While the city of Milwaukee and the shores of Lake Michigan seem to get a lot of attention in Wisconsin, the capital city of Madison is a lovely place with quite a few fun things to do. This lakeside city is full of history, natural beauty, and local charm.
In fact, this city, located in the central part of southern Wisconsin, is nestled between four beautiful lakes of its own. Madison is served by its own mid-sized airport with flight connections to most US hubs. It’s also on the rail line to and from Milwaue e and beyond, and well-connected by highway to other midwest road trip destinations.
There are plenty of tourist attractions in Madison that make it a lovely vacation destination or a stop on a bigger trip. Lakeside fun, beautiful botanical gardens, and several art galleries and museums are just a few of the local favorites in “Mad City.”
If you’re wondering what to do in Madison, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to plan the perfect day in the Badger State’s capital and see everything you need to know about its best sights and activities.
- Most significant landmark – Lakes Monona & Mendota
- Best park – Olbrich Botanical Gardens
- Best free activity – Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
- Best activity for kids – Madison Children’s Museum
- Best activity for adults – University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
- Best food – Memorial Union Terrace
- Best nightlife – Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company
- Best all-around accommodation – AC Hotel by Marriott Madison Downtown
Best & Fun Things to Do in Madison, Wisconsin
If you’re wondering what to see in Madison, some of the top sights include its lakes, famous arboretum, and multiple interesting museums. There aren’t a ton of comprehensive guided tours of the city, so you’ll want to pick activities from this list à la carte and plan your time properly.
1. Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Address: 227 State St, Madison, WI 53703
Located in downtown Madison, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is home to an extensive collection of contemporary and modern artwork. The best part about it? It is completely free to visit!
The museum’s permanent collection is comprised of over 6,000 works of art, mainly featuring Mexican modernist prints and Chicago Imagism. Local artists are also prominent in the permanent collection. The museum also hosts new and exciting temporary exhibitions year-round, so you can always catch some new artwork to view and enjoy.
The rooftop sculpture garden is a fantastic place to take in the art and some amazing views of the downtown Madison skyline. It also serves as a stunning venue for events such as weddings and corporate dinners.
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is open Thursday to Sunday from 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm, making it a perfect afternoon activity on the weekends, especially when the weather isn’t the best.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Appleton, Wisconsin
2. Wisconsin Geology Museum
Address: 1215 W Dayton St, Madison, WI 53706
Located on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, the Wisconsin Geology Museum takes an even deeper dive into Wisconsin’s history. This is a free museum to visit and such an interesting place where the whole family can learn something new!
Did you know there were once volcanoes in Wisconsin? You can hold a piece of history through rocks that once came out of these volcanoes or see magnificent sea creatures that once swam where the streets of the city now sit.
I first recommend checking out the dinosaur and fossil exhibit, where you can even see the tusk of a mastodon that was found right in Wisconsin! And while the dinosaurs are sure to be a big hit, I also recommend checking out the fluorescent minerals exhibit. These glow-in-the-dark stones are mind-blowing to see up close.
As mentioned earlier, admission is free for everyone every day. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm and on Saturdays from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm. The museum is wheelchair accessible and can be reached by car, bus, and metro.
3. Madison Children’s Museum
Address: 100 N Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703
One of the best Madison, Wisconsin things to do for kids is to visit the Madison Children’s Museum. Children’s museums are a fantastic way to inspire your kids and possibly find new interests and hobbies for them.
The Madison Children’s Museum features awesome hand-crafted and award-winning exhibits for children of all ages and abilities. The award-winning Trash Lab teaches kids about how trash is made and how we can create less waste and transform it into new resources. If you are a parent of a high-energy toddler, head over to the Wonderground, a 10,000-square-foot play area that features all kinds of fun things like climbing structures and native gardens.
For kids at heart, the museum offers “Adult Swim” events throughout the year where adults (21+) can enjoy the slides, crafts, and music throughout the museums while enjoying a few adult beverages. The museum is open every Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, with extended hours on Thursdays until 8:00 pm.
The downtown area is a great place to base your stay in Madison, thanks to the many things to do in the area. The AC Hotel by Marriott Madison Downtown is a fairly-priced option close to everything, including nightlife like the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company down the road.
See Related: Best Things to do in La Crosse, Wisconsin
4. Wisconsin Veterans Museum
Address: 30 W Mifflin St, Madison, WI 53703
Situated right in the heart of Madison’s downtown area is the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. It’s a fantastic historical experience that will take you through some of the country’s most difficult times and tell the stories of the brave men and women from Wisconsin who contributed.
