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Note: Destination Madison kindly hosted me for a long weekend in exchange for coverage. As always, all opinions are my own and it’s my main priority to write honestly about my experiences.
Like many others, I thrive on taking long weekend getaways to new cities to fulfill my travel dreams. As someone who works full time and writes a travel blog, it’s not always feasible for me to randomly take three weeks off and fly across the world to a brand new country.
So, unsurprisingly, weekend getaways are my jam.
Recently, I had the pleasure of enjoying a short and fun vacation in Wisconsin’s capital city: Madison.
Without a doubt, a Madison WI weekend getaway will surprise and delight you. Personally, I loved enjoying the city’s unique mixture of both urban and nature experiences – sometimes appreciating manmade and natural wonders on the same day!
How to Have a Great Madison WI Weekend Getaway
Overall, Madison is a safe destination that’s perfect for solo travel, as well as groups of friends and couples!
I also think Madison is a super easy city to navigate, which makes it an ideal location for new or anxious travelers to explore on their own terms.
To summarize, my advice for a wonderful Madison WI weekend getaway includes the following suggestions:
- Pack Comfortable Shoes: Madison is a relatively small city. The good news is most major attractions are within walking distance. Just make sure to pack comfortable shoes so your feet don’t decide to hate you by the end of the weekend.
- Wear Sunblock and Bug Spray: Wisconsin’s sun is strong in the summer. Strong. Be kind to your skin and don’t forget the sunblock! If you’re kayaking or paddling on the lakes, you may also want to bring bug spray to ward off mosquitos. I didn’t have too many issues but better safe than sorry.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Smile: People in Madison are SO nice! If you feel comfortable, smile and chat with your bartender, tour guide, shop keeper, etc. I had great experiences just having random conversations here.
- Eat More than Just Cheese: Okay, yes, you’re in Wisconsin, which means that you’ll enjoy quite a bit of cheese. However, Madison has a very vibrant food scene that goes beyond cheddar and provolone.
A Quick Overview of Madison WI
|1||Arrival, Wisconsin Capitol, Downtown Shopping, Parthenon Gyros, Chazen Museum, Graze Dinner|
|2||Monona Terrace, Kayaking, Canteen Tacos, Free Museums, Betty Lou Cruise|
|3||Farmer’s Market, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Garver Mill Feed, Bike Tour, Tornado Steakhouse|
3 Days in Madison: Your Weekend Itinerary in Detail
For your Madison WI weekend getaway, I’ve broken down each day in this guide in order to discuss all the activities, attractions, and restaurants available at your fingertips.
Of course, feel free to do your own research and adjust anything you want to fit your personal travel needs.
Let’s go to Madison!
Day 1 in Madison
Your first day will involve Madison’s most famous building, tons of great shopping, and cheese curds (of course).
But before you can do anything fun, you need to actually get to Madison. Most arrivals come in from the nearby airport.
I know airports aren’t the most charming places on the planet, but don’t worry! Your travel day will be an absolute breeze, especially if you’re used to huge and intense airports such as EWR, SFO, or ATL.
Arrive at Dane County Regional Airport
If flying into Madison, you’ll arrive at Dane County Regional Airport.
MSN Airport is a small, welcoming, and sustainable airport. What I love most about this airport is that it’s not overwhelming with fifty million terminals and never-ending boarding gate announcements. MSN airport’s size makes for an easy-going travel experience that will keep your stress levels low.
Upon arrival, go to the Welcome Desk and call for a hotel shuttle on the pretty, teal, and old-fashioned phone. You’ll meet your shuttle right across the street.
Like I had previously mentioned, a Madison WI weekend getaway is perfect for new solo travelers or anxious travelers, because not only is the city awesome, but the airport experience is actually very pleasant.
Coming from me, aka a very nervous person in airports, this is one of the highest compliments that I can offer to MSN. Keep up the great work!
See the Wisconsin State Capitol
Wisconsin State Capitol is one of the most beautiful buildings that I’ve ever seen in the United States. Without a doubt, the Capitol ought to be your first stop for your Madison WI weekend getaway.
