24 Hours in Madison

Tips from a local on what to do and where to go if you find yourself with only 24 hours to spend Madison, Wisconsin. (Though we do suggest spending longer than that.)

Words by Shelby Deering. Images by Josh Haroldson.

In the early ’80s, Lands’ End settled in the heart of the Midwest – Dodgeville, Wisconsin, a stone’s throw from Madison in a bucolic region of friendly people and delicious food. If you ever make it up to Wisconsin’s fair capital (and we think you should, as we feel pretty strongly about our home), here are the things to do, places to go and things to eat on your visit. (Hint: one of them is sausage.)

6:45 a.m. – Wake Up for the Dane County Farmers’ Market
Yeah, we know it’s early. But you only have 24 hours and a lot to see. Dress in layers – even in the middle of July, the wind can have a chill that comes off the lakes. A cable knit sweater paired with a striped tee and shorts is the standard uniform for where you’re going – the Farmer’s Market.

There’s no better way to start your day in Madison. Booths wrap around the Capitol building, tempting passerby with spicy cheese bread and baked goods. Take advantage of the samples and offerings (it’s never too early for squeaky cheese curds), but save room for breakfast.

8:23 a.m. – Breakfast at Dough Baby Bakery
Doughnuts count as breakfast, right? Dough Baby Bakery is a short walk down State Street. Their selection changes monthly, but it’s always something fun like peanut butter cookie doughnuts or “dirt cup” doughnuts. (The intoxicating aroma of all these freshly baked delicacies is served up at no extra charge.) Nearly everything they make is organic and locally sourced. Which is nearly all you can ask of a doughnut.

10:05 a.m. – Shop State Street
Linger over breakfast (if Madison had an unofficial motto, it might be slow down) and pop into boutiques just as they start opening. The pulse of the city can be experienced on State Street. Pop into Paul’s Bookstore, which, at over 60 years in business, is a treasure trove of used and out of print books. Stop to watch the troubadours and performers… State Street is the best spot for people-watching. Meander. Take your time.

11:36 a.m. – MMoCA
Walk back up State Street and head toward the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art – MMoCA (pronounced “muh-mocha”) by locals. The huge art installations and extraordinary paintings are just as impressive as the floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view of State Street. After that you ought to find an excuse to get to the rooftop restaurant, Fresco. It might be too early for cocktails, but a coffee and an appetizer might hit the spot.


1:05 p.m. – Lunch at the Original Sausage Shop
Take a drive from downtown to nearby Regent Street for lunch at the famed Original Sausage Shop. Fondly referred to as the OSS, you can’t go wrong with the Banh Mi – Vietnamese pork sausage served with pickled veggies and chili mayo – or the Mac Dog – a bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with mac and cheese. And non-meat eaters, rejoice! They have vegan sausage.

2:13 p.m. – Memorial Library
It’s time for some, shall we say, refined culture. Wander through the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Memorial Library, located at the far end of State Street. It’s a haven for literature lovers and – thanks to the Grecian columns, the classic green desk lamps and the stacks and stacks of books – is a sight to behold. Plus it gets you out of the sun for a bit.

4:00 p.m. – Monona Bay
For those who need time to relax, Monona Bay is the best place to watch the boats go by. For those who need a little more action, you could use this time to hop in a kayak or on a paddleboard. Block one (or several) unhurried hours here.

7:31 p.m. – Barriques
By now you’re probably ready for a pint, which means you ought to head to Barriques. The Park Street location has ever-changing local and craft beers on tap that pair well with the sounds of the waves lapping at the shore of the lake and sunset over the bay.

8:31 p.m. – Dinner and a nightcap at The Old Fashioned
There isn’t a more quintessential Madison watering hole than The Old Fashioned. There are 50 beers on tap (and no, that’s not a challenge) and, of course, Old Fashioneds in more ways than your run-of-the-mill bourbon variety. If you’re looking to mix it up, try the apple brandy or orange rum version. It would also behoove you to go on a Friday for their “Fish Fry Friday,” where they serve up classic Wisconsin fish fry fare – beer-battered cod.