Welcome to the FIRST installment of my Hometown Rundown series, where I take you on a fun journey through some of my readers’ hometowns! Today, we’re exploring Madison, Wisconsin – a charming city in the Midwest and a place I’m so excited to share with you! In this blog post, I teamed up with my friend Pete to show you the best attractions to explore in Madison, Wisconsin.
This trip was my first time visiting Madison (and, first time in Wisconsin!). After learning a few things about the city, one thing that became VERY obvious to me was how proud Wisconsinites are of their home state.
I tasted a beer that you can only buy in Wisconsin (spoiler alert: it’s delicious), and also visited a farmers market that allows vendors to sell only things that were bought, produced, or made in-state. I loved getting to bring home souvenirs from my trip that truly felt authentic!
Ready to explore Madison for yourself? Read on to discover the best attractions in Madison, Wisconsin!
Website Disclaimer: I visited Madison in November 2023. Although everything is accurate as of the publication of this post, it is important to keep in mind that prices, attractions, and other things may change with time.
The Best Attractions to Explore in Madison, Wisconsin
Table of Contents
- The University of Wisconsin Campus (in particular, the Memorial Union)
- Visit the Saturday Farmer’s Market around the capitol building
- Walk (or Bike!) your way through the city
- Try ALL. THE. CHEESE.
- Exploring some of the top restaurants (and a fun bar!)
- My Takeaway and Recap of Madison, WI
Pro Tip: If you’re a live music fan, check out The Sylvee for fun concerts, and The Overture Center for the Performing Arts for Broadway shows and other touring artists. I didn’t get to personally visit these places, so I didn’t write about them, but locals told me they are incredible!
But First…Let’s Get There, Shall We?
Getting to Madison, WI
In order to get to Madison, I flew into the Milwaukee airport. Madison has an airport, but it is smaller and therefore didn’t have as many flight options.
The drive to Madison from Milwaukee takes roughly an hour and 15 minutes.
My flight was early, and a girl’s gotta caffeinate. After landing in Milwaukee, my first stop was heading downtown to Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co. for a latte. I also got one of their pumpkin spice bars. If you fly into Milwaukee to get to Madison and you’re visiting in the fall, I am going to peer pressure you into trying one. Seriously – SO GOOD!
Arriving Into Madison from Milwaukee
The hour and 15 minute drive into Madison from Milwaukee seemed like it took no time at all. Once you get on the interstate, it’s a straight shot!
One of my favorite things that Pete showed me on the way into Madison was the capitol building. Once you turn down one of the main streets, you can see it as you’re driving towards the end of the road. It has a magical presence that welcomes visitors into the city.
You can even go inside the capitol building and explore the gorgeous interior…but we’ll get to that later ;).
The Best Attractions to Explore in Madison, Wisconsin
1. Visiting the University of Wisconsin Campus
I love looking at college campuses, so I was really excited when Pete suggested to do this. I find that the buildings usually have a lot of character and/or unique architecture. You can gain a lot of insight into what it’s like to be a student somewhere by simply walking around and observing.
However, the coolest thing about UW’s campus, in my opinion, is NOT the architecture or the aesthetics. In fact, I would not describe the University of Wisconsin’s undergrad campus as overly flashy.
The German “Bierhaus” at UW
The coolest thing about UW’s campus is the lifestyle they provide for their students. In the Memorial Union building, Madison put its own spin on not one, but two German beer halls!
Der Rathskeller is the classic German beer hall where students can come and get a beer in between or after classes. They also serve your typical pub foods. Der Stiftskeller is the annex to Der Rathskeller and serves beer, wine, soda, and salty snacks.
There is a large area inside to sit and study, eat, watch TV, and hang out. I could probably get lost in this building!
The Memorial Union also houses a coffee shop, an Italian street food eatery called Strada, and an ice cream shop called Daily Scoop. It should come as no surprise that the ice cream is made from milk from Wisconsin cows!
Warm Weather Fun at UW
If you exit the back of Memorial Union, you will see Lake Mendota, along with docks, a patio known as The Terrace, and more bars. When the weather gets warm, many of the students will hang out on the docks in their swimsuits in between classes! The patio is also lined with these really fun, unique looking chairs, but they were unfortunately taken down due to the colder weather when I was there.
The Terrace is one of the most popular, welcoming places on campus. I got such a positive energy from here. Even though the weather was cold, I saw a bunch of students congregating around outside. I couldn’t imagine how fun this area must be when it’s warm out!
