A New Englander’s Guide to Madison, Wisconsin

When I came to visit Madison, I was expecting to only be landlocked in a sea of corn fields.

Although chronic wanderlust has become an essential part of my life, revisiting the midwest didn’t exactly earn a rank on the personal travel bucket list—my experience with the region is limited to the brief period when my family moved from Rhode Island to Kentucky for a year and a half.

Fast forward to 2016 and a flight is booked to visit a friend living in Madison, Wisconsin for Columbus Day weekend.

I am happy to report that Wisconsin is more than farmlands and cheese.

We explored downtown, took a winery tour a few towns over and dined at a number of cool restaurants…. I left the city impressed with the genuine, gentle demeanor of the people and the culture. Things are definitely happening—or in the process of happening—in Madison.

When it comes to doing travel write-ups, I have typically written about each place or activity in a separate blog post, but we did so much that everything is going to live in one happy place.

Here we go.

Coffee & Tea

I read about Bradbury’s (pictured) in an article by Bon Appetit and loved the laid-back, bohemian vibe. They are best known for their coffee, but they also serve delicious crepes.

Ancora on King Street is another option downtown if you’re by the capitol building and need a cafe with WiFi. It’s worth mentioning that anyone who claims to be an eco-conscious caffeine addict will be happy to learn that Ancora’s coffee is fair trade and organic.

Sencha Tea Bar pleases tea lovers looking for a hot pot of tea after shopping along State Street. There’s an extensive list of teas to choose from, so be sure to look through carefully and choose something different. Can’t do tea time? You can also buy their tea online.

Helbachs Coffee House, which is located outside of downtown, was probably my favorite coffee shop because of the Euro-inspired decor and comfortable seating—the smooth flavor of the dirty chai is worth sipping.


You know you’re in the midwest when The New York Times seal of approval is noted last…

Lunch, Drinks & Dinner

Madison has an array of cuisine choices, so it would do your visit an injustice to only stick with beer, burgers and cheese curds.
With that being said, if you want to experience a Madison classic, head to Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry (pictured) for their award-winning burgers. Start off your meal with a cold beer and the Sample Basket, which includes a trove of deep-fried treasures—french fries, cheese curds, deep-fried mushrooms, onion rings and mac and cheese wedges. I ordered the Basil Mozzarella burger, but the Melting Pot is their best-seller. 
Eating at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry is worth it, even if you’re a devout worshipper of green kombucha, zucchini pasta and whole grain bread—let alone any bread, really. Being around the happy atmosphere and helpful staff are reminders to New Englanders that smiling and common courtesy are always appreciated.
If you love more sophisticated atmospheres with a contemporary feel—seductive, dim lighting and all—put Merchant, Cask & Ale, Lucille’s and Brocach on your food and drink itinerary. I didn’t have time to go to Graze, but it is the restaurant more commonly recommended among travel blogs and magazines. 
Merchant is made for the farm-to-table lovers and wine aficionados. Enjoy a romantic evening for two seated at a wooden high-tops with artisan finishes, savoring a small basket of fried local cheese curds, braised lamb, moules frites and your favorite cocktails (pictured).

Cask & Ale, a new bar on State Street, is a homey den for whiskey lovers—they have over 200 different types of whiskey, not to mention a mean cocktail menu. Ask for the John Kerouac and see where the night takes you with the lively bar scene.

Brocach has been renovated to reflect the image of an updated Irish pub with sleek, modern details—order their Irish coffee as the perfect nightcap or second-wind. 

If you want the ultimate atmosphere while you’re bar hopping, find Lucille and stake a spot with your friends in the basement vault-turned-lounge. The best part? There’s no cell service, so you have to keep up your conversations.*

*Don’t worry, you will survive if you can’t upload to Snapchat or Instagram for a few hours—that’s why you can take videos and pictures, save them to your Camera Roll and upload them in the Uber back to your hotel. 

Another pleasant surprise about Madison’s food scene is the presence of ramen noodle bars (see Boru Noodle Bar in Newport, RI and Mecha Noodle Bar in South Norwalk, CT). 
Ramen Kid, another recent downtown addition, satisfies the need for a quick, no-frills hot lunch. I ordered a cup of green tea and the appetizer and ramen combination—fried gyoza and spicy tonkotsu ramen—and fell into a complacent food coma.
Umami Ramen & Dumpling Bar has a next-level atmosphere compared to ramen noodle bars that I’ve encountered so far—Madison’s first restaurant to offer authentic Japanese ramen is in a completely renovated 1880’s historic home. They offer a special brunch ramen (pictured) which has a lighter broth than the typical ramen better suited for dinner.  
If you can’t make it to the restaurant, you can visit Umami’s food truck at the Capitol Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. 

Bring your A-game to the Capitol Square Farmer’s Market

Weekend To-Do’s

Walk through the Capitol Square Farmer’s Market. The scale of this farmer’s market is something you have to see for yourself—it’s an infinite square of local, organic produce, flowers and cheese that wraps around the entire block surrounding the capitol building.

After the typical Wisconsin souvenir shops, the shopping selection in downtown is eclectic, if not non-existent—there is an Urban Outfitters downtown, but Hilldale is where you’ll find Anthropologie or Free People.  The two local shops I loved were Fromagination, the perfect place to pick up artisan cheese and put together gift baskets, and Earthbound Trading Co., a boho outpost with eco-friendly apparel, funky jewelry and alternative gifts.

Explore the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus—time your visit so that after you tour the Chazen Museum of Art, you can walk a few blocks over to see the sunset on the Union terrace overlooking Lake Mendota. Walk the entire terrace to find all of the colored chairs that characterize Madtown.

Be sure to drive outside of Madison to check out the Wollersheim Winery & Distillery in Prairie du Sac. The history behind the winery is absolutely fascinating—the winery’s historic wine cellar (pictured) has been on the property since the 1840s when it was built by the original founder, Agoston Haraszthy, before he eventually left for the California gold rush. Haraszthy did not return to his Wisconsin vineyard, but he would continue his passion for wine in California and left his incredible legacy as “the father of viticulture.”

The winery changed hands between several families and generations before it was purchased by Robert and JoAnn Wollersheim in the 1970s, the family responsible for reviving the winery to what it has become today. Wollersheim Winery & Distillery is now owned and operated by the second generation of the Wollersheim family—Robert and JoAnn’s eldest daughter, Julia Wollersheim, and her husband Philippe Coquard of Beaujolais, France.

A tour of the winery highlights parts of the estate—the restored historic wine cellar, the tank room, a section of the basement cellar, etc.—and ends with complimentary flight tasting with your tour group.

If you want to try additional flights or wines, you will have the option to purchase tokens after the complimentary flight ends. My favorites were their best-selling Prairie Fume, a semi-dry white wine with citrus and tropical fruit highlights, and the ice wine.

After your tour and tasting at Wollersheim, grab a post-wine tasting meal at the Blue Spoon Cafe—it’s a five minute drive from the winery, located right in the heart of Prairie du Sac’s quaint downtown.

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