Madison, Wisconsin is more than just the capital of Wisconsin and home of the Wisconsin Badgers. It’s most known as a college town, but there are so many things to do in Madison that most people don’t even realize.
Being from Wisconsin, we visit Madison several times a year, and there is always something going on. If it’s your first time in the city or you are a Wisconsinite, we’ve put together a list of some of the best things to do in Madison!
1. Boating on Lake Mendota
If you’re itching to get out of the city, then make your way to sparkling Lake Mendota. As the largest of the four lakes in Madison, Lake Mendota is the ideal destination for an outdoor adventure.
During the summer, fishing, wakeboarding, tubing, kayaking, and wind-surfing are popular activities amongst visitors. Winter is also a great time to explore the outdoors, with ice boating, ice skating, and ice hockey being a few favorite pastimes.
Even if you’re not into water sports, you can still enjoy the pristine natural surroundings of Lake Mendota. There are several parks surrounding the banks of the lake where you can have a picnic or relax in the sun. While the lake is located close to the city center, it’s rarely crowded, offering a much-needed breath of fresh air for anyone looking to spend time outside.
There are Lake Mendota boat cruises you can join to get out on the lake and get a tour. Betty Lou Cruises is a popular choice, with cruises seven days a week.
We suggest staying at the Edgewater, which is one of the best lake resorts in Wisconsin.
2. Shopping on State Street
State Street is a metropolitan paradise filled with shops, bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues. It spans across several blocks and connects the University of Wisconsin to Capital Square, which is home to the Wisconsin State Capital. Although it’s only a half-mile long, State Street is arguably considered to be the beating heart of Madison.
Grab a hot dog at the famous State Street Brats or browse through trendy independent boutiques like Anthology and Vom Fass Casks. You can even catch a live performance at The Overture Center for the Arts and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. You can also just post up in a cafe or outdoor restaurant and watch the hustle of daily life fly by you.
3. Visit the Wisconsin State Capital Building
Built in 1917, the Wisconsin State Capital Building is one of the most iconic structures in the city. As the tallest building, it looms over the skyline and can be seen for miles around. Not only is it the office of the Governor, but it also houses the Supreme Court and Wisconsin legislature.
Guided tours of the capitol building during working hours are possible and can be booked in advance on their website. This informational tour sheds light on the history of Madison, as well as the operations that take place inside its walls. During your visit, you can also stop by the museum or admire the panoramic city views from the observation deck.
- Admission: Free
- 2 East Main Street, Madison
4. Memorial Union Terrace
Located on the property of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Memorial Union Terrace is bustling with different events and activities. This outdoor terrace boasts dramatic, sweeping views of Lake Mendota from every angle. You’ll find students, visitors, and locals soaking in the sun almost every day of the week.
During the summer, Memorial Union Terrace also hosts a variety of events, like live music and outdoor movies. There are several shops and restaurants nearby where you can grab a cold beer or a bite to eat.
- Admission: Free
- 800 Langdon St, Madison, WI 53706, United States
5. Taste Your way around the National Mustard Museum
It might be one of the most unique museums you’ll set foot in, but the National Mustard Museum is not to be missed during your trip to Madison. What once started out as a personal mustard collection from one man 35 years ago has transformed into a jaw-dropping museum with more than 7,000 types of mustards on display.
After visiting the museum, stop by their on-site shop and browse through 500 different types of mustard from around the world. Whether you’re looking for booze-infused flavors or locally made Wisconsin brands, you won’t find a collection like this anywhere else on the planet. Best of all, the museum (and the mustard tastings) are entirely free!
- Admission: Free
- 7477 Hubbard Ave, Middleton, WI 53562, United States
6. Drink an Old Fashioned at The Old Fashioned
The charming Old Fashioned Tavern and Restaurant is a beloved Wisconsin establishment where you can eat and drink like a true Madison local. Although it’s only been around for 15 years, it feels more like a vintage supper club that has been a staple in the city for ages.
The extensive menu contains delicious classic Wisconsin favorites like fried cheese curds, fish fry platters, and beer cheese soup. The drink list is also noteworthy, although the signature Old Fashioned cocktail is the clear star of the menu. If you’re looking for comforting home-cooked cuisine and strong whiskey cocktails, then look no further than the Old Fashioned.
- Average price: $10 – $18 per entree
- 23 N Pinckney St #1, Madison, WI 53703, United States
7. Dane County Farmers Market
America’s largest producers-only farmer’s market is located right here in the heart of Madison. This year-round market is held two days a week in the summer at Capitol Square, next to the Madison Municipal Building and the City County Building, and at the Monona Terrace in the winter.
You’ll find over 275 vendors selling everything from fresh produce and gourmet cheese to handicrafts and indoor plants. Be sure to come hungry because there’s even a food truck area where you can indulge in locally-sourced dishes. Whether you come for lunch or come to window shop, there’s always something interesting to buy at the Dane County Farmers Market!
- Hours: Saturday and Wednesday 6:15am – 1:45pm
- Admission: Free
- 2 E. Main St., Madison, Wisconsin 53703, United States
8. University of Wisconsin Arboretum
Situated just four miles away from the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s city campus is 1,200-acres of unspoiled natural beauty. The University of Wisconsin Arboretum is an outdoor ecology laboratory of diverse ecosystems, including forests, wetlands, and prairies. In addition to the Madison arboretum, the University also protects more than 500 acres of land throughout the state.