Author’s note: Between having a bar on campus and knowing that I could spend part of my school day sunbathing, my first thought was, “I never would have graduated college!” But despite the seemingly laid back culture, UW has a great education program. I know successful pharmacists and counselors that graduated from UW!
Bucky Badger – The UW Mascot
Bucky is the mascot of the University of Wisconsin, and his statue is everywhere throughout the city. All the Bucky’s look different, and I personally had a blast trying to find them all!
2. Spend Saturday at the Farmer’s Market
Exploring the Madison Farmer’s Market is something you should put on the top of your list to do if you visit this city. Every Saturday during warmer months and well into the fall, vendors line up around the capitol building and sell food, drinks, hats, jewelry, souvenirs, and more.
What makes the farmer’s market even more special is that it is known as a “producers market.” For vendors to participate, everything they sell must be 1. Made by them, and 2. From Wisconsin.
The vendors are spread all around the capital building. My advice would be to take a lap around and check out everything before you make any purchases. However, if you want my opinion, I would get a scone from Chris and Lori’s Bakehouse, and baked cheese from Brun-Uusto.
Have you ever seen a dessert that looks like it’s probably 28582104 calories and worth it? That’s how I felt about the scones from Chris and Lori’s. They were larger than your typical scones and also had a really nice looking glaze on them.
The scones range from healthy-ish to not healthy to REALLY not healthy. I tried the cinnamon scone and the pumpkin chocolate chip scone (neither of which were classified in the healthy-ish category).
I should have taken a picture of my scone, but I was too occupied with eating it. /shrug. To find these, look for the Chris and Lori’s Bakehouse tent.
The baked cheese is a little harder to find, because it doesn’t have a tent like many of the other vendors. Keep your eyes peeled for hot plates on a table and a lonnnng line. There were 6 different kinds of cheese that we were able to sample, but the baked cheese with cranberries was my favorite.
- Pro Tip: According to the man running the baked cheese stand, the best way to heat up baked cheese is either on a skillet or in an air fryer. Use the microwave as a last resort.
I LOVED walking around the farmers market. If I lived in Madison, I would be there every Saturday!
Taking a (Mini) Tour Through the Capitol Building
Since the capitol building is right in the center of the farmer’s market, you can actually cut through the inside of it to get from one end of the market to the other.
But it’s not just a shortcut. You are actually able to walk around the inside of the capitol building and explore. You can even go to the very top and look out over the city and both of the lakes that border Madison!
The capitol is beautiful inside, and I would highly recommend taking advantage of this shortcut!
3. Exploring the Walkability of Madison
The fact that we were able to walk almost everywhere we went was one of my favorite things about visiting Madison. It is something truly unique in the sense that most cities of its size are not walkable in the way that Madison is.
When I think of “walkable cities,” I think of New York and Chicago…in other words, places that are so massive that walking is a way of life due to the size and the hectic traffic. I thought it was so cool that Madison wouldn’t HAVE to be walkable for this same reason, but it was still built this way because whoever laid it out knew that being able to walk everywhere in a city is a special kind of luxury.
Pete and I were able to walk to restaurants, bars, the farmers market, the capitol, the grocery store, the university campus…you name it, we (probably) walked. In fact, with the exception of going to one restaurant, we walked every single place that I wrote about in this blog post!
Many people also bike everywhere here. Seeing bikes in all the bike racks everywhere reminded me of visiting Amsterdam. I came to Madison in November, and I imagined how fun it would be in the warmer weather to ride a bike all through the city.
4. And Finally…Try ALL The Cheese (and a Beer!)
Ahh, cheese…the state food of Wisconsin. If you go to Wisconsin, you HAVE to get cheese. The most popular form of cheese are cheese curds, which are small balls of curdled milk that are the freshest of fresh cheese.
The freshest curds will have a “squeaky” sound when you eat them due to the amount of air in the milk protein of the curd. Before coming to Wisconsin, I didn’t even know cheese could squeak when you ate it!
I saw a variety of plain and flavored cheese curds. Pete and I bought a bag of garlic cheese curds to try at the farmer’s market, but you can find them at cheese shops all over the city.
Pairing Your Cheese with Beer
In Wisconsin, beer is the counterpart of cheese. You’ll have plenty of options of course, but there’s one beer I’m gonna tell you that you have to try.
I mentioned earlier that there was a beer that you can only buy in Wisconsin. Spotted Cow is an ale brewed by New Glarus Brewing Co. in New Glarus, WI that is not sold anywhere else except in this state.
