15 Pros and Cons of Living in Madison, Wisconsin

A photo of the Madison capitol building, which closely resembles the US Capitol building. Green trees are in the foreground, a few buildings in the background, and the sunset sky is blue and pink.

Madison is the capital of the Badger State and home to the University of Wisconsin. With a population of 263K people within its 101 square miles, Madison is the second-largest city in Wisconsin.

When the first Europeans arrived in the Wisconsin area around the 1600s, it was the home of the Ho-Chunk (a.k.a. Winnebago) tribe. The opening of the Eerie Canal in 1825 led to a surge of settlers coming into Wisconsin, most of whom were immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. In 1829, former federal judge James Duane Doty purchased 1,261 acres for $1,500 and founded the city of Madison. 

This city was chosen as the state capital in 1836 due to the fact it was centrally located between Milwaukee to the east, Green Bay to the northeast, the lead mining towns like Galena to the southwest, and the Mississippi River to the west.

Today, the City of Madison continues its role as not only the capital of Wisconsin but also the major driving force for innovation and job growth for the state.

10 Benefits of Living in Madison, Wisconsin – Pros

1. Cheese, Beer, and Restaurants

Wisconsin is known as “America’s Dairyland” and the state is the country’s leading producer of cheese and the second-largest producer of both milk and butter. Madison has been called “A cheese lover’s paradise” and you will find an endless supply of markets and restaurants serving local artisan cheeses, sometimes in innovative dishes that you’ve never seen in other states (have you ever tried chocolate cheese or mac-and-cheese pizza?). 

If you would like some wine (and beer) with that cheese, Wisconsin is home to over 80 wineries and over 200 craft breweries, many of which are located in Madison.

If cheese is somehow not your obsession, then Madison has plenty of other high-quality, locally-owned, farm-to-market restaurants to satisfy any appetite. Some have given Madison the award for most restaurants per capita. The local newspaper lists 946 restaurants on their site. Several companies have formed to help organize, review, and lead tours of the Madison restaurant scene.

2. Access to Nature

Wisconsin’s natural forests were decimated by excessive timbering in the late 1800s. Thankfully, through one hundred years of conservation efforts, the forests have regrown. Today, 46% of Wisconsin (17 million acres) is covered by forest. Nearly 1/3 of this forest (6 million acres) is available for public access. 

While the northern parts of Wisconsin are best known for their forests, the southern parts have nearly 5 million acres of forests of their own. This means residents of Madison have easy access to a ton of woodland areas. In fact, Madison has been given awards for the most parks per capita and the most playgrounds per capita.

Popular woodland activities in Madison include hiking, camping, hunting, ATV riding, and more. In the winter, residents also participate in snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling.

Madison is a bike-friendly town, receiving a decent Bike Score of 65. The city is also one of only five towns to receive a “Platinum Bicycle Friendly Community” rating from the League of American Bicyclists.

3. Access to Water

Wisconsin has over 11K square miles (7 million acres) of water, the 4th most in the US. 

The State has over 1,000 miles of shoreline along the Great Lakes, 15K documented lakes, and 12K rivers and streams.

Madison is nicknamed “The Four Lake City” because it is located near Lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa. In fact, a good portion of the city sits on a narrow isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona. There are actually several more lakes near Madison in addition to these “big four”. 

Popular water activities include canoeing, kayaking, white-water rafting, boating, sailing, water skiing, and much more.

The state is also a paradise for freshwater fishermen. There are 2,700 trout streams in Wisconsin and 160 different fish species including muskie, bass, and pike. Ice fishing is popular in the winter. The lakes and rivers around Madison are prime fishing locations. 

Finally, Madison has a dozen freshwater beaches available for residents to enjoy during the summer.

4. Good Schools

Wisconsin public schools are ranked in the Top 25% for performance in the country. 77 of the state’s 400+ school districts receive an “A” rating, and over 75% of all the districts in the state receive at least a “B” rating.

The Madison Metropolitan School District is one of the “B+” rated districts, and the suburbs of Madison have some of the best “A+” schools in Wisconsin (i.e. Middletown, Waunakee, Monona). The Madison district serves 27K students across 52 schools, making it the second-largest school district in Wisconsin. It is the second most diverse school district in Wisconsin and in the Top 1% of most diverse schools in the country. 

