1. I haven't been to every great college town at this point in my life, but I've been to my fair share. Madison, Wisconsin is as good of a college town as there is in the country. SEC fans may not want to hear it, but it's true. (Tuscaloosa is tied with Madison on top of my personal rankings, so don't come at me too hard.) Madison does everything well. Most importantly the party atmosphere is always at a high level. (Conveniently it was highlighted in I’m Shmacked this week.) The girls may not all be tens, but there are a ton of sevens and eights with those Midwestern girl next door qualities and they're all extremely friendly. (Those that aren't from the Midwest are generally from the New York Tri-State area and they're not too bad either.) The football program may not be great, but it's generally good and competing for the Big Ten title. This means you're in for entertaining games. Be prepared to shake your keys before kickoff and jump around at the end of the third quarter to fully embrace two of their fine traditions. Tack on the land of cheese and the love of meat and beer and you have yourself quite a fine weekend ahead of you.
2. The land of cheese gets quite cold as you get towards the end of fall, so the prime months for football are September and October. The Big Ten schedule is still not finalized after 2014, but each team currently plays eight conference games until 2016, when it changes to nine. Wisconsin’s division rivals starting next year are Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Purdue. They’ll alternate home games with those clubs every year, so catching a Nebraska game would be your best chance for good football with the rest being a crap shoot depending on who’s good that season. When the schedule switches to nine Big Ten games, you’ll have to catch Michigan or Ohio State when they’re in town.
3. You obviously want to stay with friends if you can because that would make any experience more fun and less expensive. If you’re traveling in without connections, however, you’ll want to stay down because taxis are difficult on the weekend to get out to the far east or west sides of town. Madison actually does pretty well with hotels for a college town since it’s bigger than most and always doubles as the capital of Wisconsin. The Doubletree is right on campus. Otherwise the Hyatt Place and Hilton on the capitol square are very nice as well. The University Inn isn’t a bad place as well. You’ve heard this story before, but book far in advance if you’re trying to get the rooms for a football weekend. Most of the bars are on State Street or University Ave, so you won’t be too far away so keep that in mind in case you decide to rent a condo or house instead.
4. I would be remiss if I went through this and didn’t mention Halloween. The State Street Halloween in Madison is quite legendary and worth looking into even if it doesn’t hit on a football weekend. It used to be quite the unregulated mayhem with numbers approaching as many as 100,000 in 2005 and something like 400 arrests. It was basically Mardi Gras in October. The government jumped in and started charging an admission fee to gain access to the street. As the event became more regulated, the official party started adding bands with acts like names like Mac Miller, Neon Trees, Ok Go, Third Eye Blind, and O.A.R. playing in the last five years. Even in its regulated form, it’s still known to be chaotic with the chance of foul odor permeating through the crowd. It just doesn’t have the riots like it used to and attendance is capped at 80,000. The debate is on as to whether it’s still a top-five Halloween.
5. If you get to Madison a day or two before a football game, there are some things to do to keep yourself entertained. As expected, there are plenty of places to grab some good beer. Have a pitcher (or three) of Spotted Cow, the favorite local brew, on the Memorial Union Terrace (locals just call it “The Terrace”) located on Lake Mendota. It’s technically the campus, but open to public and gathering spot for many locals. Ale Asylum is the most popular craft brewery, which is a little ways away from campus, but it also a good time. There’s a Farmers Market on Saturday morning that runs from April to November on Capitol Square is a thing that locals appreciate. For those runners out there, the UW Arboretum is a great place for a run in the fall. You can take in all fall colors and trails line the lake. For those interested in seeing something slightly alternative, take a visit to Willy Street neighborhood (technically Williamson St) for a really hippy-esq neighborhood built around a common sustainable, community driven lifestyle.
