Heritage Tavern – My go to for a proper brunch. They have a variety of Benedict’s, breakfast cocktails, and really good sides so there’s something for everyone. Where I take my parents and out-of-towners when they come to visit. Get the Heritage Tavern Benedict, the Lobster Scramble, and the ham cinnamon roll.
Short Stack Eatery – For a hangover cure or breakfast for dinner. They have all the classics and some fun features like a ‘blind special’ and some pretty insane hours. If you’re looking for a fun and simple brunch place in the morning or the middle of the night, this is it. Get there early, though, because they tend to have a line out the door. Get the chocolate chip pancakes, the breakfast sandwich, and the bloody mary (if you like beets).
Marigold Kitchen – For a fresh, healthy brunch. The food is here is always really well made and delicious. Recommend if you’re looking for a great breakfast during the week (or the weekend, but you won’t have as many options M-F). Get the duck confit hash and their homemade pastries.
Plaka Taverna – For family restaurant vibes and an affordable meal. I love this place for its homegrown feel – family artifacts along the walls, lots of regulars coming in and out, and a really relaxed vibe. Plus, the bill ended up being like 10 bucks a person. Definitely more diner-ish food, but so nice to hang in.
Best Breakfast and Coffee
Greenbush Bakery – Famously delicious donuts made daily. You can buy Greenbush donuts all over town, but you have to go their bakery on Regent street for the real thing. It’s super sweet and local and make sure to get there early before they sell out. Get the Sour Cream Old Fashioned.
Collectivo Coffee – A favorite for lattes and lunch. Whenever I got antsy on the weekend, I would head out to Collectivo with a book or to meet a friend for a bagel with lox or a chicken salad sandwich. There’s always open room to sit and do work, too, if you’re looking for a place to plant yourself for a few hours.
Barrique’s – Reliable local chain for coffee, pastries, and wine. There’s a bunch of Barrique’s all over the Madison area and they’re all good. Friendly staff, good coffee, and room to sit down and work or read or relax by the fire. My go to for meeting a friend or coworker for coffee.
Michaelangelo’s Coffee House – A friendly local haunt. I used to come here sometimes to write or read or get tea with a friend. It’s right off of State Street so it’s a great place to hide out from the cold. More locals and fewer business people here, too, if that’s more what you’re looking for.
Gotham Bagels – The hangover bagel capitol of Madison. I have never seen more miserable people pull themselves out of bed for a bagel before and it is so worth it. Be ready to stand around and wait, though, since this place is soooo popular on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I love their Brighton Beach bagel and their Williamsburg sandwich.
The Great Dane – For a taste of local Madison. It’s actually the first place I ever came in Madison when I interviewed for my job and it’s still the place I take friends and family when they come from out of town. They have a surprisingly big and varied menu and they make their own local brews, so you’re sure to please everyone here. Get the cheese curds (duh) and the Asian BBQ chicken wings.
Cooper’s Tavern – For hearty dishes and European sports. If you’re looking for a spot to watch Barclay’s Premiere League, eat a pretty delicious sandwich, and drink a dark beer then look no further than Cooper’s. They also have one of the better selections of Irish whiskies in town.
Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace – For more chips, dip, and tacos than you can eat. This place is a little off the beaten path, but it’s worth leaving the downtown neighborhood for. It doesn’t strike me as the most authentic Mexican place in the world, but it’s vibrant and affordable. My friends and I plan on meeting here every time I come back to Madison. Get the queso dip and thank me later.
Weary Traveler Freehouse – For a taste of old town Madison. A great spot on the Willy Street, one of my favorite neighborhoods in town, with updated pub food and craft beer. It’s a great spot to hang out after walking around the Willy Street shops or coming from Olbrich Park for a burger and drink. Recommend if you’re looking for something more local.
Best Casual Dinner
Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry – A great casual date spot. Despite the name, they serve mostly burgers and beer here, so it’s more traditional Wisconsin fare. For me, though, the atmosphere does it: wooden booths and low lighting make it a great date restaurant especially on a crappy winter night. Really cozy with lots of comfort food.
Ramen Kid – Super casual and delicious ramen. I loved this place in the winter because there’s nothing like tucking into a giant bowl of hot ramen on a cold night. Be ready for a lot of college students and barely there waiters, but it’s worth it for cheap, great food.
Maharani – My favorite local takeout place. I’m no connoisseur of Indian food, but it definitely cures my basic white girl cravings for chicken tikka masala and samosas. Food is always delicious and typically doesn’t take too long to get carry out. Maharani was always a treat for me.
