and then gets released into a city of lakes and festivals. The Live on King Street music series brings concert goers outside the Majestic Theater for free shows throughout the summer. Concerts on the Square features the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on the capitol lawn (make sure to BYO wine and snacks). Taste of Madison brings the best restaurants in town to the square; Choose small bites from over 75 local eateries. Still have energy? Check out a Mallards baseball game or cheer on our new soccer team, Forward Madison. Go Mingos! 

 

Food & Drinks

Some of my favorite Madison restaurants belong to the Food Fight Restaurant Group. Highlights include Texas Tubb’s Taco Palace (hello salsa bar!) and the vegan-friendly brunch juggernaut Monty’s Blue Plate Diner. The aforementioned Canteen, Everly, and Miko Poke are also members.

It took me awhile to stumble upon Funk Factory Geuzeria, a gem that specializes in meerts. What is meerts, you ask? I’m still not 100 percent sure, but I do know it’s a sour and delicious beer. Sip some in their small tasting room or grab a bottle for Concerts on the Square.

 

Hotel Red

Time for some shut-eye? When I first moved to Madison, my apartment wasn’t ready and I stayed at Hotel Red for a week. The bed was like a giant marshmallow and it was some of the best sleep I’ve ever had. The location didn’t hurt, being right across from Camp Randall where the Badgers play and a quick bike ride from downtown. Check out their bar and restaurant, The Wise, for happy hour deals and game day people-watching.

What are your favorite Madison spots? Let me know in the comments below!

local's guide to madison

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