Madison is the state capital of Wisconsin and one of the state’s most popular cities. It offers plenty of fun events, outdoor adventures and tourist attractions you can visit all year long, including the holiday season.
Madison, WI is considered one of the safest places you can visit in all of the United States. It has a strong art culture, diverse food options, various hiking trails, seasonal festivals, and many other fun things that make it perfect for living or visiting with family, friends, and children.
You can checkout the many museums, watch a magic show, admire the architecture or enjoy nature at one of the numerous extensive gardens. Here are seventeen of the best things to do in Madison, Wisconsin, whether you’re seeing the city in the summer, winter, or fall.
Top 17 Things To Do In Madison, Wisconsin
Visit The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is a major art hub in Madison, Wisconsin. It was built in 2006 with a mission to preserve and promote modernist and contemporary art forms.
Designed by famous Italian architect Cesare Pirelli, the Madison museum itself is a work of art. From the bow-shaped exterior to the glass-paneled interior, you’ll have plenty of aesthetics to feed your appreciation for architecture and art.
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art offers a selection of extension collections and exhibitions throughout the year. You should visit this famous museum for a chance to see works from renowned artists, including the legendary Andy Warhol.
Enjoy The Olbrich Botanical Gardens
There are many stunning gardens, and the Olbrich Botanical Gardens is one of the major ones. Sitting on a 16-acre patch of land, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a must-see for anyone looking to connect with nature.
The garden includes a Thai pavilion and garden, a gift from the Thai Monarchy, the Rose Garden, Herb Garden, Rock Garden, and Wildflower Garden. Each garden has dozens of plant and flower species to thrill every nature lover.
The Olbrich Botanical Gardens is also home to the Bolz Conservatory, a 10,000 square-foot greenhouse that houses over 700 plant types. Besides plants, the Bolz Conservatory collects free-flying birds, including canaries, Goldfinches, and waxbills.
They hold events at the gardens throughout the year, and you can experience nature-inspired art shows, guided tours, education sessions, and musical performances. Admission to the gardens is free, although you have to pay a $2 fee to access the Bolz Conservatory.
Cave Of The Mounds
Cave of the Mounds is located 30 minutes from Madison near Blue Mounds, but it’s one of the most thrilling and unique activities close to the city. It was first discovered back in 1939 and has become a must-see tourist attraction.
It provides an authentic cave experience where visitors can go below ground and see natural caves. There are even visible animal fossils attached to some of them. It’s the perfect place to visit for families and something that kids and adults can both enjoy. The cave tour is completely self-paced, so you can decide how fast or slow you can go. Still, they have knowledgeable guides along the way that provide information about the different caves and rock structures.
They also have a perennial garden and rain garden close by that you can explore when you’re finished with the tour or before it. Make sure to bring some warm clothes even in the summer since the caves can get quite chilly.
Take Kids To The Madison Children's Museum
The Madison Children's Museum is a great kid-friendly place for the holidays.
One of the popular exhibits at the Madison Children's Museum is Wonderground, an outdoor play space that was initially an abandoned parking lot. At Wonderground's 10,000-square-foot space, kids can test their climbing skills, explore orchards and gardens, and participate in educational programs.
Beyond the exhibitions, kids can enjoy special events organized by this Madison museum at different times of the year.
The Broomsticks and Beaker Week is a Halloween-themed science show that encourages kids to learn more about science through whimsical Halloween-themed creations. Other special events include Tales With Teresa, a reading session performed by a DynaVox device for young children.
Go To A College Football Game
Camp Randall Stadium is an 80,000-seater stadium that houses the Wisconsin Badgers, the University of Wisconsin's football team. Built in 1917, Camp Randall Stadium is the 41st largest stadium globally and one of the biggest university-owned stadiums in the US.
If you're in town, visit Camp Randall to experience the electric atmosphere at any of the Badgers' home games or watch any of the Green Bay Packers' exhibition games played here. If you're lucky, you may see a concert at the stadium where past performers include U2 and the Rolling Stones.
The stadium has other must-see locations, including a massive football memorabilia collection, luxury suites, and the Buckingham and Varsity Club section. Admission for visiting is free (assuming there is no football going on), but you'll need to register at least two weeks in advance.
