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madison city guide {update}

by Grace Bonney


Today, our Madison city guide update comes to us from local Leslie Carey.  A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and lover of blogging, relief printmaking and being a foodie, Leslie has shared with us the ultimate guide to The City of Four Lakes!  Thanks Leslie for this lovely guide!-Stephanie

CLICK HERE for the full madison guide update after the jump!

Madison, The City of Four Lakes, is a draw to many people for education.  Most come here for school and never leave, myself included, because there’s much more to Madison than Academia (though access to some of the biggest libraries in North America and a letterpress printing museum certainly doesn’t hurt).  Madison is a college town and the seat of state government but it is also a progressive hub and a collection of eclectic neighborhoods that blend woods, lakes and urban jungle.

The weather here – like most of the Midwest – is crazy.  There’s no other way of putting it. The phrase you’ll hear from every native is, ‘if you don’t like it, wait five minutes and it will change.’  That said, our seasonal mood-swings keep us on our toes, so Madisonians make the most out of good conditions, whether it’s snow-covered slopes or serene lake beaches.  Come prepared!  With almost 400 public parks, there is plenty of green space to enjoy, including a massive Arboretum and my own secret beach hideaway.  The centrality of life on an Isthmus means that just about everyone here owns a bike, but you might still want a car to explore outside of downtown.

One of the most exciting aspects of Madison is our food scene.  From craft beers to guerrilla chefs, we strive for the coveted title of ‘most restaurants per capita.’  We’re at the forefront of the locavore movement (Michael Pollan and Rick Bayless have visited in the past year, among others) and have plenty of restaurants that showcase our grower goods.

And if those aren’t reasons enough to visit, here are a few more: Madison is a hot-bed for Indie Film (in April, the 4-day Wisconsin Film Fest takes over half the city); a frequent stop on the Dalai Lama’s itinerary; a hive of home-grown musical talent like Harmonious Wail; and host to the World’s Largest Brat Fest.

For me, it is all about ‘the local.’  Local art, local food, local music, local scenery.  I created the Yes, please. blog to explore and showcase the creative energy bursting out of this region and the Sunday Chef blog to satiate my culinary exploits, aided by the great foods grown in the Midwest.

For the most up-to-date information on events in Madison, check out the Isthmus or 77 Square.


Anthology: a crafter’s delight! In this quirky little shop you can make-a-button-for-a-buck, participate in a workshop or just browse knick knacks and textile goods from local artists.
Little Luxuries: a great gift shop with Thymes products, wallets & bags, hair accessories, and fun novelties from ID cases to fridge magnets.
Pop Deluxe: more unique gifts as well as Orla Keily bags and home novelties you won’t find anywhere else in town.
Artist & Craftsman Supply: a one-stop-shop for local artists and students – I couldn’t have gone through art school without them!
Tellus Mater Inc: goodies for home and kitchen.
The Soap Opera: 25+ years of hand-crafted soap expertise.
Patricia Shoppe: one of my very favorite boutique shops anywhere; handcrafted jewelry, fine fashion and fabulous accessories.

Breakfast at Marigold Kitchen, Lunch at Library Mall food carts {a quintessential campus experience – street food from smoothies to sushi}, Dinner at L’Etoile, Dessert at Paciugo, Drinks at Natt Spil Natt Spil {a dark, mysterious, unmarked building hiding a warm, jovial atmosphere inside}.

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Chazen Museum of Art
Dane County Farmer’s Market: you simply cannot come to Madison without visiting the largest producer-only farmers’s market in the country.

—West side/Fitchburg

Hilldale Shopping Center: recently renovated to be part open-air mall, hit up Anthropologie, L’Occitane and decadent David Bacco Chocolats.
Orange Tree Imports: purveyor of specialty kitchenwares and gifts for over 35 years.
Art Gecko: handmade jewelry, clothing and musical instruments from around the world.
R-Lifestyle (formerly Rubin’s Scandinavian): Scandinavian sibling of the chic downtown furniture furnisher.
Satara: organic bedding, bath and baby gear.
The Century House: one city can never have enough Scandinavian furniture.

Breakfast at Original Pancake House,
Lunch at La Mestiza for a unique Oaxacan (wah-ha-can) sit-down or jog across the street to the more casual but very well-hidden gem, Los Gemelos, Dinner at Quivey’s Grove, Dessert & Drinks at Bluephie’s {the infamous cookie-dough eggroll is a must try}.

Sundance 608: one of only two Sundance cinemas in existence, enjoy independent films with Caffé 608 food that far exceeds the average bucket-o-popcorn.
Play in the Mud Studio: a small private studio in the woods where you can take pottery classes, use open studio time or even have a clay party.

