I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but Design Sponge's city guides are my go-to starting point when visiting any new city. They're written by locals who are passionate about the design scene in their respective cities, and also super knowledgeable about food and drink. While I'm certainly not a local, spending the better part of a year and half in Madison has certainly made me a fan of this sweet little Midwestern gem, and I'm happy to share what I've discovered along the way. I'm barely scratching the surface here by only mentioning things I've specifically visited (and really enjoyed) myself, but should you ever visit the city, consider this list only a starting point!
During our time here, we've lived in three different neighbourhoods: Schenk-Atwood, Williamson-Marquette and Bay Creek, which are all quite close to downtown and each has its own charm and lots of pastel painted houses.
Madison is both Wisconsin's capital and the home to the largest campus of the extensive University of Wisconsin system, UM-Madison. At just 2.5 hours northwest of Chicago and a little more than an hour west of Milwaukee, it's conveniently situated close to some larger cities while holding its own in the south central plains of the state.
For a city of just over 230,000 people, it has a wealth of culture and activities. I've been told on several occasions that it boasts the most restaurants per capita in North America, and this would come as no surprise given the wonderful range of options I've experienced in the short time we've lived here.
Weather is a distinct feature of Madison, as it varies wildly and often changes rapidly. On any one day, you can experience extreme temperatures, sudden rain or sun breaks and even (gasp!) tornado warnings. Also, it snows a lot in the winter. And that's coming from a Canadian! In all seriousness though, Madison offers four distinct and beautiful seasons, each one painting the city with a different yet lovely palette.
Okay, let's jump into the details now. For your reference, * = best of the best, according to my experience.
THINGS RELATIVELY UNIQUE TO MADISON
Friday Fish Fry - It's as simple as it sounds; going out for fried fish is a Friday tradition in Madison.
Wisconsin Badgers sports - Take it from a die-hard non sports fan — watching sports is actually undeniably fun in this exuberant college town where love for the Badgers runs deep. Catch a basketball game at the Kohl Center or better yet, a football game at Camp Randall (above). Just be sure to partake in some tailgating if you do the latter. It's wild!
Breweries (and beer in general) - Madison is well known as one of the best craft beer cities in America, and its been suggested that "we're living in a golden era of craft beer here in Madison." Truth. You can't throw a rock without hitting a microbrewery, so take advantage of this and sample some brews while you're in town!
State Street - The stomping ground of college kids, tourists, and locals out running errands, State Street draws a straight line from the Capitol to the eastern edge of the UW-Madison campus.
The Orpheum Theatre - A historic live performance venue that's in the process of restoration, and already looking fantastic. It has wonderful acoustics and is the perfect setting to take in a show.
UW-Madison Campus - I've seen a fair number of university campuses throughout the US and Canada, and there are few that can compete with the beauty of UW-Madison. It's situated along beautiful Lake Mendota and sprawls impressively for blocks and blocks and blocks. Wander the rolling lawns, take in the historic and newly designed buildings and maybe have a picnic by the water.
Memorial Union Terrace* - The prettiest corner of campus, an expansive patio on Lake Mendota where you can share a pitcher, snack on some brats and even catch a concert during the summer.
Vespas and Mopeds - This one is a bit random but just something I noticed upon arrival. A huge number of students zip around on these little vehicles. Most don't wear helmets yet many manage to safely (?) transport their beer.
Graze* - My favourite all-round restaurant in town. With several walls of windows, it takes in beautiful natural light and offers a gorgeous view of the Capitol, especially when it's illuminated at night. Great for every single meal, including brunch. Everything on the menu is made entirely of local ingredients. Oh, and they have wine on tap.
Nostrano* - Fabulous Italian food and a great wine list. The desserts are super innovative and delicious too.
Forequarter* - Creative new American food served in a very special atmosphere. Excellent cocktail list.
Sardine - French and Mediterranean cuisine in a gorgeously designed space (above).
Grampa's Pizzeria* - The coziest little pizza place that took over the space formerly occupied by Grampa's Gun Shop on Willy Street (Grampa retired). Their service is impeccable and their food is even better.
Pig in a Fur Coat - An adorable little spot with a pork-centric menu. Great for sharing a bunch of dishes with friends.