Best Fancy Dinner
Tornado Steakhouse – Old school supper club with really good steak. There are other steakhouses in town that are more upscale and traditional, but Tornado is by far my favorite. It’s super vintage – they even give you the traditional assortment of vegetables when you sit down – and the food is really good. Plus, the bar in the basement is one of my favorites in town. Get the venison if you’re not in a steak mood.
Field Table – For hipster, artisanal cocktails and farm to table food. I started going here for the drinks – they have a lot of great house specialties or they’ll concoct something just for you – and ended up eating the food at the bar and wow is it good. Even the bread and butter is out of this world. Get the salmon, the roasted chicken, and any dessert.
Estrellon – My favorite place for tapas and sangria. A great mix of small plates, breads, large plates, and paella so you can do any style of dinner you want. They also have some great house cocktails and you HAVE to get the Basque cake for dessert – I had multiple people tell me how amazing it was and it lived up to the hype.
Muramoto – The best sushi place in Madison. I spent most of my time in Madison looking for a great sushi restaurant and Muramoto has to be my favorite. So so good and great drinks too – the lychee martini is bomb.
Tempest Oyster Bar – For great seafood and late night oysters. With fresh seafood abound on their dinner menu and a surprisingly great selection on their late night menu, I was really excited when I learned about Madison’s only oyster bar (I’m pretty sure). I’ve done dinner here, oysters and wine, and just drinks so it’s pretty versatile as long as you like seafood.
Fresco – For champagne and the best view of State Street. Full disclosure: I’ve never eaten here, but I have gone just for a drink and the view. It’s location about the MMOCA and view of Madison’s main street makes Fresco super special. It also has beautiful outdoor seating in the summer. Great place for a celebration or birthday dinner.
Best Late Night Food
Ian’s Pizza – For crazy pizza at any hour. With flavors like mac & cheese and chicken pot pie it’s no wonder that Ian’s is a late night favorite. You can get huge slices for only $4 with more topping combos than you can even imagine. The line gets pretty long after the bars close but if you have the serious munchies you’ll be glad you stuck it out.
Genna’s – My favorite local place. I like Genna’s because it’s a good mix of locals and transplants and it’s far enough away from State Street that it’s not too college-y. There’s always something going on at Genna’s and with two floors you can choose to watch whatever slam poetry or music they have upstairs or just relax with a drink downstairs. Plus, they’re dog-friendly so sometimes people bring their pups.
Cask & Ale – Another casual favorite. I started coming here regularly because they show the Bachelor on Monday nights (which I highly recommend if you’re local) and it became one of my favorite spots to grab a drink. It has a little bit older of a crowd (i.e. not college students) so it’s not as crazy and it’s generally nicer. Great beer selections and friendly bartenders, too.
HopCat – For the largest selection of Wisconsin beers in Madison. With over 30 local beers on tap at any given time plus a bunch of out-of-state drafts, HopCat is where I take my beer loving friends. I’m not too into the whole craft beer thing, but even I’ve tried some pretty unique stuff here. Oh and get the crack fries – they pair well with anything.
Lucille – For something a little nicer. Nice cocktails, good music, and low lighting this is a regular favorite of mine. Pro tip: Lucille used to be a bank so head downstairs to the vault-turned-bar.
Eno Vino Rooftop Bar – For the best view of the capitol in town. Located in the AC Hotel Madison, Eno Vino really shines in the summer when you can go out on their rooftop bar. With views of the lake and the capitol, it’s a pretty great spot to hang for a few drinks or get dinner – the food is really good, too.
Corral Room Bar – For a speakeasy feel. Beneath my favorite steakhouse in Madison, Tornado, is a little tucked away bar. With a great late night menu (think escargots and steak) and a super nice staff, I love hitting this bar for after dinner drinks.
The Old Fashioned – For a classic Brandy Old Fashioned. I didn’t even know Brandy Old Fashioned’s existed until I moved to Madison, but if you want the best and biggest variety in town head here. I wasn’t impressed by the food, to be honest, but I like bringing friends from out of town here for a little taste of Wisconsin. The Apple Old Fashioned they have is particularly delicious.
Buck and Badger – For a shot-ski, the most Wisconsin shot in town. A traditional Wisco bar in downtown Madison with traditional pub favorites and everyone’s favorite: four shots that come on a ski that four people do all at once. Yup, that’s a thing.
