Cate’s guide to Madison, Wisconsin – or to a local Madtown, Madcity, People’s Republic of Madison, Athens of the Midwest, Berkeley of the Midwest, Lake City, and the City of Four Lakes, along with several others…
Best breakfast in town!
Madison is a brunch haven, and there are no shortages when it comes to finding a great breakfast spot! For me, brunch is done best at local spots like Mickey’s Tavern – a cozy place on the Yahara River known for their Bloody Marys, outdoor patio, and their scramble du jour. Otherwise, you can opt for an all-day breakfast spot in downtown Madison like Short Stack Eatery and order “The Blind” a sweet or savory breakfast special that comes as a surprise for just $7.
A museum not to miss!
Madisonians are very lucky as there are tons of local free museums to visit from the Chazen Museum of Art, the UW-Madison Geology Museum, and the Wisconsin Historical Museum. But, the museum not to miss is definitely the National Mustard Museum – yes, no joke, a mustard museum. With a collection of over 6,000 mustards from all over the world, the short trip to Middleton is well worth it. You can even visit their gift shop and taste all their gourmet goodies. Best of all, admission is free!
Best place to grab a drink!
There are soooo many options when it comes to finding a drink in Madison, so my best piece of advice is to stay local! Madison has about 20 WI craft breweries within the city and a growing number of wineries, meaderies, and distilleries that all pride themselves on their local ingredients and craft. My current favorites are:
Brewery – Delta Beer Lab: Delta is pretty new to the craft scene in Madison, but they are all about crafting beer & change! Stop by to sip on my favorite BRN.01, a coffee brown ale, while spending time in their swanky laboratory themed taproom.
Brewery Honorable Mention – Funk Factory Geuzeria: So technically they aren’t brewing beer at Funk Factory, but their delicious sours are making national lists and for good reason!
Meadery – BOS: BOS is a super chill mead hall where you can sample their growing number of offerings! They pride themselves on using locally & regionally sourced ingredients, but the cool factor about this spot is that you’ll more than likely happen upon live music or a comedy show while you’re there!
Winery – Drumlin Ridge: This little spot just north of Madison will make you feel like you’ve left the state and are sitting in a vineyard in northern California. If it’s your first visit, the flights are the best way to try a few of their varietals!
Distillery – Stateline Distillery: In their first year, this swanky spot was making some excellent sage forward gin among other spirits. Their cocktail lounge boasts knowledgeable bartenders and an incredible craft cocktail list not to be missed!
Where to sweat!
Outside – Madison is all about outdoor recreation! We are surrounded by two beautiful lakes where you can rent paddle boards, kayaks, and canoes! You’ll commonly see people running and biking on one of our many bike paths even in the winter months. If a snowy run isn’t for you, check out Tenney Park during the colder season. The lagoon transforms into a beautiful natural ice rink where you can rent skates or warm up with some hot coco!
Best quick bite!
A favorite among the university students and locals alike, Madison has a growing number of food carts serving up some delicious food! My personal favorite is Buraka, an Ethiopian food cart with some of the best food in Madison. Otherwise, you can’t go wrong with Curd Girl – a food cart dedicated to serving up one of Wisconsin’s favorites, the fried cheese curd!
If I’m getting away for the day, Devil’s Lake has it all! You can hike, swim, rent kayaks, and cook-out – all with amazing rock formations and the incredible views of this endorheic lake. It is just over an hour’s drive northwest of Madison, which makes it the perfect day trip. Make sure to check out the East Bluff Trail (3-4 hour hike) which has great vistas and amazing rock formations including the iconic Devil’s Doorway! Make sure to pack a lunch or snacks – concessions are available, but can be pricey. It does cost admission into the park without a WI State Park sticker, last checked $14-16 (dependent on residency).
Where to try the local cuisine!
In Madison, local cuisine means “farm-fresh” and there is no better place to find local produce than the Dane County Farmers’ Market. This market is located on the tree-lined grounds surrounding the Wisconsin State Capitol building – or to the locals, “the Square.” As the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the US, this is a must-see. If you’re visiting in the summer, make sure to pick up Stella’s spicy cheese bread, some local cherries, and fresh cheese curds (you’ll know they are fresh if they squeak when you eat them)!
One experience not to miss!
Don’t miss the Madison Couch Crash!! Madison has been hosting a yearly couch crash for the past 11 years! It is an incredible way to get a taste of the city over the weekend, with friendly Madisonian Couchsurfers to be your guides. This last year we planned day trips, local tours, a pub crawl, and even organized logrolling and airplane rides over our beautiful city!
The Wisconsin State Capitol building is the centerpiece of the Madison skyline. It really is one of a kind and sits on the isthmus (the narrow strip of land between Madison’s two lakes). You know you’re downtown once you’ve seen it’s white marble and tall columns rise above the rest of the downtown buildings. Local laws prohibit other buildings being built taller than the capitol building, which means no skyscrapers, and they light up the exterior at night! The best ways to see the capitol building:
– From afar – drive John Nolan (going North) for a quick, but spectacular view of the Madison skyline over Lake Monona.
Insider’s Tip – the Capital City Bike Trail runs along this major road and can be walked or cycled!
-Close up – take a FREE capitol building tour, daily on the hour (except Sundays). This is one of the most underrated attractions in Madison. You get to see the different rooms of the building and learn some history! In the summer, check out the outdoor balcony, around the holidays, the huge decorated indoor Christmas tree.
Insider’s tip – make sure to look out for the fossils! There are naturally occurring fossils found throughout the building – look for the starfish in the North wing, left grand stairs, 1st to 2nd floor, fourth step from the bottom.
A tourist trap to avoid!
The malls… Madison has a mall on each side of the city that looks like any other mall in America, so don’t waste your time!
Instead, if you’re looking for local gifts or goodies, hit up State Street. State Street is the link between Madison’s Capitol Square and the UW – Madison campus. Since the 1970’s the street itself has been closed to vehicles, which makes it a great place to stroll and window shop. It is only about a 12 minute walk or (4 min bike ride) end-to-end, but plan on at least two to four hours to allow for all the cool stuff you’ll need to stop and look at, buy, eat, and drink. Many of the shops are locally owned and have items you won’t see anywhere else! My favorites include Little Luxuries, Soap Opera, Jazzman, and Anthology.