The city of Madison is a cultural hotbed. Housed in these “77 square miles surrounded by reality” are more than 500 restaurants, a plethora of music venues, myriad street performers, a little more than a dozen active theaters and a handful of art galleries. With this vast array of destinations and eateries, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But fear not, we’ve compiled a list of must-do activities that will quickly acquaint you with the city. So tear this page out — keep it with you — and experience everything the city of Madison has to offer.
Get to know the downtown area musicians
State Street is full of characters, but none are so memorable as the great number of musicians who perform in every corner and cranny of Madison’s most notorious street.
Perhaps the downtown area’s most popular character, let alone musician, is Tom Ryan, known better to students here as Piccolo Pete. Pete is normally found playing a wide assortment of tunes — anywhere from The Beatles “Let it Be” to classical melodies — seated directly outside the University Book Store in Library Mall during the lunch hour. And finding Piccolo Pete shouldn’t be a problem amid the hubbub of the food carts and the lunch rush — Pete rocks a blaze orange jumpsuit for every “performance.”
Other notable musicians include Art Paul Schlosser, who plays childlike tunes (“Pink Pants,” “Purple Bananas on the Moon” and most popular, “Have a Peanut Butter Sandwich”) on his kazoo and acoustic guitar in various locations down State Street, and band Boo Radley, composed of Scott Kilker on steel guitar and Brad Selz on washboard. Displaying a delightful mix of blues and stompin’ bluegrass, this duo is normally found in the benches scattered about State Street.
Many more buskers, of course, call State Street their stage. Any spare night will not be wasted enjoying the musical stylings of Madison’s finest.
Enjoy an ethnic eatery
Madison has more restaurants per capita than any other metropolitan area in the country, and the downtown area itself plays home to a great number of these restaurants. So when hunger strikes, why head straight for standard fare at KFC or Qdoba?
Instead, try one of the numerous ethnic eateries housed in the downtown area. Kabul, an Afghani and Middle Eastern restaurant located on State Street, offers some of the most delicious cuisine for a great value, with most their dishes priced under $10. This price range also applies to other popular ethnic restaurants such as King of Falafel and Buraka, an African eatery.
In addition to a great value, Madison’s ethnic dining locations also provide ideal choices for vegetarians. A Nepalese restaurant, Himal Chuli, located on State Street, offers the most vegetarian entrees of any restaurant in Madison. But some of its most unique cuisine, and the eatery’s momocha — vegetable dumplings and dal, a wonderfully seasoned bean and pea soup, are not to be missed.
If Afghan and Nepalese cuisine are a little outside your comfort zone, try the delicious fare served at Mediterranean Cafe. This restaurant offers more standard dishes like salads, wraps and pitas, but the food is just as delicious and affordable as the restaurant’s competitors’.
Venture down Willy Street
With the popularity of the shops and restaurants housed on State Street, it’s easy to miss out on the quirks and sights of other areas of Madison. Perhaps the most underappreciated is Williamson Street, more popularly known as Willy Street.
The most popular “destination” is the Willy St. Co-op. Here you can find a great supply of natural, organic and locally produced products. Additionally, their deli serves up delicious and savory salads and sides, while their bakery offers vegan items. But this grocer and deli isn’t the only option, as Willy Street plays home to a great number of coffee shops and dining locations, as well as thrift shops, tattoo parlors and bookstores.
Willy Street is also well-known for its annual Willy Street Fair, a culmination of music, food and friends. Marking its 31st anniversary this year, the Willy Street Fair in the past has featured music from a great number of Madison musicians (Pale Young Gentlemen, Know Boundaries, Blueheels). In addition to the event’s music and food, the festival’s parade is not to be missed, and attendees are provided the chance to win one of over 200 prizes.
Although most students discover the charms of this street before they graduate, it’s normally too late to take in everything this roadway has to offer. So, get a head start and make Willy Street an early destination during your University of Wisconsin career.
Take a nice picture on Bascom Hill
Climbing Bascom Hill is a task all in itself: That seemingly soft incline hurts halfway up, and the chalked signs below your feet imploring you to attend a new meeting begin to take on a taunting attitude rather quickly. But when you reach the top and first see the view that extends to the Capitol building, it makes everything a little more worthwhile. So before the school year starts, why not test out the waters and commemorate the occasion with a picture? It makes a good thing to send home to the parents as the first “Look at me, I’m in college” symbol. Oh, and don’t forget to take a picture of Honest Abe while you’re up there either.
Hang out on the Terrace
Perhaps it’s those iconic Union chairs in the trademark green, orange and yellow, or maybe it’s the refreshing breeze coming off of Lake Mendota, but for a new student, life can easily revolve around spending time on the Terrace, enjoying the scenery and watching the sailboats glide past. Not only is the Terrace a great spot for some relaxing downtime or doing homework, it happens to be one of the best places to discover what the Madison music scene has to offer. With every week come more opportunities to see the latest band, and music buffs citywide flock to it. As part of Wisconsin Welcome, Concert on the Terrace is the perfect opportunity for that first experience. It takes place Saturday, Aug. 30, at 9:30 p.m.
Test out the bus system
Now, there happen to be many people content to stick close to downtown Madison as to avoid the hassle of bus schedules. Although most needs can be satisfied downtown, there is still a whole lot of Madison that can only be experienced by hopping on a bus. For example, the Barrymore Theater is one of the more popular concert venues with amazing shows. Shopping on State Street gets a little monotonous after the first few visits, and going to the mall actually manages to become a refreshing experience (and, weather depending, a much more climate-controlled visit). And to see the latest film the WUD Film Committee may not be showing, a trip to the movie theater is in order. The bus system, though sometimes a mess of schedules and planning, makes for a better experience on the whole. And besides, a large part of the fun is just getting to your destination.
Minor typographical errors in the original copy were corrected Aug. 6, 2008.