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Top Things to Do in Madison, Wisconsin

This university-anchored city gets an extra dose of sophistication from its role as state capital. Lakes and a famous market encourage outdoor fun. Check out our picks for what to do, where to eat and where to stay in Madison.


Betty Lou Cruises Step aboard a Betty Lou motor yacht for a leisurely cruise around Lake Mendota or Monona. 

Capitol It’s a straight shot from Monona Terrace on Lake Monona to the state Capitol. Free guided tours highlight architecture and art—mosaics, stained glass and murals. 


Monona Terrace and State Capitol

Capitol City Food Tours Consume calories and burn ’em on a three-hour, 11⁄2-mile tour that covers five stops. Guides chat about Madison’s history while guests sample sweets, savories and suds. 

Chazen Museum of Art The building is a work of art. Galleries display African, Asian and 21st-century international works at this museum on the University of Wisconsin campus. 

Dane County Farmers Market At the nation’s largest producer-only market, more than 150 vendors sell produce, flowers, cheeses and meats around Capitol Square on Saturdays, April through November. 

Horicon Marsh Considered one of the nation’s top birding spots, the marsh sits an hour northeast of Madison. Split into state and federal wildlife refuges, the 33,000-acre preserve harbors an estimated 300,000 birds every spring and fall. Nearly 300 species have been sighted, including the rare trumpeter swan and yellow-billed cuckoo.

Lake Monona See it from a Betty Lou motor yacht during a champagne brunch cruise or from a bike on trails that wind around lakes Monona and Mendota. 

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art The airy building near the Capitol houses more than 5,500 pieces of modern and contemporary art, some shown in a rooftop garden. 

 Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

Madison Trust for Historic Preservation Walking Tours Tours of areas such as Mansion Hill West focus on the city’s history and architecture. 

Monona Terrace Tours and an exhibit address the controversy around the building of this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center on Lake Monona. 

Monroe Street Indie shops and restaurants line a 1½-mile stretch west of downtown. 

National Mustard Museum Exhibits and video make a quirky yet classy homage to ketchup’s counterpart, 6 miles west of Madison in Middleton. 

Olbrich Botanical Gardens The 16 acres encompass a rose garden, conservatory, sunken garden, and Thai pavilion and garden. 

State Street This area bustles with more than 370 shops, galleries, restaurants and nightclubs. 

University of Wisconsin Arboretum These 1,200 acres feature prairie, savannah, marsh and deciduous forest, plus 20-plus miles of trails. 

Wisconsin State Historical Museum Stand in a replica 1,000-year-old home, walk into a lead mine or climb in a tractor cab as you explore exhibits detailing state history. 

Wisconsin Veterans Museum Engaging exhibits tug on emotions while telling stories of combat and life back home through letters, poetry, photographs, artifacts and lifelike vignettes. 


Alchemy The menu exceeds bar food expectations, especially the sweet potato fries with dipping sauces, such as jalapeño- blackberry jam. 

Babcock Hall Dairy Store The public face of the UW’s food sciences program, this parlor sells campus-made ice cream. 

Brasserie V Highland Spring Farm beef and onion straws fill the V burger at this European-style restaurant focusing on rustic French food and Belgian beers. 

Dotty’s Dumpling’s Dowry Dotty’s claim to be the world hamburger headquarters gets lots of support from the char-grilled, out-of-this-world burgers. 

Dotty's Dumpling Dowry

Dotty’s Dumpling’s Dowry

Estrellon Enjoy a leisurely parade of tapas from James Beard Award-winning chef Tory Miller. Then cap the evening with a Basque cake that seems to change flavors and textures with every bite. 

Fuegos—Steak+Tapas+Vegan The Latin-inspired menu caters to carnivores with bone-in ribeye and to vegans with dishes like chile relleno in orange ancho sauce.

Glass Nickel While you're noshing on the best-selling Fetalicious pizza, with its tender mushrooms, fresh spinach, tomatoes and crumbled feta, sip a hearty Scottish ale or peppery Cabernet and enjoy the restaurant's Bohemian-chic decor. 

