Madison is perched on the isthmus of Lake Mendota and Lake Monona in South Central Wisconsin. As the state’s capital, it is the hub of local politics and one of Wisconsin’s jewels. One of only two US cities built on an isthmus, all around the city, the beauty of the lakes is your scenic backdrop.
The University of Wisconsin has been responsible for world-changing research and discoveries and has one of the USA’s most beautiful campuses. Two notable discoveries at the University of Wisconsin would be the first bone marrow transplant and the discovery of transcriptase, a key enzyme in retroviruses such as HIV. Howard Temin shared the 1975 Nobel Prize for the latter discovery.
Numerous cultural attractions add to the things to do in Madison, making it a delightful Midwest city to visit. Art, history and Madison’s unique quirkiness makes it an intriguing destination for even the most experienced traveller. Though not known for mild winters, the city provides many enjoyable and rewarding activities, regardless of heat or flurries. So, here are 20 things to do in Madison to whet your appetite though there are many more.
- Madison, Wisconsin
- Top Tours
- 20 Things To Do In Madison
- 1- Tour Wisconsin State Capitol
- 2- Wander Around Olbrich Gardens
- 3- Admire The Treasures At Chazen Art Museum
- 4- Scare Yourself On A Spooky Ghost Tour
- 5- See The Animals At Henry Vilas Zoo
- 6- Learn Something New At Madison Children’s Museum
- 7- Relax At Memorial Union Terrace
- 8- Explore The University Of Wisconsin Arboretum
- 9- Step Back In Time At The Madison Veterans Museum
- 10- Enjoy Local Talent At Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art
- 11- See A Show At Overture Center Of The Arts
- 12- Go To A Concert At The Majestic Theatre
- 13- See The Effigy Mounds In Governor Nelson State Park
- 14- See The Panther Burial Site In Edna Taylor Conservation Park
- 15- Discover Hidden Gems On A Scavenger Hunt
- 16- Learn About Dinosaurs At Madison Geology Museum
- 17- Enjoy The View In Olin Park
- 18- Explore The UW Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve
- 19- Van Gogh Immersive Experience
- 20- Cave Of The Mounds
20 Things To Do In Madison
1- Tour Wisconsin State Capitol
It took 11 years to build (between 1906 and 1917) the Capitol building, a landmark that dominates the Madison skyline and is impressive in sunshine or darkness, summer or snow.
Its granite dome, the only one in the United States, houses culturally interesting treasures.
Historic murals, hand-crafted Wisconsin oak furniture, and beautiful glass mosaics greet the visitor upon entry.
From floor to ceiling, gorgeous appointments greet your eye. Extraordinary in architecture, decor and ambience, the Capitol is an essential stop in Madison.
Tours are available but check ahead as hours can be variable. Admission is free.
Wisconsin State Capitol Tour is at 2 East Main Street, Madison, WI 53702.
2- Wander Around Olbrich Gardens
A delight to the senses, Olbrich Botanical Gardens is 16 acres (6.5 Ha) of sylvan beauty.
A 50 ft (15m) glass pyramid houses tropical plants and wildlife in Bolz Conservatory, while numerous external gardens emblazon the eye with green and bloom.
From orchids to a farm garden, Olbrich is filled with exotic and local flora and fauna.
There is a fee to enter the Conservatory, but the rest of the gardens are free to visit and well-marked with information placards for excellent self-guided tours.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens has been a cannot-miss location since 1952 and anyone stopping by the city should make it a point to find the time.
From bromeliads to figs, the foliage of your soul won’t be disappointed.
The Olbrich Gardens grow at 3330 Atwood Ave, Madison, WI 53704.
3- Admire The Treasures At Chazen Art Museum
Chazen Art Museum is home to treasures and artifacts ranging from Andy Warhol paintings to prehistoric stone tools and pottery – Rothco to anonymous local farmscapes.
A must-see for all who appreciate the arts, Chazen wows both with its architecture and exhibits.
It is free to the public and offers gift shops and cafes for the famished.
An awesome destination featuring priceless pieces of great historical significance, Chazen should be high on your list if visiting Madison.
Get inspired by the space, the art, and the exploration of an absolutely premier institution.
The Chazen Art Museum enlightens at 800 University Ave, Madison, WI 53706.
4- Scare Yourself On A Spooky Ghost Tour
Want the daylights scared out of you?
Take a ghost tour. Madison has its share of paranormal legends and taking a tour will get you in the spirit.
Spooky jail cells and haunted theatres will thrill and chill, and the tales of Lake Monona monsters will excite your curiosity.
Learn about local history and legends and feel the past creep into your knowledge base.
