24 Hours in Madison with Emily Balsley

by Stephanie

24 Hours in Madison

When you fall in love with a city, it’s hard to say goodbye. So that’s why illustrator Emily Balsley decided not to. Even after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Emily chose to remain in this city of lakes to launch her career. Her love of Madison is unconditional and today she shares her ideal 24 hours in the city, along with a selection of other stops you may want to make should you ever visit. Let’s spend the day in Madison, shall we? –Stephanie

Illustration by Emily Balsley

Read the full guide after the jump…

24 Hours in Madison

photos by Emily Balsley

When I got tasked with describing my ideal day in my city, I panicked. How could I possibly narrow down my extensive list of favorites to only a handful of fun activities to encompass 24 hours? There are WAY too many special things that make Madison, W.I., an amazing place to live. But I was up for the challenge.

Growing up a few hours north, my family often vacationed in Madison, so my love for the city runs deep. When it came time to go to college, I applied to only one – UW-Madison – because I always knew I would end up here. I’ve lived here for 15 years now, graduating from the university, working as an illustrator/designer, and now raising a family.

I love Madison for its unique mix of politics, academics and culture. It’s a very active city, from the Ironman and Paddle & Portage to ice fishing and sailing – not to mention it is a hotbed for the bicycle industry! It’s a foodie paradise. Madison restaurants and food carts pride themselves on their farm-to-table culinary experience. And with the large number of breweries and distilleries, the craft beer scene contributes to the locavore movement. We have a vibrant art and music community, with multiple museums, live music venues and galleries. Still looking for more? Check out the many unique neighborhood festivals, Art Fair on the SquareRhythm and Booms fireworks show, the World’s Largest BratfestConcerts on the Square or a Madison Mallards baseball game.

My ideal day takes place on a Saturday during the summer.

8 am – I head to Bradbury’s for breakfast. Bradbury’s offers a nice selection of both savory and sweet crepes, along with scones and muffins made from local seasonal ingredients. I order my favorite – the Nutella Banana Almond crepe (can you say homemade nutella!?) with a soy chai and perch on a stool in the sun-filled space, watching the people making their way up the block to the farmers’ market.

8:45 am – My belly may be full, but that won’t stop me from grazing at the Dane County Farmer’s Market. Located all the way around the State Capitol building, our market is the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country! I recommend getting there before 9 am if possible, because come mid-morning, the large number of shoppers grinds the flow to an almost-halt. First stop – D&G Custom Meats for some beef jerky. They feature several flavors (my favorite is the Badger) but they sell out every Saturday – another incentive to get there early! Next up, Stella’s Bakery. I grab a cookie, but Stella’s is known for their Hot & Spicy Cheese Bread. Yum! I buy a bottle of the Lemon Basil Pesto Vinaigrette from the Renaissance Farm stand and continue around the block. I stop at Gentle Breeze Honey to buy a few honey sticks and see if I can find the Queen Bee amongst thousands of workers in the glass hive sitting at their stand. Along the way I pick up some of my favorite seasonal produce, squeaky cheese curds and fresh flowers, as well. I love the French radishes and baby spinach mix from Harmony Valley, cheese curds from Hook’s Cheese Company and perennials from The Flower Factory.

24 Hours in Madison24 Hours in Madison

10:30 am – Phew! After all that snacking, I need to get some exercise. Madison is one of the top bike-friendly cities in the U.S., so I’m going to take advantage of the many miles of bike paths and go for a ride. If you don’t have your own bike, grab a B-cycle from our very own bike-share program. I head south on the lovely John Nolen bike path which will take me part of the way around Lake Monona. I stop at Olin Park for the best view of the city. Madison is built on an isthmus between two lakes, so this makes for some pretty spectacular views. You may notice a couple things as you look at the skyline – 1) The Wisconsin State Capitol dome is the highest structure (it’s a state law!), and its design is closely based on the dome of the U.S. Capitol. In fact, ours is the second tallest in the country, behind the nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C. 2) The low-set building with large, symmetrical arched windows is one of Madison’s most recognizable buildings: Monona Terrace was originally designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who briefly studied at the University and is responsible for several Madison buildings.

I hop back on my bike and continue around Lake Monona following the signs.

