Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide

Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West

Here today with an excellent Madison, Wisconsin travel guide is Abbigail Kriebs from Inkwells & Images!

Madison, Wis., population 240,000, isn’t the largest city in Wisconsin and certainly not the most-visited in the Midwest. But it is the home of the University of Wisconsin and the UW Badgers teams, a world-renowned teaching hospital and half a dozen lakes that make the city’s landscape as picturesque as any. Fun fact: It’s the only city in the United States to be built on an isthmus.

I’ve called Madison home for nine years now: two years commuting in from the suburbs, three as a student at the University and four since graduating. Needless to say I’ve been a Madison gal through varying levels of income, proximity to key restaurants and driving abilities, and living here has been an adventure through all of them.

Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West

Madison has a remarkable résumé, bursting with great restaurants, unique shopping and more cultural destinations than a town its size can usually sustain. While visiting in late spring, summer or fall will give you the most opportunity to get out and about on foot or bicycle. Madison is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. Visiting during winter shows off the state’s personality too, with cross-country trails, comfort food and enough activities to keep your mind off the frigid temps of our long, cold winters.

Click through to see more of Abbigail’s Madison, Wisconsin travel guide.

Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
The Cooper’s Tavern
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
The Cooper’s Tavern
  • The Cooper’s Tavern – A European style tavern, Cooper’s has the largest drink menu I’ve ever laid eyes on and nearly everything they serve is produced and sourced locally. For brunch, I almost always order the poutine and ask them to toss a couple of poached eggs on top. I’ve never had a bad meal here: brunch, lunch or dinner. The restaurant is right on the square downtown, so it’s a great beginning or end to a full day in the city.
  • Indie Coffee — The place to get waffles in town (a super important thing to know). You can get plain, chocolate, with caramel syrup on top… the possibilities are astounding — and delicious. Located near campus, it’s a popular college haunt, but it makes a great place to get away from your desk for lunch once you are an adult, too.
  • Mickey’s Dairy Bar — This is THE PLACE to go on game days, or really any day throughout the year. Pancakes larger than your plate, chili-cheese omelettes and milkshakes are all a staple at this diner-style restaurant that’s been across the street from Camp Randall, the home of Badger football, since 1946. If you go on a weekend, expect a long wait. The place is seat-yourself: so when you see a table, grab it!
  • Bellini’s Italian Restaurant — This place is perfect for date night. An old church turned into an Italian restaurant, the food is perfect and the atmosphere is just as good: heavy wooden booths and chairs that I swear were made from the old pews sit under a massive stained-glass window. It’s small, so call ahead for reservations if you can — and to find out if there are any weddings that have closed the place down to the public.
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
Mickie’s Dairy Bar
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
Indie Coffee
  • GRAZE — For when you want a nice dinner that says “Madison,” GRAZE is your place. The casual counterpart to Chef Tory Miller’s L’Etoile, there’s everything from Bibimbap to burgers to popcorn and more. Brunch features vodka-battered cheese curds and beignets, and the view of the capitol building out the floor to ceiling windows is breathtaking as the sun sets. Local craft beers shine on the drink menu and their cocktail list is literary themed.
  • Marigold Kitchen — Brunch all week long — and a great brunch at that. Marigold Kitchen is an eclectic spot just off the capitol square that features farm fresh ingredients and great coffee. You order at the counter and then take a number, so its great when you want a good breakfast, but don’t have a lot of time to spend — or you want to hit the lake as soon as possible.
  • Greenbush Bakery — Donuts, donuts and more donuts! Greenbush looks pretty unassuming from the outside, but inside are the best donuts in the city. Their classic sour cream old fashioned donuts come in several flavors (I recommend the blueberry) and the apple fritters are larger than your head. Grab a dozen — they are just as good for an afternoon snack and breakfast the next morning.
  • Bluephies — When you don’t know what you are in the mood for, or your party can’t decide, go to Bluephies. Their menu is diverse and inventive, with crab cakes sitting alongside burgers and fish tacos, as well as fancy pies and cookie dough filled egg rolls. Their brunch is fantastic and the place boasts an entire page of Bloody Mary varieties.
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
  • Chocolaterian Café — Chocolaterian is the place for an afternoon pick-me-up. A European-inspired patisserie, its known for its sweets and desserts, but serves excellent sandwiches and soups as well if you are looking for something a little more filling. Don’t pass on the Parisian Sipping Chocolate — it looks small and undaunting, but man is it rich!
  • That BBQ Joint — Located in the Willy St. neighborhood, That BBQ Joint does barbeque right. The brisket, pulled pork and Italian beef all rival their counterparts that you’d find in the south, and the sweet potato fries are some of the best in the city. It’s a hole in the wall, but it’s a delicious hole in the wall.
  • Umami — Asian-fusion in a renovated historical house, Umami is the place to go when you want food so good that you forget to talk to your dinner partner. Do not miss the steamed pork buns, and every variety of dumpling is worth a try. Ramen noodles have never tasted so good. And Ramen for brunch? So, so good.
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
University of Wisconsin
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
Memorial Union Terrace
  • University of Wisconsin Campus — Encompassing nearly 1,000 acres in the heart of downtown Madison, the UW Madison campus is consistently voted one of the prettiest in the country. From historic landmarks to natural vistas, there is no better place to spend a day than pretending to be a student.
  • The Chazen Museum — As a state educational resource, admission to the Chazen and its 20,000 pieces of art is free.
  • Memorial Union & the Terrace — A visit to Wisconsin is not complete without a trip to “the Union” and “the Terrace” — as they are locally known. Located at the heart of campus on the shore of Lake Mendota, the Union is home to conference space, art studios, a theatre, ice cream from Babcock Dairy and a Peet’s Coffee shop. Walk through the building and back outside and you find yourself on the Terrace, recognized across the world because of its iconic orange, yellow and green chairs and tables. In the summer, live music and the terrace brat stand make this a destination, as well as the option to sit on the stairs that lead into the lake to cool off with your feet in the water. Go, and make sure to grab a pitcher of New Glarus Brewery’s Spotted Cow, a true Wisconsin craft beer.
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
UW Arboretum
  • Picnic Point — If you need to walk off the beer & ice cream, wander west off the Terrace and take the trail along the lakeshore to Picnic Point. The trail spans nearly the length of the University, with views of Lake Mendota the whole way. You can make it by foot or bicycle.
  • UW Arboretum — Not located on campus, but part of the UW Educational system, the UW Arboretum features 1,200 acres of prairie, grasslands, forests and wetlands, in addition to gardens of ornamental flowers and flowering trees. You can get away from the city… without actually leaving the city.
  • Henry Vilas Zoo — One of only a few community-supported zoos in the country, Vilas Zoo is free to the public and is a great way to spend an afternoon.
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
Camp Randall Stadium

