The Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin: 5 Must-Do Annual Events
The Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin isn’t just the seat of state government, it’s like the state’s front lawn. Folks gather there often for a variety of fun, free family-friendly events, or just to sit on the soft grass and chill. Here are 5 perfect times to get yourself to the Capitol Square.
1. Dane County Farmer’s Market
Looking for “the good stuff”? You know, the fruits of the field and the friendly people the Midwest is known for? The Dane County Farmer’s Market (DCFM) is without a doubt the region’s foremost purveyor of the good stuff.
Think of the DCFM as the polar opposite of swiping a plastic card at a big-box grocery store to buy produce that has those stupid little sticky tags all over it. At our farmer’s market, you hand your money to the farm family that grew what you’re buying.
Since opening in 1972, the DCFM vendors sell only products they’ve produced locally: vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, flowers, honey, cheese, meat, baked goods (when you hear a baker cry, “Hot cheesy bread!” run — RUN — toward that sound), and more.
Aside from all the gorgeous goods to buy at the DCFM itself, the rest of the Capitol Square fills with food and beverage carts, musicians, balloon-animal makers and other amusements, not to mention the resident cafes, restaurants, and unique retail shops (see the “bonus” section below).
When to go
Open each Saturday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. from April 16 through November 5.
A smaller DCFM, on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., which extends from the Capitol Square to the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, runs on Wednesdays, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., from April 20 to November 2.
A fun day to attend DCFM is the annual “Cows on the Concourse” event in which you can mingle with cows and calves from local dairy farms. City kids, especially, go bananas when they get to touch these animals and learn about them. In 2016, it’s on June 4, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
See more DCFM special events here.
For a truly deluxe Farmer’s Market experience, book The Edgewater’s Farmer’s Market Package, which includes a special price for a room for two on a Friday night, breakfast at The Statehouse, drinks from The Cafe, car service to/from the market, tote bags and thermal mugs.
What the locals know
Prepare for the Haul: Bring a few sturdy canvas bags, or a basket with handles. Or a cart. Or a wagon. Seriously.
Walk This Way: We walk the Square counter-clockwise for the most part. Why? Dunno. We just do. Perhaps in farmer’s markets on the exact opposite hemisphere, they all walk clockwise.
Study Uniquely Madison Life Forms: Grant yourself time to sit, just sit — you’ll find plenty of perfect places — and watch people go by. This is a quintessential Madison experience. Our guarantee: You will smile.
2. Concerts on the Square
A “chamber orchestra” traditionally plays music that, according to Mental Floss, is “written for private halls, aristocratic parlors, and glitzy palace chambers.”
This is Madison. We do it a little differently here.
Sure, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra mostly plays lovely chamber music in lovely chambers, such as their regular home in the Overture Center for the Performing Arts a few blocks from the Capitol Square on State Street.
But on six summer Wednesday nights, they play outside in front of the Capitol Building, with thousands of listeners, many of whom sit on blankets on the lush lawn. On these evenings, the Square is lined with great food and beverage options, and there’s a special kids’ area.
The orchestra, led by Maestro Andrew Sewell, plays a variety of classical music — some you’ll probably recognize even if you’re not well versed in classical — mixed with more popular music and some outside-of-the-box selections that will broaden your musical horizons.
See the full listing of 2016 concerts here (those in the greenish section are Concerts on the Square), and click on “MORE INFO” for each concert date to see details on the featured music and soloists for each concert. All Concerts on the Square are free.
Come and revel in the music, the camaraderie, and the sun setting over the Capitol Building.
When to go
Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m.: June 29; July 6, 13, 20, 27; August 3
What the locals know
On Your Marks…Get Set…
The 7 p.m. start time is when the show on stage starts. But the real show starts at 3 p.m., the time at which you are permitted to lay down a blanket or two to stake out some prime territory if you like.
You don’t have to do that to enjoy the show — there’s plenty of room and speakers all around the building for areas where you can’t see the orchestra. But it’s fun watching people line up across the street from the Capitol with their blankets, waiting to dash forth at 3 p.m.
