15 Best Things to Do in Madison (WI)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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The city of Madison is known for being the state capital of Wisconsin, and while this may have made it famous, there is a lot more to this city than meets the eye. This charming locale often tops indexes of the best places to live in the United States, and it has an all-American feeling to it which is also coupled with a strong dedication to the arts as well as a flourishing cultural scene.

The city is also modestly stylish, as this was the former home of celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and much of the city is designed in his signature style. As well as museums, art galleries, and concert halls, Madison is known for its biking trail and leafy parks, and if you want to get out on the water then you will find not one but three lakes to enjoy here. Even in the winter months, you can have some fun skiing, snowshoeing, or ice skating here.

Lets explore the best things to do in Madison:

1. Wisconsin State Capitol

Wisconsin State CapitolSource: flickr
Wisconsin State Capitol

As Madison is the state capital of Wisconsin, you can’t visit here and not see the State Capitol building in all its glory. The Wisconsin State Capitol is conveniently located near to Madison’s gorgeous lakeshore in the downtown area of the city, so you can also explore this area on foot at the same time. The building dates from 1917 and is topped with a majestic 284 foot dome which rivals Washington’s State Capitol. Inside the building itself are some beautiful decorative murals as well as marble from France, Italy, and Germany, and you can take a guided tour of the building to take in all the history for yourself.

2. Chazen Museum of Art

Chazen Museum of ArtSource: flickr
Chazen Museum of Art

If you are looking for a range of artwork across a variety of styles then look no further than the Chazen Museum of Art. Here you can expect to find painting, sculpture, drawings, print work, and even photography. As well as American artwork there is also a strong dedication to European art at the Chazen Museum, and there are also rotating exhibits that feature works from around the region and abroad. Guided tours with friendly docents are available so that you can learn more about the history of the art located here, and there is even a music program so make sure you check the local listings to see if you can catch a concert when you are in town.

3. Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Olbrich Botanical GardensSource: flickr
Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Located on the scenic waterfront of Madison, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens are one of the most serene and colorful parts of the city. The gardens bloom all year round with seasonal plants, and were first opened in 1952. One of the signature features of the gardens are the roses that are grown here, as well as the Bolz Conservatory which is an indoor area that features a range of pretty indigenous foliage. Not just limited to flowers, there are also architectural features in the park such as the Sala which is a picturesque pavilion that was given to the gardens by the Thai government and is carved in the ornate Thai style to give you a taste of Asia in Madison.

4. Wisconsin Historical Museum

Wisconsin Historical MuseumSource: commons.wikimedia
Wisconsin Historical Museum

Located in the heart of Wisconsin in Capitol Square is the Wisconsin Historical Museum, which is the place to come if you want to learn all about the background of this great city. The museum will take you back in time over the years and fill you in on all the historical and cultural significance of Madison, and there are rotating exhibitions and galleries that do so, as well as a fixed educational section of the museum. Some of the exhibits here are quite quirky, and these include galleries dedicated to the creation of malted milk, said to be an invention of Wisconsin.

5. Monona Terrace

Monona TerraceSource: flickr
Monona Terrace

Monona Terrace was actually the brainchild of celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright, although he never saw it completed. The spectacular building was only built in 1997 using Wright’s designs and it is instantly recognizable thanks to its glass facade that was also a signature feature of Wright’s work. You can take a tour of the building or you can enjoy the rooftop terrace here that offers stunning views over the downtown area of Maison and also stretches to Lake Monona.

6. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

The Madison Museum of Contemporary ArtSource: flickr
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

For anything arts related in Madison you need to head to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art or the Madison Art Center as it is also referred to. Not only does this space support and promote the arts in Madison, but the building itself is often cited as a work of art in its own right. The front of the building resembles the bow of ship and the museum spans three floors, all fronted with stunning glass. The outside is clearly spectacular, as well as being one of the most iconic parts of the city, but the inside is also equally important. Once you pass the front doors, you will find a vast exhibition area that has rotating galleries that feature both local and international works, and there are also art related events held regularly so make sure you check what’s on when you are in town.

7. Henry Vilas Zoo

Henry Vilas ZooSource: flickr
Henry Vilas Zoo

The Henry Vilas Zoo opened in 1924 and spans 28 hectares in the city. The zoo has over a million visitors per year and you can expect to find a huge range of animals here, some of which are indigenous species and others that come from all over the world. These include bears, lions, and a variety of species of apes. As well as touring the zoo, you can also join an educational program here where youngsters can learn about protecting local flora and fauna, and there are also interactive displays and rides. To that end, there is even an old-fashioned carousel for younger visitors to enjoy.

