New to Madison? Here’s What You Need to Know.

So you’re moving to Madison. Congratulations! Wisconsin’s state capital is one of the most beautiful, culturally vibrant cities in the country. In 2016, it was ranked #1 in’s annual ranking of the best cities in the country. With Wisconsin’s highest concentration of jobs, a thriving dining scene, and a highly-ranked research university, Madison is a great place to live and work.

But you already knew that — after all, you’re moving there. Here are five things you might not know as a new resident. Keep them in mind and you’ll be acting like a Madison native in no time. (Birkenstocks and co-op membership not included.)


1. Mendota’s the Big One.

It’s easy to get the two lakes confused, given their alliterative names. Mendota is the larger lake on the north side of the isthmus, and Monona is the smaller lake on the south. If you’re a UW student drinking beers at the Union Terrace, you’re looking at Lake Mendota. If you’re a young professional driving into Madison on John Nolen, Monona is the lake you’ll see.

“Monona” and “Mendota” are both Native American words, but they were not the names originally given to the lakes by the Native Americans who lived in the area. The Ho-Chunk words for the lakes were “Tchee-ho-bo-kee-xa-te-la” (Teepee Lake) and “Wonkshekhomikla” (“Where the Man Lies”). In 1854, Wisconsin’s governor formally named them Monona and Mendota. Monona is a Sauk word for “fairy,” and Mendota is a Dakota word that means “confluence of rivers.”

2. The Isthmus is a Lifestyle.

When you ask for directions, you’ll probably hear people refer to something be “on the isthmus.” If it’s been awhile since your last geography class, here’s a reminder: An isthmus is a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water. In Madison, the isthmus is between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona.


But the isthmus is more than just a topographical curiosity. Since it runs east-west, it’s one of the major corridors in and out of the city, and since it’s narrow, traffic can pile up on it. It’s also home to one of the quintessential Madison neighborhoods: Willy Street. If you like your eggs free-range, your power from the sun, and your produce local, you’ll probably find your people milling in and around the Willy Street Co-Op. But even if you don’t, chances are you’ll find yourself dining, shopping, or just walking through the leafy, charming neighborhoods between the lakes.

3. You Can’t Drive on State.

On the other side of the spectrum (and the isthmus) is State Street, which leads from the State Capitol all the way to the UW-Madison campus. Lined with bars, head shops, and fast-casual restaurants, State Street has long been the center of student life in Madison. The street is closed to everything but buses and bikes, and if you spend any time after 4pm on a Friday, you’ll understand why.

4. Concerts on the Square Are for Everyone.

Given the trouble that most orchestras have in securing younger audiences, it might come as a surprise that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Concerts on the Square” series is such a success. But the event, which occurs every Wednesday from June to August, draws thousands of people every summer Wednesday to the Capitol lawn to hear a crowd-pleasing selection of classics from the symphony’s extensive repertoire. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine — just get there early, and don’t even think about finding a parking spot less than a few blocks away (but there are ample affordable parking ramps nearby).

5. So is the Union Terrace.

It might sound odd that the University of Wisconsin runs an enormous outdoor bar on the shores of Lake Mendota… and that it’s open to the public. But it’s true! Students and visitors alike spend summer evenings lounging on the Union Terrace’s colorful chairs, buying cheap pitchers of local beer — at least one tap is always dedicated to beer made by students in the university’s brewing school. Canoes, paddleboards, and sailboats are also for rent to the sober crowd. All you need is a UW ID card, or a terrace membership — available for all residents, for a low fee — and you’ll be on your way to one of the best sunset views in Madison.


This article was provided by Sam Radbil, a contributing member of the marketing and communications team at ABODO Madison apartments.