The exhibits are separated by time period, beginning with the American Civil War in the 19th Century Gallery. You’ll see a fascinating diorama of the Battle of Antietam, a real Confederate cannon captured by Wisconsin soldiers, and other great pieces of history of one of our country’s earliest conflicts. Other exhibits in this gallery include the Spanish American War, the Philippine War, and the USS Wisconsin.
In the 20th Century to Present Gallery, the two World Wars, the Vietnam War, and most of the other recent engagements are displayed. There are several real aircraft housed in the museum, including a UH-1 Iroquois Huey helicopter that flew in Vietnam – a must-see for aviation geeks like myself.
The museum is just across the street from the State Capitol Building, making for an easily combined visit. The Wisconsin Historical Museum was next door as well, and while they’ve closed for a complete rebuild, their gift shop is still open if you’re looking for a local souvenir.
5. Henry Vilas Zoo
Address: 702 S Randall Ave, Madison, WI 53715
The Henry Vilas Zoo is an exciting activity for anyone visiting Madison – and it’s totally free! This is one of only ten zoos in the United States that doesn’t charge an admission fee, and there’s even free parking, too.
While the story behind the zoo is a bit sad, it’s also a nice legacy. The Vilases were a local Madison family that donated a large parcel of land to the city for the formation of a pleasure park in memory of their son, who died young due to diabetes. They stipulated that no one should ever pay to use it, and when the zoo developed there in 1911, it, too, remained free.
The zoo is conservation-focused and offers a number of educational programs, especially for children. A visit reveals animals from five continents, including polar bears, African lions, and the Amur tiger. It’s an impressive collection that will take you far from Madison for an afternoon.
The Henry Vilas Zoo is situated just south of downtown Madison on the northern shore of Lake Wingra and is open every day. While you definitely don’t need to pay to visit, donations are always welcome and ensure the animals receive the best care possible.
6. Wisconsin State Capitol Building
Address: 2 E Main St, Madison, WI 53703
Looking at a map of Madison, you might notice that the streets of downtown seem to revolve around a central point on the isthmus – and in the center is the Wisconsin State Capitol Building. The area surrounding it forms Capitol Square, where you can find other attractions, dining, and shopping, making this a great stop on a Madison visit.
Keen-eyed visitors might notice that this is the tallest building in the city, thanks to a local law that prevents construction higher than the columns surrounding its central dome. That makes it ideal for catching views of the surrounding skyline and lakes, which can be seen on its observation deck.
Those interested in Wisconsin history and government can take a free guided tour, and exploring the beautiful interior on your own is possible as well. Note that the Wisconsin legislature, Supreme Court, and governor all work in the building, so certain places may be off-limits at times.
For visitors who like spooky sites, there’s an interesting paranormal past tied to the Wisconsin State Capitol that you can learn about on a ghost tour of the city – which is also available as a private experience. As mentioned, downtown is a great area to stay in, with a number of great hotel options, such as The Madison Concourse Hotel and the Best Western Premier Park Hotel.
7. Lake Monona
The lakes of Madison are some of its most important landmarks, and Lake Monona is one of the most prominent. This 3300-acre body of water sits immediately on the eastern edge of downtown.
There are many activities available in and around the lake. Boats can be rented at a few points, such as at Olbrich Park, making for a fun day on the water. There are also a few beaches for the warmer afternoons of summertime. Fishing, including ice fishing, is one of the local favorite activities, as the lake is full of catfish and pike.
If you are coming to town for an event or convention, there’s a good chance it’s being held at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center – more on that later. The Hilton Madison Monona Terrace is directly attached.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Hayward, Wisconsin
8. Lake Mendota
On the other side of the Madison Isthmus is Lake Mendota, the largest of the city. While there are many of the same activities available on this lake, such as boating and fishing, a few other features set it apart.
Lake Mendota has been called “the most studied lake in the world” thanks to the University of Wisconsin campus located on its southern shore, which conducts limnology research – the study of inland shores. The university also hosts the Memorial Union Terrace restaurant, one of the most popular in town for its beautiful sunsets and live music.
On the opposite side, you can find a totally different environment at Governor Nelson State Park, away from the city and among nature. Much of the southern and northern shores are lined with luxury lake homes, many of which are available as vacation rentals for summertime stays.
9. Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Address: 3330 Atwood Ave, Madison, WI 53704
If you’re searching for a peaceful oasis not far from Lake Monona, head over to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. The gardens consist of a tranquil 16-acre outdoor botanical garden along with a beautiful 10,000-square-foot conservatory.