6. Wisconsin is different than standard college football environments when it comes to its tailgating because the majority of action takes place at houses near the stadium as opposed to specific areas like Mississippi’s Grove, Alabama’s Quad, or Michigan’s Golf Course. There parking lots get a little too crammed for those to be a good option. The houses near the stadium provide a great party atmosphere with flip cup, beer pong, and cornhole being played on the front yards. Funnels can be found seemingly at every other house (some even coming down two flights to the ground) with the world famous Octobong being there as well. The bars along Regent Street are an excellent location for those who don’t feel as comfortable partying at the houses, but there should be no reason to not feel comfortable. People of all ages park comes to the houses as you just park in the yards and start cooking/drinking. If you do end up at the bars, you should head to Lucky’s Jordan’s Big 10 Pub, and Stadium Bar, which are all close by to Camp Randall.
7. The highlights of the food options in Madison obviously revolve around cheese. You can grab cheese curds at so many places and you should get them fried whenever possible. Your ideal spot for cheese curds would be at The Old Fashioned, but there are other things to eat there as well when you’re grabbing lunch or dinner. Enjoy the summer sausage sandwich, the fish fry, and obviously drink an Old Fashioned. The Great Dane is a good spot for dinner and house a wide selection of beer from the in-house brewery. The nachos and fishy fry there are the best option. (Fish fries are big in Wisconsin if you couldn’t tell.) The best overall restaurants in Madison these days are Forequarter and L’Etoile if you’re looking to class up your night. Johnny Delmonico’s brings the best steak in town. There’s a surprisingly big Laotian population in the area, so head to Lao Laan-Xang if you’re feeling ambitious enough to try some amazing food that’s out of your regular spectrum.
8. The Mac and Cheese pizza at Ian’s Pizza is known country-wide at this point. You're easiest best is to run through there for a slice during the day because the line goes out the door and down the block after the bars close. It's worth the wait though, so hang out and make some friends while trying to figure out which house has some after-hours going. Marumoto’s has an all-you-can-eat sushi deals on Sunday through Thursday that is hard to beat in terms of quality and value. One of the best burgers around can be found at the Weary Traveler in the form of the bad breath burger. (It’s a half pound of burger with cream cheese, caramelized onions, garlic, tomatoes, some fancy “green goddess dressing”, and “Pickapeppa Sauce”). You can also grab an awesome burger at Dotty Dumplings, which of course also has some well-known cheese curds. People dig the sandwiches at Mediterranean Café, but remember that it’s cash only. You’ve got a couple options for breakfast between Mickey’s Dairy Bar and Marigold Kitchen. Mickey’s is great on gameday or the day after, but get there early to avoid the line. You should find something to enjoy between the scramblers or the pancakes.
9. There are two different types of bars to enjoy in Madison as you’d expect from a college town. There’s a certain group that appeal when trying to chase underage coeds and then there are better places to chase the crowd that’s 21+. The Kollege Klob (aka the KK) is where things get wild and dirty. You won't need your drinking glove, but you won't get any weird looks if you're wearing it. We're talking cheap beer, lose girls, and mayhem in this place on the weekends. There’s a good chance players from the team will show up there the night after a game. Down the street at the legendary State Street Brats, you can kiss the water buffalo to get a free birthday shot. There’s a couple floors inside and an outdoor patio. The place is an institution, but you might be able to find more fun elsewhere. Madhatter’s slants towards a younger crowd as well. Drinks are cheap, the tunes are good, and it’s a decent hookup spot as well. You can drink free for your birthday at Nitty Gritty’s. Those looking for a divey spot should check out Plaza Tavern. Monday’s would be another for the dive bar list where the drinks redefine the word strong.
10. For those looking for a slightly older, City Bar and Paul’s Club are two good places to start. City Bar has half-priced pitchers on Thursday and the liquor drinks are generally poured with a heavy hand. It’s in the basement of a high rise building, so you may need to look a little bit to find it. Paul’s Club is more low key than others in town, with a jukebox that gets a lot of attention. Wando’s offers giant fish bowls and trays of bacon. (What’s not to like?) Chuch Key also provides a more laidback atmosphere, but it’ll be as busy as any other place on a weekend. Throw in places like Johnny O’s Hawks, Red Shed, Amy’s and Weary Traveler and you’ll realize you won’t ever run out of bars in Madison.