The Competition for Coolest Picnic Setup is Fierce
There’s some serious picnic gear one can buy these days in order to eat and drink in faux-grand style while sitting on the ground.
You Can Bring Low-to-the-Ground Folding Chairs
Some chairs are already set up for use on a first-come-first-served basis, and there are VIP tables close to the orchestra which are mostly corporate-sponsored.
If you want to use a chair on the lawn, however, you need one of those low-to-the-ground chairs that are basically a backrest with a seat 4-6 inches off the ground. Anything taller isn’t permitted, so people can see over your noggin.
3. Art Fair on the Square
Madison is a hub of fine visual art, and we love to bring it out of our museums, galleries and art schools for some fresh air. While we’re at it, we invite a couple-hundred thousand of our closest friends to come out and enjoy the art — and perhaps some fried cheese curds and a beer (because Wisconsin).
Since its beginning 58 years ago, the Art Fair on the Square has grown to nearly 500 artists exhibiting paintings, prints, photographs, sculpture, jewelry, handmade clothing and accessories, and fine crafts. It now draws about 200,000 visitors on a single July weekend each year.
This is a “juried” show, meaning would-be exhibitors must meet certain standards to be included in the fair. To help groom a new generation of artists, the 2016 show will also feature a small group of “emerging artists” section at the top of State Street.
When to go
Saturday, July 9, 2016: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m (the Dane County Farmer’s Market will also be open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wilson Street, one block off the Capitol Square).
Sunday, July 10, 2016: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
What the Locals Know
Art: Rated “E” for Everyone
Don’t think this type of art fair is only for aficionados and people prepared to spend big bucks on art. Yes, there is highly valuable fine art on display. But many exhibitors also have modestly priced pieces — an affordable taste of their talents — that anyone can take home and enjoy.
Get OFF the Square, too
Art Fair on the Square exhibitors come from all over the country. For a display of local talent, take a side trip down Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., which goes from the Capitol Square down to the Monona Terrace, for the Art Fair Off the Square.
The off-the-Square version runs the same hours as the on-the-Square version. It showcases about 140 Wisconsin exhibitors including ceramics, art glass, painting, fiber, sculpture, jewelry, graphics, paper-making, photography, wood, and more. The website also promises “spontaneous happenings” — our favorite kind!
4. Taste of Madison
If you are hungry or thirsty on Saturday or Sunday of any Labor Day weekend, you are probably NOT on Madison’s Capitol Square. The Taste of Madison brings about 80 restaurants, 25 beverage vendors and three music stages to serve about a quarter of a million people.
It’s free to attend and enjoy the entertainment. Food items cost $1 to $4, and top out at about 6 ounces, so you can sample the fare from many different restaurants, all of which are local establishments.
Expect local flavors — cheese curds, sweet corn and the like — and expect the unexpected.
The Taste of Madison showcases the multi-ethnic makeup and creativity of the Madison population and food scene. The variety of flavors, presentations and techniques is simply stunning.
But no bacon. Bacon is not allowed. (Juuuuuuuuuust kiddin’, folks.)
The event is run by the non-profit Madison Festivals Inc., which donates about $50,000 to $60,000 each year to area non-profit and charitable organizations. In exchange, these organizations provide volunteer labor for the event.
When to go
Saturday, Sept. 3, 2 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. (the Farmer’s Market will be held that day, but it will close between 1 and 1:30 p.m. instead of 2 p.m.)
Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Check here in May for the lineup of restaurants and entertainers.
What the locals know
How To Get More Tastes for Your Buck(s)
Bring a posse so y’all can divvy up the purchases and taste from one another’s plates.
This is Almost too Basic to Mention, but…
Arrive 1) early, and 2) hungry. Take an initial spin around the square, try a few things and scout out the overall scene. Then, after you’ve taken in a band or two on the music stages, you’re ready for round two. Rinse. Repeat.