If you are ever in Wisconsin AND a beer drinker, this is the beer you need to try to get the full Wisconsin experience. Personally, I think it tastes amazing.
I am already a fan of ales, but this one is especially easy to drink because it tastes just right. It’s not too light, not too heavy, and it doesn’t have a “hoppy” aftertaste.
Three Must-Try Restaurants in Madison, Wisconsin (and a Bar!)
I couldn’t write this post without telling you about what I ate. Pete and I went to 3 different restaurants, and I’m obsessed with all of them. Seriously…WHY aren’t more people talking about the food scene here??
Three Must-Try Restaurants in Madison, Wisconsin
Graze was opened and founded by a James Beard award-winning chef, so you know it has to be good. It’s farm-to-table style with a rotating menu. We tried the roasted cauliflower, the burger, and LeClare chèvre gnudi, and I am going to peer pressure you into trying them too.
For cocktails, I tried their fall seasonal cocktail – the Autumn Sour – and loved it!
Graze is very modern inside with high ceilings and great views. Pete and I lucked out and got a table with a direct view of the capitol building!
2. The Botanist Social
The Botanist Social is a gin bar on State Street that serves dinner and cocktails. They open at 2pm on weekends, so we stopped here for lunch.
The first thing I noticed about The Botanist Social is – no surprise – the aesthetic. It’s romantic, stylish, modern, and feminine, all at the same time. If you want an Instagrammable restaurant in Madison, look no further.
I thought the food and drinks were just as good as the atmosphere. We tried the forest mushroom flatbread, salmon bruschetta, and rosemary shrimp skewer. (The flatbread was our favorite because of the truffle oil)
If you’re a gin person, you’ll love the drink menu. They have a huge variety of gin cocktails, and should I ever find myself in Madison for an extended period of time, I wouldn’t be opposed to working my way through the menu.
Shoutout to my awesome colleague and UW grad, Mike, for not only this recommendation, but remembering that I am obsessed with Instagrammable places. We loved it!
3. Mint Mark
Mint Mark is a produce-forward restaurant serving cocktails and small plates to share. This was the only place that we had to Uber to the entire time we were in Madison.
Their menu changes often, so what Pete and I got may or may not be available. But if you visit Mint Mark and see the sugo, burrata, or hanger steak on the menu, know that all 3 are fabulous. Honestly, the entire menu is probably fabulous. We had such a hard time trying to decide what to get!
If you’re a dessert person, get the warm chocolate chip cookie and have no regrets about it.
For cocktails, I got the Suze Storm. This is the only thing I’m going to tell you I was not 100% crazy about. I think it was the fennel syrup. I don’t know. But listen…I drank it and I was happy. After all, tequila is tequila, and I’m a tequila girl ;).
(Another) shoutout to my awesome colleague and UW grad, Mike, for this recommendation! Now I want another chocolate chip cookie…
4. Gibs (The Really Fun Bar)
From Mint Mark, we were able to walk 10 minutes to Gibs, a craft cocktail bar built in an old Victorian house in the Willy Street neighborhood.
Madison is a college town, and 30+ year old me no longer has the strength to be in a college bar. I LOVED Gibs because it had the fun energy of a college bar without being overly college-y. Pete and I had the best time sitting at the bar upstairs and chatting with the bartenders!
Their drinks have really fun names. I was tempted to try the “Hey What’s Up Hello?” (and then finish singing the rest of the song), but it was vodka-based (with lemon), and I’m not much of a vodka/lemon girl.
Instead, I tried the 77 Kelvin, which is made with gin and basically turned out to be the most delicious science experiment I’ve ever tasted. No, seriously…they use dry ice with the herbs to make them smoky, and if you are a chemistry nerd like me, you will be screaming.
It’s “giving” the scene in Hocus Pocus where the Sanderson sisters brew the Life Potion. Except, this time, no one steals your youth.
My Takeaway and Recap of Madison, WI
Overall, I thought Madison was so much fun. It’s somehow charming without feeling too small, and has a lot to do without feeling too big. How do they balance it so well?
I felt a very good energy from this city. People were friendly, the service industry employees were SO helpful, the food was amazing, the farmers market was cute, the campus was fun…I could go on, but what I’m essentially saying is that if you have the opportunity to visit Madison, WI, you should 100% go!
HUGEEEE thank you to Pete for being the best tour guide and introducing me to your new hometown! I truly loved my visit!