After taking photos of the exterior (I took about a million from all angles), you will definitely want to go inside the building to see the Capitol Rotunda.
Don’t forget to look up at the beautiful ceiling decorations that make you feel as if you’ve been transported to a European cathedral or castle. Edwin Howland-Blashfield’s depictions of “Lady” Wisconsin will take your breath away!
The Capitol Rotunda also showcases many intricate mosaic panels that are worth your time and attention.
Guided tours are also available if you want to learn all about the building’s history. The Capitol is over a hundred years old, so its walls are home to many incredible stories.
Shop in Downtown Madison
Madison has a ton of fabulous shopping options. My credit card agrees.
Need some ideas for spending a lot of money (hey, no judgement here folks)? Don’t worry! I got you covered for your Madison WI weekend getaway:
- Anthology: Lots of wonderful Madison and Wisconsin themed gifts! I even bought my brother a birthday present here! Very cute shop. You can find Anthology on 230 State Street.
- Formaginiation: Want cheese? Lots of divine cheese? Then you need to shop at Formagination. This is Madison’s premier cheese shop and it shows. The staff is absolutely wonderful. They will help you find the perfect slice of cheese for you! You can find Formagination on 12 S Carroll Street.
- Little Luxuries: This small shop is the perfect spot to buy a gift for someone special. Little Luxuries is a Madison staple that has been in business for 30 years. You can find Little Luxuries on 230 State Street.
- Madison Modern Market: If you’re looking for great lifestyle or household items, this local business is the perfect choice for you! Madison Modern Market is on 310 State Street.
Feel free to take your time shopping! Many of Madison’s fun gift stores, artisan food shops, and boutiques are all in the same general area. Shopping excursions are dangerously easy.
Chow on Gyros at Parthenon
Mmmmm, who in their right mind could say “no” to authentic and homemade Greek food? Fortunately, you can find the best (no exaggeration) gyros right here in Madison at Parthenon Gyros.
Parthenon itself is a gorgeous restaurant. Gorgeous.
For example, the walls are covered in unique art depicting Greek mythological figures. My inner nerd was very happy.
Not to mention, if it’s a sunny day, you can also enjoy your meal on the rooftop where you will feel as if you’ve been transported to the Mediterranean.
What I love about this restaurant is that the owners take the quality of the food seriously. All the lamb gyros are made 100% in-house, so you know you’re eating a nutritional meal prepared by people who care.
For dessert, I would absolutely try some Greek yogurt with honey! Healthy and satisfying at the same time!
You can find Parthenon Gyros at 316 State Street.
Admire Free Art Exhibits at Chazen Museum of Art
A lot of people are familiar with Madison, because the capital city is home to the University of Wisconsin. On campus, you’ll discover a wonderful free museum: Chazen Museum of Art.
The Chazen has both permanent and special exhibits in beautiful, open space galleries that leave plenty of room for inspiration and learning.
What I loved about this museum is that while many art galleries are available for your viewing pleasure, the Chazen is still small enough that it’s not overwhelming either.
You can find Chazen Museum of Art at 750 Univeristy Avenue.
Dinner and Capitol Views at Graze
Okay, so you simply can’t visit Wisconsin and not eat cheese curds if you have no dietary restrictions.
My recommendation is for you to grab dinner at Graze right on Madison’s square near the Capitol. Their cheese curds will absolutely change your life.
Of course, uh, vitamins and minerals are important too. So, if you want a healthier suggestion to go along with your cheese curds, then I highly recommend checking out their beet burger. It’s both filling and delicious!
But do you want to hear the best part about this restaurant?
At Graze, you’ll enjoy sweeping views of the Capitol and a delicious farm-to-table meal. The Capitol is lit up at night and looks spectacular! Nothing beats dinner with a view.
You can find Graze at 1 S. Pinckney Street.
Day 2 in Madison
Are you ready to get up close and personal with Madison’s greatest feature?
Prepare yourself for a lot of natural tranquility and clear waters. For your second day, you’ll absolutely fall in love with Madison’s gorgeous bodies of water: Lakes Mendota and Monona.
Let’s get started!
