Weekend Getaway: The Grown-Ups’ Guide to Downtown Madison

It’s time to redo — with style — the Madison experiences of your youth. Here’s what to see and do in downtown Madison.

Whether you’re headed to Wisconsin’s capital city for a Badgers football game at Camp Randall, a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni event or simply to seek a day trip, know that downtown Madison is not what you experienced in your 20s. While, yes, State Street Brats and other bars with nightly beer specials still anchor State Street, and options for cheap eats are plentiful, a new wave of sophistication is percolating.

Graduate Madison Hotel in Madison
Photo by Graduate Madison Hotel

Begin your weekend by checking into Graduate Madison Hotel, a boutique property that opened in late 2015 where Langdon Street meets State Street. Campy, preppy décor reminiscent of college campuses and the North Woods translates to, in the lobby, vintage wooden tennis rackets and cloth suitcases, plus a wooden canoe suspended from the ceiling. Rooms are whimsical and modern, with plaid motifs and UW-Madison relics, like framed student-campaign posters and felt pendants.

Portage Pi on the street level serves craft beer, morning pastries, espresso drinks and hand pies filled with sweet and savory ingredients. Camp Trippalindee on the rooftop brings together all those items that are probably at your cabin up North (camp lanterns, board games and vinyl-seat chairs) in a casual dining room flaunting Lake Mendota views. Food ranges from an avocado grain bowl to burgers and brats.

For a nightcap, check out another new hotel, open since the spring: AC Hotel by Marriott Madison Downtown. Friday nights are hopping at Eno Vino Wine Bar & Bistro (there’s another location on Madison’s West Side) with 200 selections of wine and tapas that include artisan-cheese plates (an upgrade from the deep-fried cheese curds you ate at bars in your 20s?). Walls of windows frame a stunning sunset over the State Capitol building.

Start your first full day in Madison with a visit to the Memorial Union two blocks away from Graduate Madison Hotel. The union introduced a new look in September — after five years of renovations — that includes upgraded food-and-beverage venues like pizzas baked to order and a grab-and-go deli. The cavernous and cozy Der Rathskeller is still there (whew) and so is the Daily Scoop, selling scoops of ice-cream crafted on campus at the dairy plant. Grab a cup of coffee in Peet’s Coffee & Tea and take a stroll in the morning. Alumni Park, on the side of Memorial Union next to the Red Gym, opened in October. Originally in the 1908 Campus Master Plan, the 34,000-square-foot park has at last come to fruition.

Continue your stroll down State Street to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, commonly referred to as MMoCA. While in this new facility since 2006, the glass-cube building has introduced a new eye-catching design to State Street. Through Dec. 3, Rashaad Newsome’s multi-media works are on exhibit and “Big” is an exhibit (through May 6, 2018) celebrating works in the permanent collection by Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and more.

L'Etoile in Madison
Photo by Samantha Egelhoff

Close out the day by dining like a grown-up at L’Etoile, a fine-dining, farm-to-table restaurant right on Capitol Square. One of downtown Madison’s most celebrated chefs at the moment is Tory Miller (2012 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Midwest) who took over L’Etoile when chef-founder Odessa Piper retired in 2005. Since then he’s opened three more eateries under Deja Restaurant Group: Graze, Sujeo and Estrellón. Dine at the original one as a splurge meal and you won’t regret it. The nightly seven-course chef’s-tasting menu shifts with the seasons.

Sunday morning, before returning home, browse in some of downtown Madison’s newest boutiques. (Or pop into some of your old favorites, like The Soap Opera, an apothecary-like toiletries shop; A Room of One’s Own Bookstore; and Art Gecko, retailing clothing, jewelry and more from far-flung spots like Nepal.) After all, you’re no longer on a college-student’s budget! Fromagination is one of the country’s best artisan-cheese shop, selling small wedges of cheese that are perfect for a couple or solo traveler to enjoy as a snack. Many are from Wisconsin. Perhaps pick up selections for your next dinner party?



A seasoned writer, and a former editor at Milwaukee Home & Fine Living, Kristine Hansen launched her wine-writing career in 2003, covering wine tourism, wine and food pairings, wine trends and quirky winemakers. Her wine-related articles have published in Wine Enthusiast, Sommelier Journal, Uncorked (an iPad-only magazine), FoodRepublic.com, CNN.com and Whole Living (a Martha Stewart publication). She's trekked through vineyards and chatted up winemakers in many regions, including Chile, Portugal, California (Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast), Canada, Oregon and France (Bordeaux and Burgundy). While picking out her favorite wine is kind of like asking which child you like best, she will admit to being a fan of Oregon Pinot Noir and even on a sub-zero winter day won't turn down a glass of zippy Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.