With a game against the Badgers on the horizon, I thought it would be nice to put together a guide to Madison, WI for those of you who will be making the trek out to Wisconsin's capital for next weekend's game. I've only lived here since March, so I'm not completely versed in everything there is to do in this city just yet, but I can make some pretty solid suggestions. And if anyone has any specific questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section (or email me) and I'll be happy to answer them to the best of my ability.
Two good things about this city: All the restaurants/bars within the Madison city limits are smoke-free. It's the greatest thing ever. Also, there's a lot of parking downtown at night and it's really, really cheap.
Google Maps will have you take 94 to 90 and go through Chicago, before hooking up with 39 North. Unless you're coming out at a time when traffic through Chicago will be minimal (read: 2:00 in the morning) I highly recommend ignoring this advice. I also don't recommend going north to Milwaukee and then over, simply because Milwaukee sucks apart from the Pabst Theatre and everything is under construction.
The way I come out here is probably 40-50 miles longer, but you almost completely avoid Chicago traffic, and once you get through Joliet you won't see any cars for a good two hours. And once you get through Rockford/Beloit, you won't see anybody until you get to Madison.
So you eliminate the risk of sitting on the highway for 2 hours going through Chicago, and this route offers ample opportunity to make up time since there's no traffic. The downside is it's boring as hell. I take 94 then stay on 80 West, go through Joliet, and take it until you get to 39-North. That will take you all the way into Madison. There's literally nothing along this route. Apart from some very cool windmills.
I don't usually see cops--or anything for that matter--along 39-North but Wisconsin cops do have a reputation as being fairly tough on speeders. I've been lucky so far ::knock on wood:: Also, a word of warning: Wisconsin drivers suck. Seriously, they blow. Never in my life have I been stuck behind so many people doing 10 under in the left lane, or seen so many people basically trying to ram into my car. Pretty much all of us out-of-staters are in agreement on this one (MHNet's response to a crack I made two weeks ago about the drivers here: "You're just now figuring that out? Whenever I see a bad driver (in Marquette) I figure they must be from Wisconsin"). They're great people here, but they can't drive for anything.
Places to Stay:
I would hope that you've already taken care of accommodations at this point, but there are a lot of hotels around here. When I was apartment hunting, I stayed at the America's Best Value Inn, just off The Beltline (US 12-18) and it was kind of ghetto, but not bad at all for the money (I think it was like $30/night). I've heard that people have been shot there in the past, but I think that was before ABVI took it over. They have Wi-Fi and the room was clean. The latter is all I look for when I'm going cheap. It also led to this amazing discovery:
Yes that is the Wi-Fi router, and yes it is sitting on a cardboard box in the middle of the hallway. It worked out great though. My internet went out during the evening, and I went out and reset the router myself. Don't get me wrong, it's plenty ghetto. But I've also stayed in worse places (::cough:: Red Roof Inn in Woodbury, MN ::cough::)
If you're looking to go expensive, the Hilton Monona Terrace is very nice, and overlooks one of the lakes. Otherwise we've got a wide variety of the usual hotels. The Sheraton is pretty nice too.
Places to Eat:
Now this is an area of expertise. Madison is famous for its restaurants. Frankly, I haven't been blown away, but there are a few places that I would miss if I moved back to Michigan. If you've got a ton of money laying around and are looking to invest in something, this city is ripe for a Mongolian BBQ. We have a similar place called the Flat Top Grille, but it's not nearly as good. Here are my favorite eateries around town:
Quaker Steak and Lube: It looks like a Quaker State oil change place (get it?), and it has the best friggin' wings in the world. I love B-Dubbs as much as anyone, but even though we've got two of them, I haven't been to either since I discovered Quaker Steak. Yum! The wings are awesome--I usually get the Ranch or Garlic ones, but they have "atomic" wings that are hot enough that you have to sign a waiver before they'll serve them to you--and they have pretzels with Guinness Cheese Dip that are absolutely to die for. This is where the Badger Coaches Shows are broadcast from.
The Great Dane: There are a few of these, I like the one downtown. This bar will also show up in the "stuff to do" section, so I'll just address the food/beer here. They have this wonderful invention called the Great Dane Brat and Bacon Pretzel Burger (Only in Wisconsin!). This little bundle of joy is 1/3 pound hamburger, 1/4 pound brat patty, bacon, and served on a pretzel bun. It'll take 5 years off your life and it's worth every second. They're also one of the biggest brew-pubs in the country, if I'm not mistaken. I like dark beer, and the porter and stout are awesome. They also brew their own root beer and cream soda, which are both excellent.
Delaney's Charcoal Steaks: Again, this is for if you're looking to do it up. Best steak place I've ever been to. It's expensive, but the food is amazing, they give you a lot of it, and the service is incredible. When we were there, they had Kobe beef that was out of this world. The lobster bisque is really good, as is the baked Alaska dessert.
The Prime Quarter: This is another steak place, but it's not as high-end as Delaney's. Here, you cook your own. They have giant charcoal grills throughout the restaurant, and you go to the cooler, pick out your slab of meat, and cook it any way you want. You also get a baked potato bar, salad bar, and they've also got loaves of Texas toast that you can slop butter and garlic salt on, grill it, and make your own garlic toast. The cool part is that it's the same price no matter what cut of meat you want. If you want the 8 ounce filet or the 22 ounce ribeye, it's the same price. They also have (I've been told) very good fish. And they have options for splitting steaks as well, if you're so inclined. It's a cool place.