Take an Early Morning Walk to Monona Terrace
Strolling Monona Terrace in the morning is a peaceful experience that will prepare you for a busy travel day ahead.
Grab a coffee and hang out on the terrace which is open to the public.
In many ways, Monona Terrace is like an open air history museum with information about Lake Monona and the surrounding area.
For example, make sure to stop and read the Otis Redding Memorial Plaque. The famous jazz singer was killed in a tragic plane accident, and as a result, the Madison show is the only engagement that he ever missed in his career.
Inside the Convention Center, guided tours and information about the building itself are available to visitors.
Kayak with Brittingham Boats
If you have sunny weather on your Madison WI weekend getaway, then you should physically get out onto the water rather than linger on shore.
Without a doubt, Brittingham Boats is a Madison staple that I highly, highly recommend to anyone coming to this city. This small business provides rental canoes, kayaks, stand up paddle boards, etc, for you to take out on Lake Monona.
And honestly, don’t fret if you’re not skilled at water sports. I’m serious. I rarely go kayaking and found the time on the water soothing and low stress.
Not to mention, the staff at Brittingham Boats are kind and professional, and will do whatever they can to make you feel welcome in this space. Their passion shines through in all interactions, and as a result, I would absolutely come to Madison to do more kayaking. They made me feel safe.
Dedicate at least two hours to kayaking if weather conditions are right for you. Madison is a pure gem when seen from Lake Monona.
Eat Tacos at Canteen
For lunch, my personal suggestion is going to Canteen for some delicious Mexican food. I mean, who doesn’t love to eat tacos after a morning work out?
I had the classic burrito, which was very filling and hearty, and Canteen kindly offers the option to make your burrito into a bowl if you want to forego the wrap.
Last but not least, Canteen has a colorful and fun interior that makes this restaurant very Instagram worthy. Take pictures! You’ll feel as if you were invited to a party!
Check Out More Fabulous Free Museums
Madison has a ton of free museums in addition to the Chazen.
Feel free to adjust this section of the itinerary to suit your personal tastes. And don’t forget to research museums ahead of time. You don’t want to show up and find out the attraction of your choice is closed!
As for me, I decided to go to Madison Museum of Contemporary Art or MMoCA. Check out the current exhibits ahead of time. I loved seeing Natalie Frank’s Unbound exhibit about fairy tales! Her paintings spoke to my childhood self.
Madison has plenty of other free museums located in the Downtown area if you want to branch outside art. Examples include Wisconsin Veterans Museum and Wisconsin Historical Museum.
Have fun learning! Discovering a destination’s story is one of the greatest parts of traveling. No doubt about it.
Enjoy the Sunset with Betty Lou Cruises
Betty Lou Cruises offer a wonderful chance to see Madison from the water during my favorite time of day: Twilight’s Golden Hour.
The soft light is perfect for photoing Madison’s majestic bodies of water. In the fading sunset, the world somehow appears softer and more delicate. At peace.
On a Betty Lou Cruise, you will eat a wonderful meal (the menu changes so check ahead of time) and enjoy Lake Mendota’s spectacular scenery, such as the lake’s islands and lake houses.
You will also see locals at play on their privately owned boats of all shapes and sizes. In a way, a Betty Lou Cruise is like visiting an open air maritime museum.
Be sure to wave at others! Summer’s temperate evenings put everyone in a happy mood!
Betty Lou Cruises are moored at the Mariner’s Inn.
Day 3 in Madison
Can you believe that your Madison WI weekend getaway is coming to an end? Time flies when you’re having fun, for sure.
During our final day in Madison, we’re going to explore outside the city’s downtown core in addition to enjoying some of the best food the city has to offer tourists.
Eat Healthy at Dane County Farmer’s Market
Dane County Farmer’s Market is a wonderful treat if the event coincides with your time in Madison! It’s so easy to see why this market is beloved by locals.
Seriously, folks, I could spend hours exploring the stalls with their cheese empanadas, homemade desserts, vibrantly colored berries, fresh lettuces, stunning flowers appearing as if they’ve come from the south of France, and more!