While there are so many beautiful places to visit throughout the gardens, you definitely should add the Thai Pavillion to your list. It is the only traditional Thai Pavillion in the United States and the only one outside of Thailand that is surrounded by a garden. Another lovely place to stroll is the rose garden, where you can find several different species of rose plants.
The Bolz Conservatory is a glass pyramid that stands 50 feet tall. Here, you will find a rushing waterfall, various species of birds, bright blooms, and fascinating tropical plants.
Vanilla, coffee, and bananas also grow in the conservatory, which remains a balmy 65 to 95 degrees year-round. It is truly a tropical escape within Madison.
The Olbrich Botanical Garden is free to visit, while the Bolz Conservatory comes with an admission fee but is free on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10:00 am to noon. Both are open daily from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.
See Related: Best Cheap Places to Travel in the US
10. Allen Centennial Gardens
Address: 620 Babcock Dr, Madison, WI 53706
The University of Wisconsin – Madison is filled with hidden gems that are free and open to the public, and that includes the Allen Centennial Garden. It is run and maintained by the Horticulture Department of the university, and its main purpose is as a living classroom for UW students.
The garden surrounds the former Agricultural Dean’s residence and is dedicated to Ethel Allen, a former UW faculty member and an international authority in botany. It is made up of 15 smaller gardens and terraces, including an English garden and a Wisconsin Woodland garden.
The Wisconsin Woodland garden is home to over 160 species of plants, including trees and bushes that can be found throughout the state. For a tranquil spot to sit and relax, I recommend the Pond Garden, which features intriguing plants such as sea lavender, sunrise water lilies, and Virginia mountain mint.
The garden is free to visit from dawn until dusk every day. Dogs on leashes are welcome, and there are several benches located throughout the gardens so you can sit back and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
11. Chazen Museum of Art
Address: 800 University Ave, Madison, WI 53706
Art lovers will be pleased to find another totally free museum in Madison at the Chazen Museum of Art, located on the local University of Wisconsin campus and just a short stroll from Capitol Square. This is the second-largest collection of art in Wisconsin, with over 23,000 works in its halls.
The time periods, origins, and themes covered are extensive, including works from ancient Greece, western Europe, Moghul India, 18th-century Japan, and others. Artists include high-profile people like Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, as well as some beautiful pieces of unknown origin.
As mentioned, there’s no cost to visit, and the university curators invite anyone to stop by, whether it be for a few hours or just 10 minutes. Check out their website to see temporary exhibitions and special events happening during your visit as well.
See Related: Best Museums in the US You Need to Visit
12. Aldo Leopold Nature Center
Address: 330 Femrite Dr, Monona, WI 53716
The Aldo Leopold Nature Center is an awesome place where visitors can connect to nature and learn about the wonderful natural beauty that the Madison area has to offer. The nature center is comprised of several nature trails, the Nature Nooks, and a Children’s Shack.
Start your visit off at the Nature Nooks, where you can learn about the different habitat types that are found throughout the state. This is an awesome place for the whole family to learn more about the amazing flora and fauna found throughout Wisconsin.
You can immerse yourself in the world of native fish, woodland critters, and even monarch butterflies in the summer months. The Nature Nooks are free to visit and are open Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00am to 2:00pm.
Self-guided tours through the nature center’s various hiking trails are free and highly recommended. You can visit prairies, open fields, woodlands, wetlands, and Oak savannas. Throughout the open fields, you can find several picnic tables that make it the perfect spot to relax and take in beautiful nature.
13. Dane County Farmers Market
Address: Capitol Square, Madison, WI 53703
If your idea of a perfect Saturday morning includes a stop at the Farmers Market for some fresh farm produce, you should definitely add the Dane County Farmers Market to your list of fun things to do in Madison. It is the largest producers-only farmers’ market in the country, so you know the products you’re buying here are fresh and locally produced.
This wonderful market offers everything from seasonal fruits and vegetables to eggs, cheese, honey, baked items, and fresh flowers. If you’re a visitor to The Badger State, you must head over to one of the booths offering locally-made cheese curds – there’s seriously nothing better! You can also find specialty items such as beeswax and locally-grown potted plants.
The Dane County Farmers Market is held everyday Saturday in Capitol Square between mid-April and mid-November. The market is also held on Wednesdays at the 200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard from the end of April until the beginning of November.
See Related: Best Vacations for a Group of Friends
14. National Mustard Museum
Address: 7477 Hubbard Ave, Middleton, WI 53562
We all know Wisconsin is known for its delicious cheese and dairy products, but did you also know it’s home to the National Mustard Museum? Located just 15 minutes outside of Downtown Madison, this somewhat bizarre yet fascinating museum is home to the largest collection of mustard and mustard-related artifacts.