Apparition? Reality? Not sure… but definitely scary fun.
Ghost tours can be sensed here.
5- See The Animals At Henry Vilas Zoo
Henry Vilas Zoo offers visitors over 650 animal residents to learn about and appreciate.
Five continents and numerous ecosystems are represented, giving visitors access to experiences outside their local confines.
From bison to tigers, the educational opportunities are beastly and plentiful.
The local community completely supports the zoo and, as such, is free to visitors.
The opportunity to gain respect and admiration for the fauna that share our world gives Henry Vilas Zoo an “animal” attraction.
The Henry Vilas Zoo roams at 702 S Randall Ave, Madison, WI 53715.
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6- Learn Something New At Madison Children’s Museum
Whether a child or adult, the Madison Children’s Museum will awaken a sense of delight and wonder.
Regardless if your interests run to the cosmos or engineering, you’ll find it and learn a little something while having some fun.
The Madison Children’s Museum curates a great experience from art to herbs.
Take a minute for youthful exuberance and build some memories.
The Madison Children’s Museum plays at 100 N Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703.
7- Relax At Memorial Union Terrace
The hallmarks of Memorial Union Terrace are the gorgeous lake views, local dining, and various events.
Concerts, film showings, and art exhibits are all seasonal treats, so check the upcoming calendar.
Brilliant furniture and unique architecture frame the experience and create an ambience of relaxed contemplation.
A no-cost, must-visit for all travellers to the City of Madison.
Memorial Union Terrace delights at 800 Langdon St, Madison, WI 53703.
8- Explore The University Of Wisconsin Arboretum
The natural beauty of Wisconsin is on display in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.
Savannahs, prairies, and wetlands give viewers a glimpse at the landscape that inspired conservation pioneers such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold.
Remnant areas cast the visitor back to the Late Pleistocene, a peek at what it would have been like at the end of the last ice age.
It is free to the public and offers an excellent trail system to explore.
The Arboretum is nestled on 1200 acres (485 Ha) and is easy to access.
The University of Wisconsin Arboretum lives at 1207 Seminole Hwy, Madison, WI 53711.
9- Step Back In Time At The Madison Veterans Museum
From the Civil War to contemporary conflicts, the Madison Veterans Museum chronicles the sacrifices and stories of the US Armed Forces, with special emphasis on the stories of Wisconsin soldiers.
Whether the visitor chooses to self-guide their visit or take one of the tours, the displays and exhibits focus on relevant information sought by the contemplative historian.
Memories and accomplishments of ordinary people called on to do extraordinary things are sure to inspire.
The stories might be on stationary placards, but the memories will go with you.
The Madison Veterans Museum honours at 30 W Mifflin St, Madison, WI 53703.
10- Enjoy Local Talent At Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art
Featuring modern works in numerous media, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art houses exhibits ranging from Frida Kahlo to James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
Admission to this world-class gallery is free, with over 6000 objects available for viewer appreciation.
Tours, films, and lectures are available for multiple age groups.
A must-see for modern art lovers, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is an absolute gem that’s certain to impress and inspire the artist in you.
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art expresses itself at 227 State St, Madison, WI 53703.
11- See A Show At Overture Center Of The Arts
Symphonies, ballets, and so much more await the visitor to the Overture Center of the Arts.
The architecture is exquisite, and internal art galleries make getting to the performance a treat.
Tours are sometimes available, though post-Covid, the schedule is variable.
Group pricing is available on show tickets, so bringing your friends becomes a sound business decision.
Check their site, as new performances are added consistently and can range from celebrated contemporary rock bands to comedians.
The Overture Center of the Arts is a world-class venue, sure to delight any discerning traveller.
The Overture Center of the Arts performs at 201 State St, Madison, WI 53703
12- Go To A Concert At The Majestic Theatre
Known for killer shows, the Majestic Theatre brings contemporary national and international acts to Wisconsin and has been since 1906.
The turn-of-the-century building makes the concertgoer feel connected to the past while providing awesome acoustics and excellent seating arrangements.
A staple since the days of Harry Houdini, the Majestic sings the tune of both the past and present.
Bring the noise.
The Majestic Theatre rocks at 115 King St, Madison, WI 53703.
13- See The Effigy Mounds In Governor Nelson State Park
Covering over 400 acres (170 Ha) on the north shore of Lake Mendota, Governor Nelson State Park offers the chance to fish, picnic, or hike on the 8 miles (13 km) of trails.
View Native American effigy mounds and you’ll be transported to an ancient past.
A sand beach gives access to Lake Mendota swimming, while prairie restorations are excellent habitats and wildlife viewing.
