With a whole myriad of things to do in Madison, this state capital has quite a bit going for it.
You might immediately think of cheese curds and cold winters when you think of this northern state capitol. But, Madison, Wisconsin actually has so much more to offer. Nestled in between multiple lakes, this city is both an outdoor playground as well as a cultural hub. From the extensive hiking and biking trails to the water sports, this city has been voted the healthiest and best to live in over the years. So, you won’t be short on activities outside or in. There are boundless free options in Madison to keep you seeking art, animals, history, and knowledge. So, get out a pad and paper because we’re about to take you through the best things to do in Madison, Wisconsin.
1. Stroll Along in the Olbrich Botanical Gardens & Bolz Conservatory
There is nothing quite like a living museum. When you walk among the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, you’ll understand what I mean. You will stroll through sixteen acres of outdoor gardens while you’re here that have been curated for quite some time. Within the garden is the only Thai Pavilion in the US, making this a unique opportunity. Since 2005, the spectacular rose garden has also been open to the public. It has a mixture of Midwest shrub roses and perennials to cover all its basis. The other specialty gardens include the herb garden, perennial garden, and a sunken garden. These gardens are all open daily, year round, and are free of charge. If this isn’t one of the most splendid things to do in Madison, we’re not sure what would be.
Since you’re already here, it will be well than worth it to pay the two dollar entrance fee into the Bolz Conservatory. It is a bright and cheery glass pyramid that reaches fifty feet into the sky. The tropical atmosphere allows for orchids to bloom among other tropical plants. The atmosphere is truly magical with a rushing waterfall and free flying birds flapping around. You can see your foodie favorites growing in here too, such as bananas, coffee, and vanilla beans. Between these and the carnivorous plants, we’re sure you’ll leave this place a little more in awe of nature than when you came. Of course, it can get up to a balmy 95 degrees in the conservatory, so it’s also a great spot to warm up after some winter adventures! Pairing the conservatory and Botanical Gardens together is one of the best things to do in Madison, Wisconsin.
2. Get Inspired at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
For over one hundred years, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, or MMoCA, has been curating its collection and specializing their exhibits. In April 2006, it moved into a new building designed by Cesar Pelli. Today, it continues to stand as a figurehead of art and culture in the north. With over five thousand objects and art pieces, the collection contained here is both extensive and spectacular.
Along with a myriad of local Wisconsin artists, they have works from Deborah Butterfield and John Steuart Curry. In addition, art by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Cindy Sherman are also on display. With the acclaim that the MMoCA has, they have been able to host brilliant exhibitions over the years. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, and George Segal have been featured. On top of that, Rodney Graham, Georgia O'Keeffe, and John Wilde's works have made appearances as well.
On top of the stellar art, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is renowned for its award winning gift shop. The products rotate with the exhibitions, so you can always find something to commemorate your visit. It has an eclectic mix of contemporary American craft and fine jewelry, as well as art books, cards, and children's gifts. If museums and shopping make you hungry, make sure to head to the roof and dine at Fresco. This rooftop restaurant will allow you to see more of America’s best contemporary art while you dine on seasonal, fresh, and local dishes. There’s nothing quite like sipping wine while dining alongside a glass wall overlooking the museum's sculpture garden. Or, if you’re here in the summer, sit along the garden’s edge. Either way, this will be the cherry on top of one of our favorite things to do in Madison.
3. Enjoy Animal Exhibits at the Henry Vilas Zoo
The Henry Vilas Zoo is one of the last ten free zoos open in the United States. It began in 1911, a few years after Col. William and Anna Vilas gave a large tract of land to be used for a park and public pleasure. The zoo itself is named after their son, Henry, who passed away at a young age due to complications from diabetes. Over the past hundred years, the zoo has stayed free and open to the public while drawing the best animals they can. Committed to education and preservation, you’ll learn about the animals and their habitats as you make your way through this splendid place. From the tropical rainforest aviary to their big cats exhibit, you’ll quickly understand how this made our list of the best things to do in Madison. If you have little ones in tow, they’ll enjoy the children’s zoo as well.
In addition to all of these, you can tour the Arctic Passage as well as the Primate House while you're here. Of course, there is also a special Wisconsin Heritage section that you can gain an even greater appreciation of this state through. There are many more exhibits in addition to these as well. But, you can easily see why the free Henry Vilas Zoo is a must-do when it comes to things to do in Madison. It is simply a spectacular state treasure worth exploring and supporting.
4. Eat Cheese Curds & Drink Local Brews at The Old Fashioned
So, you’re in the state of cheeseheads. Well, you’ll obviously have to eat some incredible cheese and local beers to accompany them if you’re here. We highly recommend keeping it classy and homegrown at The Old Fashioned. They are committed to remaining true to their Wisconsin roots and taking their beer, cheese, and grub very seriously. Founded in 2005, they modeled their restaurant while keeping true Wisconsin experiences, such as grandma’s cooking and an afternoon fish fry. You’ll see their attention to detail in their carrying of the famous Wisconsin Seymour soda, as well as Sheboygan brats and hard rolls.
Of course, The Old Fashioned knows what true locals are drawn to, so don’t be surprised to see an ice-cold PBR paired with a spicy pickled egg. Make sure to try the cheese curds, of course, but also explore their Green Bay Chili and their Old Fashioned Burger. From all of this to their daily specials each week, you’ll understand why there is a certain type of local love for both this city and this state.
5. Tour the Stunning Wisconsin State Capitol
Not all state capital buildings are created equal. The Wisconsin State Capitol building is one of the most stunning in the nation. While you can easily walk in and experience the murals and dome on your own, it is well worth taking a free tour. You’ll understand more about how this is actually the fourth capitol building Wisconsin has had. You will be shown the stories behind the breathtaking Rotunda Floor. You’ll learn just how much it cost when no expense was spared on choosing the best and most stunning building materials.
In the end, you’ll end up on the sixth floor observation deck where you can see America’s only granite dome from the outside. You’ll love the view from here, as there are laws protecting the skyline. No building near the capital can be over 187 feet, keeping the view of and from the Capital pristine. So, you can see how this easily makes of our list of the best things to do in Madison.
6. Live the High Life at the Governor's Mansion
The Wisconsin Governor’s Mansion, also known as the Executive Residence, resides on the eastern side of Lake Mendota. Home to Wisconsin’s governors since 1949, the current governor, Scott Walker, is the fourteenth to reside here. Outside, you’ll enjoy the design of the building in the southern Classical Revival architectural style. Inside, there is wonderful Wisconsin memorabilia in the 34 rooms, 13 bathrooms, and 7 bedrooms. Taking a free tour of the mansion in summer or during the holidays is one of the best things to do in Madison. You can enjoy the seven large garden areas, as well as a screened-in gazebo. There are numerous serpentine walkways that lead to the lakeshores as well. So, for a unique stroll through a highly recognized government official’s house, head on over to the Wisconsin Governor’s Mansion.
From the regal gardens and buildings to the lakeside bike rides, you’ll quickly see why locals love all the different things to do in Madison.
You might enjoy staying at some spectacular resort in this pleasant midwestern state. Or, you might have been drawn to Wisconsin to experience first hand the fervor of being a Green Bay fan. Either way, a trip to Wisconsin is more than worth it, or at least make sure you can drive through it on your next epic cross-country road trip. The abundance of fun and often free things to do in Madison just beckons you to stay for a while. We didn’t even begin to touch on the fact that this city has bike lanes galore and will be supremely easy to get around while you’re here. So, put in for your PTO now because adventures in Madison are calling.
Related Article: 10 Best Things to Do in Wisconsin: Art, Adventure, and Local Culture