The average teacher’s salary of around $60K places Madison among the Top 10 highest paying school districts in the country. However, potential residents should keep an eye on the political climate in Wisconsin as the state has been lowering taxes and cutting education budgets for the last decade.

5. Good Healthcare

Overall, the state medical system is regularly ranked among the Top 5 in the country and the best in the Midwest.

The best hospital in the state is the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison. This hospital is ranked #28 in the country, putting it in the Top 10% of hospitals in the nation.

6. University of Wisconsin – Jobs

A bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln sits in front of Bascom Hall. A flag with a big red and white "W" is hanging from the building.

Madison is a college town, and the success of the city is tied closely to the happenings at the University. UW is the top employer in Madison (and also ranks as the largest employer in the state), employing nearly 15K Madison residents. 

Other top employers in the city include the U of W Hospital, as well as other health, insurance, and retail companies. Madison is the fastest growing city in Wisconsin and home to growing tech, biotech, and health startups.

Madison has an unemployment rate of just 3.3%, half of the US unemployment rate at 6%. This rate puts Madison in the Top 10% of cities in the country for the best unemployment rates.

7. University of Wisconsin – Education

UW is ranked #12 (out of 691) for the Top Public Universities in America, rating highly in both academic and student life categories. While the main campus is in Madison, the University has 13 branch campuses scattered across the state.

The University of Wisconsin has the 10th largest library in the country with nearly 12 million volumes; one of the few non-Ivy League schools to rank the in Top 10.

Madison is one of the top cities in the country for PHDs and college graduates per capita.

8. University of Wisconsin – Sports

Wisconsin is crazy about its sports and is home to professional teams in football, baseball, and basketball. The Green Bay Packers currently hold the record of the most football championships of any team. In 2021, Wisconsin hosted its first modern NASCAR race. 

But if you live in Madison, you had better be a UW fan because they take their UW sports, especially the football and basketball programs, very seriously. You had also better be OK with crowds because an estimated 1.8 million people visit Madison each year on game days.

9. University of Wisconsin – Nightlife

Five people are lined up, holding colorful cocktail glasses in front of them.

The University of Wisconsin is rated the #3 party school in the country. The state of Wisconsin is ranked 2nd worst in the country for excessive alcohol consumption with 25% of adults admitting to binge drinking. 

Madison is a college party town, so residents have an endless variety of nightlife options, with all of the bars and clubs your body can handle. 

10. University of Wisconsin – The “Wisconsin Idea”

For over 120 years, Madison and UW have been at the center of progressive politics and protests. The city has taken passionate stances on segregation, the Vietnam war, nuclear proliferation, Black Lives Matter, and much more. 

In 1904, University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise developed the “Wisconsin Idea” which made it the University’s mission to work closely with the state and local government to make a difference in the lives of Wisconsin residents. The concept turned the University system into a think-tank for government policies by having University experts serve in office, provide advice on public policy as well as provide information and technical skills. 

This collaboration between the University and the state government generated progressive ideas such as:

  • The first statewide primary election system in the country
  • The first workplace injury compensation law
  • The first state income tax
  • The first unemployment compensation program

While today’s political climate has complicated the execution of the Wisconsin Idea, the concept is still at the heart of the University of Wisconsin’s mission.

5 Drawbacks of Living in Madison, Wisconsin – Cons

11. Cold Winters

A photo of a very snowy road, with cars parked on the left, and traffic on the right. The trees are covered in snow. Poor visibility blurs the background.

Madison summers are cool and humid with temperatures averaging in the 60s and 70s, and with very few days of sweltering heat. This summer climate makes for some great vacation days.

However, the trade-off comes in winter, which is cold and wet. Average winter temperatures are in the 20s and 30s, with low temperatures frequently dropping below zero. The city goes through periods in the winter where the temps never rise above freezing and the snow never melts. Madison gets an average of 48 inches of snow annually, nearly double the national average. 

It is tough to enjoy the many nature activities (Pro #2) and water activities (Pro #3) available in the area when it is -30 degrees outside. 

