15 things you have to do in Wisconsin’s state capital

Ah, Madison. Home to the state capital and its flagship university. Squeezed onto an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, with three other lakes in the area. Bike lanes and outdoor activities galore, with restaurants and bars to match.

All of those qualities make Wisconsin’s second most populous city a popular destination for visitors, especially future, current and past college students.

So what to do when you’re done touring campus or jumping around at Camp Randall?

There are plenty of options, and everyone’s must-do lists are different. But here are some quintessential Madison things every visitor should do at least once.

A visit to the capital wouldn’t be a visit without seeing the Capitol itself. Free tours are offered daily and offer a look at the building that was modeled after the U.S. Capitol. The dome, the only granite dome in the country, also is one of the largest by volume. The building is the tallest in Madison — cemented by a state statute that forbids any building within a mile from being taller. During the summer, the tour takes visitors to the sixth floor museum and observation deck for views from near that highest point.

The building is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Free tours are offered daily year round, except on select holidays. They start at the information desk in the central Rotunda on the hour (except for noon) from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, with an extra 4 p.m. tour on weekdays in the summer. The tour lasts 45 to 55 minutes and is accessible up to the fourth floor. Reservations are not required. See tours.wisconsin.gov or call (608) 266-0382 for more information.

The University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union Terrace on Lake Mendota is the place to be in Madison in the summer. Colorful sunburst chairs and tables are scattered around the Terrace for taking in views of the lake and live music on summer weekends, with a giant chair serving as a prop for graduation photos. Brats, burgers, barbecue and beer are available outside, with pizza, salads, ice cream, coffee and more available inside. On the west side of the Terrace, Outdoor UW rents kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards for paddling on the lake.

State Street

State Street is in the heart of Madison, connecting the UW campus with the Capitol. The street is only open to pedestrians, cyclists and buses, and is lined with shops, bars and restaurants from chains to local favorites. It’s about a half mile walk from the west end to the east, perfect for a leisurely stroll with shopping, eating and drinking along the way.

At the western end, the University Book Store sells all manner of UW apparel, plus textbooks for students.

Also near the western end, State Street Brats is a quintessential college bar and one of the best spots to watch a game if you’re not going to Camp Randall or the Kohl Center. The bar and restaurant is known for its red brat, made from pork and beef, which gives it the red color. Other bar favorites round out the menu, including burgers and cheese curds, plus vegetarian and gluten-free options. A beer garden outside fills up quickly on nice days.

Near the eastern end is The Orpheum Theater, which was built as a vaudeville venue and movie theater in 1926 and today plays host to local and national acts throughout the year.

Also near the eastern end is Paul’s Club, a popular bar known for a large petrified oak tree that rises from the center of the bar and survived a fire in 1993 and a move in 2012.

Part of UW’s Lakeshore Nature Preserve, this peninsula jutting out into Lake Mendota offers nearly 360-degree views of the lake, the Capitol and the university. From Lot 130, it’s less than a mile walk along a wheelchair accessible path to the Point. Six reservable fire pits are scattered along the route, with firewood and grates provided.

Picnic Point is a small part of the 300-acre preserve that stretches along 4.3 miles of the shoreline. A handful of trails travel through the preserve, including through a resorted prairie, to Frautschi Point for more great views, and to Raymer’s Cove, lined by small sandstone cliffs.

A trail leads from the UW Arboretum Visitor Center into the 73-acre Curtis Prairie, the world's oldest ecologically restored prairie.

A trail leads from the UW Arboretum Visitor Center into the 73-acre Curtis Prairie, the world’s oldest ecologically restored prairie.

It would be easy to spend an entire day in this 1,200-acre National Historic Landmark on the south side of Lake Wingra, with more than 17 miles of trails winding through restored prairie, wetlands and woodlands. Start at the Visitor Center, 2880 Longenecker Drive, which sits on the northern edge of the Curtis Prairie, the world’s oldest ecologically restored prairie. Trails around the center also wind through the 4-acre Wisconsin Native Plant Garden, which contains hundreds of native species, and the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, which has one of the continent’s largest displays of lilacs. To the north and east are two woodlands with a handful of effigy mounds.

The Arboretum is free to visit. Pets and picnics are not permitted. The Visitor Center is open 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday and 12:30-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Trails and parking lots are open 4 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

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The Thai pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens was a gift from the Thai government.

The Thai pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens was a gift from the Thai government.

Another free natural opportunity in Madison, Olbrich’s 16 acres of outdoor gardens feature everything from roses and hostas to wildflowers and ferns. The gardens are also home to a Thai Pavilion, a gift from the Thai government and the Thai Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association to the university. The pavilion is only one of four outside of Thailand, and the only one in the continental U.S.

Also at Olbrich is the Bolz Conservatory, a glass pyramid greenhouse filled with tropical plants and free-flying birds that hosts a popular butterfly exhibit every July.

Both the outdoor gardens and the conservatory are wheelchair accessible. The outdoor gardens are free to visit and are open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily April-September and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily October-March. The Bolz Conservatory is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily; admission is $6 for visitors age 13 and older, $3 for children (ages 6-12) and free for kids 5 and younger. Admission is free for everyone from 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday and Saturday.

Babcock Dairy Store or Chocolate Shoppe ice cream

Custard might be king in Wisconsin, but in Madison, these two battle it out for ice cream queen status.

