Living in Madison

The University of Wisconsin–Madison

A flowerbed planted in the shape of a "W" in front of Agricultural Hall.
Iconic flowerbeds greet students and staff in front of Agricultural Hall.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has long been recognized as one of America’s great universities. A public, land-grant institution, UW–Madison offers a complete spectrum of liberal arts studies, professional programs, and student activities. Many of our programs are hailed as world leaders in instruction, research, and public service.

The university traces its roots to a clause in the Wisconsin Constitution, which decreed that the state should have a prominent public university. In 1848, Wisconsin’s first governor, Nelson Dewey, signed the act that formally created the university. The first class, with 17 students, met in a Madison school building on February 5, 1849.

From those humble beginnings, the university has grown into a large, diverse community, with over 40,000 students enrolled each year, including more than 9,200 graduate students. These students represent every state in the nation as well as countries from around the globe.

UW–Madison is the oldest and largest campus in the University of Wisconsin System, a statewide network of 13 comprehensive universities, 13 two-year branch campuses, and an extension service. One of two doctorate-granting universities in the system, UW–Madison’s specific mission is to provide “a learning environment in which faculty, staff and students can discover, examine critically, preserve and transmit the knowledge, wisdom and values that will help ensure the survival of this and future generations and improve the quality of life for all.”

The university achieves these ends through innovative programs of research, teaching, and public service. Throughout its history, UW–Madison has sought to bring the power of learning into the daily lives of its students through innovations such as residential learning communities and service-learning opportunities. Graduate students who serve as teaching assistants during their time here play an essential role in this learning environment. Students research is also vital to the campus mission, having led to life-improving inventions from more fuel-efficient engines to cutting-edge genetic therapies.

The Wisconsin Idea

Here at UW–Madison, we’re motivated by a tradition known as the Wisconsin Idea, described by university President Charles Van Hise in 1904 as the compelling need to carry “the beneficent influence of the university…to every home in the state.” The Wisconsin Idea signifies the principle that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom. It permeates the university’s work and helps forge close working relationships among university faculty and students and the state’s communities, industries and government.

The City of Madison

To learn more about city government and services in Madison, visit the City of Madison website. It offers information about trash removal, parking, snow removal, special events, schools, and the mayor’s office.

Weather

Snow covers the ground and some walkways in front of Bascom Hall.
Students and pedestrians walk along snow-covered sidewalks near Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin–Madison during a winter storm that brought several inches of snow to campus.

For many people, one of the first things that come to mind about Madison is the weather. Generally known for very cold and snowy winters, you might be surprised by how sunny Madison is throughout the year – and how hot it is in the summer.

Thick gloves, scarves, and hats are essential in the winter. Long underwear is also a good investment. From November to about April it can be quite chilly, and most students quickly learn to layer their clothes to adjust to varying temperatures.

In Madison, people appreciate the weather and take advantage of it. In general, Madisonians are very active, participating in winter sports like skiing, ice skating, and snowshoeing. Once the weather gets warmer, outdoor activities abound. From sailing on the lakes, to biking through the Arboretum, to participating in the numerous local festivals each year, people are out enjoying the spring and summer.

Shopping Local

The biggest small town you’ll ever live in, Madison has all the usual players, including big-name convenience stores, grocery stores, and restaurants. But dive deeper and you’ll find that the city has a thriving scene for green-thinking, socially conscious, and community-oriented businesses and services.

Co-ops

Madison is home to a number of local co-operatives that help give the city its personality. Co-ops are owned and run by the people who shop there, and the customers, as members, can actively participate in the organization of the business, helping to determine store policies and even influencing the products that appear on the shelves.

Anyone can shop at co-ops, but members receive extra benefits and members-only discounts.

Willy Street Co-op: Opened in 1974, the Willy Street Co-op (often referred to simply as “the co-op”) is the largest member-owned cooperative in Madison with over 20,000 members. With locations on the east, north, and west sides of Madison, they sell fresh, local, organic, and natural foods, and have expanded from their roots to offer more products and cooking classes.

