Is Madison a great college town? Yes. But the city has so much more to offer beyond the usual college experiences.
Madison, Wisconsin, has a bit of a reputation as a party town for college kids – after all, it has been named the country’s Greatest College Town by ESPN, Sports Illustrated and USA Today. But while Wisconsin’s capital certainly has a fun, youthful energy, that’s not all Madison has to offer. A vibrant town with an eclectic mix of folks, this is a place that embraces the outdoors and its location on an isthmus between two lakes. Maybe the best thing about Madison is how well it serves its different populations. Sure, there are stellar late night eats on State Street and many spots to grab a cheap beer, but there are also James Beard-nominated restaurants and swanky cocktail spots for the post-grad population.
UW-Madison students tend to stay in a small area near campus, but there’s so much more to see, experience and enjoy in Madison. Since Madison was just named one of Livability Top 10 Best Places for Recent College Grads, we wanted to highlight some of our favorite things to do around town that feel a little more grown-up.
1. Amazing Food
In college, students grab a slice at Ian’s. Post-college? Head to L’Etoile.
The food scene in Madison is one of the most delicious (and underrated) in the country. You could eat your way around the world just strolling down State Street, and the city definitely has cheap eats covered, from amazing food trucks in front of the library to, of course, pizza at Ian’s.
But once you’re off campus and earning a real paycheck, some higher-end dining options are not to be missed. The list of James Beard-nominated spots in town is growing and they’re just the tip of the great-eating iceberg. L’Etoile, Graze, A Pig in a Fur Coat, Heritage Tavern, Forequarter, Restaurant Muramoto and more tempt you out to take advantage of the fresh, local ingredients at your fingertips being made into some of the best, most interesting dishes in the country.
And hey, if you’re still hungry afterwards, there’s nothing wrong with grabbing a late-night slice.
2. Outdoor Activities
When you were on campus, getting outside meant Bascom Hill or the UW Arboretum. Post-college? Check out the 21 State Parks, forests and recreation areas within 50 miles of the city.
From the more well-known Devil’s Lake and Governor Dodge State Parks to less-visited but still amazing Lake Kegonsa State Park and New Glarus Woods, there are simply a ton of amazing natural resources within a short drive of the city. Expand the radius to just 100 miles, and it doubles the amount of state natural spaces that can be reached from Madison – all in less than two hours. Add in Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, plus Lake Michigan, Lake Geneva and a whole plethora of smaller lakes and the Lower Wisconsin River Parkway, and the amount of things that can be done outdoors is pretty much endless. Camp, hike, bike, canoe, kayak, rock climb, fish, swim and basically enjoy all the abundant and beautiful natural resources that surround you.
3. The Theater Scene
Trade general admission crowds at the Orpheum for more refined theater.
Madison has no shortage of amazing performing arts companies and venues and by the end of college, you’ve probably even been to the Overture Center a time or two. Once you’ve leveled up a bit, consider heading to the renowned American Players Theater near Spring Green or checking out one of the awesome independent theater companies in town. Madison’s quirky and off-beat vibe translates into a wonderful arts scene and sticking only to State Street will mean you miss out on a lot.
4. Great Jobs
As an undergrad, work meant an hourly job with flexible hours around your class schedule. Post-graduation, take advantage of Madison’s great job market.
There’s no shortage of fantastic job opportunities in and around the Madison area. Epic and American Family Insurance are two of the biggest employers, but there are quite a few industries in town looking for an infusion of new graduates and brilliant minds. From UW Hospitals to Meriter and Dean Healthcare, the medical industry is a large employer in the area, as is insurance. Great Lakes Higher Ed. Corp. continues to expand and add top talent. There’s always a need for smart, creative folks at the more than two dozen breweries, wineries and distilleries in the area.
The bottom line? There are a lot of options for quality employment in the Madison region once you have your degree – it’s a great place to begin and grow your career.
5. Local Produce
While in school, shopping fresh and local meant a quick trip to the Square for a handful of fruits and vegetables. Post-college, expand your horizons to more locally-owned shops for some of the freshest, highest quality groceries to stock your shelves.
You’ll still go to the farmer’s market, but you’ll walk away with a lot more food (hey, non-student budget!) and add in trips to Willy Street Co-Op and Capital Centre Market. And while I’ll never turn down a Stella’s cheese bread, you can also diversify by visiting Madison Sourdough and Bloom Bake Shop for some of the very best baked goods you can find anywhere, in any state. Madison is close to all kinds of fresh ingredients. It’s not easy to take advantage of that while stuck on campus, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t join a CSA and find a local farmer for fresh eggs, meat and more once you’ve graduated.
6. Better Beer
Once you’ve upgraded your checking account, there’s no excuse to be drinking cheap, generic brand beer anymore. For just a few more dollars, you can tap into Madison’s amazing beer scene.
We’ve all been there as college students. No one is judging you for drinking what’s cheap and abundantly available. But once you graduate, it’s time to take advantage of Madison’s world-class brewery scene. Plus, this is Wisconsin, so even a pricey beer is still totally reasonable and with all the breweries in town and throughout the state, you’re bound to find one that floats your boat. The Great Dane is a great way to ease yourself into trying new things and finding out whether you love malty mouthfuls or you’re a hophead. From there, check out the numerous tap rooms or one of the great beer bars that have rotating tap lists that will boggle your mind. A couple of our favorites? Brasserie V and The Malt House.
7. Beautiful Surroundings
The UW campus is spectacular and walkable, but once you’ve got a car and some space away from campus, don’t be afraid to explore.
Check out the historical and revamped downtown Main Street in Baraboo, find some art to decorate your new place among the artist’s colonies in Spring Green and Mazomanie or hit the road for a cheese road trip that’ll swing down and around to Monroe and take you to more award-winning producers than you can count all within an hour or two.