Madison is home to some big events that happen year after year. A few highlights:

  • Art Fair on the Square — Put on by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Fair on the square happens each year in July. Wander around the capitol square taking in paintings, photography, sculpture and more, often with the chance to meet the artist in person.
  • Concerts on the Square — The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra performs each Wednesday evening all summer long right on the capitol lawn — and the performance is free to the entire community.
  • Farmer’s Market — Each Saturday from 6:30 AM to 2:00 PM, traffic shuts down on the square and vendors set up for the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the nation. Pick up some spicy cheese bread while you’re there.
  • Badger Game(s) — The UW Athletics department supports over 25 Division 1 teams — whether it’s a home football game on a Saturday in the fall or a volleyball tournament any night of the week, there’s a college game you can cheer at any time of the year.
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
  • Fromagination — Specialty cheese and unique products from the state, this is where you should pick up a pound or two of Wisconsin’s famous cheese to take home with you. It’s located right on the capitol square.
  • Monroe Street — Filled with local stores from tip to tail, Monroe Street is a shopping destination. Some highlights:
    • Orange Tree Imports — All things kitchen, and then some. They offer cooking classes, too!
    • Mystery to Me — Locally owned bookstore with much more than just mystery titles. Holds author signings and readings from local authors frequently.
    • Strictly Discs — A music store run by people that are passionate about the industry.
    • Velvet Button Boutique — A great place to find distinct clothing — and a lot of locally made items, too.
  • Odana Antiques — A short car ride from downtown, Odana Antiques has nearly 100 vendors all in one building.
  • State Street — A pedestrian-only street that runs from the steps of the capitol building to the start of the UW Campus at Library Mall, State Street is where Madison gathers on a Friday night or a weekend morning. Unique restaurants and theatres line both sides, intermixed with locally-owned bookstores, clothing stores and places to grab a drink. Just walk until you find what you are looking for!
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
UW Arboretum
Hidden Gems: Madison, Wisconsin Travel Guide // Feast + West
Wisconsin State Capitol
  • 1 hour, Monroe, Wis.Home to my favorite store in the world, Monroe is a quaint farming town about an hour southwest of Madison. Right on the town square is Chocolate Temptations, a coffee, chocolate and ice cream shop that lives up to the name. The big attraction is Monroe’s bi-annual festival celebrating cheese: Monroe Cheese Days.
  • 1.5 hours, Mineral Point, Wis. Filled with artist galleries and cute shops, Mineral Point is a well-preserved town, complete with historical buildings and plenty of B&B’s to make your visit comfortable. Located in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, it’s a breath of fresh air when city life gets just a little too busy, and it’s just an hour and half away.
  • 1 hour, Spring Green, Wis. — About an hour west of Madison is a small town with a big history. Spring Green is home to the American Players Theatre, an outdoor venue performing classical Shakespeare and more modern plays. It’s also home to the independently owned Arcadia Bookstore, the House on the Rock and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin home. A trip to Governor Dodge State Park is also a must when you travel out this way.
  • 2 hours, Milwaukee, Wis. — Just two hours away from Madison is a town that deserves a travel guide all to itself — Milwaukee. Right on Lake Michigan, the largest city in the state has museums, world-class restaurants, the Milwaukee Brewers stadium and more. While you’ll never get bored in Madison, Milwaukee makes a great next stop on any Midwestern road trip. (See the Feast + West Milwaukee travel guide!)

Abbigail Kriebs // hg-facebook hg-facebook hg-instagram
Abbigail Kriebs loves words, food and photography, probably in that order. She’s a Midwestern gal who somehow became a city-dweller and is slowly writing her way back to her roots at Inkwells & Images. If she’s not there blogging about books and sharing photos, you’ll most likely catch her at her day job in advertising, or wasting time on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram far too often.

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  1. John Reign says

    Very thorough post; love it! You really did expose some hidden gems that Madison has to offer.

    Thank you for informing everyone out there of what Madison truly has to offer. Like I said earlier.. AMAZING POST!

    Keep up the fantastic work!

  2. Derek says

    Wonderful post , I feel like I was travelling with you too. I enjoy reading it. Thanks for sharing your experience in Madison.

  3. Emma says

    I’ve called Madison home for nine years now: two years commuting in from the suburbs, three as a student at the University and four since graduating. Needless to say I’ve been a Madison gal through varying levels of income, proximity to key restaurants and driving abilities, and living here has been an adventure through all of them.

    • Susannah says

      It sounds like a lovely place to live, Emma! If you have any must-see hidden gems, feel free to comment here with them!

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