The Ivory Room Piano Bar – My guiltiest pleasure in Madison. After doing your shot-ski, head next door to the Ivory Room for some dueling piano action. Put in some requests, make some friends, sit up front, and definitely go later on in the night after a few drinks lol.
Best Things to do Around Town
The Farmers Market – Hands down my favorite thing to do on a Saturday morning. Wrapping around the entire capitol square, the farmers market has everything from produce to cheese to dried gourds. Everyone comes out for it and hangs out and it’s just so lovely.
The Majestic Theater – For intimate concerts and events. I’ve been to a bunch of awesome concerts for super cheap (like $15) and it’s so small that you can pretty much always have a great spot in the crowd. They also do movie events, themed DJ nights, and holiday parties so check out what’s on the schedule when you’re around.
Chazen Museum of Art – A surprisingly awesome art museum for a small city. I was really impressed by their collection and it’s definitely one to check out if you’re into the museum thing. They don’t have a ton of exhibitions but their permanent modern collection is great.
Memorial Union Terrace – The best place to hang out in the summer. Grab a drink or a pitcher with some friends and hang out on the famous terrace chairs for the evening. This is honestly one of the things I’ll miss most about leaving Madison.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens – If you’re into some manicured nature. With beautiful outdoor gardens and a Thai pavilion in the summer and a butterfly garden in the winter it’s a nice place in the Atwood neighborhood to spend an afternoon. In the summer, there’s also a beer garden across the street to hang at, too, with great lake views.
Live on King Street – A series of free concerts right off the square. Every year the Majestic plans several great free concerts outside on King Street and they’re a blast. Get there early because the line to get in gets long or just catch the end before you go out.
Walk on a Lake – If you’re around in the winter and you see ice fishermen out on the lake, then it’s (probably) safe to walk out onto the lake. It sounds kind of odd as someone not from Wisconsin to do as an activity, but it’s actually beautiful to go out there. Sometimes it’s windy, but usually it’s quiet and snowy and nice. Even better with friends and dogs.
Best Day Trips
Devil’s Lake State Park – A great day trip if you’re looking to do something outdoorsy. Devil’s Lake is super beautiful all year round and has lots of beach and trails to spend the day on. It’s also safe to swim in the summer so bring some towels and coolers.
Anthology – For best feminist gifts in town. Owned by two sisters with a penchant for political statements and wisco love, this is my go to place in town for any and all gifts. I’ve bought birthday cards, political pins, Wisconsin tea towels, and narwhal swaddle cloths here. It’s the best.
A Room of One’s Own – My favorite book store in town. Lots of new titles, feminist novels, biographies, Sci Fi written by women, and local books. Drop by if you’re looking for a new read or a good book-related gift.
Fromagination – What would this list be without a cheese shop? Lots of local cheese options, appetizers, and cheese-related accoutrement for all your cheese-loving needs. What could be more Wisconsin?
Little Luxuries – Another one of my favorite spots for gifts (despite the cheesy name). I’ve gotten my favorite purse from here and countless other gifts for myself and others. If you’re looking for calendars, jewelry, leather goods, ornaments, or Wisconsin paraphernalia you’ll find them there.
Hilldale Mall – The best mall in the Madison area. I love Madison, but the shopping there isn’t it’s main attraction. There aren’t a ton of big name stores in the area, but if you’re looking to get a shopping fix in this is the place to go. Plus, they got some good restaurants and a movie theater there for all your mall rat needs.
The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club – For free booze and excellent people watching. My mom and I always joked about staying here so when she came to visit in December we finally saw what it was all about. She stayed in the higher floors which gave us access to the Governor’s Club, which is this hilarious little bar with a great view of the capitol that gives you all you can drink booze and appetizers. We pregamed all of our nights there and I think we got our money’s worth.
AC Hotel by Marriott – For updated amenities and a stellar rooftop bar. The newest hotel in Madison, I’ve had friends and my parents stay here and really liked it. The rooms are beautiful, clean, and modern and the restaurant in the hotel also made the list, particularly for it’s rooftop bar. It’s where I’d recommend staying if you’re willing to spend a little more.
Best Western Premier Park Hotel – For the most convenient location. This is the only hotel on the square so you can’t really beat it for that. I’ve stayed here myself and it’s definitely nice, especially if you ask for a room with a view of the capitol. Recommend if convenience is your top priority (although tbh nothing is that far in Madison).
I did a similar guide for Dublin when I lived there if you want to check it out.