The market’s diversity is unbelievable. Not to mention, you help support local farms when you go to the market and make your purchases. It’s wonderful knowing who has grown your food.
However, If the farmer’s market is unavailable, don’t despair! In that case, I suggest heading over to Bassett Street Brunch Club for a savory (and yummy) breakfast burrito to start your day. You’ll find this restaurant on 444 W. Johnson Street.
Explore Olbrich Botanical Gardens
As you know, I’m a huge fan of botanical gardens, and while I’ve been to many gardens around the world, Madison’s very own Olbrich Botanical Gardens took my breath away. So. Freakin. Gorgeous.
I could easily spend hours walking through these gardens and taking pictures. They are SO beautiful. As a visitor, you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to a whole new world without the hassle of boarding an airplane.
Some highlights of Olbrich Botanical Gardens include these pretty areas:
- Bolz Conservatory: Want a taste of a tropical jungle? The conservatory is a warm oasis that houses 650 plants.
- Perennial Garden: I felt like I could meditate in this gorgeous garden with its streams and pools perfectly dotted with green waterlilies.
- Rose Garden: In the center of the Rose Garden is a 30 foot tower that you can climb to enjoy commanding views. Well worth the exercise.
- Thai Pavilion and Garden: The Thai Pavilion was a gift to the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the Thai Government. You seriously feel like you’re looking a temple in Chiang Mai. Quite a few of my friends thought I took an unexpected trip to Thailand!
Shop and Eat at Garver Feed Mill
Garver Feed Mill is a unique experience in a restored historical building. It’s well worth a visit even if you just want to grab an iced coffee, because when you see how this previously dilapidated building was transformed into a trendy space for small businesses, your jaw will drop.
You can quickly walk to Garver Feed Mill from Olbrich Gardens. The mill has been transformed into a hip modern space that’s home to local artisans, food establishments, and retail shops.
If you have time to spare, you can even take yoga classes to reconnect with yourself! Pretty cool, huh?
You can find Garver Feed Mill at 3241 Garver Green.
See Madison on Two Wheels with a Bike n’ Bites Tour
Madison is a very bike friendly city. You can even rent an electric bike for the day at many locations.
However, I always feel like the best way to see a city on a bike is with an experienced and fun-loving guide!
If your schedule works out, then I recommend taking a Bike n’ Bites tour that takes you six miles throughout Madison to a variety of tasty spots. The best part is that you will ride on electric bikes so you will handle any troublesome hills with ease, while at the same time feeling a personal sense of accomplishment!
Furthermore, the Capitol Square Downtown tour is also back after a hiatus and well worth looking into if you want to return to Madison’s downtown core.
Dine at Madison’s Best Steak House
Tornado Club Steak House is an incredible steak house with a traditional Madison supper club atmosphere. With gourmet cocktails, savory appetizers, and wide array of steaks, you will want to close out your epic weekend with a stop to this restaurant.
You will feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you enjoy Tornado Club Steak House’s classic wooden interior and white-linen dining experience.
Treat yourself. The menu is remarkable and staff knowledgeable.
During my dinner, I personally enjoyed the filet, key lime pie, and Caesar salad. My stomach was very, very, very happy. Pace yourself. Part of the supper club experience is to take as much time as you need to savor each bite of food.
If you have spare time, I also suggest sipping a cocktail or two at the bar, which is simultaneously traditional and super cool. A classy way to end the perfect long weekend.
Where to Stay for Madison WI Weekend Getaway
Madison has a lot of great accommodation for all budgets. You can’t go wrong sticking to a price and reading reviews.
However, I still want to offer a recommendation. During my own 3 days in Madison, I had the pleasure of staying at The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club.
This hotel was absolutely perfect for me. For example, my shuttle driver was very friendly and we would talk every single morning about my plans for the day!
Additionally, the Governor’s Club was a ton of fun at night with Capitol views and live music. The breakfast was also a great value for travelers.
You can find this hotel at 1 W. Dayton Street.
I hope you had fun reading about this Madison WI weekend getaway itinerary. As always, thanks for your support and I hope you get to Madison very soon!