Leave Your Culinary Comfort Zone at Home (or at, Like, Denny’s)
The modestly sized/priced selections are an invitation to experiment. You’ll be amazed how many dishes fall into the I-have-no-idea-what-I-just-ate-but-OMG-it-was-AMAZING category.
Tip Your Beverage Tender
Tip money goes to local charities.
5. Wisconsin State Capitol Building Tours
We haven’t been to every state’s capitol building, but we’re willing to bet the following scene isn’t typical anywhere outside of Madison:
You walk into the middle of the Capitol Building main floor and see at least one or two kids — and maybe even their parents — lying on their backs on polished marble floor, gazing straight up at the mural on the underside of the dome, arching far above them.
This speaks to two great things about the Wisconsin State Capitol Building:
- It’s beautiful
- People feel comfortable enough to just make themselves at home
Feel free to stop in when you’re on the Square for, say, the Farmer’s Market, visiting one of the museums, shopping, doing business — or just for the heck of it. Take one of several free tours conducted daily (see below for times). And remember: Look up.
When to go
Weekdays: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Weekends and holidays: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Free tours (45 – 55 minutes) Monday through Saturday: 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m.
Free tours Sunday: 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m.
Memorial Day through Labor Day M-F: An extra 4 p.m. tour
Groups of 10 or more can make an online reservation for a tour of the State Capitol or call (608) 266-0382.
What the locals know
Summer Tours Go Higher
For a spectacular view of downtown Madison and beautiful lakes that bracket it, take the Capitol Building free tour in the summer months, when you can go up to the sixth floor and go on the outside observation deck.
Okay, Let’s Get This Whole “Capital” vs “Capitol” Thing Straight
Capital refers to the city — the seat of government — while “capitol” refers to the building itself. And when you’re referring to a specific building that includes the word “capitol” as part of its name, you capitalize the “c.” Thus, Madison is Wisconsin’s state capital, and the building’s full name is the Wisconsin State Capitol Building or just the “Capitol Building.”
Following that logic, we refer to the entire block around the building as the “Capitol Square,” or less formally as “the Square.” And yes, this will be on the quiz.
For Extra Credit on the Quiz
What’s the name of the tall, elegant bronze lady gleaming in the sun atop the Capitol dome? Hint: It starts with a “W,” ends with an “n,” and the UW cheerleaders shout it right after “You! Rah! Rah!”
The Edgewater is a quick three-block walk from the Capitol Square, and we’re glad to provide our guests transportation to and from events there.
Bonus: Why Anytime is a Great Time to Visit the Capitol Square
If you haven’t been to the Capitol Square in the last 10 years, you’ll be astonished at the change in the street-level scene on the blocks across the street from the Capitol Building.
These streets have transformed from mostly business offices into a belt of cool specialty
shopping spots, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and more. There are far too many to list here, but here’s just a sample of the stores you might really dig:
Yes, we’ve all got our smartphone cameras these days, but if you’re a serious photographer, this place is for you. The digital gear is phenomenal, and so is the expert advice. (Map: 24 N. Carroll St.)
What were the odds a guy named Markus Candinas was going to grow up to be a chocolatier? The odds improved considerably after he studied the art in Switzerland for three years. Taste what that training plus over 30 years as one of Wisconsin’s premier chocolatiers can do. (Map: 11 W. Main St.)
Local owners and mother-daughter team Peg Scholtes and Jenna Hansen feature high quality, fun clothing, games, toys, and books — most of which will be passed down from kid to kid for many, many years. You’ll often find Peg and Jenna play-testing their goods. With actual kids. In the name of “research.” (Map: 8 S. Carroll St.)
Fine cheese is the heart — but only the start — of the amazing stuff you’ll find at Fromagination. This is just a party of a store. It’s packed with all the best things to pair with Wisconsin’s (and therefore THE WORLD’S) best cheeses, much of it locally made, plus gorgeous gift baskets and foodie toys. (Map: 12 S. Carroll St.)