Regent Market Co-op: Formerly the Regent Food Market, the Regent Market Co-op became a cooperative in 1998 with support from the Willy Street Co-op and Madison Community Co-ops. This co-op serves the Monroe and Regent Street neighborhoods on the near west side.

Community Pharmacy is a local co-op with books, homeopathic remedies, natural body care, and organic supplies from vitamins and teas to beauty products.

Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA)

Many grad students are interested in how the choices they make about food could affect the regional economy and health of the land. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs create partnerships between local farmers and local consumers where you, the consumer, can become a member of a farm.

CSA members pay their farms an annual fee to meet the farm’s operating expenses; in exchange, members receive a weekly portion of the farm’s produce. Not only is this a great way to support local farms and socially and environmentally-sustainable production practices, but it is also a great way to meet new people and receive an amazing variety of really fresh, organic food throughout the growing season. Depending on the farm, the growing season could be as long as eight months, from May to December.

To find out more about CSA farms and health insurance discounts in the area, contact the Fair Share CSA Coalition, which maintains an annually-updated map to all the participating farms.

Get Outside & Get Active

Madison Area Parks: Surrounded by 15,429 acres of lakes and over 6,000 acres of parkland, Madison is a city where outside activities are supported and encouraged. The Parks Division maintains over 260 parks, several public swimming pools, 12 beaches, 4 premier golf courses, 8 off-leash dog exercise areas, several community-recreation centers, an award-winning botanical garden and conservatory, and 14 conservation parks. In the winter, the Parks Division maintains the outdoor ice rinks and the cross-country ski trails.

Hoofers: The Wisconsin Hoofers club is one of the oldest and largest outdoor recreational organizations in the country. Founded in 1931 as an outing club, Hoofers has grown from a single club to having over 3,000 members in its six separate clubs: Mountaineering, Outing, Riding, Sailing, Scuba, and Ski & Snowboard.

Hoofers got its name from a person being “on the hoof” or moving on their own power. Since its inception, Hoofers’ members have prided themselves on their ability to provide quality instruction and safe, reliable equipment for members to use. Many graduate students participate in Hoofers because it gives them an opportunity to meet new people while engaging in a recreational activity.

What To Do in Madison

UW Sports

A row of drummers in marching band uniform smile to the crowd.
Members of the UW Marching Band perform during Fifth Quarter, a time-honored tradition at Badger football games.

At UW–Madison, some believe that the student experience isn’t complete until one learns about the proud tradition of Wisconsin athletics. From basketball to wrestling, over 20 men’s and women’s teams compete each year.

Students who are interested in getting a unique gameday experience should consider attending one of Wisconsin’s home football games in Camp Randall stadium. The red-clad fans, boisterous students, and UW Marching Band contribute to an experience you won’t forget. Men’s hockey and men’s basketball games typically bring in the next largest crowds at the Kohl Center. Women’s volleyball games at the UW Fieldhouse are always exciting and fun to watch.

Students can also attend certain games for free, thanks to many promotions offered by the Athletic Department. For more information and to enter the student lottery for season tickets, visit uwbadgers.com.

Events Around Town

Orange, red, and yellow leaves on trees in autumn

Fall

Taste of Madison: Local restaurants showcase tastes of their fare in this weekend-long event on Capitol Square.

Madison Marathon: Conquer the capitol on this route, usually taking place in the cooler weather of November.

Wisconsin Book Festival: This four-day festival, in partnership with the Madison Public Library Foundation, brings authors to Madison for events at the downtown Central Library and other venues.

Frost forms on a tree branch

Winter

Polar Bear Plunge: For those gutsy enough, plunge into the icy water of Lake Mendota for this popular fundraiser benefitting the Special Olympics Wisconsin.

Winter Carnival: The Wisconsin Union Directorate and Wisconsin Hoofers host the Winter Carnival on campus to challenge everyone to embrace the cold and play outside. When it’s time to warm up, they also provide hot chocolate and food specials inside.