Heritage Tavern* - A very hip and incredibly welcoming spot. Top notch cocktails (see above) and highly creative twists on deviled eggs.
Osteria Papavero - Rustic Italian cooking in a cozy setting with whimsical teak furniture. Try the Zuppa di Funghi.
Tornado Steak House* - A retro styled supper club (as in not recently updated but gloriously 70s) and classic Midwest steakhouse. Good for dinner and great for late night food and stiff cocktails.
Tempest Oyster Bar - The best seafood option if you need a break from Friday Fish Fry. Their lobster roll is the best I've had outside of Boston.
Dotty Dumpling's Dowry - Cheap and delicious. Build your own burgers, cheese capped chili and deep-fried mac and cheese wedges are standouts.
The Old Fashioned* - A Wisconsin-themed hotspot that has a seemingly endless list of local beers on tap and in bottles. Try a "lazy susan" of local cheeses and meats, grab an order of fried cheese curds with tigers sauce, or sample the beer cheese soup topped with popcorn (pictured above).
Greenbush Bar* - A memorable, low-key Italian place in the basement of a historic Italian Workman's Club. Famous for its cornmeal crusted pizza.
DLUX - A fairly corporate feeling burger resto by the capitol that is worth visiting for the milkshakes (red velvet, seriously great) and fries.
Ha Long Bay - A neighbourhood favourite that is always busy, and consistently serves up delicious Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian food.
Umami* - Lovely atmosphere and top notch ramen and dumplings. Extend your stay for the green tea crème brulée.
Alchemy Cafe - Warm and welcoming and good for an affordable dinner any night of the week.
Stalzy's Deli - Just about the best Reubens on earth. Try the Brooklyn Reuben (pictured above).
Bradbury's - A bright and cheerful corner spot just off the Capitol square. Go for the crepes and coffee, stay for the chilled out vibe and sun streaming in through the floor to ceiling windows.
Monty's Blue Plate Diner - On first glance, it's a greasy spoon. Upon more careful examination, it's a traditional looking diner with a menu of fresh and healthy comfort food (with many vegan and gluten-free options) made from locally sourced ingredients.
Pizza Brutta - Perfect thin crust, wood-fired Neapolitan pizza.
COFFEE & TEA
The Victory* - The best coffee in the city served by the friendliest proprietor, Patrick. I've spent countless hours working here or chatting with friends and enjoying the lovely atmosphere. I will miss it dearly.
Johnson Public House - A great place to hang out and get serious work done while you sip.
Colectivo* - Strong coffee and excellent pastries served up in an expansive setting that's great for freelancers.
Lakeside Coffee House - A spacious, sunny spot with a gorgeous view of Monona Bay. I used to live just a few doors down from it so it became my second office.
Barriques - A local chain of wine store/coffee shops. Such a genius combination!
FAST FOOD, BAKERIES & SNACKS
Glass Nickel Pizza - Who we call when we need delivery pizza, even late at night.
Banzo - Both the food cart and brick and mortar location serve up delicious mediterranean fare.
Greenbush Bakery - Simple, perfect, kosher donuts.
Batch Bakehouse - My favourite local bakery for croissants and shortbread stacks
Madison Sourdough Co. - Truly great bread, excellent coffee and a reliable brunch option.
Chocolaterian Cafe* - Oh, I will sing the praises of this place to anyone who will listen. From their ultra rich Parisienne hot chocolate to their wine and chocolate flights, it's perfection. They also have an open kitchen where you can watch the pastry chefs smile as they work from the comfort of an upholstered cubby style booth.
The Daily Scoop - An on-campus spot offering delicious ice cream made at UW-Madison's Babcock Dairy Plant. Try the fruit loop flavoured Blue Moon.
BARS & OTHER HANGOUTS
Mickey's Tavern* - Our closest local bar, and what a treat because it's one of the best places to grab a drink in town. Linger on their back patio in the warmer months, or curl up in one of the three eclectically decorated main rooms on cooler days. Oh, and stop by for their weekend brunch too!