—East Side/Willy Street

The Kitchen Gallery: locally owned gourmet shop where all the chefs go.
Hempen Goods: clothes and accessories made from a historical cash-crop this region was once famous for.
Burnie’s Rock Shop: a Madison classic offering rocks, minerals, gems and jewelry.
Fontaine Interior Designs: have a chat with Barry about your projects and check out the wall of fabric sample books at the back of the store.
Absolutely Art: a community-based art gallery and store.

Breakfast at Lazy Jane’s {enjoy some amazing scones in a refurbished old house}, Lunch atThe Green Owl Cafe, Dinner at The Weary Traveler {so characteristic of this neighborhood – small, cosy spaces, indie vibe, warm people, and plenty to drink}, Dessert at Daisy Cafe & Cupcakery, Drinks at Ale Asylum

Olbrich Botanical Gardens: gorgeous sprawling gardens and home to the awe-inspiring Thai Pavillion, one of only four located outside of Thailand.
Tenney Park: a picturesque fishing and wedding hot-spot with a great view of the city and lake Mendota.


The Paper Deli: a new independent paper peddler featuring brands like russell+hazel.
Oompa: non-migraine-inducing chilren’s toys imported from Europe.
La Bella Vita: artful gifts.

Breakfast at Blue Spoon Cafe, Lunch Hubbard Avenue Diner: {classic diner style with ‘new american’ food and heavenly pies}, Dinner at Biaggi’s, Dessert at Bloom Bake Shop {locally sourced, eco-friendly and ridiculously delicious}, Drinks at Capital Brewery

Pheasant Branch Conservancy: ride your bike or take a walk through the trails of this vast, diverse ecosystem on a protected stretch of land just north of the city.


Baraboo: Visit Devil’s Lake: a state-wide summer favorite for hiking, swimming and camping.Mt. Horeb: Shop Open House Imports: for Norwegian goods and check out the trolls along main street.
New Glarus: Visit New Glarus Brewing Company: for a tour and taste of the preferred local brew, Spotted Cow.
Sauk City: Visit Wollersheim Winery: treat yourself to an amazing Ice Wine or everyone’s favorite Prairie Fumé.
Stoughton: Eat Fosdal Home Bakery: one of the few places you can still get delicate rosette cookies – yum!
Verona: Shop/Eat Tuvalu CoffeeHouse & Gallery: amazing coffees and a great stash of local artist works.

Suggested For You


  • I’ve lived in Madison for over 3 years, and have to second Katie, who mentioned Lombardino’s. It’s my favorite restaurant in Madison — they serve the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten, by far (and that includes restaurants in NYC, Chicago, SF, and Italy!).

    Other places I’m not sure anyone mentioned:

    Eldorado Grill. Kevin Tubb’s first place — gourmet Tex-Mex and truly awesome margaritas

    Greenbush Bar: Absolutely delicious thin-crust pizza, served not in a bar but more like a hip basement lounge with lots of twinkling lights and very happy eaters

    Café Soleil: Owned by and located downstairs from L’Etoile (on Capitol square), they sell wonderful pastries, coffee, and lunch dishes in a beautiful environment (high ceilings, lots of light, plenty of seating).

    Lastly, I have to reiterate Moni’s recommendation of the delicious ice cream at the Babcock Hall Dairy Store (a.k.a., The Daily Scoop). The whole idea is so charming, too — you’re eating ice cream made by UW Food Science students. So, you know, it’s for a good cause.

    Thanks for profiling Madison!

  • I wanted to add my two cents:

    La Bella Vita (Middleton, University Ave.) – unique art and upscale home decor, art jewelry with contemporary style

    El Kiosco (Willy St.) – Eclectic and quirky mix of salvage items, some antiques & odd curios.

    Oompa Toys (Middleton, University Ave.) – wooden, European toys with great design, sans batteries and disposable plastic

    Chiripa (downtown, Park St.) – Central & South American Craft. Extensive selection of handmade copper vessels & painted Oaxaca animals.

    Restaurant Muramoto (downtown) – The Sunday tasting is not to be missed, with 4 courses of inventive deliciousness. Sake pairing available.

    Villa Dolce (Middleton) – Gourmet pizza, made from scratch with fresh, high-quality ingredients.

    Marigold (Downtown) – Excellent brunch & lunch spot with fresh, gourmet-style food. Often packed & service can be slow but worth the wait.

    Lady Moxie (Odana Rd) – Upscale consignment boutique w/ exclusive designers. Great place to both buy and sell high-end brands.

    Morgan’s Shoes (Hilldale) – Good selection of high-end comfortable and supportive shoe brands with top-notch customer service.

