Help me "get" Mad Town.
April 22, 2010 9:32 PM   Subscribe

What does a local's weekend look like in Madison, Wisconsin?

I'm going up to Madison for 48 hours to see if I'd like to take a job up there. What do I need to see and do in order to get a proper feel for the place? I have checked out some of the older posts, but I'm not interested in all the tourist stuff. I more want to know what neighborhoods and cafes I should check out in order to get a feel for the "vibe." I'll have a rental car and it's this weekend, if that makes a difference.

I'm into nature, microbrews, old buildings, gardening, farmer's markets, and cheap ethic food. I'm also into cycling but won't have a bike. Residential neighborhoods worth checking out would also be appreciated since I won't visit again before having to rent a place, if I accept the position.

Thank you for pointing me in the right direction, Mefites!
posted by letahl to Travel & Transportation around Madison, WI (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Saturday morning farmers market on capitol square, for sure. Get the spicy cheese bread. There's tons of independent coffee shops all the way down State st, as well as ethnic restaurants. State street, and generally campus, is the center of the younger Madison population. Outside of the campus area, I am not much help with residential areas.
posted by mcarlson85 at 9:37 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "cheap ethic food"

I'm only visit Madison a handful of times a year, but I need to recommended La Zacatecana (map). This is basically a chunk of Mexico that was picked up and dropped into the midwest. You'll probably be able to get by with ordering in English, but if you can bring someone who speaks Spanish, all the better. Absolutely incredible food, and most of it (including tortillas, so call for big orders) is cooked while you wait.
I should also point out that no matter what Google says, the store is on the south side of the road, and also that the restaurant is all the way in the back of the building, which has a Mexican store in the front half.
posted by niles at 9:44 PM on April 22, 2010

Best answer: I haven't lived there in nearly 8 years, but I really enjoyed my time in the Willy St neighborhood. Ample coffee choices (some change, some stay the same, so I'm not sure what would be best). Lots of parks--some on Lake Monona--it was a great neighborhood for taking walks. The Willy St Co-Op is something I still miss for groceries. There is a bike path nearby--I guess it's official name is Capital City Trail. I used to eat a lot of curry from Lao Laan-Xang (also in that area). The Crystal Corner was a fun bar to hang out at, in part because we would always run into my friend's alcoholic neighbors. It was that sort of place. I liked the neighborhood because it had laid back hippy vibe and was somewhat close to things like State St and the farmer's market.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:53 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Saturday morning farmers' market for sure, and for breakfast on Sunday, either Lazy Jane's or Monty's. You could easily gorge on ethnic food for the rest of your meals, but at some point you should go to one of the local, downtown breweries (Great Dane, Ale Asylum, and Angelic are all good choices) and have a beer on the UW Union terrace. I would say at least four chapters of my dissertation were written right there in one of those chairs.

What I'm saying, I guess, is that if you want to have a locals' weekend, then you need to plan it around food and beer.
posted by brozek at 3:28 AM on April 23, 2010

Don't read that last line as judgmental at all. I lived in Madison for eight years (2001-2008) and I'm trying to steer my career in a direction that will let my wife and I retire there. I adore Madison, but (partially because) it's a food-and-beer-centric city.
posted by brozek at 3:30 AM on April 23, 2010

Best answer: I believe you can still rent a red bike (website doesn't work for me) for free from Budget Bicycle Center on Regent Street. I would definitely recommend getting a bike and riding the trails and stopping for coffee, lunch, etc. Lao Laan-Xang (linked by mandymanwasregistered above) is fantastic and close to the bike trail. When I lived in Madison I spent my weekends riding bikes, drinking coffee, and listening to WORT.
posted by ChrisHartley at 5:52 AM on April 23, 2010

Best answer: Here are some of my favorite places for cheap ethnic food...
Vientiane Palace - zero ambiance, sometimes greasy, crazy hot food, 1-4 stars (with 4 stars = "like the cook would make it for himself".
Or the homemade Chinese noodle place, Wah Kee, on Willy Street and Blair. (There's also a pho/ noodle place down on Odana, Saigon Noodle; and Bandung, which is not cheap, but is one of the few Indonesian restaurants in the midwest (in the same strip mall as Wah Kee).
For Mexican, Taquería Marimar is great and ridiculously cheap; I've also heard that Los Gemelos is good, but I've never actually been there.
(Oh, and since I'm not a student anymore I haven't been to Library Mall for a while, but if you're here on a weekday you should check out the food carts on the Mall - I can't recall if they're open on weekends, nor do I know what the current selection is - anyone know?)
As for beers, you've got a lot of choices: Ale Asylum, Capital Brewery, in Middleton, and my - well, everybody's - favorite, if you're willing to take a drive, New Glarus.
For other stuff, try the Zoo or Olbrich Gardens.
If you have any questions about neighborhoods, memail me. I don't know as much about Madison neighborhoods as I do restaurants, but I can give you an overview.
posted by queseyo at 6:23 AM on April 23, 2010

Best answer: Ok I lived in Madison for 5 years. Here's what I would do if I had a weekend to go back and wanted to pack all my favorite things into it.