Red, yellow, and purple flowers bloom

Spring

Wisconsin Film Festival: The largest university-produced film festival in the nation lives right here in Madison. Attend one (or a few) of more than 150 film screenings each April, with diverse film offerings that showcase everything from the classics to independent films by Wisconsin filmmakers.

Crazylegs Classic: An annual tradition since 1982, Crazylegs supports UW Athletics. More than 20,000 runners and walkers join in this event either on their own or as part of a team.

Tables and chairs outdoords at the terrace, covered with rain, take on an orange hue in the sunset after a storm.

Summer

Art Fair on the Square: Artists of all mediums exhibit their work while fairgoers enjoy music, entertainment, and food carts. More than 200,000 people flock to Capitol Square for this annual event.

Concerts on the Square: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra provides free, outdoor concerts on Wednesday evenings in the summer. Bring a blanket and a picnic, then sit back and enjoy the music.

Live on King Street: This concert series takes place outdoors in the summer in downtown Madison, just off Capitol Square. The concerts are free and run on Friday nights from June through September.

Make Music Madison: Part of a worldwide celebration on the Summer Solstice, city spaces fill with musicians of all ages, creeds, and musical genres in this city-wide outdoor music festival.

Check out the Annual Events calendar on the City of Madison website for more.

19 Fun Things To Do Around Madison

  1. Visit the Henry Vilas Zoo. It’s free, close to campus, and is a state-of-the-art conservation facility and zoo. The zoo is open year-round and is surrounded by open parkland. Accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and part of the Species Survival Plan program, Henry Vilas Zoo is one of a handful of free, accredited zoos nationwide.
  2. See the university’s collection of artwork at the Chazen Museum of Art. Admission is free, and the galleries are quiet and pleasant. One of the country’s leading university art museums, the Chazen houses a permanent collection of 16,000 works of art dating from 2300 BC to the present day. Since it is located right on campus, dropping by the museum for a few minutes or a few hours makes for a nice break.
  3. Volunteer. Consider this an opportunity to help yourself while helping others. Volunteering is a great way to put your life in perspective. Contact the Morgridge Center for Public Service if you’re not sure where to start.
  4. Tour our beautiful State Capitol. The State Capitol building is probably the most prominent building in the city. Did you know that the dome on the capitol is the second largest in the U.S., aside from Washington, D.C.? The capitol building is open to the public. You can walk in and wander anytime, and free tours are offered daily.
  5. Washburn Observatory on a grassy green hill in front of a sunny, blue sky.
    Sunlight shines from behind Washburn Observatory during autumn.

    Gaze at the stars at Washburn Observatory. Opened in 1878 by funds donated by former governor Cadwallader Washburn, the observatory sits on a campus hill overlooking Lake Mendota. On a clear summer night, a visit to the observatory and a look at the constellations can’t be beat.

  6. Discover the Arboretum, one of the campus’s most celebrated features. This 1,260-acre arboretum is located just south of campus and is very easy to get to. The long, winding road leading to the entrance from the northeast is perfect for a bike ride or jog. Whether you want to conduct research, volunteer, or just appreciate the beauty of nature, the Arboretum is a gem in Madison.
  7. Go out to eat. Explore something you’ve never tried. Madison is the perfect place for it, and only its most upscale restaurants are very expensive. If you want to try a good restaurant but don’t want to pay for dinner, go at lunchtime. They often offer the same selections, but in smaller portions and lower prices.
  8. Take in the scenery on the rooftop of Monona Terrace. Catch the panoramic view of Lake Monona, the State Capitol, and the near east and west sides of the city in this free public space. Rooftop tables also make for a great space to meet up with friends or study.
  9. Walk around campus. Don’t just go from your department to the library and back – explore some of the buildings. Go to the 13th floor of the Educational Sciences building on Johnson Street to get a view of the city. Walk through historic Bascom and try to get a glimpse of the Chancellor. Check out North Hall, the oldest building on campus. Visit the free Geology Museum in Weeks Hall, taking special notice of the mastodon skeleton found not far from Madison.
  10. Bike. Trails weave throughout the city, so chances are you’re not too far from a good starting point. Ask around for some good suggestions, or just get on your bike and discover your own favorite trail. This Dane County Bicycle Map can help.
  11. Discover a local bookstore. Up and down State Street, as well as in other areas of the city, local bookstores sell new and used books. A slice of local Madison, A Room of One’s Own at 315 W. Gorham offers a great selection and great customer service. State Street features Paul’s Bookstore (670 State St.) for used books and Browzer Bookshop (668 State St.) for rare and out-of-print used books. On Monroe Street, Mystery to Me (1863 Monroe St.) specializes in mystery novels but also shelves books outside the genre.
  12. A reflective pond with koi fish visible underneath lily pads.
    Koi fish swim in a pond amid lily pads at the Allen Centennial Garden.

