One of America’s great college towns, Madison’s progressive vibe, fabulous restaurants and compact size have lately made it a destination for savvy travelers.
The state capital of Wisconsin is easy to navigate, and with so many restaurants, spas and natural attractions to visit in and around the city, you’ll want to cover some ground. With direct flights now offered from Chicago, Newark and Denver, we recommend a few nights here, rather than just a day trip from Milwaukee. Here are a few tips for the best things to do in Madison.
Make like a local and hop on a bike
Madison is one of only five platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Cities, as certified by the League of American Bicyclists. The city has more than 40 miles of well-maintained trails completely separated from automobile traffic; the trails even have their own underpasses, overpasses, roundabouts and signage. The city’s bike-share program, Madison B-Cycle, is the country’s first fully electric bike share program, with 350 bikes across 39 stations. (Note that the stations don’t operate during the winter.)
The love of cycling is so strong here that you’ll see cyclists plowing through snow, slush and slippery roads in freezing temperatures during notoriously harsh Midwest winters. If you don’t get your fill of bicycles on the streets, look forward to seeing them everywhere else, from window displays in plumbing shops to bicycle-themed art in hotel rooms.
Park the car and explore vibrant downtown on foot
If you want to be within walking distance of quirky shops, appealing restaurants and lots of free museums (like the Chazen Museum of Art, one of the state’s largest collections), base yourself downtown. You could also stay on the east side, which has a more relaxed, funky vibe (and also lots of good restaurants) then head downtown to explore around the State Capitol and along State Street.
Have your pick of art markets and boutique gift stores, entertainment venues (like the Orpheum Theater, which hosts big name music and comedy acts), and only-in-Wisconsin shops like Fromagination – which specializes in artisan cheese but which also has plenty of locally produced crackers, meats, jams, mustards, wines and beers for pairing.
Note that the downtown area is full of one-way streets and is best explored by foot or on bicycle; plan on parking the car.
Eat Lao food in an old Norwegian social club
Madison has plenty of Mexican, Indian, Chinese and Thai restaurants – and sets itself apart further with an even broader range of cuisine options, including Taiwanese and Nepali spots. For a fun food challenge, try visiting all of the city’s Laotian restaurants, including Lao Laan-Xang, whose two locations have slightly different menus, and Ahan, which offers a fusion style of Laotian cuisine. The latter is located inside a restored 100-year-old building that used to be a Norwegian social club and is now the Bur Oak music and event space – check the calendar during your trip to enjoy some music or an open mic with your red curry noodles, and enjoy a truly Madison-style cross-cultural experience.
Sip more than just beer at local brewers
In addition to top-notch food, you’ll also find a wide selection of locally brewed beverage options in and around Madison. If beers is your thing, head to Giant Jones Brewing Company (which is LGBTQ- and women-owned), Capital Brewery (one of the oldest craft breweries in the country) and ALT Brew (a dedicated gluten-free brewery and taproom). And there’s no shortage of bars and brew pubs, like the Parched Eagle Brew Pub, with a living room–like ambiance, hard-to-find varieties and Thursday-night BYO-cassette-tape-to-play night.
The Cider Farm, which sources its produce from orchards just outside of Madison, has a tasting room in the middle of town, while Bos Meadery produces the fermented honey-derived alcoholic beverage known as mead. (An event space next to its tasting room often hosts local musicians.) For non-alcoholic fizzy fermentation, visit NessAlla Kombucha, a women-run kombucha craft brewery that supplies many of Madison’s natural-food stores and co-ops.
Hang out in an old feed mill
Built in 1906 as a five-story sugar beet-processing factory and later converted into a grain mill, the Garver Feed Mill is now a must-visit spot on Madison’s food and culture scene. The space hosts not the aforementioned NessAlla Kombucha, and plays host to weekly live music every Wednesday night, a Saturday farmers market (from January to April) and “Bike N’ Bites” food tours offered in partnership with Madison Eats.
Take a class in candle making, bath-bomb creation or paint pouring at Glitter Workshop; visit the on-site contemporary art gallery, Canvas; then grab a slice of pizza from Ian’s and a scoop of boozy ice cream for adults from Calliope (try the Brandy Old Fashioned, which tastes like Wisconsin’s most famous cocktail).
Treat yourself to full-body Ayurvedic wellness
Expect more than a mere massage and facial at Kosa Ayurvedic Spa at Garver Feed Mill: this 4500-sq-ft sanctuary offers full-body wellness. As the only Ayurvedic spa in the state (and one of the only in the entire Midwest), Kosa offers a retreat for couples, individuals and small groups. Indulge in a private steam and sauna session, an Indian head massage or balancing ritual. Then settle in for a five-senses therapy session that treats your eyes, nose, mouth, ears and skin with different foods, herbs and oils.
Make time for nature
After you’ve had your fill of Madison’s urban pleasures, enjoy the many outdoorsy options within and close to the city. The Olbrich Botanical Gardens (only a few minutes from Garver Feed Mill) features 16 acres of outdoor display gardens, a tropical conservatory and one of only four pavilions in the world that were gifted by the Thai government. Hikers (and walkers) should head to Picnic Point, at the tip of a mile-long peninsula along Lake Mendota’s south shore, or to the UW Arboretum, which offers 17 miles of hiking and cross country skiing trails.
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