If you’re somebody who likes to pack your schedule with activity, you are definitely in the right place! Madison hosts a slew of interesting events throughout the year. Your biggest problem will be choosing which ones to do (and figuring out when to squeeze in a little rest).
World’s Largest Brat Fest
Memorial Day weekend (Alliant Energy Center)
First, make sure you know how to say it: brät (pronounced with a short “a”). Short for bratwurst, this German sausage warrants a four-day celebration during Memorial Day weekend, beginning at 6:00 a.m. on Friday morning with Take Your Brat To Work Day (no joke – Wisconsinites take their meat seriously!) and running through Monday night with scores of bands, games, beer tents, and general fun.
Crazy Legs Classic
Last Saturday in April (begins on State Street in downtown Madison)
Named in honor of former UW-Madison Athletic Director Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, The Classic started with about 1500 runners in 1982 and has involved over 340,000 runners and walkers since then. Traditionally scheduled for the last Saturday in April, Crazy Legs has become a welcome sign of spring to Madisonians (even if we ARE usually still wearing thermal underwear and down coats).
Dane County Farmers’ Market
Outdoor market runs mid-April through early November (Capitol Square in downtown Madison)
This is the largest producers-only farmers’ market in the nation, so you can get to know the farmers who grow your bok choy, produce your goat cheese, cultivate your dahlias, and make your herbal soap. Make it your Saturday morning tradition to stroll around the majestic capitol and its sweeping lawn, savoring the smell of spicy cheese bread and admiring the Instagram-worthy piles of colorful vegetables. If you’re an early riser, you’re in luck: the market begins at 6:15 a.m., so you can beat the crowds (and probably see several area chefs choosing their produce and meat for that night’s meal) if you get there before 7:00. But even if you arrive mid-morning and find yourself elbow-to-elbow with other marketgoers wielding their canvas tote bags, you’ll be glad to be swept along with the happy crowd (and maybe even enjoy a warm pastry on the way). Make sure to leave your pets home, though; only service animals are allowed.
Taste of Madison
Labor Day weekend (Capitol Square in downtown Madison)
If you’re looking for some free entertainment, Taste of Madison is the place. There is no admission charge for this two-day event featuring hours of music and entertainment on three stages. And if you’re willing to fork over $1 to $4 per item, you can satisfy many a craving at the 20+ beverage stands and 80+ local food vendors.
(Taste of MADISON to know blog post)
Early September (downtown Madison and rural Dane County)
Whether you’re looking to get your swim/bike/run on or just want to be an enthusiastic supporter along the route, you can benefit from the impressive IronMan experience. Madison has hosted this event numerous times and is “known on the race circuit for its rambunctious spectators and unforgettable finish line party.” Be part of the fun!
Early August (Alliant Energy Center)
This high-level fitness competition was held in Madison for the first time in 2017 and was such a success that the contract with Madison was extended through 2021. Attend as one of the 70,000 spectators, or participate in the spring qualifying rounds to vie for one of the 560 competitor spots.
Shake the Lake
Late June (Monona Terrace in downtown Madison)
This one-night event features free music and entertainment as well as dozens of food and beverage vendors, a DJ’d party on the rooftop deck (which requires an admission fee), and a spectacular fireworks show over Lake Monona to cap off the evening.
Art Fair On The Square (and Art Fair Off The Square)
Mid-July (Capitol Square and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. in downtown Madison)
Now in its 60th year, Art Fair On The Square is sponsored by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA, pronounce Muh-MO-cuh) and features 500 exhibiting artists, three entertainment stages, and many food and beverage vendors. The Wisconsin Alliance of Artists and Craftspeople sponsors an adjacent festival called Art Fair Off The Square which runs along MLK Blvd from the capitol to Monona Terrace and features the work of approximately 140 Wisconsin artists. And no matter how sweltering or crowded it gets, you won’t be sorry you braved the heat and the people to get a glimpse of this diverse array of inspiring art.
Concerts on the Square
late June through late July/early August
A beloved Madison tradition, Concerts on the Square offer an opportunity to lounge on the grassy areas around the Capitol and enjoy live music performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. You can make a whole evening out of it by claiming your spot on the lawn as early as 3:00 p.m. and enjoying a meal before (or throughout) the concert: bring your own picnic, buy food from numerous downtown vendors set up around the concert area, or (if you’re good at planning ahead), pre-order a catered meal through Heritage Tavern and dine at an actual table on the concert site. Once you experience it, you’ll see why so many people make it a summer ritual.
