Feeling the travel bug, but don’t have the time or money to hop on an airplane and jet to some far-flung location? You’re in luck because weekend getaways can fuel your fire while being easy on your wallet.
One of our recent road trips led us to Madison, WI, home of the University of Wisconsin and so much more. Located around 150 miles outside of downtown Chicago, the drive takes about 2.5 hours and is the perfect destination for a weekend getaway.
Here you’ll find all you need to know before packing it up and heading to Madison – where to stay, where to eat and what to do.
Where to Stay in Madison:
Located directly on campus, this is the best location to enjoy the collegiate feel of the Big 10 Campus but close enough to downtown which is centered around the Capitol Building. You are minutes from the Memorial Union known for its vast and perpetually busy beer garden/terrace, steps from Greek Town and just off of State Street which is the hub for college nightlife and restaurants.
Recently renovated, the hotel has a vintage prep school aesthetic that stretches from the lobby to the rooms – mini “Do Not Disturb” Varsity flags to hang on your door, plaid everything and even old school college ID’s for the room key. You’ll be dying to put on a cardigan and head out for some badminton.
Other hotel amenities include a bar in the lobby that serves up coffee, fresh juices and local delicacies by day and beer (Spotted Cow on draft!) and wine by night plus a new rooftop bar and restaurant, The Madison Blind.
While the bathroom was a touch small, the room was adequately sized and adorably decorated in line with the rest of the hotel.
Where to Eat and Drink in Madison:
Colectivo Coffee -Michael and I always seek out local coffee spots when we travel. We have a fully automatic espresso machine in our condo so we like to pick up a branded diner style mug to remind us of our travels while we sip our lattes at home.
Located downtown across from the Capitol building, this locally owned and operated coffee roaster is the ideal place to start your morning with a kick while relaxing and people watching on their expansive patio.
Merchant – A casual farm-to-table restaurant, craft cocktail bar and liquor store located downtown. The extensive cocktail list is a little overwhelming so you may want to lean on your server for recommendations. Once you hone in on a favorite, you can purchase all of the ingredients (spirits, liqeurs, bitters, etc.) right off the wall on your way out. Genius!
Even though this spot offers brunch, lunch and dinner – the cheese curds are only available on the dinner menu and these are a cannot-miss-dish!
Fresco – Located atop the Museum of Contemporary Art, this rooftop bar and restaurant offers great views of the city and creative cocktails like The Hummingbird (black pepper vodka, house strawberry cordial, lemon, ginger beer). They also host a ton of wine events that look like a blast – I mean, Marvin Gaye and Chardonnay? Sounds like a perfect night to me!
Cento – Madison’s “farm-to-fork” Italian restaurant is known for house-made pastas and wood-fired pizzas, plus a sizable wine list. A perfect date night spot, you and yours can pop in for some small bites (bacon-wrapped dates, wine-poached beets) and a couple pastas (they do half sizes!) or splurge for the 7-course Chef’s Table menu with spontaneous, seasonal fare based on the best product available.
L’Etoile – This fine-dining standout would shine in any city, but it stands apart in Madison. Housed inside a jewel box like structure across from the Capitol building, the tall ceilings and all glass facade provide the perfect setting to showcase the best local produce and artisan products that L’Etoile has been helping cultivate since its inception in the mid-1970’s.
They specialize in tasting menus (3 or 7 course) and while á la carte is an option my best recommendation is to submit to the experience and let them show off what they do best.
Graze – Adjacent to L’Etoile and from the same owners, this much more laid-back relative takes its name from both the literal farming term (rotational grazing of farm-fed animals) but also the much more fun human activity (tasting a variety of dishes).
Inspired by the classic New York style gastropub, you will find everything from burgers to roasted bone marrow and lots in between. Perfect for brunch or a leisurely lunch, Graze is the ideal spot to reconnect with friends.
The Old Fashioned – I am not a whiskey gal, but according to Michael there are two distinct camps on what makes the classic cocktail. Purists say sugar cube, bitters, bourbon or rye. Garnish with an orange peel. The Wisconsin take is a little sweeter. An orange wedge, maraschino cherry, sugar and bitters are muddled before adding Korbel brandy or similar and maybe a splash of 7-Up or seltzer.
Regardless of your preferences, they serve 6 or so variations OR if you are like me stick to the local beers or treat yourself to a soda from Seymour Beverage company (a local favorite).
What to Do in Madison:
Ride a Bike – Madison is one of the most bike-friendly cities I have seen making it our favored method of transportation for the weekend. Maybe it is the close proximity to the TREK headquarters or the fact that Madison had an avid cyclist as mayor for decades, but the whole city is set up really nicely to grab a beach cruiser to get around town or hop on a road bike and tour around Lake Monona or Mendota.
Visit the Farmers Market – Deemed the largest Producer-Only Farmers’ Market in the U.S., the Dane County Farmers Market is held every Saturday around the Capitol Square – outdoors from April through November then it moves indoors for the winter.
Pick up local cheeses (Brunkow is a favorite because they also have a stand at the Green City Market out our front door in Chicago), meats and vegetables in addition to locally-grown flowers and herbs. We picked up some fun potted herbs, including the hard-to-find Yerba Buena mint for mojitos!
Don’t leave without getting a loaf of Spicy Cheese Bread. It’s served fresh out of the oven, is incredibly light and airy, and most importantly is loaded with baked-in cheese that has just the right amount of heat. They are huge, hard to resist, and reminds you of the wisdom of renting a bike so that you can pedal off all of those calories.
Go out on the Lake – Whether or not you are an experienced water sport enthusiast, there are a bunch of different ways to enjoy the lakes. You can rent a kayak, canoe or SUP through Rutabaga Paddlesports. It is a short drive from downtown and they offer free parking while you are out on the water.
We went the canoe route (they were fully booked on the other options) and it worked out well because we packed a lunch and some beverages to enjoy while Michael paddled me around the lake.
Be a Badger! – Since Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin, throw back to your college days and attend a football game at Camp Randall or visit Memorial Union Terrace situated on Lake Mendota offering outdoor seating, comfort food and a vast beer selection.
So pack up the car, hit the road and have fun! Let me know if you discover anything I need to add to my list!