Busy State Street in the Summer

Photo by Focal Flame Photography

Downtown Story

Downtown Madison sits on the ancestral lands of the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Nation, who referred to the city as Taychopera, meaning “land of the four lakes” – two of which create the isthmus: a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land.

From the native Ho-Chunk to an architectural gem like Monona Terrace, Madison has a rich cultural history

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace was built on the water’s edge of Lake Monona, just a couple of blocks from the Wisconsin State Capitol Building, which is at the heart of the isthmus. During the summer months, one of the country’s largest farmer’s markets has been held around the Capitol for nearly 50 years. On the other side of the infamous dome, at the “top of State” as it is affectionately referred to by locals, you’ll find museums that focus on local history: the Wisconsin State Historical Museum, which features displays and exhibits about our state and its citizens, and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, which commemorates the role of Wisconsin citizens in American military history.

The iconic State Street, which became a pedestrian mall in the 1970s, leads all the way to the University of Wisconsin campus and is lined with diverse local retail and restaurants. Throughout the seasons, pop-ups, live music and art can be enjoyed both indoors and outdoors. The history continues at a cultural hub built around the historic 1928 Capitol Theater, Overture Center of the Arts and Madison Museum of Contemporary Arts (MMoCA). The Cesar Pelli-designed, state-of-the-art center to house touring and local visual and performance arts, including Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Opera, Madison Ballet and Forward Theater Company. On the same block, the 1927-built Orpheum Theater is still filled with music and other live events to this day. Throughout the last several decades, big-name bands on tour have often stopped in Madison between larger markets.

In the 60s and 70s, Madison became a major location for protests and remains so today. Some of the movements include a strike for African American student and faculty and rights, anti-Vietnam marches and demonstrations, protesting the abolishment of nearly all collective bargaining for public worker unions, climate change, Black Lives Matter and anti-Asian racism. Many of Dane County’s 7,040 nonprofit organizations focused on work surrounding these topics can be found downtown, including YWCA, RENEW Wisconsin, Madison Community Foundation and soon Boys & Girls Club of Dane County.

When in June 2020 downtown businesses put up plywood boards during the protests against racism and police brutality, Madison Arts Commission took quick action to pair businesses with muralists to create an a fresco art gallery on State Street and Capitol Square, which allowed the expression of grief, anger and feelings. The important murals have come down but are honored and commemorated in a photo book American Family Insurance created, titled “Lets Talk About It.”

Downtown Madison has always had a vibe all its own and warmly invites everyone to experience it for themselves.

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