    Visit beautiful Allen Centennial Gardens. This gorgeous garden is located on the west side of campus and is open to the public. It’s only 2.5 acres, but it provides a wonderful setting to relax or go for a stroll. The gardens also play host to periodic wellness workshops where you can de-stress with hands-on, nature-inspired activities.

  13. Walk the Lakeshore Path to Picnic Point. It’s approximately 3.1 miles from the Memorial Union to Picnic Point, so remember you have to walk back. The Lakeshore Nature Preserve that encompasses the path is intertwined with campus, and offers a nice little forest in a prime location. Plus, the views from Picnic Point are worth the walk.
  14. Explore Olbrich Botanical Gardens, 16 acres of lush landscaping that creatively combines blooms, grasses, and more. Admission is free to the gardens, where you can lounge with a book on one of the benches tucked away in picturesque nooks. The covered Bolz Conservatory houses exotic plants and free-flying birds when you need a fix of vibrant green in the middle of winter (admission to the Conservatory is $2).
  15. Rent a copy of The War at Home. This award-winning documentary about activism at UW–Madison during the Vietnam era is available at many campus libraries and is a must-see for anyone attending the university.
  16. Visit a state park. Wisconsin is a beautiful state and maintains a state park system with modern facilities for camping and hiking. There are four great parks within easy driving distance of Madison: Lake Kegonsa State Park, Devil’s Lake State Park, Governor Nelson State Park, and Blue Mounds State Park. Any Wisconsin State Park makes for a great afternoon hike or a low-cost weekend getaway. In the winter, many parks offer trails for cross-country skiing.
  17. Catch a (free) movie on campus. The university is also home to a number of groups that bring films to campus. Most active and diverse is the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Film Committee which presents four to five different series each week, from recent releases to international cinema. Most films are inexpensive (with a student ID) or free, and they take place at both Memorial Union and Union South. Cinemathèque is a student-program collaboration that shows films in Vilas Hall.
  18. Visit the Aldo Leopold Nature Center. In the spirit of the famed Wisconsin conservationist, Aldo Leopold, the mission of the Aldo Leopold Nature Center is to “teach the student to see the land, understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands.”
  19. Catch a Mallards game. The Madison Mallards are a college-level summer baseball team that plays in Warner Park. The Mallards are one of the most successful franchises in baseball, and probably the most successful team on the summer-collegiate front. This makes the games a lot of fun. Tickets are affordable and going to a game is a great, family-friendly way to spend a summer evening.

Nightlife

People sit around tables with the lake and sunset in the background.
People gather and socialize at the Memorial Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as dusk falls to night following a spring sunset.

In a city with as large a student population as Madison’s, one finds a large number of bars. While many bars near campus cater to undergraduates, there are some places that are geared toward graduate and professional students. Here are a few recommendations from graduate students.

Genna’s Lounge has an upper floor open on weekends, and makes the perfect setting for a thoughtful conversation over a glass of wine. It hosts regular open mic nights where many students take their creative energy. They also have friendly staff and free snacks during happy hour.

Maduro Cigar Bar is another favorite among grad students and professionals. This 1930s cocktail lounge boasts half a dozen leather couches and low-key live music several nights a week.

Natt Spil – with no sign and no phone – appears mysterious and dark from the outside but is a warm, intimate place inside. Lit by candles and Chinese lanterns, dark wood decor and murals on the walls add to the allure of this tiny bar. “Natt Spil” is Norwegian for “night play” and is a great place to either spend or end your evening in style.

