Madison

Best Things to Do in Madison

BY Bailey Berg | January 24, 2022

Welcome to Fifty Grande’s Best of the U.S. Bucket List series. This is your one-stop travel guide to the best, most unique and quintessential experiences of a city, state or event. Want to know how to “do” Madison? We’ve got you covered. Curated by experts, vetted by in-the-know locals, this is all you need to have the best trip ever. If we’ve written a Bucket List, we recommend you go. If it’s on this list, it’s the best the city has to offer right now. Consider this your one-stop answer to “What are the best things to do in Madison?”

Don’t call Madison, Wis., a flyover city. As the second-largest city in the state (and home to the flagship school in the University of Wisconsin system), Madison is dynamic. If you’re into seeing live music, you may be interested in the fact that Madison has some of the cheapest concert tickets in the nation. If you’re into beer, it’s worth knowing that the city hosts the Great Taste of the Midwest, one of the largest beer festivals in the country. If you like visiting places with natural beauty and outdoor activities, you’re in luck, because the city is sandwiched between two lakes, Mendota and Monona, perfect for running along or noodling around in.

With lakefront views, myriad trails, stellar college sports teams, a beautiful State Capitol building, craft breweries with cult followings and the fact that most restaurants have cheese curds on the menu makes this progressive, inclusive and unabashedly itself city an all-around fun place to spend a couple of days.

Here are some of the greatest hits to help you get to know one of the most vibrant cities in the Midwest.

YOU’RE HERE FOR THAT SCONNIE CHARM

Wisconsin state capital in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Shutterstock.
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Wisconsin state capital in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Shutterstock.

Wisconsin State Capitol Building

2 E Main St, Madison, WI, USA

Wisconsin didn’t hold back when it designed its capitol building. The 105-year-old structure is the tallest in the city (by law), is topped with a 284-foot dome, and is filled with murals, mosaics and marble from France, Italy and Germany. To get to know the Capitol better, stop at the visitor desk for one of the free daily tours. From Memorial Day until early November, you can check out a panoramic view of the city from the Observation Deck.

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A beautiful Thai Pavilion stands surrounded by bubbling fountains at a Wisconsin public gardens. Photo by Shutterstock.
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A beautiful Thai Pavilion stands surrounded by bubbling fountains at a Wisconsin public gardens. Photo by Shutterstock.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

3330 Atwood Ave, Madison, WI, USA

Most pictures you’ll see of Olbrich Botanical Garden include its Thai pavilion. The ornate structure was a gift to Madison from the Thai government and the Thai chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association in honor of the many Thai students at the state’s flagship school. 

While all 16 acres are worth exploring, if you only have a little while, we’d also recommend the Rose Garden and the Perennial Garden. 

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University of Wisconsin Memorial Union Terrace
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University of Wisconsin Memorial Union Terrace. Photo by Shutterstock.

University of Wisconsin Memorial Union Terrace

800 Langdon St, Madison, WI, USA

Sometimes called the front porch of Madison, the Union Terrace is THE place to hang out during warm weather months. Sit in the iconic sunburst chairs, sip pints of an Ale Asylum IPA, listen to local and national bands perform and watch the sunset on the lake. During the day, you can rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards here (or take a sailboat lesson). 

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University of Wisconsin Badger football fans. Photo by Shutterstock.
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University of Wisconsin Badger football fans. Photo by Shutterstock.

Attend a football game at Camp Randall

1440 Monroe St, Madison, WI, USA

At a Wisconsin Badgers homecoming game in 1998, the House of Pain’s hip-hop anthem “Jump Around” played before the start of the fourth quarter. The crowd went wild, the game was won (against a Drew Bees-led Purdue, no less) and a tradition was born. If you go to a game now, prepare to do as the song says and “jump up, jump up and get down” for the entire four-minute rendition. Also, prepare for impressive marching band shows, colorful chants from the student section and, oh yeah, Big 10 football. 

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MADISON, WI - JULY 26th, 2014: Colorado music act "Rich With Friends" performs outside the Wisconsin State Capitol building during a regular Saturday Farmer's Market. Photo by Shutterstock.
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MADISON, WI - JULY 26th, 2014: Colorado music act "Rich With Friends" performs outside the Wisconsin State Capitol building during a regular Saturday Farmer's Market. Photo by Shutterstock.

