It’s not just the crisp air or the hum of students back on campus. This fall, Madison, Wisconsin shines as favorite events return from a pandemic hiatus.
Art Fair on the Square Madison Wisconsin
Art Fair on the Square

Not long after the sun rises over Madison's Capitol Square, crowds will begin lining up for an early glimpse at the works of more than 500 artists at Art Fair on the Square. The event doesn't start until 9 a.m., but fans always show up in force on the first morning, says Annik Dupaty, director of events and volunteers at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which hosts the fair. This September, she expects more fervor than ever when the festival returns. (Last year's cancellation was the first in its 62-year run.)

Every college town awakens from summer slumber in the fall, but Madison—home to the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus—has the heft of a capital too. The city buzzes with cultural events, plus bars and cafes along pedestrian-friendly State Street. An eclectic mix of cuisine includes new spots like Taco Local and Hone (try the budae jjigae, a spicy Korean stew).

After more than a year of stalled revelry, the city is ready for its post-vaccine revival. "There are a lot of cheers from people in the community," Dupaty says, adding that many are grateful the fair shifted from its usual July weekend to September, giving attendees more time to get vaccinated. "There's also happiness for the artists who really struggled during the pandemic." The return of Art Fair on the Square is just one harbinger of Madison's comeback in a busy slate of events and openings this fall. So if you haven't visited Madison lately (or ever), here are our 10 top reasons to come now.

The Harvey House
Joe Papach and Shaina Robbins Papach

1. RESERVE A TABLE AT THE LONG-AWAITED HARVEY HOUSE After a COVID delay, Madison's newest fine-dining destination opened in July, helmed by husband and wife Joe Papach and Shaina Robbins Papach. The duo's culinary resume includes famed California restaurants Chez Panisse and The French Laundry. The Harvey House pays homage to Wisconsin's supper clubs and sits within Madison's historic train depot. Dine in the old baggage claim area or book a private event inside a train car. Specialties include Old Fashioned Duck with Door County Cherries and a Grasshopper Ice Cream Bar.

Taste of Madison Wisconsin
Taste of Madison

2. SAVOR A TASTE OF MADISON, SEPTEMBER 4–5 With fiery curries and fried plantains, Taste of Madison offers a bite of the world—and of the Midwest. (Yes, fried cheese curds are included.) The festival returns in 2021 and moves from Capitol Square to Breese Stevens Field. Purchase tickets ($10) for one of three time slots on either day of the festival. Entry offers access to 40 different food vendors selling small bites priced between $1 and $5, plus live music and entertainment.

3. CATCH A LIVE SHOW AT OVERTURE CENTER FOR THE ARTS Overture Center's fall calendar overflows with comedy, music and dance events for culture-lovers ready to rediscover the magic of in-person performance. Designed by renowned architect César Pelli, the building itself is a work of art, spanning an entire city block and also housing the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

4. TOUR FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT'S TALIESIN ESTATE A collection of Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces, a sprawling 800-acre estate in the Driftless Region and fall colors aflame? Talk about a perfect day trip an easy 40-mile drive west of Madison. Join one of the public estate tours offered through October 31 or book a private tour any time of year.

5. CELEBRATE HUMAN STRENGTH AT IRONMAN WISCONSIN, SEPTEMBER 12 Ironman Wisconsin lures more than 2,500 of the world's toughest athletes to Dane County each year, along with thousands of spectators who watch the race as it winds around the waterfront at Monona Terrace and loops through downtown—a prime spot to cheer on the athletes from the comfort of a patio chair with a frosty beverage.

6. HIT THE ART FAIR ON THE SQUARE, SEPTEMBER 25–26 More than 200,000 people make the pilgrimage to Capitol Square for this festival that draws artists and shoppers from around the country (and raises funds for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art). Fine art, photography, one-of-a-kind jewelry, handmade furniture—you'll find it all here. While browsing, jam out to live music and enjoy local food vendors.

7. EXPERIENCE THE WORLD DAIRY EXPO, SEPTEMBER 28–OCTOBER 2 This bovine-centric trade show, which also includes national 4-H contests, returns in 2021 at the Alliant Energy Center. You don't have to be a dairy industry professional to enjoy the food and cattle show and learn more about the state's big claim to fame.

Wisconsin Badgers Game
Wisconsin Badgers Game
| Credit: Focal Flame Photography

8. CHEER ON THE BADGERS, SEPTEMBER–NOVEMBER Wisconsin Badgers football returns to in-person games this season at Camp Randall Stadium. Can't score tickets to see the Big Ten powerhouse on the field? Belly up to one of the bars showing the game. You'll be in good company when it's time to "Jump Around" to House of Pain at the end of the third quarter.

9. TAKE IN FALL COLOR FROM THE WATER Rent a kayak, canoe, stand-up paddleboard or pontoon from Madison Boats to explore urban lakes and enjoy a distinct view of the autumnal color palette. (Pro tip: Check Travel Wisconsin's Fall Color Report online to make sure your travel dates align with the most vibrant foliage of the season.) Gear rentals are available through September 26.

Dane County Farmers' Market
Dane County Farmers' Market

10. FEAST AT THE FARMERS' MARKET, THROUGH NOVEMBER 13 The Dane County Farmers' Market is the largest producer-only market in the nation, with more than 160 vendors every Saturday, looped around the domed statehouse. In fall, enjoy seasonal goodies like tomatoes and squash, or shop from local soap-makers and crafters. Don't miss Stella's hot cheese bread.

Grade A Accommodations

Madison's new and updated hotels are more than convenient crash pads. AVID HOTEL MADISON-MONONA opened shortly before the pandemic, offering comfortable rooms near the shores of Lake Monona. For downtown digs, book a room at the new HILTON GARDEN INN MADISON DOWNTOWN near the University of Wisconsin campus—perfect for catching a Badgers game (if you can snag a game-day reservation). The downtown HILTON MADISON MONONA TERRACE recently completed major renovations to its guest rooms and lobby, and SHERATON MADISON HOTEL just wrapped up a $15 million renovation project to spruce up guest rooms near the Alliant Energy Center.