Madison Wisconsin is one of those Midwest gems. The city surprises you with its rolling hills, lakefront campus, vibrant restaurant scene, and round-the-clock events. Oh, and there’s also a deep love for all things University of Wisconsin! If you’re looking for fun things to do in Madison WI when visiting your college student (or with a potential student), here is what shouldn’t be missed!
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**We were guests of Destination Madison for the purpose of this review. As always, our opinion is 100% our own!
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What Not to Miss in Madison Wisconsin
Madison is a town of 275,000 residents, with close to 50,000 of those being students at the university. The town is University of Wisconsin everything, from the storefronts to the restaurants, to the people walking down the street. There’s a steady energy throughout the town and it’s definitely contagious. Here’s how to soak up the fun when you’re visiting Madison.
Check out local events
Home football games and tailgating
We would highly recommend visiting Madison in the fall to experience the craziness that is Wisconsin football. There are an overwhelming number of tailgate parties throughout the day and throughout the community. Everywhere you look is a sea of red, and if you’re not a fan, you soon will be.
If your student can’t direct you to a tailgate party, we would recommend heading to Regent Street where there are a ton of options.
Terrace at Memorial Union
The Terrace at Memorial Union hosts concerts and events with the perfect spot overlooking Lake Mendota. There are several restaurant options, but it would be just as easy to have a small picnic here.
Grab a spot at one of the lawn tables or sit on the dock and catch a beautiful sunset over the lake. Be sure to stop in at the Daily Scoop for a delicious ice cream cone that’s sure to complete the experience.
Dane County Farmers’ Market
Every Saturday from April to November over 150 vendors surround the capitol building to sell their wares. We saw everything from rhubarb and apples to flowers and cheese. Whatever your heart desires, you are sure to find it at the market. This is the largest producers’ only market in the United States, and it’s a must-stop if you find yourself spending a weekend in Madison.
When you’re finished, be sure to duck into the local cheese shop, Fromagination. The store has an incredible collection of Wisconsin artisan cheese and local products. Ask for cheesemonger Ian who can share some of the store’s best sellers and be sure to take some of them home!
Taste of Madison – Labor Day Weekend
If you visit Madison over Labor Day Weekend you will be spoiled with choices when it comes to activities. One of the highlights is the annual Taste of Madison, which celebrated its 40th year in 2022.
The two-day event features over 70 vendors and live entertainment. Grab your favorite snack or meal at one of the vendor’s stands and then find a spot on the capitol lawn to listen to bands throughout the day.
Learn about Madison’s history
Tour the Wisconsin Historical Museum
Wisconsin is known for beer and cheese, but it is so much more! The Wisconsin Historical Museum was a pleasant surprise and extremely well done. Each floor of the museum takes visitors through different periods of Wisconsin’s history.
We learned about everything from the native nations to agriculture and industry and the city’s Hmong population. We highly recommend a stop here on your visit to Madison.
Take of tour of the State Capitol Building
It’s hard to ignore the Wisconsin State Capitol building as it sits at the crossroads of major Madison streets. There are free guided tours on the hour, but it’s just as easy to explore on your own.
The Capitol rotunda is stunning, but equally beautiful are the city views from the observation deck. Be sure to leave time for a visit to the home of Wisconsin’s government!
Tour Monona Terrace
One of the more unique buildings in Madison is Monona Terrace. Frank Lloyd Wright proposed the building of this structure in the 1930s, but the vision wasn’t realized until 1997! It has unique features and a stunning view over Lake Monona. Tours of the venue are available on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, at 1:00 pm, and worth it to learn about the city’s history and Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence.
Explore the unique boutique shops along Monroe Street
Near Camp Randall stadium, you’ll find Monroe Street, a 1.5-mile strip of boutique shops and restaurants. It’s also a convenient location for visiting the UW Arboretum, the Henry Vilas Zoo, and Lake Wingra.
Some places to duck into are:
Strictly Discs – shop selling vinyl records and CDs. Great trip down memory lane!
Orange Tree Imports – unique kitchenware and gifts.
Art Gecko – variety of exotic decor, clothing, and jewelry.
Hive – an outdoor lifestyle clothing boutique for men and women.
Spend time outdoors
As mentioned above, Memorial Union is a great place for enjoying the outdoors, but there are plenty of other options throughout the city should you want some peace and quiet.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens has 16 acres of manicured gardens to explore. Lake Wingra has walking and cycling paths as well as kayaks and paddle boards available to rent from Wingra Boats. The Southwest Commuter Path is a pleasant route that connects campus with Monroe Street, and there’s the Lake Monona Bike Loop that goes along the water.
If the above options don’t intrigue you, take a walk through campus. There are e-bike rentals available throughout Madison (just download the app) and if you stay at The Graduate, they have bicycles available for guests. The city of Madison is regularly voted one of the most bike-friendly cities, so you are sure to find plenty of places to take a ride.
Where to Eat in Madison WI
State Street Brats – a Madison institution serving brats, cheese curds, and beer. What more could you want?
The Old Fashioned – another Madison hang out. We loved the poutine and they had some great sandwiches!
Mickie’s Dairy Bar – a must-visit on a weekend morning. Old school diner serving breakfast and lunch.
Pizza Brutta – if you’re looking for something that’s not brats or cheese curds, head to this wood-fired pizza spot!
Colectivo Coffee – fell in love with Colectivo when visiting Milwaukee 5 years ago and it’s a must-stop for me.
Where to Stay in Madison WI
The Graduate occupies the perfect location just off State Street. It’s within walking distance of coffee, restaurants, sorority row, shops, and campus. Kitschy summer camp and college decor can be found throughout the property, including the rooms.
Rooms are incredibly comfortable and have fun decor. The wallpaper in the bathroom has drawings of small faces, reminiscent of a search and find, which made us laugh every time.
Be sure to spend some time upstairs in the hotel’s restaurant, Camp Trippalindee, which serves cocktails, burgers, and brats with city views from the rooftop. Coffee and pastries are available in the lobby at Poindexter Coffee if you need something quick in the morning.
I visited Madison with my son who is in the thick of his college search. There’s so much to love about Madison from its true university town vibe to its delicious food and stunning location between two lakes. If you’re heading to Madison to visit your college student, be sure to include some of our favorite stops because we think you’ll love it too!