Admire The Art At The Chazen Museum of Art
Art lovers can fall in love with the Chazen Museum of Art, a 176,000-sq-ft space that houses over 23,000 art pieces. The Chazen Museum is the second-largest art museum in Wisconsin and collects artworks from ancient civilizations, as well as those from Asia and the Americas.
You can see exquisite art collections displayed at the museum's galleries, including works from David Smith, Julio Gonzales, and Pablo Picasso. For a richer experience, register for one of the special events or exhibitions held year-round here.
The Chazen Museum of Art is always open to the public, and visitors can come in for free. You can also enjoy snacks and coffee at the café and buy souvenirs from the gift shops.
Go To The Dane County Farmers' Market
The Dane County Farmers' Market is the largest in the US and features over 275 vendors selling fresh produce and dairy products. The market is held on Capitol Square every Saturday from June to November 13th. In winter, the market moves indoors to Monona Terrace, just a few blocks away from Capitol Square.
For foodies, the Dane County Farmers Market is a paradise. The Bakery Section has everything from pastries and scones to muffins and empanadas. You can also find affordable vegetables, fruits, plants, and specialty products in this market.
Consider the smaller Wednesday Market held mid-week on Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard if you don’t like crowds. Although smaller than the Saturday Market, the Wednesday Market has many products ranging from baked foods and vegetables to eggs and confectioneries.
Watch The Animals At The Henry Vilas Zoo
Visiting the 28-acre Henry Vilas Zoo is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Madison, particularly if you have kids. The 97-year-old zoo is home to reptiles, tropical birds, seals, and carnivorous mammals like African lions.
Henry Vilas Zoo has several animal exhibitions that you can check out with friends and family at any time of the year. This includes a tropical rainforest exhibit that houses free-flying birds, rainforest plants, and different fish species.
For younger visitors, there are special tours that can enliven their experience. They can see animals, including aardvarks, goats, and red pandas. The electric zoo train and Conservation Carousel add more fun to the occasion, although you need to pay a small admittance fee.
Explore Lake Mendota
Lake Mendota holds the title as the biggest lake in Madison and probably the most famous of the city's five lakes, surpassing that of Lake Monona. It shares borders with Madison, Shorewood Hills, Maple Bluff, and Westport.
The experience at Lake Mendota is one you don't want to miss. In the summer, you can enjoy fishing, boating, kayaking, boat cruises, and, if you're brave enough, jump off the Union Pier. Winter at this Madison lake is perfect for ice fishing, skiing, and ice hockey.
The lake is close to State Street, so that you can visit both on a single-day trip. For families, the many waterfront parks are excellent choices to host a picnic.
Check Out The Wisconsin Veterans Museum
Situated in the heart of Capitol Square, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum honors men and women of Wisconsin who have served in the military. It has two galleries, a 19th Century Gallery and a 20th Century, displaying artifacts from the major wars of that period.
The 19th-century gallery shows memorabilia from the American Civil War, including a diorama depicting the famous Battle of Antietam. At the 20th century gallery, you can find exhibits showcasing the role of Wisconsin service members in the two World Wars, the Korean War and the Gulf War.
The museum also offers guided tours and interactive sessions where visitors can learn about wars fought in the past and the events that led to them. You should check out the gift store and buy some merch before you leave.
Enjoy Natures Wonders At The University of Wisconsin Arboretum
The Arboretum at the University of Wisconsin is a natural paradise and an important ecological restoration and research center. No other location has more restored ecological communities than this Wisconsin arboretum.
The Arboretum started in the 1930s because of the university's desire to restore plants eradicated during land development. The 1200-acre facility houses a Visitor Center, art gallery, ecological gardens, animal observatories, and study areas.
There are many things to do at the Arboretum. You can bird-watch, visit an ecological community, or take a walk in nature. If you're feeling creative, bring your camera or art supplies to create nature-inspired photographs and artworks. b
The Arboretum is an excellent spot for exercise and recreational activities. Only runners, walkers, and cyclists can use the 4-mile patch of paved road that stretches over the expanse of prairies, wetlands, and woodlands in the Arboretum. During winter, you can ski on the conservatory's 10-mile multi-use trails.