    Cornbloom’s (Hilldale) – High-end shoe brands with a focus on fashion. Not as many “comfy” shoes as Morgan’s. Carries hard to find brands like Cydwoq and Manas Design.

  • Love Madison. Going there nearly every month now for work, but it’s not a work visit that I dread. This is one of the few towns that I look forward to a meeting with clients. It has a touch of southern charm while in the Midwest

  • Oh Madison how I miss you. I was born and raised but have lived in Vancouver for the last 6 years. I love how food, art, and community truly define Madison. One of the things I miss the most is Babcock Hall ice cream, as mentioned. You just can’t beat pumpkin pie ice cream with chunks of crust!

    I also should mention that included in Madison’s rich history are Georgia O’Keeffe, who was born in nearby Sun Prairie; comedian Chris Farley, whose family still lives there; and Dale Chihuly, who received his masters at the UW and contributed some beautiful installation pieces at the Kohl Center.

    And to weigh in on the whole restaurant thing, you just have not had French toast until you’ve had breakfast at Cafe Continental at 108 King Street.

  • I recently moved to the city and love it so far. Although, being from Texas, I’m not so sure I’m going to love the winter.

    Unfortunately, I think Pick More Daisies is closing soon. They’re having a big sale right now.

  • Madison is a great city in Wisconsin.. but I would LOVE to showcase Milwaukee, which, for being in the same state as Madison, has a completely different vibe and atmosphere. Let me know how I can help!

  • Well done! Next time this is updated, I would definitely add La Baguette (so needed on the west side!), The Old Fashioned and Lombardino’s. I’m so glad you included Burnie’s — I always make a stop when I come back to visit — and I really love Katy’s on Monroe, too. Lane’s or Clausen’s makes for a fun stop. And Manna Cafe is one of my favorite places for lunch. They make their own (incredible) bread, so even a grilled cheese is outstanding.

  • What a great list. I’ve been living in Madison for about 9 months and would love to see more vintage/antique shopping venues..esp those that carry reasonably priced furniture. Another thing to add to your list is La Brioche True Food. It’s just a bit west of campus and features the most sumptuous food and baked goods in the world all in a wonderfully homey atmosphere: http://truefoodrestaurant.com/home.html

  • This list could use a bit of updating and reorganizing…a few of these locations have closed and the list is a bit of a modpodge.
    Maybe organizing the locations by neighborhood, Williamson/Marquette, Schenk/Atwood, Vilas, Dungeon/Monroe, ect
    There are so many great places in Madison that it might be easier to see it one neighborhood at a time!
    Just a suggestion, love the site!

  • Awesome!
    What about the Henry Vilas Zoo, located next to Vilas Park by Lake Wingra? It’s free but donations are appreciated!
    Community Pharmacy located on the corner of Gorham and State Street, which is an untraditional pharmacy with a traditional pharmacy, a homeopathic section, and all-natural body care and cosmetics.
    Dobra Tea Room is located on the Corner of Henry and State Street and features an extensive tea menu and also sells loose tea and tea accessories.
    Or Barriques Coffee on E. Washington, one block of the capital square and features excellent fair trade coffee and drinks and also has wine tastings! The have a vast wall of about 100 wine selections that you can either take home or pop the cork and sit and enjoy people watching.
    The city guide on the site are amazing, they inspire me to try out cities I wouldn’t have normally! Keep up the awesome work!

  • Oops sorry…Dobra Tea is on the corner of Gilman and State not Henry and State
    Another place I tried today is, Bradbury’s…crepes, coffee, and espresso. I had the lemon curd and wild blackberry crepe, so delicious!

  • I love Madison! Smoky’s is a great lowkey family-owned steakhouse that is the quirkiest kind of place with crazy wall decorations. The steaks are to die for and the hash browns are also a must have. Prices are great too. Kind of crazy on football weekends but so is every other place and this one is worth waiting for. Here’s the link http://smokysclub.com/

  • Great Work! Some old favorites and some new enticements!
    Sad update though :( Patricia Shoppe is closed and the building for lease.

  • This is great! I agree that The Roman Candle, Pasqual’s/Gallup and The Old Fashioned should be added.

    Everything else I love in Madison is already on there (especially Fosdal’s in Stoughton)!

  • Ah! Although delicious, Biaggi’s and Original Pancake House are chains. On the west side/Middleton, try Eno Vino for dinner and drinks and Prairie Cafe for breakfast.

  • Thank you for this guide! I’m going there at the end of this month and I love that you have the recommendations separated by area. I’m staying downtown so I plan to walk around the campus and go to L’Etoile and the dark and mysterious Natt Spil.

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