Weary Traveler Freehouse - Consistently placed among the winners for "best atmosphere" in Madison Magazine's Best of Madison issue, this local spot is the perfect place to cozy up on a winter night and play some board games while drinking their very strong grog (hot and fortified mulled wine). The food is incredibly affordable and consistently solid.
One Barrel Brewing Company - A lovely spot with a huge and beautiful bar. Pull up a stool and stay for several of their house made brews.
Old Sugar Distillery - A hidden gem on an industrial street. Seek it out and stop in for one of their creative cocktails made entirely with their own spirits. If you like what you taste, pick up a bottle and enjoy it at home.
Merchant - Enchanting craft cocktails and playful food offerings. Pictured above is their chicken and donuts with braised pineapple.
Next Door Brewing Company - A relative newcomer to the Schenk-Atwood neighbourhood, but a very welcome one at that! A small but impressive collection of beers brewed in-house, and tasty treats like sauerkraut sausage balls and their Next Door pickle jar.
The Mason Lounge - Tucked away in Madison's Greenbush neighbourhood, this highly comfortable spot is the ideal place to chat with friends while enjoying the excellent selection of craft beers and spirits.
Le Tigre Lounge* - A truly fascinating place. Placed in a nondescript strip mall between a hardware store and a grocery market, it reveals its nature only upon entry. Dimly lit only by softly glowing candles and lamps, it invites you to take in its atmosphere (and tiger decor) slowly, at the speed of which your eyes can adjust to the darkness.
Sundance Cinemas* - My favourite movie theatre ever. I will miss it very much.
Dane Country Farmers' Market - A behemoth of a market day. Circling the Capitol every Saturday in the warmer months, it draws a huge number of vendors and customers. I frankly find it a bit overwhelming, but awe-inspiring as well. A must-see event if you can time it right.
Brat Fest - I just love that there's an actual sausage fest in this city. Worth a quick stop in if you're in town during Memorial Day Weekend.
The Capitol - The most visible and central fixture of the city. Go for a tour of the impressive interior if you have a chance.
Monona Terrace - An beautifully designed (by Frank Lloyd Wright) convention centre and event space. Walk up on its rooftop terrace for a great view of Lake Monona (see above).
Olbrich Botanical Gardens - The rambling gardens are pretty place to stroll through in the warmer months, and the conservatory is an absolute oasis in the winter.
I have to be honest and tell you that, as a former Montrealer, shopping in Madison leaves a bit to be desired. But there are a few local gems in town that keep it from being a complete retail desert!
Fontaine - I'm in love with this beautiful home and decor shop on East Johnson Street.
Madison Modern Market - The best place to pick up a gift or card, or something nice for yourself.
The Kitchen Gallery - A great store with pretty much any cooking or baking-related item you could ever need. Top quality merchandise and great customer service.
Anthology - Full of Madison and Midwestern themed items and gifts, but lots of craft supplies and other curiosities too.
Karen & Co/Sassafras - This place definitely has a middle-aged target market in terms of its clothing selection, but even if you're a bit younger it's worth a visit for the well-curated shoe collection and pretty baubles.
Jazzman - The best men's clothing shop in town.
Shooz - A nice selection of stylish shoes.
SURROUNDING BOROUGHS AND DAY TRIP DESTINATIONS
Middleton - an adorable small town that's quick 15-minute drive west of downtown Madison. Highlights include the National Mustard Museum, Bloom Bake Shop*, and a large handful of shops and restaurants.
New Glarus - Just over 30 minutes from downtown Madison, a little town known as "America's Little Switzerland" is a perfect for half-day trip. Visit the New Glarus Brewery, then stop for a snack at one of the adorable restaurants in town for a Swiss-American meal.
Spring Green - Roughly an hour west of Madison, this tiny town is home to both Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin and the (in)famous House of the Rock. It is also home to the American Player's Theatre.
Wisconsin Dells - We sadly never made it here, but it is the water park capital of North America and a very popular holiday destination, so if you're into that kind of fun, definitely work it into your trip!
Milwaukee - An iconic American city, and only an hour + away!
Chicago - At just a few hours' drive away, one of North America's finest cities is definitely worth a visit.
I hope you've found this guide useful! Please feel free to leave any questions, comments or suggestions of other spots I might have forgotten.