Beautiful scenery, rolling hills, and a serene feeling are all available to the natural traveller.
Governor Nelson State Park flourishes at 5140 Co Hwy M, Waunakee, WI 53597.
14- See The Panther Burial Site In Edna Taylor Conservation Park
Six effigy mounds and one panther burial site are the chief attractions of Edna Taylor Conservation Park.
A glacial drumlin and savannah restoration projects yield excellent local bird watching and native plant education.
Monthly tours are offered, so check ahead to see if you can fit this beautiful slice of natural area into your visit.
Bring a camera, you might just see something you need to immortalise.
The Edna Taylor Conservation Park inhabits 802 Femrite Dr, Madison, WI 53716.
15- Discover Hidden Gems On A Scavenger Hunt
With Madison’s excellent lake views, interesting streets, and funky feel, a scavenger hunt will delight the travelling explorer.
Choose from item and task-oriented hunts, or find something more akin to a self-guided tour.
Madison offers so much interest and beauty that your appetite for immersion will be satiated no matter what you choose.
An excellent on-foot city, walking Madison is a treat thanks to the lakes providing an amazing milieu for the curious and competitive.
16- Learn About Dinosaurs At Madison Geology Museum
Dinosaurs, rocks, and other geological wonders make the UW Madison Geology Museum a hotspot for anyone interested in the earth’s continuing evolution.
Wonder at the size of a mammoth skeleton, and marvel at the natural faceting of geodes and other crystal formations.
Don’t get stuck in the stone age on this decision, just go.
Admission is free, though they ask that you contact them if your group is 10 or more.
Knowledge will flow like lava and the memories will fossilise in your consciousness.
The UW Madison Geology Museum has solidified at 1215 W Dayton St, Madison, WI 53706.
17- Enjoy The View In Olin Park
Fishing, kayaking and a scenic overlook are features of Olin Park that delight visitors.
With one of the best views of Madison, Olin Park offers a serene bastion in the midst of urban ambience.
Recreation activities abound for the sporting, and peaceful waterfront is perfect for meditation and centering. Bring a rod and reel or a book, Olin Park has a spot for you.
Olin Park thrives at 1156 Olin-Turville Ct, Madison, WI 53715.
18- Explore The UW Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve
UW Madison’s campus is known worldwide for its beauty, and the UW Madison Lakeshore Preserve is a major reason for that reputation.
Featuring Picnic Point, a peninsula extending a mile into Lake Mendota, the UW Madison Lakeshore Preserve maintains 300 acres (121 ha) of wooded and natural land.
This living laboratory offers learning experiences for current students and transient visitors.
A must-see feature of a world-class campus, UW Madison Lakeshore Preserve gives the visitor a scenic and natural experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
Diverse beach fronts and numerous views of Lake Mendota will keep the visitor moving to the next lookout point.
A historically important area to Native American residents, it is easy to see why after seeing and experiencing it yourself.
UW Madison Lakeshore Preserve nurtures at 2000 University Bay Dr, Madison, WI 53705.
19- Van Gogh Immersive Experience
You can now walk through Sunflowers and Starry Nights and experience full digital immersion of Van Gogh’s talent.
Massive projections of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings create a unique experience for the viewer, bringing life and detail to some of the world’s most inspiring and iconic paintings.
Images captivate and educate, showing moving brushstrokes and letting the visitor into the mind of a genius, even if only pixel deep.
A must for Van Gogh fans, the Van Gogh Immersive Experience is certain to brighten your visit to Madison with a touch of colour from the master.
The Van Gogh Immersive Experience wows at 1700 Deming Way, Suite 140, Middleton, WI 53562.
20- Cave Of The Mounds
Located about 27.5 miles (44 km) west of Madison, the Cave of the Mounds is a spectacular geological journey into the internal workings of Mother Earth.
Stalactites and stalagmites form vertical stone icicles and allow the viewer to appreciate millions of years of natural processes.
Undeniably striking, totally unforgettable.
Due to the extremely sensitive nature of the cave’s processes, only guided tours are available, with self-paced or structured options available.
A delicate, fragile, and beautiful wonder, the Cave of the Mounds is a treasure not to be missed.
The Cave of the Mounds is hidden under 2975 Cave of the Mounds Rd, Blue Mounds, WI 53517.
We hope this guide has given you some reasons to visit Madison, but it’s by no means extensive. Madison is a city that is always growing, changing, and evolving, with new events and attractions being seemingly added daily. The lakes, art, and history might call you back again and again, and that’s ok. Madison will keep rewarding the mind, body and spirit every time.
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