Dane County Farmers’ Market

2 E Main St, Madison, WI, USA

The largest farmers’ market in the nation, this Saturday staple on the grounds of the Capitol building will have you questioning how much cheese is too much cheese to consume before lunch. In addition to whatever produce is seasonal, expect stands (and lots of free samples) for honey, ice cream, baked goods, dips and, of course, cheese.

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National Mustard Museum in Madison, Wisconsin.
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National Mustard Museum in Madison, Wisconsin.

National Mustard Museum

7477 Hubbard Ave, Middleton, WI, USA

While leaving his hotel in Washington D.C., Barry Levenson, the former assistant attorney general for the State of Wisconsin, saw a mini jar of mustard on a room service tray in the hallway and decided to take it. He argued a case before the Supreme Court with the stolen mustard in his pocket, and when he won, he decided to devote his life to mustard. Since 1992, he’s run the National Mustard Museum, where there are over 6,000 mustards from all 50 states and more than 80 countries, as well as hundreds of items of memorabilia.

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AND TO EAT ALL THE CHEESE

Here there be cheddar.

 

Mickie’s Dairy Bar
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Mickie’s Dairy Bar

Mickie’s Dairy Bar

1511 Monroe St, Madison, WI, USA

This Madison institution has been around since the 1940s (look for the original menu hanging on the wall). The portions are obscenely large (making it a favorite of football players who practice across the street at Camp Randall), and there is usually a wait. If you’re nursing a hangover, get the Scrambler, a dish made of crispy hashbrowns (called “yanks” here), three eggs, one meat or two veggies, cheese, gravy and served with a side of toast. 

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Fromagination in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Fromagination in Madison, Wisconsin.

Fromagination

12 S Carroll St, Madison, WI, USA

This Parisian-style cheese shop has been a longtime local favorite. They source some of the best of the best cheese the Dairy State has to offer. Can’t decide? Grab a couple of “orphans.” Fromagination usually has a basket of small wedges, perfect for building a sampler platter. 

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The Old Fashioned in Madison, Wisconsin.
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The Old Fashioned in Madison, Wisconsin.

The Old Fashioned

23 N Pinckney St, Madison, WI, USA

This tavern on the Capitol square is an ode to all things Wisconsin. Expect more than 50 locally crafted beers, beer-battered cheese curds, entrees with a side of sauerkraut and a Friday fish fry. 

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Weary Traveler Freehouse in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Weary Traveler Freehouse in Madison, Wisconsin.

Weary Traveler Freehouse

1201 Williamson St, Madison, WI, USA

Found on what locals call Willy Street (an eclectic neighborhood of co-ops, quirky bars and eateries and colorful shops), the vibe here leans crunchy. The menu is made up of primarily locally sourced ingredients but includes dishes from all over the world. The most popular item? The Bob’s Bad Breath Burger. It’s a half-pound of pasture-raised Wisconsin beef, topped with cream cheese, green goddess dressing, caramelized onions, garlic, tomatoes and Pickapeppa Sauce with a side of Yukon Gold potatoes and local mixed greens. It truly lives up to its name. 

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Ian’s Pizza in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Ian’s Pizza in Madison, Wisconsin.

Ian’s Pizza

100 State St, Madison, WI, USA

Four words: mac and cheese pizza. If you spent all night carousing on State Street and you no longer have the ability to bounce back after a night after drinking, do yourself a favor and get a slice before heading home. It’s cheap, fortifying, magically cheesy and may help you not feel like death the following day. You might also consider the Macho Nacho (chipotle crème sauce, pepperjack, house-made chorizo, cheddar, tortilla strips, pico de gallo and salsa verde) or the Drunken Ravioli (vodka marinara sauce, mozzarella, cheese ravioli, butter and asiago) as alternative specialty pizzas. 

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Babcock Hall Dairy Store in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Babcock Hall Dairy Store in Madison, Wisconsin.

Babcock Hall Dairy Store

Babcock Hall, 1605 Linden Drive, Madison, WI, USA

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, part of the coursework for students studying food science is doing arguably the most Wisconsin thing imaginable: making cheese and ice cream. It’s not just little DIY treats — the students work for the UW-Madison Babcock Hall Dairy Plant. They help process over 2 million pounds of milk from local farmers each year, turning it into their namesake (and award-winning) ice cream and cheese, all of which can be purchased here. We recommend the Blue Moon ice cream — it tastes like Fruity Pebbles. 