Babcock wins when it comes to history. The dairy plant there has been producing ice cream using the same recipe since 1951 and selling it in a student-run store on campus at 1605 Linden Drive, along with Daily Scoop locations in Memorial Union and Union South. The main store usually has around 22 flavors available, from staples like Union Utopia (vanilla with peanut butter, caramel and fudge) to specials like Bec-key Lime Pie, which was first made in 2013 in honor of then-Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

You can now find more than 100 Chocolate Shoppe ice cream flavors in 400 restaurants and shops around the country — including Chocolate Factory locations in the Milwaukee area — but it’s better closer to the source. The company has four locations in the Madison area, including one at 468 State St. Zanzibar Chocolate, made with three kinds of chocolate, is a favorite, and has inspired spinoffs like Zanzimint and Zoreo. The shop also offers a variety of allergy-friendly and vegan options.

You’ll have to visit on a Saturday to peruse this farmers market on the Capitol Square, which bills itself as the country’s largest producers-only market. Vendors sell everything from flowers and fruit to baked goods and beef. Some popular vendors sell out before the market ends; get there early for the best selection. The market is open 6:15 a.m.-1:45 p.m. April-November. In the winter, the market moves indoors to the Garver Feed Mill.

There’s also a smaller market held on the 200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. from 8:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. on Wednesdays in the summer.

Madison is the best city in Wisconsin for urban biking, with a platinum award from the League of American Bicyclists, the second-highest award given to bicycle-friendly communities, and the only one in Wisconsin. Paved bike trails and protected bike lanes wind through the city and along its lakes. Try the John Nolen Path and Monona Trail around the southern half of Lake Monona for views of the Capitol and city skyline.

BCycle is the city’s bikeshare system, with a fleet of e-bikes and dozens of stations scattered around the city. Passes for single rides (up to 30 minutes) are $5; day passes are $15.

The history of Madison’s other lakeside terrace is an interesting one that involves one of the country’s most famous architects, Frank Lloyd Wright. The Wisconsin native first proposed a design for a civic center linking Lake Monona with the Capitol in 1938, but his vision wasn’t realized until 1997. The curvilinear design mimics another one of his famous commissions, New York City’s Guggenheim Museum.

The building’s Rooftop Garden offers views of the lake and the Capitol, and includes a memorial plaque and benches dedicated to Otis Redding, the “King of Soul Singers” who was killed in a plane crash on Lake Monona while on his way to a concert in Madison in 1967.

Also on the rooftop is the Lake Vista Cafe, offering lunch with a view from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Hourlong tours of the building are offered at 1 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. They cost $5 for adults, $3 for students (ages 5-17) and are free for kids 4 and younger.

Bucky statues

In 2018 the Madison Area Sports Commission launched Bucky on Parade, a public art display that featured 85 life-sized Bucky Badger statues around town. Many of them were auctioned off that year to raise money for Garding Against Cancer, but you can still see a handful outside businesses around town, including #GameDayBucky at the University Book Store on State Street, Ringo 2.0 at State Street Brats, Jump Around Bucky at the Great Dane downtown, Graduation Bucky at Bascom Hall, and Friday Night Fish Fry Bucky at The Edgewater hotel.

Madison breweries

Milwaukee might be Wisconsin’s Brew City, but Madison has its share of breweries, including specialized producers like ALT Brew, a completely gluten free brewery, and Funk Factory Geuzeria, which brews traditional Lambic beers.

Ale Asylum is one of the biggest, in an old warehouse with a two-story patio on the north side of town. Two are within a block of the Capitol (and each other): Young Blood, offering an IPA- and sour-focused lineup, and the Great Dane, a brewpub that now has five locations around Wisconsin.

On the East Side, Giant Jones is one of the few women-owned breweries in the state, with a lineup of certified organic beers. Look for the pink door around the corner from Old Sugar Distillery, another spot worth a visit if spirits are more your style.

An institution in the shadow of Camp Randall, Mickies serves football-sized portions for breakfast and lunch in a diner setting that hasn’t changed much from when it opened in 1946. Red swivel stools still surround the counter in the center of the room, with small booths lining the walls. Malts and milkshakes, massive chocolate-chip pancakes, and the Scrambler —  potatoes topped with three scrambled eggs, a choice of meat, two vegetables, cheese and gravy — are favorites. Lines to get a table inside the seat-yourself restaurant can be long on weekends; get there early or go during the week for a shorter wait. The diner is open 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, and 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

The aptly named Old Fashioned serves not only Wisconsin’s signature drink — muddled by hand with Korbel brandy, of course — but also its signature appetizer: beer-battered cheese curds — some of the best in town. The restaurant on the Capitol Square features other Wisconsin items on its menu including beer cheese soup, Green Bay-style chili (that’s served over spaghetti noodles, like Chili John’s in Green Bay), and fried cod, perch or walleye every day.

The farm-to-table French-inspired restaurant L’Etoile is the spot to go for a classy night out. Chef-owner Tory Miller is a James Beard award winner, and the views of the Capitol match the food. Reservations are recommended and are available online.

L’Etoile’s more casual (but still classy) cousin, Graze, is next door. Also owned by Miller, the gastropub restaurant serves a Friday fish fry and weekend brunch in addition to a regular menu that features everything from burgers to bibimbap. There’s also a street-side patio with views of the Capitol. Reservations are available online, although you might have better walk-in luck than at L’Etoile.

Contact Chelsey Lewis at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @chelseylew and @TravelMJS and Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Things to do in Madison: Terrace, State Street, Mickies Dairy Bar