Saturday: get up early and go to Bradbury's and have one savory and one sweet crepe along with a mocha (I picked up some coffee snobery in Seattle and of all the coffee shops I've been to in Madison Bradbury's has the best espresso. Also, all of their crepes are made with local ingredients which is big in Madison and they're amazing). Then I would go walk around the farmers market, which is just a block from Bradbury's. I would go to the capitol building (since the farmer's market surrounds the capitol square) and lay on the floor in the middle of the atrium looking up at the huge mural painted at the top because it reminds me of when I used to do it as a kid with my mom and it's just so awesome. The tours there are really good too and free. From the capitol I would go walk down State St. which is a pedestrian-only street that runs from the capitol to the UW campus. It has tons of awesome little shops. Food from pretty much every region in the world can be found there. I would also go to the Memorial Union terrace and have babcock ice cream (made right on campus and really awesome) and drink a pitcher of spotted cow (probably the most popular micro brew in Wisconsin ... brewed in New Glarus). Chances are there will be live music on the terrace Saturday night and hundreds of people will be there drinking beer. (Note, you need to be a union member to purchase beer so grab a student and have them buy you it).

Sunday: I would rent a bike from Machinery Row Bikes and bike around Lake Monona. Budget bikes still rents out red bikes but they're seriously pieces of shit and I wouldn't want to ride one. At machinery row you'll actually get a good bike. There are TONS of bike trails in Madison and Machinery Row sits right next to the one which runs along the lake and by the Monona Terrace which you also need to check out. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Be sure to go on the roof of the terrace (erm, I guess that would technically be the terrace of the terrace) and look out over the lake. So pretty. There is also a tribute to Otis Redding up there, who died when his plane crashed into the lake. I would probably also bike to the Willy st neighborhood everyone is talking about. It's the uber-liberal hippy young-artist natural-foods types neighborhood (I say that with love) and gives you a good indication of how eclectic Madison is.

I'm sure there's a ton more I would do but I'm already late for work. Madison is awesome though. It's often described as a little liberal island floating in a sea of conservatism, similar, apparently, to Austin, Texas. I played in the UW Jazz Orchestra and we went to a clinic in Milwaukee once and when the clinician heard we were from Madison he said something along the lines of "Oh how does it feel to leave your little liberal utopia and step foot into the real world?" We were pissed to say the least.
posted by kthxbi at 6:39 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Saturday Farmer's Market is an obvious choice for sure. It's a combination of tourist attraction and regular destination for locals. You can have fancy coffee/pastry at Cafe Soleil (yuppie vibe), right on Capitol Square, or for a more studenty vibe walk down State Street to Espresso Royale or Michelangelo's. Nature: if you have a car, you should see the UW Arboretum, a big wooded nature preserve in the middle of the city. Old buildings: you should stop by Machinery Row, a refurbished old brewery overlooking Lake Monona now containing Machinery Row Bikes (they can tell you about the thriving bike scene here) and Sardine, a very good French bistro ("French" is an ethnicity, right?) Across Williamson street is Bandung, a great Indonesian place, and Mad City X, one of the best record stores in town.

Re neighborhoods -- one of the great things about Madison is that you can afford to live near where you work and commute by bike or foot. So the basic question is: where are you going to work? If it's on campus, I would definitely look at Dudgeon-Monroe and Vilas. Happy to talk more about this by MeMail.
posted by escabeche at 6:43 AM on April 23, 2010

Best answer: I currently live in Madison (near east side, represent!). I love it here. Others have covered good ground, so let me add to what they have said.

One (more) of the interesting things about this town is that it is sort of schizophrenic - The tenor of town changes with the seasons. It's more college-y when the (~50,000) students are here. More small town in the summer, and very bustling during the fall football season. Downtown is fun pretty much all year.

It's as bike friendly a town as you are likely to find - tons of bike trails, and drivers who are very accustomed to dealing with cyclists.

The near east side neigborhoods ( Old marketplace, Willy St. etc) are fairly working class 100 year old neighboorhoods. The near west side is a bit more expensive, but also very nice - particularly Monroe Street and the Vilas/Greenbush area (near the Vilas Zoo, which is free and awesome). Further west, it is more trendy and modern, and you'll find the largest shopping malls on the far west side.

One piece of advice - you'll want to live and work on the same side of town if possible. The Isthmus, while scenic, provides a natural constriction to traffic. So, commutes from one side of town to the other can be surprisingly long during rush hour and much longer during inclement weather.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:22 AM on April 23, 2010

Best answer: Pick up a copy of The Isthmus alternative weekly when you get in town for all the info you need about things to see/do for that week. It is indispensable.
posted by JJ86 at 7:52 AM on April 23, 2010

If you are looking for some place special to live in Madison you might find the Kennedy Manor interesting. It is the Dakota of Madison.
posted by caddis at 8:09 AM on April 23, 2010

Best answer: If it isn't too rainy, I'm going to spend my weekend mulching my planting beds...

