As an 8 year resident of Madison, I’ve tried a majority restaurants, visited all the touristic sights, and attended an event at all the concert & sporting venues in Wisconsin’s capital city. While I don’t consider myself an expert, I certainly love trying new things and have a few recommendations for anyone exploring the city for the first time! I’ve been thinking about some of my best memories and times in Madison.
If I were to recommend 10 things for a visitor to try in Madison, these would be the ten experiences to do!
1) Wander around the Saturday Farmer’s Market
This is a pretty well known tourist attraction in Madison and something that many people come into town for. Although I can be a bit snobby about this market, it is absolutely a must see and one of my favorite things about the city. It is the largest farmer’s only market in the United States, complete with nearly 200 vendors surrounding the state capital building. You’ll find cheese, veggies, meat, eggs, and really any kind of produce imaginable. If you happen to be in town during the week, there are daily farmer’s markets scattered throughout the city too!
2) Dine at Pig in a Fur Coat
I’ve sang the praises of this local restaurant for years now (and on quite a few blog posts) but its worth repeating. This place is awesome! The small vibe, amazing pork inspired dishes and friendly, knowledgeable staff makes this restaurant my favorite in the city. Yes, it’s a little pricey for two, but more than worth it because the quality and experience is unparalleled in Madison.
3) Drink a pitcher of beer at Memorial Union Terrace
I’ve celebrated many a summer night here, including my birthday this past year! The Union is a Madison institution, famous for students and community members alike. You can’t ask for a much better spot to put a student union but on the shores of a lake. During the summer, there are always people here. You can order food or listen to live music while you sip on some craft brews from around the state. This is an awesome spot to just people watch and let the day go by!
4) Bike through the UW-Arboretum
Fall is a wonderful time to bike your way around the city’s largest park & nature reserve. The Arboretum is located just south of campus off of several major bike paths, so it’s really easy to get it. There are paved trails heading into the arboretum, but then you can also bike on the trails once in the park. I really love the entry in through the tree lined street and in between sections of Lake Wingra. You can also hop off the bike and walk around the flower garden or tree garden, both of which are beautiful! So many of the trees will be in fall bloom this time of year, so this is a can’t miss activity.
5) Eat cheese curds (fried and fresh varieties!)
This should be on a general top 10 things to do in Wisconsin list if you’re not from the area, but it should most definitely appear on your Madison to-do list. You can buy fresh curds at just about any grocery store in town. but the best ones are by far and away from Farmer John and the Saturday & Wednesday farmer’s market, because they are made that day and are seriously squeaky!
For the fried varieties, there are tons of places with cheese curds on their menu including Graze, Next Door Brewing, Tipsy Cow, and the Great Dane. They all herald their own dipping sauces and breading, but the best are definitely at the Old Fashioned. However, if you happen to be on campus or at a street festival, the Curd Girl is a close second because she throws down some perfectly battered balls of cheese!
6) Shop on Monroe Street and Willy Street
I’m a big fan of off-beat local shops and supporting local businesses, so I always recommend visitors to check out the quirky stores along Monroe & Willy Street. Monroe offers a little bit more upscale choices, like Orange Tree Imports or A Stone’s Throw. There are more clothing boutiques and art galleries along this street, vs Willy Street which has more thrift shops and handmade gift shops. If you’re downtown, State Street is another great place to shop and walk around, but it is increasingly filled with chain stores and restaurants, so it’s lost a lot of it’s charm.
7) Enjoy an ice cream from the Chocolate Shoppe
Chocolate Shoppe has several locations around the city, but I always walk to the one on State Street when I’m in the mood for a sweet treat. They have (by far!) the largest and tastiest selection of ice cream in the city, including some really quirky flavors like “THIS $&@! JUST GOT SERIOUS” which is a salted caramel ice cream swirled with rich sea salt fudge and salted cashews or “Exhausted Parent” which is a bourbon-espresso ice cream and bittersweet chocolate chunks. You really can’t go wrong with any of the choices, and they use local Wisconsin cream & milk to guarantee the flavor and richness of each batch.
8) Relax on the shores of Lake Mendota
One of Madison’s best natural resources is it’s lakes! The center of the city lies smack dab in the middle of an isthmus, so the lakes are pretty hard to miss. Mendota is on the north side and is bigger, with Monona on the south side and a little smaller. One of my favorite places to enjoy the lake front is James Madison park on the near east side, because it has a walking path, beach and public park right on the shores. One time I was there, and there were literally whitecaps breaking over the wall! Bring a book or get ready for people watching because it’s easy to let the day slip away here.
9) Explore the State Capital
The tallest building in the city is the capital house, so you will no undoubtedly see it while you wander around town. It’s gorgeous both inside and out. The white marble exterior is like a gleaming statement of government, incredible in its detail and beauty. The inside is equally as impressive with a towering rotunda and variety of levels to explore, completely free! Famous lately because of Scott Walker protests, you may spot some interesting characters inside the rotunda, including the Ragin’ Grannies singing group.
10) Listen to classical music at Concert on the Square
These happen every Wednesday late June-early August and are one of my favorite summer activities in the city. It’s ok if you missed them this summer, they happen every year! The Madison Symphony Orchestra plays a free outdoor concert on the capital lawn for anyone who wants to attend, and the theme each week changes. I think my favorite one was movie soundtracks! You can bring your own snacks, chairs and wine to enjoy. It’s a fun (and cheap!) date night or great way to relax with friends. Be aware that some people get a little intense about the music, so you might get scolded for talking to loud.