11:30 am – I’m not quite hungry for lunch yet, so I decide to stop at Olbrich Botanical Gardens to take a stroll through the outdoor gardens. It’s 16 acres of neverending beauty. And the best part? The outdoor gardens are free! My favorite is the Meadow Garden with the spring bulbs and flowering trees, but the Thai Pavilion is a must-see while you’re there. The pavilion was a gift to the UW-Madison from the Thai Government and is the only one in the continental U.S.

12:30 pm – Now I’m getting hungry! I bike another mile or so to grab lunch at Alchemy. I snag a table outside and order a Matilda sandwich (grilled butternut squash, swiss, veggies and gorganzola dressing) and some sweet potato fries.

24 Hours in Madison

1:30 pm – I’m in the mood to shop, so I decide to take a stroll down State Street. State Street is a pedestrian zone joining the State Capitol and the University. In addition to the many restaurants and bars lining the street, I’ll find ample shopping. I’ll be sure to stop at AnthologyLittle Luxuries, the Museum Store at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Shoo and Kilwins for a chocolatey treat!

3 pm – I head to Century House to get my Scandinavian furniture fix. There are three locations on the near-west side – Home & Office, Gifts and Furniture. I drool over the Marimekko, Charley Harper, Gus, Herman Miller and Iittala before I head to Zip-Dang.  Zip-Dang is a funky boutique full of a unique mix of vintage and handmade items. From orangyporangy skirts to screen-printed goods to clogs and jewelry, there is something for everyone.

4:30 pm – It’s time for some more fresh air! Less than two blocks from Zip-Dang is Lake Wingra where I decide to rent a paddleboard and do some stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) around the lake. You’ve never tried SUP before? No worries – you can take a lesson! Lake Wingra is the smallest of Madison’s lakes and is bordered by the UW-Madison Arboretum, the Henry Vilas Zoo and Edgewood College and offers beautiful views of the wilderness.

24 Hours in Madison

6:30 pm – I’m a pizza girl, so my ideal day HAS to involve some ‘za! Not too far from Lake Wingra is Pizza Brutta where I order some wood-fired Neapolitan pizza for dinner. I prefer to keep it simple when it comes to my pizza, so I get the Margherita con Bufala along with a big Gorgonzola Salad to share. It totally hits the spot after my time out on the water.

7:30 pm – Speaking of water, I head to yet another Madison lake: Lake Mendota, which is situated on the other side of the isthmus from Lake Monona. Much of the UW-Madison campus is located along the lake, and one of the best places to take in campus life is at the Memorial Union Terrace, recognized by many for its bright green, orange and yellow starburst Terrace chairs. I grab a table by the water so I can enjoy my dessert – some Babcock ice cream that’s made right on campus at Babcock Hall Dairy! I always love chocolate, but the Orange Custard Chocolate Chip is pretty awesome as well. If the music hasn’t started yet, it soon will. There is live music on the Terrace stage four days a week in the summer. I grab a pitcher of beer, sit back, and enjoy sights and sounds – after all, I’ve had a busy day!

24 Hours in Madison

Since there are WAY too many things to pack into one day in Madison, here are a few more ideas:

Eat: Dotty Dumpling’s DowrySardineDumpling HausMarigold KitchenForequarterGrazeFromaginationOld Fashioned

Do: Madison Children’s MuseumGreat Taste of the MidwestThe Sh*tty Barn (45 minutes west), Overture Center for the ArtsWisconsin Film Festival

Shop:  Orange Tree ImportsA La Crate VintageMystery to MeContextB-Side Records

Stay: Arbor HouseMansion Hill InnHotel Red

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  • Great post about a great little city. Lived there for several years and have such great memories of it – this will help persuade my husband to go – and nothing better than leaving Texas in the summertime!

  • Awesome job, Emily! A few additions for folks of specific interests:

    If you want to local drink WI beer: One Barrel Brewing, Next Door Brewing, Mobcraft, Ale Asylum, Karben4.

    If you want to eat a great breakfast: Marigold Kitchen, Madison Sourdough, Mickey’s Tavern (on the patio!), Daisy Cupcakery.

    If you are a gardener and love to check out gardens: Troy Gardens, Allen Centennial Gardens and Olbrich (like Emily already mentioned). The Flower Factory is an awesome place to shop for perennials.

