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Things to do in Madison Wi - must-do local activities and our favorite road trips | Thyme is Honey

After we announced our move from Madison, Wisconsin to Minneapolis I’ve gotten a lot of “It’s so great you’re moving closer to home!”…which made me realize that a lot of people are confused about where Madison is. Our new home in Minneapolis will actually only be 10 miles closer to my hometown (147 miles versus 157), so indeed it is just *slightly* closer, but it will also come with fighting city traffic heading south out of the metro, where as we currently amble across the Wisconsin countryside and eastern Iowa.

Our move will, however, put us closer to a lot of our friends and our siblings (and closer to my husband’s parents), so it does feel like a homecoming of sorts, but it made me realize that Madison doesn’t pop into a lot of midwesterner’s minds when they are considering local vacation hot spots. I had never really visited Madison until we lived here, so I can’t blame them. Before we leave this beautiful city I wanted to share some of the things we love most about it, as well as some local road trips that quickly became some of our favorite getaways. If you live in or are planning to visit Madison, Wisconsin, here are my MUST DOs for you! Enjoy!

  1. Canoe + Camp on the Wisconsin River! This was by far our favorite activity while living in Madison, we did it dozens of times and we already have a date on the calendar to come back and do a trip this summer with friends. The Wisconsin River is all sand-bottomed from Sauk City all the way to the Iowa border. The entire thing is dotted with gorgeous beaches and sandbars. There’s no better way to spend a summer weekend in Wisconsin. Pack your tent, your cooler of beer and don’t forget your dog! You can arrange transportation and equipment rental through Wisconsin River Outings. We typically do their 5-6 hours trips, camping overnight in the middle, but last year we also did a 60-mile trip and loved it!Our best tip is to use a Rubbermaid tub and packing cubes to organize all of your stuff (food, tools, cooking equipment, clothes etc) and then put sleepings bags and tents in garbage bags (double them up if you’re nervous). These pack nicely into the canoe and you’ll still have room for a cooler.

    Our go-to route is usually Muscoda to Boscobel, but anything that passes through Spring Green is also gorgeous! If you want to make it super simple you can start in Sauk City, which is really close to Madison, and end in Arena. The con of the Sauk City to Arena trip is that you have to wait at the end and get transported back upstream, but if you do the Muscoda to Boscobel trip you go to the outfitter in Boscobel, but then they transport you, the canoe, and your gear up river to Muscoda. Then you paddle down and when you arrive back in Boscobel your car will be there waiting for you. We preferred this because we could get off the river whenever we wanted and weren’t tied to an exit time. This stretch of river also tended to be a bit less busy.
    Wisconsin River Canoe Camping

  2. Have a beer (and a shot) at the Missouri Tavern – This is a must-see if you love a good Wisconsin Dive Bar. This was the birthplace of Apple Pie shots. Other favorite Madison bars include Mickey’s Tavern and Mason Lounge.
  3. Attend the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning and don’t leave without spicy cheese bread. Madison is home to the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the US. If you plan to be here on a summer weekend you can’t miss the opportunity to check it out. It is conveniently arranged around the state capitol. Make sure you track down Stella’s Spicy Cheese bread and grab a loaf to enjoy while you browse the other booths.
  4. Visit the Memorial Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin – I hesitate to call this a “cliche” Madison experience, although it can seem that way. I resisted embracing this tradition at first because it seemed like it would mostly be students and alumni (of which I was neither), but The Terrace is truly a community gathering place, open to all, and they host a lot of great events and concerts there throughout the summer. Sitting down with a pitcher of beer and a view of the sailboats is a great way to start a Saturday evening. (I once wrote a piece for Lakeshore Magazine highlighting a fun Saturday activity that takes you from Monona Terrace, through the Farmer’s Market, down state street and ends at Memorial Union Terrace, read it here)
  5. Hike to picnic point – This is another thing that we really procrastinated on. We didn’t go here until this year, and wished we’d gone sooner. It’s a great little hike right in the middle of the city, and the view at the end is definitely worth it. There are also several fire pits along the shoreline that you can rent to have a bonfire or cookout. Something we should have done!
  6. Road trip to Appleton, WI for Mile of Music – We love live music, so discovering the Mile of Music Fest in Appleton, Wisconsin, was like hitting the jackpot. For the first weekend of August the small town converts to the Nashville of Wisconsin (sort of) every venue, street corner, or vacant park in the city turns into a music venue. They host hundreds of artists for the weekend and the entire event is free. The festival is organized by musician Cory Chisel (we’re longtime fans, he was our very first concert together), who does a great job of finding up and coming talent as well as bringing in big names.
  7. Spend a summer weekend in Milwaukee and kayak through the city! Madison might be an underrated Midwestern city but I also think Milwaukee doesn’t get enough credit! It is absolutely one of my favorite cities in the country. Last summer we did an entire profile of traveling Milwaukee with your dog, during which we kayaked the city’s system of canals, visiting bars and breweries along the way, all with Walter in tow. We had a blast! Check out this post for a full itinerary and more details or visit Milwaukee Kayak Company for more information on kayaking!
  8. Visit Lion’s Den Gorge – This is a quick road trip from Madison, but is also great to tack onto any trip to or from Milwaukee, since it’s just a quick drive up the Lake Michigan shoreline. The park is full of hiking trails. The views from the high cliffs are amazing, but the beaches and turquoise water steal the show! We also wrote more about this in our post about Milwaukee.
  9. Hike (or rock climb) at Devil’s Lake and stop to peruse the beer list at The Barn. This was an annual Memorial Day tradition for us the entire time we lived in Madison. Each year we rock climbed with friends in Devils Lake State Park (some of the best rock climbing in the Midwest) and then would enjoy dinner and drinks at The Barn after a long day of hiking and climbing. Their beer list is literally a binder. Thank me later.
  10. Tour the Epic Campus in Verona, Wi. Oh, this one might sound lame, and trust me when I say that we’ve gotten raised eyebrows from more than one guest when we suggested spending a beautiful Saturday afternoon touring my husband’s work! But, we’ve never had anyone leave disappointed, in fact we’ve had guests who have claimed it was the best part of their trip (even some international guests who road tripped across the entire country later told us that visiting Epic was their trip highlight)! Epic is an electronic medical records company based out of Verona, Wisconsin (just a few mile south of Madison). The campus is around 800 acres and is filled with beautiful gardens and local artwork (so many beautiful installations outdoors). Each building has a special theme, some of my favorites include the Harry Potter building (called the Library), the Alice in Wonderland Building (called Alice), and the Lord of the Rings decor in Deep Space. If you can get hooked up with an employee (there’s over 10,000 of them) for a personal tour you can see inside and outside—otherwise it’s worth the quick drive just to visit the gardens and see the buildings from the outside. It will blow your mind and I feel very lucky that the campus was like our second home, where we enjoyed picnics and long walks with our dog for the past 5 years.

Things to do in Madison, Wisconsin

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  1. Franziska says:

    My heart literally ached reading this, especially for the Terrace (my personal favorite spot in all of Madison). Ugh, now all I want is to come back!

  2. Lisa-Ashley says:

    Love the Missouri Tavern!! Go on Packers game day for a free Apple, Cherry, or Cow Pie shot when the Pack scores.

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