Ginza of Tokyo: It's similar to Benihana, where they cook for you on the Hibachi grill at your table. I like Ginza better than Benihana personally (not as good as Shogun though). My girlfriend claims their sushi is second only to Yotsuba in Ann Arbor.
The Nitty Gritty: Great burgers (and some pretty unique ones, to boot). You also drink for free on your birthday, so if anyone has a birthday this weekend, this would be a good place to go. I linked the one in the suburb, but there's also one downtown.
JT Whitney's: Another brew pub, they've got really good root beer as well. I've only been there for lunch on weekdays, so I haven't tried the beer. They have good sandwiches, and outstanding garlic mashed potatoes. I'm a big fan of this place. I need to get there more often than I do.
The Pancake Cafe: Holy crap the Pancake Cafe. If you're looking for breakfast food, this is the place. If you've ever been to The Pantry in Sterling Heights/Warren, you know what I'm talking about because this place is very similar. The German Pancake is absolutely amazing. You could probably fit Peyton Manning's head inside of it. I have a hard time going there because there's so much I want to order. The chocolate chip crepes are amazing, and they've got the best hash browns I've ever had.
The best pizza place in town is Glass Nickel, though Pizza Extreme is very good as well (they're more similar to the Pizza House-style Chicago stuffed pizza). And there's no good Chinese food here. It's really unfortunate. Lucky freaking Kitchen looks like China Gate compared to everything here.
Stuff to Do:
So you took off work on Friday, you get out here Friday afternoon and you want to know what you should do Friday night or after the game on Saturday. A few suggestions:
The Great Dane: I mentioned it earlier for dinner, now I'll throw it out there again as probably the best spot to spend Friday night. The bar area is huge, they've got probably 8 or 9 pool tables, they usually have live music, but if not they've got one of those great internet jukeboxes, quite a few TVs and the best part of all is that they've got table shuffleboard. I had never played this before I moved out here, but now I don't understand when a bar doesn't have one of these tables. It's ridiculously fun. I'm not positive, but this is likely where I'll be Saturday night.
The Brass Ring: This is another fun bar around town. They've also got a shuffleboard table, but it's a shorter one that requires you to bank each shot. They've also got really good food and some nice beers on tap.
Vitense Golfland: It's probably going to be balls cold on Friday/Saturday, but if not, this place is pretty fun if you want to get your ass kicked by a miniature golf course. I'm not going to lie, I'm a great mini-golfer, but this course is pretty impossible. I'm pretty happy if I crack 60 there. It's a lot of fun though. They've got a course that is a Wisconsin theme, and they've got a hole designed like Lambeau Field. It's awesome. And the free game hole is strangely easy. I don't think I've paid for more than 2 rounds in the 5 times or so that I've been there. They've also got a very cool indoor course if it's cold and you have a hankerin' for some mini-golf.
EssenHaus: If you want a loud, rowdy, good time, this is the place to go. They have das boot of beer. It's kind of hard to hear yourself think in there--or at least it was the night I was there--but I know a lot of people that love this place (and I had a good time when I was there).
Badger Hockey: I'm not sure what the availability of tickets is, but on Friday and Saturday night, the Badgers welcome in the North Dakota Fighting Sioux for what should be an excellent weekend of hockey. See Kyle Turris before he's in the NHL next year.
State Street/Capitol Square: I think State Street is kind of overrated, but it is pretty cool. No cars can drive on it and there are a lot of shops and restaurants. Hawk's Bar was pretty good, there's a Spanish place that has the best smoothies ever strangely enough (though I forget the name), and Real Chili is pretty good as well. Also, visit the Capitol Square. The Capitol is pretty impressive. Somewhere on the Capitol Square is one of those Brazilian Steakhouses. I haven't been there yet, but a similar one in Birmingham, MI was one of the most amazing meals I've ever had. I find it hard to believe that you could go wrong with all-you-can-eat meat on a sword.
See the Lakes: The view coming into downtown Madison is pretty damn awesome. The best view I've seen of the city is to get off the Beltline Highway at the John Nolan exit. Go North until you run into the Sheraton Hotel and then hang a left. That will take you into downtown Madison. You'll come in across one of the lakes and it's absolutely beautiful.
The Mall: It's not The Mall of America, but West Towne Mall (or East Towne Mall if you're on that side of the city) is pretty nice. Plus there are a ton of restaurants, Best Buy, and all that stuff right around the mall. Nice way to kill some time.
Woodman's: If you need some food/liquor/beer for the tailgate, go to Woodman's. Yes, I am pimping a grocery store in my review of Madison. It's absolutely gigantic and the everyday price is better than most sale prices in normal groceries. They've also got the biggest liquor store I've ever seen, and so you can nab some of the many, many microbrews that we've got around here. Even the liquor is absurdly inexpensive. The only rub is they don't take credit cards (they do take debit though). The cheapest piss beer that they've got is called Beer:30. I've never been brave enough to try it, but a 30 pack is like $7.50. It's gotta be bad. I just think it's great that there's actually a Beer:30.
That's about all I've got for right now. I really don't know the best places to park for the game or the best tailgating spots since I haven't been to a game here since 2002. For that, I'd look around on the Wiscy message boards. But apart from that, I'd be happy to answer any other questions. Hopefully there will be a bunch of maize and blue faithful making the trip!