Madison has plenty of clear areas where you can go stargazing. Dane County, in particular, has many state parks where pollution is minimal, allowing you to get a clear view of the night sky. Depending on the season and time, you might see things like meteor showers and other unique astronomical events.
There is also the Yanna Research Station and Lawrence L. Huser Astronomy Center, which offer visitors facilities and telescopes to witness the beauty of the stars. The Madison Astronomical Society often hosts astronomy events for serious enthusiasts and beginners.
You can also always just sit back and enjoy the dark sky without the use of a telescope at one of the many state parks in the city.
Take A Stroll On State Street
State Street (aka Downtown Madison) is a pedestrian zone between the Wisconsin State Capitol Square and the University of Wisconsin campus. Famous for its assorted collection of shops, art galleries, eateries, and bars, the renowned remains a favorite tourist location in the state capital.
What you do here is entirely up to you. Spend the day shopping fine jewelry pieces and luxury clothing or hunt for rare music collections and books at any stores located here. You can also experience downtown Madison's culinary delights by visiting any of the cafés and restaurants lining the sidewalks.
The area is closed off to inter-city traffic, although buses, carriages, and trollies are available to take you around. Plan at least one day for your visit so you can get the full experience of Forever Street.
See The Cities Famous Architecture Attractions
No other building speaks of Frank Lloyd Wright's influence on Wisconsin's architectural development more than the Monona Terrace. The renowned architect proposed a convention center on the shores of Lake Monona in 1938 but never lived long enough to see it completed.
The current building, which opened in 1959, houses a state-of-the-art media center, exhibition hall, ballroom, and banquet Hall. A tour through the building includes visits to the rooftop café, gift shop, and adjoining plaza.
Monona Terrace is always open to the public, although the rooftop café is closed during the winter months. Explore Wright's masterpiece on your own or register for a guided tour. It's by far one the top Madison attractions. We also included it in our list of must-see Wisconsin attractions.
Relax At The Memorial Union Terrace
Memorial Union Terrace is arguably the best place to relax and have light fun in Madison. Although restricted to University Of Wisconsin students in the past, the Terrace is now open to the public. There are no entrance fees, and you only need to show up to have a good time.
You can sit on the iconic summer chairs and enjoy the weather and view from your vantage position. If you get hungry, grab an ice cream at the famous Babcock shop, or buy more food and organize a picnic.
The Terrace is also famous for its collection of unique music events and film screenings. You can see an artist perform or watch a blockbuster before you head home at night.
Join A Madison Eats Tour
The Madison Eats Tour takes tourists on a food-tastic journey through the state capital, stopping at local restaurants, bakeries, and bars. You can try out new foods, discover new locations, connect with people — all while enjoying the best foods and drinks Madison has to offer.
Popular tours include the Mexican Culture and Culinary Tours, Atwood Chew & Brew, Bikes' n' Bites Tour, and the Capitol Square Downtown Tour. Most of the restaurants and locations are locally owned, so you'd be supporting local businesses by signing up for one of the food tours.
Madison Eats started in 2012, born out of the need to promote Madison's vibrant food scene and make it a haven for foodies. With enough time to explore Madison's most extraordinary culinary delights, you'll form a lasting connection with the city.
Watch Magic Come To Life At The Tristan Magic Theatre
The top-rated Tristan Magic Theatre thrills audiences with an eclectic mix of large-scale illusions and close-up magic. It’s one of the top magic shows, and some consider it on par with most Hollywood-style performances.
Tristan Magic Theatre holds performances in a small, 175-seater hall, making the experience more intimate. Kids will love it since the visual effects of magical illusions appeal to younger children.
Tickets cost $40 per person, but groups of 30+ people can buy tickets at a discounted price. The show itself runs for 60-70 minutes with no breaks. Affordable hotels are located around the Lake Geneva area for those who plan to fly into the city (see our review on Dollar Flight Club for cheap flights) to see both shows across multiple days.
Madison, WI is only around 1.5 hours away from Milwaukee, WI. So if you're visiting Wisconsin, consider taking a day trip to Wisconsin's largest city by population. For a summer trip, Wisconsin Dells is an excellent destination with it's numerous water parks and other attractions, plus numerous cabins in the middle of the outdoors for you to explore.