The best way to explore the University of Wisconsin Arboretum is on foot. There are dozens of hiking trails, and even free-guided nature walks where you can learn more about the park’s habitats. Spot red-winged blackbirds in the Redwing Marsh, marvel at the 150-year old oaks at Noe Woods, or discover hundreds of different flowers and plants in the Viburnum Garden. There’s a world of outdoor adventure just waiting for you at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.
- Admission: Free
- 1207 Seminole Hwy, Madison, WI 53711, United States
9. Experience a Madison Festival
Although there are plenty of things to do and see in Madison during a typical day, attending one of the city’s many festivals is the best way to get a feel for the local culture. Thankfully, Madison seems to always have something going on – from music performances to food festivals and everything in between.
The Taste of Madison is one of the largest food festivals in the city. At the end of August, more than 250,000 people flock to Capital Square to dine at over 80 restaurants, and sample beverages from at least 25 different drink stands.
Artfair on the Square is also a great event to attend in the summer. You’re guaranteed to find a new piece of artwork or a new garden sculpture from one of the 500 artists’ booths. In addition to art, the festival also has live music and a food truck area.
Make Music Madison takes place every year during the summer solstice. This outdoor festival takes place at 100 different locations around the city. As you hop from neighborhood to neighborhood, you’ll be treated to live music performed by music makers of all skill levels and ages.
10. Madison Children’s Museum
Fun for the whole family, the Madison Children’s Museum is a fascinating and educational dive into the world of art, science, and history. The entire museum is divided into multiple exhibits, each with a different thematic focus.
The exhibit From Coops to Cathedrals, allows children to experiment and tinker with different inventions. The urb garden exhibit gives creative tips on how to raise chickens and grow plants in an urban or city environment. The interactive Possible-opolis exhibit is a makeshift city where kids can climb up buildings or run wild on a life-sized hamster wheel.
If you have the time, it’s also worth checking out their calendar of events and workshops. Either way, your children are guaranteed to walk away having learned something new at the Madison Children’s Museum.
- Admission: $9 for adults and children
- 100 N Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703, United States
11. Olbrich Botanical Gardens
The tranquil Olbrich Botanical Gardens are a great place to spend an afternoon in Madison. There are over 16 acres of exotic plants, blooming flowers, and manicured gardens for you to walk through, and even an on-site conservatory filled with more than 550 different plant species.
Separated into several areas, the park contains an English garden, a Thai garden, a wildflower garden, a rock garden, and a meadow garden. You can also wander through the spectacular rose garden to see more than 700 different varieties of roses.
However, the main highlight of the park is the scala. Surrounded by lush foliage and green, tropical plants, this Thai-styled pavilion is only one of two scalas in the US. It overlooks a shallow reflecting pool, which adds to the peaceful ambiance of the garden.
- Admission: Free
- 3330 Atwood Ave, Madison, WI 53704, United States
12. Henry Vilas Zoo
Are you interested in spending the day with a wild Amur Tiger or a playful Bornean Orangutan? Well, at the Henry Vilas Zoo, you can see lions, tigers, bears, and hundreds of other adorable creatures. Open since 1911, Madison’s only zoo is teeming with animals from around the world, including a variety of vulnerable, threatened, and critically endangered species.
Take a walk through the tropical rainforest surrounded by colorful parrots, or head to the herpetarium to get up close and personal with tortoises and anacondas. This is your chance to see some of the world’s rarest animals, including the red panda, white-handed gibbon, or golden lion tamarin. You’ll be amazed by all the different creatures that await you at the Henry Villas Zoo.
- Admission: Free
- 702 S Randall Ave, Madison, WI
13. Have Dinner at Tornado Steak House
No trip to Wisconsin would be complete without dining at one of the best supper clubs in Wisconsin. Supper clubs gained popularity in the Midwest during the 1930s and 1940s and offered diners a place to enjoy classic American dishes.
The Tornado Steak House has fed Madison for two decades and is the epitome of a traditional, old-school establishment. With white table clothes, vintage decor, and dim lighting, you’ll feel like you’re being transported back to the 1940s.
On the menu, you’ll find seared venison, pork tenderloin, and pan-roasted duck breast. However, most people come to the Tornado Steak House for their wide selection of mouthwatering steaks. They have around ten different types of steaks, including the bone-in tenderloin, the New York strip, and the Ribeye on the Bone.
- Average Price: $40 – $60 per entree
- 16 S Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703, United States
14. Cheer on the Badgers at Camp Randall
Buckle up your red and white striped overalls and get ready for an exhilarating football game at Camp Randall. Located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Camp Randall is the home stadium of the Wisconsin Badgers football team. It’s been a landmark in Madison since 1895, making it the oldest stadium of the Big Ten Conference.
Although Camp Randall can currently hold more than 80,000 screaming fans, there are plans to remodel the stadium at the end of 2020. The remodeled stadium will include club seats, larger outdoor terraces, and gourmet dining options, just in time for the 2021 Badger Football season.
- Average price: $10 – $60 per ticket
- 1440 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711, United States