But if I was planning a Madison-tastic weekend, I'd spend Saturday morning at the farmer's market (and breakfast on Cafe Soleil's excellent coffee and pastries), then meander down State Street to Memorial Union. I'm a sucker for the zoo (it's free!) and the arboretum is close by, and a lovely place for a walk. We try to make it to Capitol Brewery's beer garden a couple times every summer. As others have covered, we have a ton of good ethnic food, but if you want something a little more Wisconsin-y, I'd check out The Old Fashioned on the Capitol square. It can be a zoo on the weekends, but it's worth it for the deep fried cheese curds alone (oh, how they taste like my Sconnie childhood). Their food is kind of a modern take on Wisconsin classics. The Great Dane is another very popular restaurant (and brewpub) and has a couple of different locations nowadays.

Of course most of this is summer stuff... Madison in summer is very different from Madison in winter.

(I'm a west side resident, feel free to MeMail me if you have questions about west side neighborhoods or working on campus.)
posted by rebeccabeagle at 8:16 AM on April 23, 2010

Best answer: It's been mentioned a half-dozen or so times already, but I still have to reiterate the Saturday morning farmer's market. I lived in Madison for five years, and it's probably the single thing I miss most about living there. The capitol building sits on a square two blocks on a side, and the entire thing is lined with booths for the farmer's market. That's nearly a mile of booths. And I'd often do a double lap—the first maybe to just get a pastry for breakfast and see what was available that day, and the second for the actual shopping.

There's several cheese vendors among the booths, but look for Hook's—their aged cheddar (different agings available, they usually have samples available, be sure to sample one aged 5 years or more) packs a more intense flavor than you would have thought possible in a cheese.

[Just checked their website and saw OMG THEY NOW HAVE 15-YEAR AGED CHEDDAR. 7-year was the longest they had when I lived there. WANT WANT WANT WANT WANT.]

No offense to Indiana farmers, but the farmer's markets around me now seem pathetic by comparison.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:27 AM on April 23, 2010

If you're coming this weekend, it's Crazylegs. Expect downtown to be packed and close parking hard to find. It's a good time, and lots of fun - if you're into that sort of thing.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:22 PM on April 23, 2010

Best answer: Another cool neighborhood you may want to check out is the Monroe-Vilas area. Monroe Street is the home of many amazing restaurants, three cafes that are okay if you're not a coffee snob, some amazing restaurants, a Trader Joe's, a custard shop, a just-renovated public library, and some really great restaurants. It's often missed by visitors because it's lower-profile than State and Willy streets, but it's very nice and centrally-located. (It's also very close to the main artery for bicycle commuting in town, the Southwest Bike Path.)

It's also worth noting that there are many other farmers' markets in town, besides the huge, crazy one at the Capital on Saturday mornings. During the summer, I know of Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday (at another location), and Sunday markets off the top of my head, and there are probably more I don't know about.

Cheap ethnic food - oh man, we do that here. I'll keep myself from going all crazy and just mention the fabulous Himal Chuli, long a favorite.

There is all kinds of exciting stuff going on this weekend. If you don't have a local guide, the aforementioned Isthmus and the AV Club do a great job of listing what's going on here. Between them, you'll have more than enough to go check out.

There are many community gardens in town, although you may be too late to get a plot for this summer. There are also CSAs that do workshare arrangements, if you're into that sort of thing.

Old buildings - the Capital building, of course, is the big one in town, and there are a lot of historic buildings still standing around it. The University also has lots of old stuff still around - North Hall and South Hall, the first buildings forming the UW, are still standing and in use. West of the stadium along Summit Avenue, you can see lots of grand, beautiful old houses. I've taken many a walk through that neighborhood, just to gawk. It's not a very pleasant place to live during football season, though - if you're looking for a nice place to settle down, go further west or south for some of the same feel, but less obnoxiousness.

If you're at a loss for what to do, just ask around. Everyone I know here loves it, and would love to talk your ear off about how awesome it is.
posted by yomimono at 7:18 PM on April 23, 2010

Drop me a line and we can hang out :)
posted by Madamina at 3:44 PM on April 24, 2010

Best answer: I would get a map, get in my rental car, start somewhere on the Isthmus and proceed to drive around the two lakes Mendota and Monona. Take the main roads, take the roads close to the lake running paralell, you will see bike shops and trails to check out, you will see parks to hang out in, you will see cool taverns and shops to stop at, you will get a feel for suburban areas, and beautiful destinations pointing outside of the city. After that park somewhere near the Memorial Union and walk up state st. to the capitol and beyond to King st or the Monona Terrace that will give you a pretty good idea of what madison is about and you'll see why we won't leave. Don't be afraid of getting lost just refer to map and ask for directions if necessarry. There are not really too many large pockets of areas which might be trouble and certainly not in the daytime. Streets to drive down would be: East Washington around the capitol down West Washington and south down Park street. John Nolen Drive, Regent Street, Williamson Street to Atwood Ave around to Monona Drive (Construction Hell currently but if you plan on locating here get used to it.) Basically just drive around and stop and check out anything that catches your eye, and don't worry about your seemingly oblivious, gawking, sight seeing driving habits we will just assume your from Illinois.
posted by Cainaan777 at 8:08 AM on April 25, 2010

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