Truth be told, we have yet to visit a capital city in the USA that we didn’t like, and Madison, Wisconsin is no exception!
If you follow us, you know we were both born, raised, and currently live in Wisconsin, so we’re excited to bring you more of the inside scoop on places we discover in our home state.
We spent 5 days on our most recent trip to Madison digging in deep to discover the best the city has to offer in outdoor adventure, nature, parks, museums, food, music, and more.
As a result, we were able to put together this extensive guide so you can plan your visit to this incredible capital city that is literally embraced by nature. Are you ready?
Things To Do In Madison Wisconsin Map
HOW TO USE THIS MAP: Above you’ll find a map of our highlights in Madison, Wisconsin. Click on the top left of the map to find separate layers marking the route and points of interest. You can hide and show different layers, or click icons on the map to see the names of places we mention in this travel guide. “Star” the map to save it to your own Google Maps, or open the map in a new window for a larger version.
Getting Outdoors in Madison, Wisconsin
University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
Literally, the first place we stopped when we arrived was the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum and we were not disappointed.
The 1200 acres plus additional 513 acres of the outlying property feature the oldest and most varied collection of restored ecological communities in the world.
For most visitors, this place is a nirvana of nature and a place to escape the hustle of the city. There are plenty of trails, bike paths, gardens, and benches to enjoy during a visit.
I won’t lie, we spent way more time here than we planned, so you should be prepared for that. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
Fishing on Lake Monona
Believe it or not, the capital city of Wisconsin is an up-and-coming fishing destination. The best part is that you can partake right from the downtown area on either Lake Monona or Lake Mendota.
During our visit we did a half-day fishing charter on Lake Monona, catching a wide variety of fish including bluegills, perch, and bass. It was a fun afternoon on the water doing all catch and release. Madison is also known for great northern pike and muskie sport fishing during the right seasons.
If you’d like to spend some time fishing on your next trip to Madison, we’d recommend booking a trip with Noah at Madison Angling Guide Service.
Bike the Lake Loop
If there was ever a bike-friendly city, it is Madison. We brought our own bikes for our visit, but you can easily rent them in the capital square for further exploration. There are bike racks everywhere, so don’t be afraid to hop on a bike and explore!
One of our favorite things to do in Madison is to bike the Lake Loop, a 13-mile circumnavigation of Lake Monona. If you have time for just one adventure in the city, this is one you shouldn’t miss because it will give you a little taste of everything that makes Madison such a unique city.
You’ll experience the downtown area, lakefront, beaches, parks, botanical gardens, and more along the way. Not to mention that the trail is all paved, smooth, signposted, and easy to follow.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens & Bolz Conservatory
The Olbrich Botanical Gardens are an incredible oasis just 1.5 miles from downtown Madison. Spanning 16 acres, the outside gardens are free to enter, which makes this an incredibly popular place to visit in Madison.
Each section of the property features themed gardens. Our favorites included the Thai pavilion and castle tower gardens. Both transport you to other parts of the world.
Also, on the property is the Bolz Conservatory, a tropical garden featuring plants from all over the world. From the minute you step through the doors, you’re transported into a lush, green environment that is full of bright-colored flowers. There is an entrance fee to visit, but it’s beautiful and worth it.
Henry Vilas Zoo
Occupying 28 acres in downtown Madison, the Henry Vilas Zoo is one of the top things to do in Madison. The zoo offers both free admission and free parking, so how can you say no?
The most popular exhibits feature the African Lions and the polar bears, although you can find many other species to admire and learn about during a visit.
Hot Tip: Arrive early or late in the day for your best chance at seeing the animals.
Aldo Leopold Nature Center
If you’re seeking a place where you can not only get up close to nature but also be involved in hands-on interactive programs, then you should check out the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.
Established in 1994, the center offers a variety of special events and programs, in addition to many miles of nature trails to explore. All of the trails are free to access, however, the educational programs require a reservation in advance.
Kayaking on Lake Wingra
If you’re looking for a little outdoor adventure in the city, you’ll want to head to Lake Wingra and rent a kayak. From the put-in, you can kayak across the lake for awesome views of the downtown Madison skyline.
Kayaking next to shore will reward you with views of unique vegetation and birds. If you’re up for a bigger paddle, you can circumnavigate the lake or head under the bridge to explore a little of Lake Monona too.
