A First Timer’s Guide to the City
As an 8-year resident of Madison, I have explored most of the city, tried most of the restaurants, and done most of the touristic activities. Madison has a special place in my heart. I love this city and I love showing people this city. Madison is an amazing place to live, work and explore, and I want to help share my knowledge, in the hopes of encouraging more people to come visit this liberal mecca of the Midwest.
If you’ve only got 48 hours in Wisconsin’s Capitol city, you better get busy because there is a lot to see. Plan on arriving on a Friday early afternoon for a long weekend.
If you’re driving into the city, definitely exit the highway at the John Nolen Drive from the 12-18 Beltline, because you’ll drive right up to the best view in the city. You’ll drive along an isthmus across Lake Monona. Enjoy a view of the state capitol gleaming out over the lake and take in the simple, but beautiful skyline of Madison.
Ditch the car at your hotel, and pick up one of Madison rental bikes from a B-Cycle station. Located throughout the city, 2 wheels is by far the easiest and most fun way to see the city. A bicycle-friendly city, there are tons of amazing bike paths and bicycle boulevards everywhere to make you feel safe as you pedal around town.
Have lunch at the city’s newest hot spot, Sujeo. An Asian fusion spot by executive chef Tory Miller, everything on this menu has a traditional flavor with a modern technique. I’m a fan of many of the dishes, but try the DanDan Noodle or BBQ Pan Fry for your first time.
A short distance from Sujeo, walk east along E Johnson Avenue, exploring the thrift shops and quirky mom & pop stores. I’m a big fan of Good Style Shop, but Upshift is another great one. The street is undergoing a revival, but some of the older shops are still there. Definitely peek in to the quirky Bernie’s Rock Shop, home to all kinds of unique stones, crystals and handmade jewelry. If you didn’t get enough to eat for lunch, enjoy Madison’s best (in my opnion) pizza at Salvatore’s.
Head about a mile south from Johnson Street to Williamson Street, locally known as Willy Street. The ground zero of activity is on the corner of Williamson and Baldwin, where you’ll find a large St Vincent de Paul with amazing people watching, the adorable Hatch Art House, and stylish fair trade boutique, Change. You’ll also see the crunchy hippie hub, the Willy St Coop, a local health food grocery store with everything from kale to hemp seed butter. They’ve got a great juice bar, but steer clear of their vegan bakery.
Don’t miss dinner at Pig in a Fur Coat. By far my favorite restaurant in the city, chef Dan cooks up an amazing pork laden fare. He mixes French & American food into a head-to-tail menu. I’ve had dreams about the Carpaccio, and the duck egg ravioli is crave worthy. Their frites are excellent, and the torchon was featured on the Food Network.
Head back down Williamson Street to hang out at the neighborhood favorite, the Weary Traveler. A cozy and humble corner bar, you can hang out here for hours playing their in-house board games and sipping on their traditional cocktails. Their menu never changes, which the staff claims to be part of the charm, while I begrudge eating the same boring dishes. But their North of the Andes Sandwich and Southwest Salad are solid choices. And their sexy potatoes are pretty sexy.
Head back to your hotel with a steady but manageable buzz because your Saturday is going to be busy.
Haul your ass out of bed early and head to the Saturday farmer’s market on the capitol lawn (colloquially known as the Square). Even though it runs until 2pm, you want to be there early, unless you love dealing with dogs tied to stroller blockades, socializing suburbanites and coffee spilled on you by absent minded hippies too relaxed from their morning yoga.
The farmer’s market is a special place. I actually worked there for 2 years and I think it is an amazing thing. The largest farmer-only market in the United States, it has over 100 vendors lining all four sides of the state capitol. I highly recommend biking there because parking is a pain in the ass, but it is so worth a visit. You can try award-winning local cheeses (Bleumont and Hooks are crowd favorites), eat some homebaked scones while sipping on Collectivo Coffee, and eating the famous hot & spicy Stella’s cheesebread to cure your hangover. As you slowly wander, you’ll see some of the freshest and most unique local produce you can imagine, sold by a wide demographic of area farmers.
Take a quick peek inside the capital during your walk around the market. Modeled almost exactly from the federal capitol building in Washington, the inside is almost as beautiful as the outside. The ornately decorated rotunda towers over you and all the natural light makes the marble shine. And with Scott Walker’s popularity in Madison, you might even get to witness a Raging Grannies protest sing along.
State Street is just off of the Square, and is a Madison must-see. Pedestrian only, State Street is 6 blocks of shops and restaurants on one of the oldest streets in the city. It runs straight into the UW-Madison campus, and is a great place for people watching and wandering. Although it has increasingly been co-opted by chain restaurants and big box stores, there are a few local shops still in business. Definitely stop in at Anthology for cute local print & typography pieces, ReThreads for some awesome thrifted finds, and Little Luxuries for some quirky gifts.
If you’re hungry, stop at one of State Streets many “ethnic” restaurants. It is full of Tibetan, African and Middle Eastern restaurants. My favorite is Mediterranean Café in the 100 block. It has awesome falafel and schwarma. It’s cash only and closes as 2pm, so get there in time to enjoy.