8. The Madison Children’s Museum

The Madison Children’s MuseumSource: flickr
The Madison Children’s Museum

If you are traveling in Madison with younger visitors, then a trip to the Madison Children’s Museum is well worth the effort. The museum has a wide range of exciting and engaging exhibits for young minds and there are different activity areas for guests of different ages from toddlers to pre-teens. Each section is dedicated to a different theme to teach youngsters about the world around them, such as biology, physics, and history, and this is a perfect place to come on a rainy day to keep young visitors entertained.

9. Lake Monona

Lake MononaSource: flickr
Lake Monona

One of three powerhouse lakes in the Madison area, Lake Monona is fed by the majestic Yahara River and means ‘Beautiful’ in local Chippewa language. The lake is known for being frozen for much of the year, during which time it can be used for ice skating if conditions are conducive, and in the summer months the lake is a popular place for fishing due to the number of indigenous species of fish found here such as northern pike, walleye, and bass. Boating is also possible with a selection of boat ramps available around the lake.

10. University of Wisconsin Arboretum

University of Wisconsin ArboretumSource: flickr
University of Wisconsin Arboretum

The University of Wisconsin has a long and celebrated history and actually dates back 150 years. The campus spans over 1,000 acres of prime land and members of the public can visit parts of the university such as the Arboretum which has the claim to fame of housing some of the oldest ecological communities in the world which include prairies, forest, wetland, and even savannas. You will also find local flora here including the signature lilac collection for which the Arboretum is most famous. There is also a Visitor Center which has a wealth of information about the local ecology in Wisconsin.

11. Lake Kegonsa State Park

Lake Kegonsa State ParkSource: goodfreephotos
Lake Kegonsa State Park

Situated just to the southeast of Madison, Lake Kegonsa State Park lies on the shores of the gorgeous Lake Kegonsa. The park is filled with ecological gems such as forest lands, prairies, and stunning wetlands. Popular pastimes in the park include camping on the campground here in order to truly commune with nature, as well as spending time on the beach that is nestled against the northeast shore of Lake Kegonsa. There are over 8 kilometers of hiking trails here if you feeling active and fancy a walk, or if you want to take to the lake then you can go fishing, boating, swimming, or even water skiing here.

12. Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Wisconsin Veterans MuseumSource: flickr
Wisconsin Veterans Museum

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum has won awards for its displays of the history of war and the people who fought in them, going back all the way to Civil War times up until the Gulf War. Here you will find exhibits dedicated to war themed memorabilia as well as interactive galleries and even items such as period military vehicles and war planes. There is an antique Sopwith Camel on site as well as a P-51 Mustang for visitors to learn all about, and this is definitely worth a visit if you want to learn about the sacrifice made by men and women in the military from the past until the present.

13. Aldo Leopold Nature Center

Aldo Leopold Nature CenterSource: flickr
Aldo Leopold Nature Center

The Aldo Leopold Nature Center, or the ALNC, was first founded in 1994 and is dedicated to providing young visitors with interactive programs for families and youngsters alike in order to teach them about the local environment in Madison. The center is named after the celebrated and famous ecologist Aldo Leopold and it has education programs that you can join in order to see the local Madison flora and fauna at its best.

14. University of Wisconsin Geology Museum

University of Wisconsin Geology MuseumSource: wuwm
University of Wisconsin Geology Museum

If you choose to visit the Arboretum at the University of Wisconsin then you can also visit the adjoining Geology Museum at the same time, where you can learn all about minerals and fossils from the area. The museum is something of a hidden gem in the area, but if you do make it here then you can expect to find full dinosaur skeletons on display as well as real life meteorites, and sparkling gemstones from the area.

15. Dane County Farmer’s Market

Dane County Farmer’s MarketSource: flickr
Dane County Farmer’s Market

Dane County Farmer’s Market located in Madison is said to have the claim to fame of being the largest producer focused market in the United States. This accolade means that you can expect the produce here to have come straight from the growers or makers themselves and to that end you will find the freshest and most delicious bites in the region on offer. The market is held in the majestic Capitol Square and has over 200 stalls at one time, and you can expect to find diverse treats such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, and local products like cheese, honey, and baked goods. There are also live events held here such as musical concerts and street performances such as juggling to entertain the crowds.

15 Best Things to Do in Madison (WI):

  • Wisconsin State Capitol
  • Chazen Museum of Art
  • Olbrich Botanical Gardens
  • Wisconsin Historical Museum
  • Monona Terrace
  • The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
  • Henry Vilas Zoo
  • The Madison Children’s Museum
  • Lake Monona
  • University of Wisconsin Arboretum
  • Lake Kegonsa State Park
  • Wisconsin Veterans Museum
  • Aldo Leopold Nature Center
  • University of Wisconsin Geology Museum
  • Dane County Farmer’s Market