    Great neighborhoods to check out: Winnebago St., Atwood Ave., Williamson St., Monroe St., State Street.

    Other favorite stores: SERRV, Change, Hatch Art House, Gail Ambrosius, Eyeopia, A Stone’s Throw, Willy St. Co-op.

  • This was a great midday read :) I’ve only been to Madison once, but my partner went to UW, and is obsessed with all things Badger and Madison. He moved back to Austin (thankfully for me, or we wouldn’t have met!), but pines for Madison badly, and even from my one visit I can see why, it’s a lovely city!

  • Love Love Madison! One kiddo about to graduate from the UW and one about to start! Emily hit them all, at least all my favorites–wait was Ian’s in there?

  • Madison is such a beautiful city; the perfect size and Emily is right, there is so much to do!! I went to the University and also have family ties, so we take weekend trips as much as we can. I would add: gyros at the Parthenon after a long night of revelry on State Street, sunset boat ride on the lake, Taste of Madison on labor day weekend, and Concerts on the Square every Wednesday in the summer. State Street is more commercial than it used to be (Starbucks, Gap…), but it still has some of the neat, boutique stores from before like the Soap Opera and Sacred Feather hat store. Williamson Street (Willie Street), has more local flavor and locally owned stores. Lastly, take a visit to Ian’s Pizza for mac and cheese pizza or whatever they have hatched up, eat at L’Etoile, that was founded by Odessa Piper who was a pioneer of sustainable food in the 70’s, and don’t forget to complete your visit with a brat (and beer!) at State Street brats- don’t skip it- it would be sacrilegious!

  • yay, Madison!

    if you’re in town yes, go to Gail Ambrosius’ store. And get thee to Batch Bakehouse. In the Atwood neighborhood Stalzy’s Deli apparently has the best burgers. Going to a fish fry on a Friday night is good… check out madisonfishfry.com

    Be outside:
    Walk/bike some (or all) of the Capital City Trail, a bit south of town there are beautiful prairie landscapes. Disc golf at Heistand Park. The Madison Trust for Historic Preservation has good walking tours, too.

    Be inside (if you go in the winter):
    Chazen museum, the School of Human Ecology building, tour the Capitol, see what’s going on at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery… and get hot chocolate at the Chocolatarian Cafe!

  • This makes me miss Madison even more. Lived there for 8 years and we find ourselves returning once or twice per year. I’ve got my girls convinced it is “THE” place to be.

    Make sure to visit the Geology Museum!

  • LOVE Madison, and this post makes me want to go back and visit! Also, I’m pretty sure Emily and I took some design classes together! Great to see a fellow UW alum on Design*Sponge.

  • Emily is the best and she definitely created the greatest 24 hours in Madison! I think this weekend I’ll do some of these things she highlighted. Thanks for posting about our great city!

  • Meh you can get MUCH better food in Madison than this list (which seems a bit dated) shows. What about Sophia’s for breakfast, way better than the mediocre bradbury’s or marigold?! Sardine and Heritage are FAR better restaurants than either Graze (which is fun) but Forequarter is pretentious, overpriced and mediocre.

  • There is so much I love about my hometown and you pretty much nailed it here. I’m a biker so I love the fact that this city is bike friendly. I also do food photography work for Madison Magaizne and understand and appreciate how much a foodie city it is here! Craft beer is wonderful and it’s everywhere. Thanks for sharing! This article made my day!

  • Nice job featuring Pizza Brutta! I worked there while in college and I’ve yet to find a Neapolitan pizza (outside Italy that is) that holds a candle to it. Margherita con Bufala was a wise choice.

  • No Grampa’s Pizza? I’d take that over Pizza Brutta anyday – better atmosphere, better drink list, amazing pizza, and they grow their own veggies out back (no, I don’t work for them). For lunch my own personal preferrence would be either Banzo for Isreali-style falafel or Madison stalwart Himal Chuli for Nepali food. And Unearthed and Atomic on Park Street (for furniture and home furnishings/deaign objects), as well as Kitchen Gallery on King Street, are more in the Design Sponge taste range than a lot of the other shops mentioned here. Fourquarter and Context are aces, though.