Paul’s Club is a great place to enjoy a drink, and is known for the tree that “grows” through the middle of the bar.

Blue Velvet Lounge will take you a hundred miles from Madison with the feel of a big-city martini bar. The prices at this “upscale” place are comparable to those at bars frequented by undergraduates.

Library Cafe and Bar is another popular, low-key grad student haunt. They make an excellent Dark ‘n Stormy and have happy-hour draft and rails specials. Their nachos are great for sharing.

Jordan’s Big 10 Pub will get you your sports bar fix. They have daily drink specials and an extensive food menu. It’s a great place to watch the game.

The Mason Lounge offers craft ales and wine in a creative, casual atmosphere and is a favorite haunt slightly out-of-the-way from the typical campus bars.

Mickey’s Tavern is a favorite among graduate students and long-time Madisonians alike. The affordable food menu makes it a great place to stop any time of day.

Nightclubs: If it’s dancing you’re after, try the following venues:

  • FIVE Nightclub: Madison’s main LGBT bar and dance club. Popular for line dancing. Just south of the Beltline, off Fish Hatchery Road.
  • Prism: Popular as a gay bar and dance club.
  • Sotto: This LGBTQ-Friendly night club is close to campus, located near the top of State Street.
  • Liquid/Ruby: Liquid is a live music venue featuring mainly EDM artists and DJs. Its sister venue, Ruby, offers a smaller setting for live music.
  • Nomad World Pub: For a different take, visit Nomad on Saturday nights when it features a DJ or live band for Latin dance music.

Beyond Madison

Whether you have out-of-town guests or you want to be a tourist yourself, Wisconsin has a lot to offer.

Madison’s Neighbors

Beyond the neighborhoods in the city of Madison, you might find yourself living in one of the “suburbs” of Madison or hear mention of them in the news.

Just north of Madison, on the other side of Lake Mendota is the village of Waunakee. Known for being the only Waunakee in the world, it is a vibrant community with a small-town vibe hosting annual festivals including Waunafest and Wauktoberfest.

To Madison’s northeast is Sun Prairie, known for its parks and historic downtown. Every summer, Sun Prairie hosts the Sweet Corn Festival, where festival-goers can enjoy freshly steamed ears of Wisconsin sweet corn, as well as carnival games and competitions.

A little way east of Madison is the city of Waterloo, home to the Trek Bicycle company. Waterloo hosts the Trek CX cup, a world cup cyclocross race, each year.

Monona is located to the southeast across Lake Monona from the isthmus. With its proximity to the amenities of Madison, small-town feel, and location along the lake, it is one of the larger suburbs of Madison.

Further to the southeast you can find the city of Stoughton, which hosts one of the largest Norwegian Independence Day festivals outside of Norway. West of Stoughton, and directly south of Madison is the village of Oregon, with the ‘gon’ portion pronounced like the word “gone.”

To the west of Oregon is the city of Fitchburg and, just past that, the city of Verona. Fitchburg is a rapidly-growing suburb with multiple residential neighborhoods and an extensive shopping district featuring shops, restaurants, and breweries. Verona, which connects with Fitchburg’s west edge, quickly transitions into farmland to the south.

Directly west of Madison is the city of Middleton. Another large suburb of Madison, Middleton is known as the Good Neighbor City and is consistently voted one of the best places to live by Money magazine. It is also home to the National Mustard Museum and the Capital Brewery.

Explore Wisconsin

If you need a break from studying, there are many opportunities for outdoor fun in Wisconsin. You can tour a brewery, go biking on a road or mountain bike trail, hike in a state park, ski or snowboard, relax by one of the state’s many lakes, or explore Wisconsin’s Native American heritage. The Wisconsin Department of Tourism offers free publications focusing on bed-and-breakfasts, state park information, and special-interest attractions.

Beyond community festivals, there are popular tourist attractions scattered throughout the state. Here are a few of the most popular tourism and vacation hotspots.