Madison is the state capital of Wisconsin and one of the state’s most popular places to visit. Madison offers plenty of fun events, outdoor adventures, and tourist attractions you can visit all year long, including the holiday season.
It’s also 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, and many other activities that make it perfect for visiting with family or friends.
You can check out the many museums, watch a magic show, admire the architecture, or enjoy nature at one of the numerous extensive gardens. Here are some of the best things to do in Madison, Wisconsin, based on our experience having traveled to it many times considering we live in Milwaukee.
Fun Things To Do In Madison, WI
1. Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is a major art hub in Madison. 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. While there are kid-specific museums in Madison, kids will enjoy this one just as much as adults.
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.
2. Olbrich Botanical Gardens
There are many stunning gardens in the state but the Olbrich Botanical Gardens is one of the major ones in Wisconsin. Sitting on a 16-acre patch of land, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a must-see for anyone looking to connect with nature. In my experience, it’s also the perfect place to enjoy a relaxing stroll and one of the most fun things to do in Madison.
The garden includes a Thai pavilion and multiple garden exhibitions ranging from a Rose Garden to Rock Garden and Wildflower Garden. Each garden area 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 different plant types. Besides plants, the Bolz Conservatory collects birds, including canaries, Goldfinches, and waxbills.
They hold fun events at the gardens throughout the year, and visitors can see nature-inspired art shows, guided tours, and even musical performances. Admission to the gardens is free, although you have to pay a $2 fee to access the Bolz Conservatory, which is worth the minimal cost.
3. 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 activities close to the city that we have ever done. It was first discovered back in 1939 and has become a must-see tourist attraction.
It provided us with an authentic cave experience where you 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 together.
The cave tour is completely self-paced, so you can decide how fast or slow you can go. Still, they have knowledgeable guides along different points that provide information about the different caves and rock structures.
They also have a perennial garden and rain garden you can explore after finishing the tour or before it. Make sure to bring some warm clothes even in the summer since the caves can get quite chilly. If you get cold easily like Kami does, I’d highly recommend it.
You will probably want to get a car rental in Madison if you’re looking to visit Cave of the Mounds since it’s around a 30-minute drive from the city center.
4. 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 the museum at different points of the year.
The Broomsticks and Beaker Week is a science show that encourages kids to learn more about science through whimsical Halloween-inspired creations. Other special events include Tales With Teresa, a reading session performed by a DynaVox device for young children.
5. 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 in 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. The museum does get a bit busy during the holiday season so if you want to avoid the crowds, come early or late in the evening.
6. The Dane County Farmers’ Market
The Dane County Farmers’ Market is the largest farmers market in Wisconsin and the United States 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 (which we also recommend visiting), just a few blocks away from the 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. Make sure to take some back home.
Consider the smaller Wednesday Market held mid-week on Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard if you don’t like huge crowds. Although smaller than the Saturday Market, the Wednesday Market has many similar products ranging from baked foods and vegetables to eggs and confectioneries.
7. The Henry Vilas Zoo
Visiting the 28-acre Henry Vilas Zoo is undoubtedly one of the best free things to do in Madison, Wisconsin. The 97-year-old zoo is home to reptiles, tropical birds, seals, and carnivorous mammals like African lions. Although it’s much smaller than our Milwaukee County Zoo, we think it’s still as fun and it’s totally free.
Henry Vilas Zoo has several animal exhibitions that you can check out with friends and family at any time. 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 do need to pay a small admittance fee for it.
8. 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. You’ll find that a lot of hotels in Madison are situated right by it.
The experience at Lake Mendota is one you won’t want 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 winter sports like ice fishing, skiing, and ice hockey.
The lake is also close to State Street, so visitors can do both on a single-day trip. For families, the many waterfront parks are excellent choices to host a picnic.
9. 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 offers guided tours and interactive sessions where visitors can learn about wars fought in the past and the events that led to them. I recommedn you check out the gift store and buy some merchandise before you leave.
10. 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. Not even the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum can compare.
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 other areas.
There are many things to do at the Arboretum. You can go bird-watching, visit an ecological community, or take a hike in nature. If you’re feeling creative, bring your camera or art supplies to create nature-inspired photographs and artworks.
The Arboretum is an excellent spot for exercise and recreational activities. Runners and cyclists can use the 4-mile patch of paved road that stretches over the expanse of prairies and landscapes of 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.
12. 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 and trollies are available. Plan to spend at least one day here to get the full experience of Forever Street. When I was back in college, I use to come here for their popular Freakfest Halloween festival each year.
13. 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.
14. 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.
15. 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 and discover new locations all while enjoying the best foods and drinks Madison has to offer.
Popular tours include the Mexican Culture and Culinary Tours and the Capitol Square Downtown Tour. Most of the restaurants and locations are locally owned, so you’re supporting local businesses by signing up for one of the food tours.
Madison Eats started in 2012, born out of the need to promote the Wisconsin state capitol’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.
16. The Tristan Magic Theatre
The top-rated Tristan Magic Theatre in Lake Geneva is quite a drive from Madison but it’s worth the effort as one of the closest magic threatres nearby. They thrill audiences with a 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 and the adult drinks make things more entertaining.
The show itself runs for 60-70 minutes with no breaks. Affordable hotels are located around the Lake Geneva area for those who are willing to stay overnight. Madison, WI is only around 1.5 hours away from Lake Geneva. So if you’re visiting Wisconsin, consider taking a day trip to Lake Geneva too.
17. UW-Madison 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 United States.
If you’re in town, visit Camp Randall to experience the electric atmosphere at any of the Badgers’ home games or watch the Green Bay Packers’ exhibition games played here. The stadium is also a common place where concerts by famous singers are typically held.
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 game going on), but you’ll need to register at least two weeks in advance.