You can find over 5,600 varieties of mustard from all 50 states and more than 70 countries. Along with the actual mustard, you can find mustard-related artifacts and memorabilia, including kitschy ads and vintage mustard jars. The museum also offers a free tasting bar that features hundreds of different mustards.
Admission to the National Mustard Museum is free for all and is open seven days a week from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, excluding some holidays. Be sure to check out the gift shop after your tour, where you can find over 800 mustard selections.
15. University of Wisconsin – Madison Arboretum
Address: 1207 Seminole Hwy, Madison, WI 53711
One of the most popular features of Madison that bring visitors from all over is the University of Wisconsin – Madison Arboretum. This 1,200-acre nature preserve is located a few miles south of the main campus on the southern shore of Lake Wingra.
In fact, this Wisconsin arboretum is so impressive that it’s one of the country’s newest National Historic Landmarks, having joined the list in 2021. The university conducts ecological research and teaches relevant courses here, and the majority of it is open to the public at no charge for nature walks and leisure activities.
The Arboretum is made up of extensive restored ecological communities that exist, or once existed, in Wisconsin. This includes prairies and savannas, deciduous forests, conifer forests, wetlands, springs, and the Lake Wingra shoreline, among others.
Besides enjoying the more than 20 miles of hiking and snowshoeing trails, visitors can enjoy the horticultural collections, including a world-famous lilac collection and 500 plants native to Wisconsin. The University of Wisconsin – Madison Arboretum is an essential stop for any visitor who wants to enjoy the state’s nature in its most pristine state.
See Related: Best Spring Break Destinations for Families
16. Have a Friday Fish Fry
Don’t pass up the opportunity to try the local cuisine on any trip – and Madison is no exception. While visitors’ first thought might be to expect a lot of cheese from Wisconsin, there’s another great tradition that’s lesser known to non-Wisconsinites, but so much fun – the Friday Fish Fry.
This tradition is well-known around the state and has an interesting history. Most of the settlers of Wisconsin were of Polish and German descent and came from Catholic backgrounds, and therefore abstained from eating warm-blooded meat on Fridays.
Thanks to Wisconsin’s close proximity to the Great Lakes, plus the many smaller lakes of inland places like Madison, an easy alternative dish was fish. Thus, the Friday Fish Fry was born – and only gained more popularity during Prohibition, when bars served fried fish to stay in business.
Therefore, among the best Madison eats are various breaded fishes with different sides. Restaurants ranging from hole-in-the-wall bars to more upscale establishments will likely have some form of it on the menu, and to do as the locals do, get some on Friday!
Some of the most popular places in town to get fish fry on Friday night are Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club, The Old Fashioned, and Dexter’s Pub. Be sure to ask what kind of catches have come in from a local Wisconsin lake.
17. Frank Lloyd Wright Houses & Buildings
Any American architecture fans probably know of Frank Lloyd Wright and may know that Wisconsin was his native state. He spent his adolescent years living in Madison, where he would later design a number of the buildings that he became famous for.
Wright was famous for a number of his designs and styles, many of which can be seen in Madison. He coined the term “Usonian” to describe a style of house that fits in with the American landscape, and his first Usonian project was right there in Madison – the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House, constructed in 1937. It can be viewed on Toepfer Avenue and is now a National Historic Landmark.
One of Wright’s most famous styles was his Prairie Style houses, which were meant to complement the natural land around the Midwest. In Madison, he designed the 1908 Airplane House, which gives the impression that it’s about to take flight, magnificently combining this creativity with his Prairie Style. The 1903 Lamp House was designed for one of his best friends and also had the typical design.
While there are other houses around town, one of Wright’s major legacies is Monona Terrace, the aforementioned community and convention center on the banks of the lake. Frank Lloyd Wright fought for the project and was repeatedly rejected by the Madison local officials until his death.
His design plans, however, were kept and resurrected around 1990. Monona Terrace was built according to his design on the exterior and today welcomes visitors for guided tours and a rooftop café.
See Related: Best Father Daughter Trips & Vacation Ideas
Address: 12 S Carroll St, Madison, WI 53703
As mentioned, Wisconsin is well-known as the land of cheese, and you’ll certainly find plenty of it in Madison. One stand-out, however, is Fromagination – a Wisconsin artisan cheese shop that takes its products seriously, educates its visitors properly, and has them leaving very satisfied.