Fete De Marquette
July 12, 2018 to July 15, 2018 (McPike Park, formerly known as Central Park)
This festival presented by the Wil-Mar Neighborhood and Willy Street Co-op features live music, carnival rides, delicious food, a kids’ parade, and a movie under the stars, which makes it equally fitting for a date night or a family outing.
Monroe Street Sidewalk Sale / Festival
Late July (2018) and/or September (Monroe Street on the west side of Madison)
Monroe Street stretches from Camp Randall Stadium at Regent Street (home of the UW Badger football team!) to the UW-Madison Arboretum, passing by Edgewood College and Lake Wingra along the way. Punctuated by quirky shops and eateries as well as Madison’s only Trader Joe’s location, Monroe Street hosts a vibrant sidewalk sale and festival every fall. Due to rampant construction affecting the entire street, it’s unknown if the festival will occur in 2018, but you can enjoy the Sidewalk Sale in late July and make a note to check out the festival in future years.
Willy Street Fair
September 15-16, 2018 (Williamson Street on the near east side of Madison)
A fall favorite that celebrates its 41st year in 2018, the Willy Street Fair celebrates the dynamic culture of the near-east side with a parade, scores of musical acts, a range of food, and lots of kids’ activities/entertainment.
Dane County Fair
July 19, 2018 to July 22, 2018 (Alliant Energy Center)
The “country fair with city flair” has all the livestock, carnival rides, greasy food, and music you could ever want, plus stunt entertainment and a petting zoo for the kids. What better way to revel in Wisconsin’s agricultural heritage than to dive into some cheese curds, ice cream, brats, and sweet corn?!
Saturday closest to Halloween (State Street)
Madison’s huge Halloween party on this pedestrian-only road draws tens of thousands of people each year, many in full costume. So you’ll have plenty of company if you’re looking for an opportunity to showcase your own costume, or you can just buy some food and drink from one of the dozens of appealing places on State Street and appreciate the other revelers’ creative outfits.
Downtown Madison Family Halloween
Wednesday evening before Halloween (State Street and Capitol Square)
Geared toward kids 12 and under, this event offers trick-or-treating and seasonal activities (mostly free of charge) at 75+ downtown businesses.
(Create a guide of Trick or treating in Madison)
Fantasy In Lights
before Thanksgiving to after New Year’s (Olin Park)
Free of charge (though donations are certainly appreciated), this annual holiday lights display makes for a glittery start to the holiday season. Its location on John Nolen Drive overlooking Lake Monona means you can even enjoy it in passing.
Kids In The Rotunda
mostly Saturdays, October through April (Overture Center rotunda, State Street)
The entire family will enjoy these free-of-charge performances held in the rotunda of Madison’s sleek, airy performing arts center on State Street and featuring a diverse range of music, dance, magic, science, puppetry, and more.
Lights at the Zoo
Thu-Sat nights / Thanksgiving to New Year’s, nightly / MMSD winter break (Vilas Park Zoo)
For a small fee, stroll the grounds of the light-festooned zoo at night. Sip a cozy drink, take a spin on carousel, and visit the holiday market. Make the best of the cold like a true Wisconsinite and spend a magical winter evening at the zoo!
Summer Concerts at Olbrich
Tuesday evenings, mid-June through mid-August (Olbrich Botanical Gardens)
With a different band each week and running the gamut from classical to folk, country to rock, Olbrich’s Summer Concert Series offers another chance to savor some al fresco tunes. Pack your own picnic or buy hot dogs and brats there, and settle in for a satisfying evening of outdoor music.
This list is just a sample of some perennial favorites in Madison. There are myriad ethnic festivals, literary and film events, and athletic competitions also worth attending, so check out the links below for some additional ideas. And this is the perfect excuse to strike up a conversation with your neighbors; they’ll love the chance to wax enthusiastic about their own favorite events in the area!
City of Madison: http://www.cityofmadison.com/visit-play/annual-events
Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau: https://www.visitmadison.com/events/
UW Madison: https://today.wisc.edu/