Graze Taste the region’s food bounty in seasonal dishes, such as pan-seared gnocchi with squash, kale, goat cheese, apples and cider. 



Harvest The menu follows the seasons at this upscale favorite. Check the website for themed monthly Sunday dinners.

Heritage Tavern Pork stars here (the chef breeds his own heritage hogs), right down to the vintage boar-theme dinnerware. The braised pork and tuna platter includes pork shoulder, tuna sashimi and headcheese. 

Ian's Pizza This eatery on State Street cemented its reputation selling pizza by the slice (and opened satellite shops in Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood and in Milwaukee). Patrons gobble up its top-selling mac 'n' cheese pizza. 

L’Etoile Fine dining about as fine as it gets. A seasonal asparagus canapé with Murphy’s Farm cottage cheese, pumpkin seed oil and pepitas made us swoon. 

Marigold Kitchen The Capitol Square area breakfast and lunch spot dishes platters of brioche French toast and blueberry pancakes with orange almond butter. 

Merchant Restaurant Like its cocktails crafted by bartenders, Merchant mixes the best of food and fun: It’s a restaurant, bar, grocer and night club. 

Mickey’s Tavern Follow locals to this slightly worn gem. In a 1902 flatiron building, Mickey’s features a retro bar, living room-style dining areas and a spacious patio.

Monty’s Blue Plate Diner An updated diner serves breakfast all day and vegetarian options that go way beyond a tofu burger. 

Quivey’s Grove Housed in structures from the mid-1800s, this restaurant on the city’s outskirts is an elegant celebration of Wisconsin. (608) 273-4900; 

RED The glam sushi restaurant serves seasonal craft cocktails along with favorites like the Badger Roll (crab, shrimp, tuna and cream cheese).

Sprecher’s Grill and Pub Wisconsin-inspired fare (a burger with sauerkraut, sauerbraten over spaetzle) pairs with the popular fire-brewed beers and sodas. 

Short Stack Eatery Exquisite blueberry pancakes and a bloody mary full of fresh veggies are just two reasons to visit. Plus, it’s open overnight on Saturdays.

Short Stack Eatery. Madison, Wisconsin.

Photo courtesy of Short Stack Eatery

Sunroom Cafe The brunch has a range of omelets and scramblers, plus whole wheat pancakes to keep Madison’s granola reputation intact. 

Supper clubs Head to one for Friday night’s old-school meal of fried fish. We recommend Avenue Bar and Grill, The Old Fashioned Tavern and Toby’s. , , 

Tornado Steakhouse Wood-paneled walls, cozy booths and white linen tablecloths will take you straight back to the Mad Men era at this classic Wisconsin supper club.

Weary Traveler Freehouse Bob’s Bad Breath Burger (made with garlic, onions and cream cheese) is wickedly tasty. 


Arbor House Organic mattresses and sustainably harvested wood characterize this green lodging. 

Best Western Inn on the Park Capitol Square Perks at this convenient downtown hotel include sizeable, clean rooms and free parking.

The Edgewater The hotel pier gives guests easy access to Lake Mendota (and the occasional pop-up pier party). Four dining options within the 200-room hotel up the lake-luxe ante.

The Edgewater Hotel. Madison, Wisconsin.

Photo courtesy of The Edgewater

HotelRED Comfort and chic blend in the 48 guest rooms at a boutique hotel across the street from the Wisconsin Badgers’ Camp Randall Stadium. 

Hyatt Place Madison/Downtown Between lakes Mendota and Monona, this hotel puts much of Madison in walking distance. 

Mansion Hill Inn The German Romanesque Revival building’s 10 rooms feature plush linens; some have marble fireplaces. 

The Speckled Hen Inn At this modern home in a bucolic setting, you’ll dine on a breakfast of eggs from the inn’s chickens and herbs grown on its 50 acres. 

For more information: Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau 


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