Top Ten Things to do in Madison Wisconsin


Often, friends and family approach me for suggestions when planning a trip to Madison. Madison has been my home since 2008 and I've gotten a pretty good feel for it's happenings and idiosyncrasies. Most of my friends are beyond their college years, so simply going down to State Street and drinking until they forget their name is no longer how they want to spend their weekend.

So, for those that want to take in all that Madison has to offer, I've compiled a list of things to do in Wisconsin's capitol city. I tried my best to cover all seasons and areas of interests.

The State Capitol
Madison's city center plays host to Wisconsin's State Capitol. The Capitol building sits in the city square and houses both chambers of the Wisconsin legislature, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and even Office of the Governor. If you know anything about Wisconsin politics, things can get pretty heated during business hours.

Politics aside, the building boasts an imposing granite dome that soars above the cityscape at 284 feet. The exterior and accompanying gardens make a great place for photography or hanging out and relaxing.

Capitol Rotunda






Inside of the building, the exposed granite of the rotunda dome are complimented by the mural "Resources of Wisconsin". No taxpayer expense was spared in this building when it was lined with marble, glass mosaics, bronze fixtures, oak wood, and oil paintings. If it's the holiday season, make sure to stop in to see the Christmas tree in the center of the rotunda.

Eat at restaurants on the square
While visiting the Capitol, stop by some of restaurants and pubs on the square. For lighter fare check out The Old Fashioned, The Coopers Tavern, Tipsy Cow, DLUX, or Brochach. If you're looking for something a little more upscale L'Etoile, Harvest, or Graze might interest you.

On Wednesday's in the summer stay for a free Concert on the Square or visit Madison in early September for Taste of Madison.

Cheese curds
Now that you've found a local diner, an appropriate starter for any traditionally Wisconsin meal is a plate of piping hot deep fried cheese curds.

Curds are small, irregular shaped chunks of cheese. When fresh, they sport a pleasantly rubbery texture. When deep fried, their consistency is transformed to smooth and stringy with a crunch similar to a mozzarella stick.‚Äč











Emily Ann Witte photograph[e]

Cheese curds are a staple of America's Dairyland and no trip to Madison is complete without a basket of cheese curds. So, where are the best cheese curds in Madison? Lucky for you, I've written a cheese curd guide.

Local Brews and Wine
Wisconsin is well known for it's beer. Milwaukee's nickname is The Brew City for it's long brewing history. In recent years, Madison has gotten into the act, hosting well over a dozen small-scale to large microbrews in Madison proper and the surrounding countryside. Some notables are Capital Brewery, Wisconsin Brewing Company, New Glarus, Lake Louie Brewing, and Great Dane Brewery.

On top of that, there are a number of wineries and vineyards sprinkled around Madison's borders. On just a short drive into the countryside, you can visit both Wollersheim, Fisher King, and Botham.

The fertile libation landscape has opened the door to small batch distilleries. Check out Yahara Bay, Old Sugar Distillery, and the distillery at Wollersheim Winery.

The Lakes
Madison is the only capitol on an isthmus (a narrow piece of land). Surrounding that isthmus are two large lakes, Monona and Mendota. Smaller ancillary lakes, Wingra and Waubesa, line their shores with Madison's landscape.

The lakes can be enjoyed nearly every day of the year. In the summer you can enjoy boating, fishing, paddle boarding, and water skiing. In the winter, you're welcome to brave ice fishing, snow shoeing, and cross country skiing along the trails and parks that border the lakes.

The Terraces
Madison, known for its lakes, is also known for its lake view terraces. If you're a fan of architecture and a stunning view, check out the Monona Terrace. It's architectural style has been ripped straight from Frank Lloyd Wright's drafting table. Although built after Wright's death, Taliesin architect, Tony Puttnam's design fulfilled Wright's dream of a structure that tied the shores of Lake Monona to the city's center, the Capitol Square. The designs payed homage to Wright's original ideas for the structure.

Monona Terrace

The Terrace at Memorial Union is a great place to sit and have a beer with 1000 of your closest friends. Located on the opposite side of the isthmus, it's greeted by the lake front of Mendota. Have a seat in their unique bright green, orange, and yellow sunburst chairs while eating Babcock ice cream. The terrace also plays host to live music, movie nights, and dining options.

Memorial Union Terrace
Emily Ann Witte photograph[e]

Farmers' market
It seems like a consensus, everyone is a fan of the Capitol Square Dane County Farmers' Market. Held on Saturday mornings starting in mid-April through mid-November, you can walk around the state building while grazing on locally grown favorites. Offerings include cheese, fresh produce, flowers, and baked goods. I personally enjoy the artisan jalapeno bread and homemade doughnuts. Just make sure to get there before 8:30 am on clear summer mornings unless you enjoy getting your ankles rolled up by strollers.
Dane County Farmers' Market
Emily Ann Witte photograph[e]

Fish fry
Wisconsin's rich German Catholic and Polish Catholic heritage brought about the concept of the Friday fish fry. Sticking with the Catholic's dietary rules and abstaining from meat on Friday, Wisconsinites began consuming fish instead.

What was once a religious ideal, has now become a Friday night tradition. Friends and families gather in Wisconsin taverns and restaurant to partake in piles of fish and Wisconsin brew. While visiting Madison, make sure to enjoy a fish fry. A few suggestions would include The Old Fashioned, Dexter's Pub, and Toby's Supper Club. If you're looking to check out Wisconsin's countryside, a short road trip to Vern's Dorf Haus is recommended. The all you can eat fish fry on Friday night is one of the best in Wisconsin and don't forget to load up on the homemade fritters.

The Street Scene
Two streets intersect the heart of Madison's downtown. Williamson Street & State Street.

The University of Wisconsin's beautiful campus spills directly into State Street. State Street is lined with an eclectic blend of mom and pop diners, chain stores, Madison institutions, kitschy head shops, and unique restaurants. You'll find students and tourists milling about during the day well into the late hours of the night. You're sure to witness plenty of shenanigans from tipsy college students to street performers, along with a healthy dose of panhandlers. Make sure to cap off the night with a stop at Ian's Pizza (sold by the slice) during your walk home from the bar.

Williamson Street or more affectionately known as Willy Street is an eclectic mix of restaurants, art galleries, and trendy bars. It's a neat place to visit day or night and is within walking distance from the Capitol Square. I just need to insert a hipster warning, there is an infestation in this area. On your way to Willy, stop by the Essen Haus for a boot full of beer and oompah music.

Wisconsin Athletics
Wisconsin is probably best know worldwide for the Green Bay Packers, located in Title Town, USA. But, not far from the shores of Green Bay, the Badgers of Madison share an illustrious history.

The University of Wisconsin has a storied history of athletic prowess. The Badgers boast 29 NCAA Championships ranging from Men's Basketball to Women's Hockey.

On six Saturdays during the fall, you can visit Camp Randall to take in a unique tailgating experience and stay for a football game.
Wisconsin Badgers Flag
Emily Ann Witte photograph[e]

Home to Badger football, Camp Randall gets it's name from it's history as a Union Army training camp during the Civil War. It's a unique blend of local, military, and sports history surrounded by a unique facade and architecture.

Madison also hosts hockey and basketball in the Kohl Center. Or watch a collegiate soccer game or women's volleyball match in the many stadiums and field houses sprinkled about the UW campus.

Jeff Finup is a cheesehead, born and bred. Hailing from Madison, he's written for publications like Discover Wisconsin and enjoys all things "sconnie". Which is mostly beer, cheese, and the Green Bay Packers. You can read more of his work and find out what he's up to by visiting his blog.