12. Crazy College Town

Repeating some of the key points listed above in the Pros section:

  • Madison is a college town, home of the #3 party school in the nation, and in a state with the 2nd worst rate of alcohol consumption. It has a huge nightlife that never sleeps.
  • Gameday attracts an estimated 1.8 million visitors to the town.
  • Protests can be frequent and sometimes violent. 

All of the above can be very amusing when you are in your early 20s; but will you find it amusing when you are 40 and trying to get your kid to soccer practice? Or when you are 60 and just want to get home to take a nap?

Folks that have never lived in a college town might want to try the town out for a while (perhaps by renting instead of buying) to make sure it is a good fit for you. Living in a college town is a “unique experience”. 

13. Lack of Diversity 

The state of Wisconsin has the following demographics:

  • White 86%
  • Black 6%
  • Hispanic 6%
  • Asian 2%

75% of the state’s African Americans live in the city of Milwaukee and most of the remaining black population lives in the cities of Racine, Beloit, and Kenosha. Outside of these four cities, there is not much diversity in the population. 

Madison has demographics similar to the state except the Asian community is 7 points higher in Madison than elsewhere in the state:

  • White 74%
  • Asian 9%
  • Black 7%
  • Hispanic 7%

14. Cost of Living is Average

Salaries in Madison match the national average of $31K per person and $54K per house. 

The cost of a home is also similar to national averages at $257K to buy and $1,100 to rent. These housing costs have increased 23% in the last five years. 

Being at national averages isn’t awful, but reviews of the city frequently mentioned disappointment in the salaries being provided by the companies in town. Individuals with an average salary and average cost of living will be living on a tight budget.

15. High Taxes

Wisconsin has the 5th highest overall state and local taxes in the country at 13%, the highest in the Midwest and only behind Illinois and a few Northeast states. The state has the 6th highest property taxes, beaten only by the pricey Northeast states.

The current administration has been lowering the Wisconsin tax rates over the last few years (perhaps at the sacrifice of some of the Pros mentioned above such as school funding).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Madison, Wisconsin 

An aerial photo of Madison, showing the capitol building in the center, blue lakes on the left and right, with a variety of city buildings in between

Is Madison Wisconsin a Safe City?

Yes, Madison is a reasonably safe city. The vast majority of residents live their day-to-day life without encountering crime. 

Violent crime is slightly below average (16 versus US 22). Property crime is slightly above average (42 versus US 35). Both types of crime are above Wisconsin averages (meaning there are plenty of other places in Wisconsin to live if crime is super important to you).

The city does have about 20 active gangs, a fair number of homeless encampments, and has the most drug overdoses deaths in the state.

The city is currently experimenting with lowering its police budget in order to push the money to community-led initiatives. 

What is a Livable Salary in Madison, Wisconsin?

The Living Wage for a single adult is $15 an hour. If you have a child, the required wage for living increases to about $30 an hour.

Today, the minimum wage in all of Wisconsin is forced to match the Federal minimum ($7.25) and cities are blocked by state law from raising the minimum wage on their own.

Salaries in Madison match the national average of $31K ($15/hr) per person and $54K ($26/hr) per house. So the average job in Madison is just barely meeting the living wage standard.

Is it Expensive to Live in Madison, Wisconsin?

The cost of a home is similar to national averages at $257K to buy and $1,100 to rent. Other costs of living expenses are also very similar to national averages. 

Being at national averages isn’t awful, but reviews of the city frequently mentioned disappointment in the salaries being provided by the companies in town. As mentioned in the above FAQ, the average wages in Madison barely hit the Living Wage minimum. 

So individuals with an average salary and average cost of living will be living on a tight budget.

What is the Madison, Wisconsin Quality of Life?

During the summer months, life in Madison is great. The weather is perfect and the students are gone. Residents love to get outside to enjoy the many nature activities (Pro #2) and water activities (Pro #3) available in the area.

Life in the Fall can get tougher as the students flood back to campus and the town gets crazy for Game Days.

Winters are long and hard due to the frigid and wet weather. (Con #11)

Is Madison, Wisconsin Boring?

No, Madison is not boring during the summer thanks to a huge variety of nature activities (Pro #2) and water activities (Pro #3) available in the area.

Madison is also not boring in the winter if you are willing to rub elbows with the local college crowd at the bars and nightclubs.

Related: 21 Pros and Cons of Living in Wisconsin