Wisconsin’s cheese history stems from some simple economics. The huge majority of farms in the state host dairy cows, partly due to a crop epidemic in the mid-1800s that forced them to find other sources of revenue. Cheese products last longer than regular milk and are easier to store. Hence, cheesemaking took off and continued to grow with the artisan movement.
Fromagination has its shop in a prime spot on Capitol Square, where they stock a huge array of local Wisconsin cheeses, as well as more rare products from around the country and abroad. Visitors can come in to learn, sample, and take home in any quantity – and are often blown away by just how amazing cheese can be.
If you’re a real enthusiast, Fromagination offers cheese classes on subjects such as Cheese & Beer, The Science of Cheese, and Building a Beautiful Cheese Board. You can also shop online if you are impressed with the selection and want more after your stay in Madison.
19. Trolley Pub Bike Bar Tour
Are you a party person, or traveling as a group of party people? One of the fun ways to see the city of Madison and crawl its pubs is on the Trolley Pub, a portable, pedal-powered bar on wheels.
You may have seen the Trolley Pub in other cities. It roughly takes the shape of a trolley but is more of a bicycle, steered by a professional and pedaled by everyone sitting around its bar. The vehicle drives around the streets of the city, during which you’ll get a bit of a tour and make stops at two or three of the best local bars.
This activity is an excellent one for a group of friends looking for some evening fun, and bike buyouts are available for events like bachelor/bachelorette parties or birthdays. For those who like meeting new people, Mixer Tickets are available as individual seats on a tour.
Pickup for the Madison tour takes place near the Hilton Garden Inn Madison Downtown, and the route either takes on the Capitol Square hill or goes down State Street. Pedalers are free to request the two or three stops at various bars, and the local driver is happy to make suggestions.
See Related: Best Breweries in Wisconsin: Craft Beer & Taprooms
20. The House on the Rock
Address: 5754 WI-23, Spring Green, WI 53588
If you have time for a day trip, drive one hour west to visit the famous House on the Rock. This astounding perpetual work-in-progress started off simply as the dream home for eccentric architect Alex Jordan back in 1945. It eventually morphed into a decades-long project which includes art galleries, exhibits, and gardens.
There are so many fascinating and unconventional displays at the House on the Rock that it’s impossible to list them all. Some highlights include the world’s largest indoor carousel, the miniature dollhouse room, and the infinity room, which spans 218 feet wide and features 3,264 windows.
If you visit around Christmas time, you’ll get to see the house transformed into a winter wonderland with 6,000 collectible Santas of all shapes and sizes. In October, The House on the Rock transforms into something out of your worst nightmares at night. Try out the Darkside Experience but don’t be too surprised if you get shivers down your spine.
21. Cave of the Mounds
Address: 2975 Cave of the Mounds Rd, Blue Mounds, WI 53517
One of the coolest things to do near Madison is to take a drive over to the Cave of the Mounds, located just 30 minutes away from Downtown Madison. The natural cave made of limestone is one of the most popular attractions in the state.
The cave was first discovered in 1939 by a limestone quarry contractor and soon became a natural wonder open to the public in 1940. In the first six months after its opening to the public, the cave saw over 58,000 visitors. It was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior in 1988.
Today, it has become a wonderful place for families and students to enjoy a natural wonder and learn more about Wisconsin’s geology as well as how limestone caves are formed. The cave can be explored through a guided tour with a guide who will explain the science and history behind the area.
The large cave takes approximately one hour to tour. Additionally, visitors can enjoy the gemstone mine area, the rock and perennial gardens, and a hike on the nearby nature trails in the US.
What is Madison, Wisconsin known for?
Madison is known for its location between two lakes, Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, which creates a beautiful backdrop for all that’s there. The Wisconsin State Capitol Building is one of its most prominent features besides the lakes, and locals and visitors alike appreciate the famous University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum there.
Is Madison, Wisconsin worth visiting?
Madison is definitely worth a visit for most types of travelers. A few of the most visited Madison attractions are the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, and the beautiful Lake Monona.
What are the top things to do in Madison with kids?
The best places in Madison for the whole family include the Henry Vilas Zoo, the Madison Children’s Museum, and the Wisconsin Geology Museum. Don’t forget to also try some of the fun things to do on the lakes, with activities such as fishing, boating, and enjoying the best hiking trails around them.
Can you take a day trip to Madison, Wisconsin?
Yes, many visitors choose to make Madison a day trip from elsewhere, as it’s only about a 1.5-hour drive from Milwaukee or 2.5 hours from Green Bay, for example. It’s also a natural stopping point for a road trip between states like Minnesota and Illinois or Michigan.