I would have never gone to Madison, Wisconsin, if it hadn’t been for my son who moved there for a job. I came to love this city, where I found the most beautiful state capitol, best farmers market, gorgeous lakes, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and a fantasyland office campus.
I discovered I will never be a fan of cheese curds – even when they are fried.
The downtown is easily walkable, the rental bikes are all electric and the popular Old-Fashioneds are made with brandy.
There are dozens of things to do in Madison, both outside and indoors when it’s cold.
Things to Do Outdoors in Madison
Because I don’t like to spend much time outdoors when it’s below 60 degrees – yes, I’m a wimp – I have only visited Madison in the warmer months.
I’ll start with my favorite outdoor activities but don’t worry, there are plenty of things to do indoors in Madison. More on that later.
• Visit the awesome Dane County Farmers Market. The best farmers market I’ve ever been to, it is located on the sidewalk surrounding the Wisconsin State Capitol. Held every Saturday morning, the market gets so crowded you are supposed to only go counterclockwise when visiting the vendors.
It started in 1972 and is the largest producers-only farmers market in the country.
I love visiting farmers markets when I travel, but it’s also frustrating. There were so many gorgeous flowers and delicious-looking produce, but I had no way to enjoy them.
If you want to sample cheese curds, this is the place to do it. Chomp down and squeak away!
• Take a boat ride on Betty Lou Cruise. I take every opportunity to get out on the water so was thrilled to board the boat to tour Lake Mendota. We passed by beautiful homes perched on cliffs, parts of University of Wisconsin and downtown Madison.
• Stroll through Olbrich Botanical Gardens, 16 acres of outdoor gardens and an indoor conservatory. A highlight is the Thai Pavilion and garden, a gift from the Thai government to University of Wisconsin.
Check the website for what’s in bloom and events like movie night, bonfires on the Great Lawn and a concert series.
• Visit Lakeview Lounge at the University of Wisconsin. Grab a bite to eat and enjoy lake views from inside at this large lounge area.
• Tour the city by electric bike with Madison BCycle. Other cities have bike share programs, but how many are all electric? It’s kind of ironic because Madison is fairly flat and e-bikes are not really necessary, but man, are they fun. It’s like having a super power that you can turn on and off as you please.
And there are over 240 miles of bike trails in Madison, and an electric bike will let you cover more territory, right? Riding a bike around the lake is definitely one of my favorite things to do in Madison.
• Tour the fantasy world of the Epic campus, a privately owned medical software company just outside of Madison in Verona that employs about 10,000 people.
Epic has 1100 acres of rolling green hills, farmland and office buildings out of a fantasy novel with places that pay homage to Star Wars, Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland. There’s an elevator to hell and a stairway to heaven.
Guests can check in at the office and get a map to take a self-guided tour.
Indoor Things to Do in Madison, Wisconsin
Of course you can do these things all year, but they may be even more appealing in the winter when temperatures plummet and the city is blanketed in snow.
Here are our favorite indoor things to do in Madison.
• Drink an old-fashioned with brandy. Apparently, the custom of using brandy rather than whisky began in 1893 when the Korbel Brothers brought brandy to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and it caught on with the Wisconsin attendees.
• Visit Giant Jones Brewing Company. While we’re on the topic of alcohol, beer lovers will want to taste a few brews at this woman-owned organic brewery.
• Take a yoga class, relax at the spa, lounge and dine at Garver Feed Mill, a former feed mill renovated as a foodie- and wellness-centered food hall. The Dane County Farmer’s Market moves here during the winter.
• Spice up your life with a selection of thousands of mustards (about 6,090!) from 85 countries at the kitschy National Mustard Museum, one man’s passion project. Warning: you may encounter some humorous anti-ketchup propaganda.
If you’re lucky you’ll be able to hear Barry Levenson, founder and curator, sing the fight song for “Poupon U,” which claims to be America’s Mustard College. You, too, can be a graduate and earn your diploma for just $8.
Pop quiz: Do you know what country produces the most mustard? It’s Canada, closely followed by Nepal.
• Get your design fix by visiting Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. The famous architect spent his teenage years in Madison and several years in Spring Green, about 38 miles away.
Two of the five Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Madison are open to the public. Wright attended the Unitarian Meeting House, which was built in 1951 and is still used by the church. Tours are available year-round.
Wright designed the exterior of Monona Terrace, the convention center, but due to lack of funding it wasn’t completed until decades after his death.
If there’s not a convention taking place, enter and make your way to the back where the building extends over the water and floor-to-ceiling windows provide a gorgeous view of Lake Monona.
I apparently didn’t realize there was a convention taking place and walked right through to catch the view – no one seemed to mind.
Weather permitting head to the Monona Terrace on the rooftop where you’ll find a memorial to Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash in the lake.
• Tour the Wisconsin State Capitol, my #1 pick of things to do indoors in Madison. It’s the most stunning capitol building I’ve ever seen and free tours are offered daily all year.
There is no security here and people often use it as a cut through from one side of the square to the opposite side.
Marble columns, statues and mosaics are just a few of the elements in this gorgeous building, completed in 1917. The main feature is the rotunda, which soars for 284 feet.
Look closely and you’ll see dozens of badger replicas, including a large statue on loan from the Navy, which apparently wants it back. It’s made of melted down Spanish cannons and was given to the Navy by Cuba. According to our guide, you can find approximately 1,600 badgers here and 100,000 mosaic pieces.
• Eat dinner at a traditional supper club. Going to a Supper Club became a tradition in Wisconsin, primarily in rural areas, in the ‘50s and ‘60s as a place to spend an evening enjoying dishes like prime rib.
The tradition is being revived in fine dining restaurants like The Harvey House, housed in an old train station, where we started our meal with a traditional relish tray.
I toasted the traditional with a lovely ice cold martini and selected the superior walleye as an entrée.
As long as we’re talking food, dining out is definitely one of the best things to do indoors in Madison. Well, it’s one of my favorite things to do anywhere. Here are a few of my other favorite restaurants.
Fish Fry, Giant Shakes and Grilled Cheese: Where to Dine in Madison, Wisconsin
Get your cheese curd fix at Cooper’s Tavern with the poutine, a heart-stopping dish of Belgian frites with melted cheese curds topped with peppercorn gravy.
I was there on a rainy day so opted for the optimal comfort food – grilled cheese and tomato soup. So satisfying.
You won’t go hungry at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner where you can chow down on hamburgers, mac and cheese with giant shakes, but have vegan options as well.
For a traditional Friday fish fry to Quivey’s Grove just outside Madison, housed in a stone stable from 1855. Other items on the menu include chicken, ribs and pork schnitzel.
For fine dining, try L’ Etoile, our favorite place to take our son for a nice meal. You can’t go wrong with the Tasting Menu.
Where to Stay in Madison, Wisconsin
I loved staying at Park Hotel for its perfect location right on Capitol Square across the street from the Wisconsin State Capitol and walkable to just about anything in downtown Madison.
I had a room with a window overlooking the square and enjoyed a view of the Capitol lit up at night. On Saturday morning I could scope out the vendors before I headed out to the farmers market.Other rooms have lake views.
Some rooms have balconies overlooking the large indoor pool with easy access to the fitness center.
The onsite restaurant, The Post, serves dinner daily and breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday.