September 15, 2021 4:17 PM   Subscribe

What's up with Madison, Wisconsin? I'll be there for a few weeks - will be pretty busy but would like to make time for eating, art and history.

I know nothing about this part of the country. My usual pleasures while traveling are:

- Getting to know older neighborhoods by walking, biking and public transit (but I will have access to a car)
- Historical places with a bias toward radical/left/activist/labor history
- Eating food that is either a) beloved/delicious small neighborhood family-run type restaurants or b) vegan food
- Art from the major art museums to whatever local artist venues exist
- Unique stuff that is specific to the place
posted by latkes to Travel & Transportation around Madison, WI (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I was in Madison for a week a couple of years ago and my principal regret is that I only ate at Paul's Pel'meni twice.
posted by dfan at 5:28 PM on September 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I was there for a couple days in winter, but if I were there in non-winter I’d go to the botanical garden.
posted by matildaben at 5:35 PM on September 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

What's up? Lots!

- Older neighborhoods: You want the Near East Side, the Williamson Street area, most likely. Very bikeable from most of the city. You'll want to check out BCycle if you're not bringing your own bike.

- Lefty stuff: Also Near East Side. I don't know if Broom Street Theatre has reopened yet, but if they have, give 'em a look.

- Food: We have LOTS of it. LOTS OF VERY GOOD FOOD. The recommendation for Paul's Pel'meni is excellent. Consider also Teddywedger's, L'Etoile (fancy-schmantzy), The Old-Fashioned (bit cliché for locals, but very Sconnie). For vegan food, The Green Owl on the (say it with me) Near East Side.

- Art: Downtown and campus, mostly. MMOCA (will you be here for the Art Fair on the Square?), the Chazen, galleries here and there around the city.

- Unique stuff: The Capitol building, of course (if you have binocs, take a gander at the statue on top; you wouldn't believe me if I told you why). Poke your head in at the Wisconsin Historical Society for the renovated Reading Room. If you want a nice bike ride, the Arboretum is pretty great, and the Monroe Street area nearby is also a well-established place with a few historical homes. (Zuzu Café is cute if you're around there. Ignore the sandwiches -- go for the daily specials, trust me.) Olbrich Botanical Garden on the east side has one of this country's very few Thai pavilions, and it's pretty extraordinary.

My town is pretty great. Hope you enjoy your visit!
posted by humbug at 5:38 PM on September 15, 2021 [8 favorites]

My older son just started college there, and we took our first trip to the city about a month ago, so thank you for asking this question - I'm really looking forward to seeing the answers to plan for future trips! For myself, any trip to WI involves looking for the nearest Rocky Rococco's, but that's def not vegan, so not helpful for you.

But consider the mustard museum - more interesting than one might think!

And we visited the capitol (I love those kind of buildings), but didn't know there was something special about the statue - humbug, would you care to share, or should I wait for the surprise on my next visit?
posted by cinnamonduff at 7:11 PM on September 15, 2021

Yes, all right. There's a badger on her head. Cross my heart and hope to die, there is. Weirdest thing ever.

I inexplicably forgot to mention the Memorial Union Terrace. Great place to watch a sunset.
posted by humbug at 7:15 PM on September 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

IF you/someone in your party is okay with non-vegan, Stella’s Hot Cheesy Bread. On my last work trip (which was… a while ago) I brought a loaf with me back on the airplane. Best if you get it hot and fresh, of course.

Monty’s Blue Plate Diner is a great spot with vegan and veggie takes on diner classics.

And the Dane County Farmers Market is a must! Food, music, art, it’s a great thing.
posted by hijinx at 7:22 PM on September 15, 2021

Oh bonus, too - Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin is an hour or so away in Spring Green.
posted by hijinx at 7:26 PM on September 15, 2021

Olbrich Gardens has a nighttime outdoor art exhibit going on W/Th/F/Sa through the end of October. Caught it last week and it was magical!

posted by mcbeth at 7:30 PM on September 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Madison has the Henry Vilas Zoo, a beautiful, free zoo and it’s one of the nicest local places to spend an afternoon. Weekdays are less crowded, but they’re also doing a good job of social distancing and it’s primarily outdoors. You could walk around it, then walk across the street to see a beach, and even hike around the Vilas neighborhood of nice, older homes. Then you would be near Monroe Street for a drink or dinner and there’s several places to shop. I like the restaurant Everly (lots of veggie options). Nearby there’s also an old tavern, the Laurel, that’s a good, friendly Wisconsin-type place to get a beer.
In nearby wingra park, You could rent a kayak or canoe or big yellow duckie paddle boat.
If you go to the mentioned mustard museum, I’d recommend eating at Long Table. Those are in Middleton, a suburb nearby.
There’s tons of Madison leftist history, but I’m having trouble of thinking of actual tourist landmarks. There’s the Emma Goldman coop (you can’t go in, but maybe the history is interesting to read about & see). Fighting Bob Lafollette founded the Progressive party there, and The Progressive magazine still has offices near the capital square. And maybe the liberal newspaper, the Capital Times, will host an event while you’re here …. I’d check their website for details. (So sad they’re mainly digital now, it used to be one of the strongest daily liberal papers). Listen to WORT radio while you’re in town and you’ll get some Madison vibes.
posted by areaperson at 7:38 PM on September 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you’re going there for work, but if you have a free day (and a car), I’d suggest checking out Milwaukee, about an hour and a half drive. The art museum, the zoo, check out the historic third ward, go to the lakefront, maybe a boat tour. A brewery tour. There are many historical/architectural tours, but particularly Hangman Tours for the Halloween season. Here’s some other events going on this fall.

If you are coming soon, Doors Open Milwaukee is Sept 25-26 and is super cool. All kinds of businesses and historical sites that aren’t usually open to the public open up with tours and activities; it’s such a wide variety from iconic apartment buildings, to small businesses and art studios, and everything is interesting. It’s one of my favorite events ever. They also have virtual tours now!

I know you asked about Madison, but if you’ve never been to Wisconsin/the Midwest it would be a shame not to visit Milwaukee when you’ll be so close. Personally, I find most of Madison lacking from an architectural/aesthetic standpoint, with a few bright spots. Milwaukee has a lot of history (including a rich Labor history - check out the Bay View Massacre) and cool buildings. And you definitely shouldn’t miss seeing Lake Michigan - I’d strongly suggest checking out Grant Park (Seven Bridges) or South Shore Park over Bradford Beach for a little light hiking and nature.
posted by catatethebird at 7:42 PM on September 15, 2021

Wanted to mention that if you’re in the Atwood neighborhood, you can go to Rotunda Cafe and get a great locally roasted coffee (Rusty Dog Coffee), and they have Paul’s pel mini. And it’s a cool old bank building with, yes, a rotunda.
Oh you said art! I would say the Chazen or Madison MMoCA are your best art bets… both are fine and free.
posted by areaperson at 7:52 PM on September 15, 2021

Response by poster: Great comments thanks all and keep it coming please. Quick clarification: I like vegan food AND I like omnivorous restaurants especially smaller beloved neighborhood places so please don't rule out places that serve meat.
posted by latkes at 8:13 PM on September 15, 2021

If you have an otherwise unscheduled day available, the House on the Rock is an hour west in Spring Green. If I had to explain it, it's like a real world Myst location - all weird art and architecture and it can be a bit overwhelming, but it's quite the experience.
posted by Kyol at 8:51 PM on September 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Himal Chuli is a delicious Nepali restaurant you’ll want to check out! I also recommend the Atwood and Willy street areas. I loveee Batch Bakery on Willy street and the Harmony Bar has great walnut burgers. Even before covid I always got my burger to go so that’s totally possible. For good old houses though also wander around near Regent and Monroe streets. Enjoy your trip!
posted by azalea_chant at 10:21 PM on September 15, 2021

Oh yeah Willy street = Williamson street.
posted by azalea_chant at 10:23 PM on September 15, 2021

All these comments are spot on. Not sure how many weeks you'll be here but there's definitely enough to do and see to keep you busy. Madison is at its most perfect in early- to mid-autumn (though you may have to be careful about football-induced traffic jams of cars and/or people).

Neighborhoodwise, while the near east side (most of the central isthmus northeast of the Capitol and points a little ways beyond) is definitely the most emblematic of the town and has a lot of history and personality, I'd also like to say a few words in favor of parts of the near west side as well (generally, between the university and Midvale Blvd). University Heights (starting adjacent to the football stadium, Camp Randall, and running about a mile westward) is just about as historic and has some breathtaking examples of early 20th-century architecture, including a number by Frank Lloyd Wright disciples and at least one designed by Wright himself. There's a walking tour if you'll be here for its last iteration on Sep 25; if not there's a good amount of self-guided information about historic homes in the area floating around online.

This site provides a number of older but generally still useful guides for self-guided tours of various neighborhoods including University Heights (and including various near east side neighborhoods like Tenney-Lapham and Williamson (a.k.a Willy) St.

Re Frank Lloyd Wright there's also his First Unitarian Meeting House, just a bit north of University Heights.

On the southwest edge of the neighborhood, the two cemeteries across the street from each other at the intersection of Regent St and Speedway, Frederick Jackson Turner's grave is within shouting distance of the mausoleum that reportedly houses Chris Farley's remains. For what it's worth.

Also, not sure what you have in mind when you reference "older neighborhoods", but if midcentury-modern (ranch houses) qualify, I'd definitely recommend a bike ride through the Hill Farms neighborhood and especially along the broad, undulating Segoe Road, which is semi-busy but is very well-designed for bikes. (And yes, it is the namesake for the Windows standard font.).

Segoe is also lined by plenty of giant sweeping old (oak?) trees whose leaves turn a brilliant yellow in late September / early October, as fall gets into high gear. It's one of my favorite sights this time of year.

Bike paths in this neck of the woods include the Lakeshore (from the Memorial Union Terrace westward along the lake to Picnic Point), the Southwest (a verdant former railroad right-of-way running from Camp Randall through a few west-side neighborhoods, only rarely interrupted by intersections with city streets). You can of course also bike all over the University campus, including up Observatory to some truly spectacular lookouts over the lake.

Speaking of the lake(s), there are of course all sorts of boating options to be found.

Food-wise a lot of great suggestions above (and for the Monroe St area my vote would be for Pizza Brutta, as well as the outstanding but slightly precious bakery Bloom). Beloved family-run neighborhood places are likely to be taverns (including the aforementioned Laurel on Monroe St, as well as the Blue Moon on the edge of University Heights and also lots of places on the east side like the Harmony and the Crystal Corner Bar, name-checked in an Okkervil River song a while back). Lots of restaurant options in the Willy St area, assuming the places that were around in our restaurant-going days are still there -- the Weary Traveler, Lao Laan-Xang, Ha Long Bay. Oh -- and brunch or lunch at Lazy Jane's (right on Willy near the coop grocery) is maybe the most emblematic Madison meal I can think of.

And then there's frozen custard. The standout (albeit expensive) custard shop, Michael's Frozen Custard, no longer has its iconic location on Monroe, but there's one right near Olbrich Gardens on the east side. Olbrich, as mentioned above, is definitely worth a visit, for all the outdoor spaces as well as the Thai pavilion. (The indoor greenhouse is quite a trip, too, but I'm not sure I'd venture into a humid, fully enclosed, heavily populated indoor space in Covid times.) Another option when Michael's is too far away is the Chocolate Shoppe. And the Memorial Union Terrace sells Babcock Hall ice cream, made on campus as part of the university's Food Science department. It's also available at the namesake hall on campus.

Yes to MMOCA, the Chazen, the zoo, the Arboretum -- all free. The Arboretum also has various events -- guided walks, presentations, etc. There are also a lot of nature-conservancy parks around the area, such as Cherokee Marsh on the northeast side of town -- like the Arboretum it's vast and largely rugged and an interesting ecosystem to explore.

There's more, but it's late, and you'll want to return to sunnier climes before the snow falls...
posted by sesquipedalia at 10:43 PM on September 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

If it's of interest, there are many historic mound sites in town, including a few on the university campus and in several nearby parks. They won't take your breath away, but it's a good excuse for a walk. The really big local mound site, Aztalan (not a spelling mistake) is a 45 minute drive.
posted by eotvos at 11:24 PM on September 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Madison is probably my favorite small city in the US, and I used to make a habit of going every summer. Great recommendations above, the only thing I'd add is that I really love the restaurant Graft, which is probably the only upper-scale restaurant that I've genuinely enjoyed everything I've ever ordered at. It's categorized as "fine dining" but still feels down to earth, unlike any fine dining I've been to in big cities. The prices also were not quite at fine-dining live when I went, but this was probably 3-4 years ago and it's possible that has changed.

Also, strong second for Kyol's House on the Rock recommended above - a very memorable experience and unlike anything I've seen anywhere else.
posted by unid41 at 4:41 AM on September 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

One art space I'd add to these excellent suggestions is the Arts and Literature Lab (ALL).
I see Oakland in your profile so I won't recommend my favorite ramen (Morris Ramen); but for midwestern localish food you could try Heritage (near Capitol Square) or Pig in a Fur Coat (Willy Street); Nook is a really special experience.
If you like sour beers, there's the deeply funky Funk Factory on the south side, while State Line distillery has a craft cocktail place on the east side for checking out their local stuff.
For listings, the risen-from-the-ashes Isthmus is great both in print and online, as is Tone.
Have fun!
posted by Mngo at 6:16 AM on September 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you make it into the Capitol building which I would strongly recommend, check out the observation deck aka the Lantern Balcony. The Senate Chamber is often times unlocked and open if you'd like to see some cool spaces without committing to the guided tour. You'll find it on the 3rd floor (I think it's technically labeled the 2nd floor since they don't call the ground floor the 1st floor), South wing. It'll feel like one of those things you shouldn't just waltz into, but just do it -- it's totally allowed.
posted by sewellcm at 7:10 AM on September 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

All of the above are great ideas. Be aware there is currently a county wide mask mandate when indoors.
posted by baegucb at 10:25 AM on September 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

There's a middle eastern place called Nile near the West Towne Mall that I've never been disappointed by, despite its unassuming exterior.

Seconding Monty's Blue Plate Diner, particularly if you are an enthusiast of the breakfast foods. They are not exclusively vegan/meatless. Expect a wait.

House on the Rock is 100% worth the drive. Expect an altered mental state upon your emergence therefrom.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 12:20 PM on September 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

A Room of One’s Own is a feminist bookstore in the area which should have left/radical/activist books. They’re in the Atwood area too.
posted by azalea_chant at 2:27 PM on September 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Nile is unfortunately undergoing renovation, I believe. If they're back, though, the adas majroush is to die for.
posted by humbug at 7:42 PM on September 16, 2021

Response by poster: Wow such great suggestions. I've put most of these into a google map and am excited to visit these spots. Now that I've arrived I'm also realizing Madison must be a cool spot for kayaking, another thing I like to do when I travel. Suggestions of where the best nearby spots are where I can rent a kayak and put in? (I'm much more the tool around slowly and look at stuff type kayaker than the speedily get to a destination type)
posted by latkes at 6:23 PM on September 19, 2021

For a river trip, I would look along the Wisconsin River, perhaps the Sauk City location of Canoe Wisconsin. If you're okay with the lakes, then you can stay right in Madison and rent from Madison Boats.
posted by humbug at 7:55 AM on September 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

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