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DRINK YOUR WAY THROUGH TOWN

If you’re looking for the “when in Rome” approach, opt for the Spotted Cow Cream Ale (a wildly popular beer only sold in Wisconsin) or a brandy Old Fashioned (just be prepared to answer whether you want it sour or sweet). 

The Great Dane in Madison, Wisconsin.
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The Great Dane in Madison, Wisconsin.

The Great Dane

123 E Doty St, Madison, WI, USA

The Great Dane is the Goldilocks of Madison bars. It has an extensive menu (including the requisite curds and all-important Friday fish fry), myriad beers brewed in-house, games like “Big Buck Hunter” and pool, TVs tuned to sports, multiple bar areas and tons of outdoor seating. It’s an excellent place to go if your tribe can’t decide where to go. 

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Nitty Gritty in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Nitty Gritty in Madison, Wisconsin.

Nitty Gritty

223 N Frances St, Madison, WI, USA

Yes, the Nitty Gritty is a bit of a “WHOOOO!!” girl bar. But if it’s your birthday, it’s a good time — the bar lets those celebrating their most recent trip around the sun drink for free all night long. It’s easy to spot who’s birthday it is because they are clutching a branded plastic mug with a balloon attached to it. 

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The Plaza Tavern Madison in Madison, Wisconsin.
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The Plaza Tavern Madison in Madison, Wisconsin.

The Plaza Tavern

319 N Henry St, Madison, WI, USA

The Plaza is a wild place. It allegedly opened during Prohibition, though the dive bar hasn’t changed since the ’70s. Over the years, celebs like Johnny Cash, Bill Murray and myriad others have visited. Whether they were drawn in by the $8 pitchers of macro lagers, inexpensive mix drinks or the secret sauce on the Plazaburger, we’re not sure. 

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Karben4 Brewing in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Karben4 Brewing in Madison, Wisconsin.

Karben4 Brewing

3698 Kinsman Blvd, Madison, WI, USA

Karben4 Brewing’s IPA, Fantasy Factory, has easily the most recognizable label in the state, if not the Midwest. It depicts a stoic, gun-toting tabby cat atop a rearing unicorn with a glowing green horn and flame-throwing nostrils. The background is a pixelated rainbow. And yes, their Madison tasting room is exactly as fun as you’d imagine. 

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New Glarus Brewing in Madison, Wisconsin.
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New Glarus Brewing in Madison, Wisconsin.

New Glarus Brewing

2400 WI-69, New Glarus, WI, USA

Ok, so it’s not strictly in town (it’s about a 40-minute drive), but for beer nerds, it’s a must-do. New Glarus is one of the most popular craft breweries in the nation. Don’t believe us? According to the Brewers Association, it was the 12th largest craft brewer in 2020, which is even more impressive when you consider it’s only available within Wisconsin. Their Spotted Cow is beloved statewide, arguably because it’s most Wisconsinites’ first foray into craft beer — It introduces them to what beer can be. It’s pillowy and delicious, but honestly, it’s not even their most impressive offering. We’d recommend the Fat Squirrel or the Serendipity if they have it.

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WHERE TO STAY

When your entire downtown is on an isthmus, getting lake views is easy. 

The Graduate Madison
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The Graduate Madison

The Graduate Madison

601 Langdon St, Madison, WI, USA

If Wes Anderson were to design a hotel, it would likely look like this Graduate outpost. It feels like a very plaid summer camp. Pets are welcome, and the hotel offers complimentary bikes for guests to tootle around town. The rooftop restaurant, Camp Trippalindee, is a nod to the ’80s film “Back to School.” 

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Hotel Ruby Marie in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Hotel Ruby Marie in Madison, Wisconsin.

Hotel Ruby Marie

524 E Wilson St, Madison, WI, USA

Madison’s oldest operating hotel, the Ruby Marie, was built in 1873 during the railroad boom. Initially, the hotel offered 36 guest rooms, but the rooms have since been expanded, so there are now 15, each decorated with different Victorian-era pieces. 

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Edgewater Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Edgewater Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin.

Edgewater Hotel

1001 Wisconsin Place, Madison, WI, USA

This urban resort is, frankly, sexy. It boasts luxe amenities and services ranging from spa treatments and fitness classes to three signature restaurants and an ice rink. The lakefront suites have panoramic views of Lake Mendota.

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