You’ve now reached end of State Street, which dumps you off in the heart of the UW-Madison campus. A liberal powerhouse, this university is a major contributor to the city’s youthful vibe and educates nearly 40,000 students annually. You’ll find yourself standing in library mall, conveniently named after the 3 libraries that surround it. You’ll also see Bascom Hill, the central green space on campus, and the most historic part of the university. If you haven’t had enough walking yet, climb your ass up that hill for a beautiful view of the downtown area.
By this point, you’re probably thirsty for something other than coffee. Head to the Memorial Union Terrace on Lake Mendota and you won’t be disappointed. One of the only universities to serve beer on school grounds, the Badgers are proud to let you get nice and slaphappy on their campus. Order a pitcher of local brew and cozy up at an outdoor table with your friends. This place is packed throughout the summer and you’ll be surrounded by a mix of students, alumni, local Madisonians, and young families all enjoying an afternoon on the lake. There is usually live outdoor music, and sometimes they even land big name bands. This is another Madison must-see and one of my favorite places to spend a summer afternoon. Just keep ordering pitchers, playing cards and enjoying the sunset until you’re good and ready to leave. There’s no rush here, life can just pass on by. If you get too warm, grab an ice cream cone from Babcock Creamery, a campus based ice cream shop nearly the entrance of the union.
If you’re too tipsy to bike, walk or cab your way back up to the Square, which will now have cleared out from the farmer’s market traffic and will be your central hangout of the evening. There are lots of restaurants on the square, so you’ll have a bevy of choices for dinner. My top favorites are Heritage Tavern, a new American foodie favorite, Graze which specializes in local farm-to-table dishes, or Coopers Tavern, a cozy spot to grab a pint and some gastropub favorites. If you love sushi, RED is amazing and is me and Sam’s “spot”. Seriously, we go there weekly. Skip Brocach, the Great Dane and the Capital Tap House. They’re just not as good as the others, and you’re in a food lovers’ city. Don’t cut yourself short or settle for less than great.
You’re probably stuffed to the brim by this point from all the food you’ve eaten, but you’re in Wisconsin, so embrace the excess. That’s what we do. There are lots of people out at night on the square and there are a bunch of cool bars to check out.
If you want a hipster hangout, Genna’s has a great patio, and quirky décor or the Argus, which is full of tattooed PBR drinkers. If you’re interested in craft cocktails, Mercant has an awesome drink list. Be prepared for some pretentious service, but their drinks are awesome.
If you want a more intimate place, Nattspil is just off the square on King street. It’s a cool vibe and there is usually a live DJ, but its small and dimly lit. Their short but tasty drink list is sure to please.
If you want a bro bar, first off , I’m sorry for you. And secondly, you should head down State Street, as that is where most of the college students hang out. You’ll find power hours, 2 for 1s and jello shots. Go nuts.
If you’re looking for something quintessentially Wisconsin, the Old Fashioned is where you want to go. Their cheese curds are amazing even if the rest of their menu is nothing to write home about. They’ve got a huge local beer list. In fact, they have only one non-Wisconsin beer, “imported” from Minnesota.
If you need late night food, there are a few great choices. The Tornado Room has an excellent late night menu at a great price if you want something sit down. Their steak sandwich is tasty, but my favorite is the escargot. If you want something quicker, Ian’s pizza is the college kids’ favorite. Funky pizza by the slice, you can get Mac & Cheese pizza, philly cheese pizza or taco pizza. Be prepared to deal with hoards of drunk girls, fighting college couples and homeless people. Parthenon Gyros is another popular late nightspot. Delicious at the time, you might regret your decision the next morning because their gyros are big and heavy.
Sleep in today and take it easy on your Sunday. I’m a huge brunch person, and there is one that stands out above all the others in Madison. Sardine is an upscale French seafood restaurant that looks out over Lake Monona. I love the whole feel of this restaurant, and the clean crisp looks is well balanced with the exposed wood beams and natural light. There’s usually a wait, but it’s easy enough to grab a spot in the bar area. You honestly can’t go wrong with their brunch menu. I should know, I’ve had almost everything. My personal favorite is the bacon crab cakes, which are fried to perfection. But the creamed eggs or Brie cheese omelet are also excellent. Their salty dogs will help cure your hangover, but they also have really good mimosas.
If Sardine is a little too pricey for you, other great brunch spots include Lazy Jane’s (always get the special), 4 and 20 (a little farther away from downtown, but awesome biscuits and gravy), Sofia’s (hole in the wall bakery) or El Dorado Grill (the chicken fried chicken is the best).
On your way out of town, take a quick stroll up and down Monroe street. More locally owned retail than State Street, Monroe Street has a bunch of cool gift shops. It gives off a more mid-30s, mature vibe, but you can find some unique spots. I used to work at the SERRV store on the west end, neighbored by Mad Cat, everyone’s favorite local pet shop. On the east end, you’ll find my favorite jewelry joint, Art Gecko or Orange Tree Import, a kitchen supply shop with tons of cool gadgets. There is also a locally owned book shop and a few art galleries.
Now that I have fully exhausted your 48 hours in Madison, head back to your home city feeling like you’ve accomplished some of the major sites in Madison. Of course, there is always more to see and discover about this place, but I’ll save that for your next visit. I know after this itinerary, you’ll be ready to come back in no time.