I moved to Madison in August of 1999, and knew very little about the city; a few friends helped me find my way around. If you're visiting or considering moving to Madison, the info below is what I would pass on to you. Madison is just a fabulous town, IMO the best place to live in the Midwest, and hopefully the info provided here is useful.
This may be urban legend, but supposedly Madison has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country. In any case, there really are a ton of great places to eat, and a wide variety of cuisine is available. Some of the places worth checking out:
- Bahn Thai: Great curry and Pad Thai. Try the #26.
- Cleveland's: The perfect greasy spoon for a heart-attack breakfast. Try the English muffin breakfast sandwiches.
- El Dorado: Good mid-priced southwestern/Tex-Mex, with legendary margaritas
- Harvest: Next door to L'Etoile (see below), probably without quite the same reputation, but the one time I've been there it was frickin amazing. Great ambience, excellent wine list, and just wonderful gourmet food. Expensive.
- Jolly Bob's: Slightly upscale Jamaican food, very good tropical drinks and fun atmosphere. A neat place to go during the summer. Jamerica, down the street, probably has better jerk, but it's best for takeout.
- Lao Laan Xang: Laotian food with very fresh ingredients; very good curry and cashew chicken. They have four ranges of spiciness (Timid, Careful, Hot, and Native Lao), and I recommend sticking with "Timid" if you're sensitive at all.
- La Paella: Excellent Spanish cuisine, with absolutely amazing paella cooked over a wood fire, and often served by Tomas, the very nice owner. They have a wine-tasting bar (with free samples) that I recommend you take advantage of prior to dinner. A lot of people, though, go just for the tapas, which are great. Probably my favorite Madison restaurant.
- Laredo's: The best Mexican food in Madison, inexpensive, and excellent service. We're regulars.
- Lazy Jane's: Neato café in an old house. Very good breakfasts, with a number of vegetarian options, and *excellent* scones.
- L'Etoile: Probably the best-regarded restaurant in Madison for fine dining. I haven't personally been there, but everyone who has raves about it, so it's worth mentioning. Expensive.
- Madison Masala: Good Indian food downtown. The lamb curry is my favorite, but there are a lot of good entrees to try.
- Pasta Per Tutti: My personal fave for Italian food in Madison, although some people aren't blown away. Tutto Pasta is cheaper and IMO much lower quality, and Lombardino's is well regarded by others although it hasn't blown me away.
- Tornado Club Steak House: Old-fashioned supper club-type place, with about the best goddamn steak I've ever had. Very good reputation, and the shrimp cocktail is worth mentioning as well.
- Wasabi: I haven't been there myself, but I've gotten numerous recommendations for Wasabi as the best sushi in Madison. Slightly upscale; word is Sushi Box is also good, and less expensive.
(Other Madison residents would no doubt have their own choices (I invite /msgs with other suggestions), but these are the favorites my wife and I have found in our four years of living in Madison. Check the phone book or Google for addresses, directions, phone numbers, and hours of operation.)
Look, it's Wisconsin, so there are plenty of good places to drink. The local brewpubs are all worth trying - The Great Dane and Angelic Brewing Company are my favs, with both having some fabulous beers and great food (J.T. Whitneys is decent as well). For wine, Café Montmarté is a lot of fun, although it tends to be somewhat overpriced. For a hole-in-the-wall-type place, Mickey's, although usually crowded, is a cool place. Outside at the Memorial Union Terrace is a favorite place for a lot of people during the summer, especially college kids.
The best place to start is by checking The Isthmus, the free local weekly newspaper; it has an extensive events listing, and is widely available in town.
The local music scene is kind of odd. There's always music, and some people find a lot to like; however, there aren't a lot of small rock clubs, so it's a bit harder to find good alterna-/indie rock. There's also a lack of a good mid-size venue, so a lot of semi-popular touring bands skip Madison. The annual Blues Festival is always well-attended if that's your kind of thing, and there's an annual Jazz Festial as well.
The Madison Civic Center always has something going on, often touring artists and exhibitions.
Some other fun things to do are seasonal:
- During the warmer months, there's a Farmer's Market on the Capitol square every Wednesday and Saturday morning.
- Also during the warmer months, there are free concerts downtown: Jazz at Five and Concerts on the Square (check the Isthmus for scheduling, but I think they're both Wednesday afternoons).
- There are numerous neighborhood festivals during the summers, including the Marquette, Williamson Street, and Orton Park festivals. These always have good beer and food, music, and booths from various vendors and political organizations. Very fun.
- The winter slows things down a lot, of course, but Kites On Ice happens every year on Lake Monona, and yes, it's just as the name implies (i.e. people out on the ice flying festive kites).
There are four malls: of the large malls, West Towne is the most upscale, with the nicest stores and, yes, two Abercrombie and Fitches (take that however you like); East Towne is your average Midwestern mall with Sears, J.C. Penney, etc.; South Towne is, um, not quite as pleasant, and the less said the better.
However, malls aren't at all the best shopping in Madison: there are a ton of neat little stores. While I'm not going to detail every damn store in town, Monroe Street on the near West side is worth checking out: they have Barrique's Wine Cave (a great wine & accessory store), Orange Tree Imports (upscale cooking implements, condiments, etc.), Seed Savers' Exchange (gardening and heirloom seeds) and other good stores.
For groceries: Copp's is probably the nicest and most expensive supermarket, where Woodman's has a somewhat industrial feel and iffy produce but is way cheap; Jennifer St. Market has probably the best meat counter; and the Willy St. Co-Op has just excellent produce and organic food.
(NOTE: Geographically, Madison is built on an isthmus between two lakes, which runs from southwest to northeast. The state capitol building is smack dab in the center of the isthmus, and the downtown area is generally considered to be anything within a mile or so of the capitol. Beyond that, the land isn't so narrow, and the buildings and roads aren't nearly so dense. Check a map and you'll see what I'm taking about.)
The near-east side of Madison is basically the hippie district, centered around the famous Williamson Street area. Prior to Gulf War II, essentially every other house for miles had a "NO WAR" (or some such) sign; it's a VERY liberal area, which may be good or bad depending on your point of view. It's a generally very friendly area, with a strong sense of community.
The west side tends to be slightly more affluent, but also more homogenized and/or suburban. I have to admit, I'm an east-sider, and I'm predisposed to think of the west side as less tight-knit, and generally less eccentric and fun. However, the west side schools tend to be better, and it's probably safer than the east side.
There's definitely a political divide between the Isthmus area (downtown, near-east, and near-west Madison) and the outlying areas: in the last mayoral race, the (more liberal) winner carried the Isthmus, lost everything farther than like a couple of miles from the capitol, and pulled out the win. Think of the Bush/Gore Red/Blue divide, and that's basically what we're talking about here, with the caveat that even the more conservative outlying areas qualify as liberal Democrat territory - it's just that the Isthmus is what earned the city the nickname "The People's Republic of Madison."
(I'm sure there's lots I'm forgetting, and I may add on to this node later. /msg me if you have something I've forgotten, and I'd be happy to slap it in.)