Wingra boats offer rentals by the hour and there is plenty of parking there too. We’d recommend that you rent in the morning, getting there when the rental place opens. This will ensure you are able to find a parking spot, as the park is very popular, and also have a quiet experience on the lake.
Allen Centennial Gardens
The Allen Centennial Garden is one of the most beautiful and popular places to visit in Madison. The garden resides on the University of Wisconsin – Madison grounds and features the Agricultural Dean’s House, as well as an 1896 Queen Anne-style home, among other buildings.
It is open daily from dawn to dusk and admission is free, making it a lovely place to stop in for a walk-through and a break from the business of the city.
Capital Springs State Recreation Area
The Capital Springs Recreation Area offers 3,000 acres of nature to enjoy just a few minutes from downtown Madison. It is also near to the University of Wisconsin – Madison Arboretum.
We visited this small park with the intent of hiking some of their trails but ended up finding a park that offers some great camping near the city. There is also a historical viewing tower to climb.
It’s a great place to visit if you want to hike close to the city but above all, a fantastic place to camp or park an RV if you need to do that.
Bear Mound Park
If you are interested in the Native American history that surrounds Madison, this is a fantastic site to add to your itinerary.
The 1.6-acre Bear Mound Park sits in the place where a massive bear-shaped effigy mound was constructed. Measuring 82 feet long, most of the bear shape is still intact.
Being able to see one of these mounds up close is rare, as most of them were destroyed in the 1800s during agriculture and city expansion projects.
Enjoy Tenney Park
Due to its location on the shores of Lake Mendota, Tenney Park is a favorite among locals and visitors alike. Covering 37 acres, the park offers the ultimate in relaxation and recreation. It features a playground, boat launch, tennis courts, and plenty of paved trails.
Best Day Trips from Madison for More Adventure
Governor Dodge State Park
Governor Dodge State Park is a 5,270-acre oasis located 47 miles from downtown Madison that is worth the drive if you’re seeking outdoor recreation options. Here you can enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking, boating, and swimming.
We enjoyed the hike to Stephens’ Falls. The hike is easy and leads to a beautiful waterfall with a pool beneath it. Most people only go this far, but the trail actually continues along a creek. This part of the hike was quiet, and worth the extra steps.
Blue Mound State Park
Blue Mound State Park is located 28 miles from downtown Madison and is often combined with a visit to Cave of the Mounds. The main attraction of this park is the two towers that offer amazing vistas of the area.
There are also pull-offs for additional scenic viewpoints if you’re not up for climbing the towers. Additionally, you can enjoy hiking and biking in this Wisconsin state park, too.
Cave of the Mounds
Discovered in 1939 while local miners were blasting for limestone, Cave of the Mounds was one of the most unique and interesting places we visited during our trip to Madison!
The cave system is incredible, and it is possible to take a self-guided tour through them. Guides are placed along the path to teach you the history of the cave, pointing out interesting things and answering any questions you might have.
Above ground, you can crack open geodes, sluice for gems and fossils, or enjoy one of the many hiking trails. You could spend a whole day here, but if you only have time for one thing make sure you tour the cave.
We’d also recommend booking your tickets in advance as this is a busy attraction with limited admission.
Tower Hill State Park
Spanning 77 acres above the Wisconsin River, Tower Hill State Park is a wonderful place to explore on a trip to Madison, Wisconsin. It offers a unique blend of protected history and nature options.
The highlight of the park is the reconstructed Helena Shot Tower. The original was built in 1832 and manufactured lead shot until 1860. The site was also registered with the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Check Out A Couple of Madison Orchards
Like Bayfield, Wisconsin in the northern part of the state, Madison offers its own version of a fruit loop just north of the city. It is here that fruit farmers enjoy a unique weather bubble that promotes healthy orchard growth.
Along this route, you can stop off at multiple small businesses to sample fruit that is in season and purchase items made with traditional family recipes.
Devils Lake State Park
Located 40 miles from Madison, Devils Lake State Park is both the largest and most visited state park in the entire state of Wisconsin.
The park itself spans 10,000 acres, but it sits up against an additional 27,000 acres of natural space that is open to the public. This makes the park a mecca for outdoor lovers.
It’s possible to camp, hike, bike, swim, ski, and rock climb, among other activities, within the park. If you’re seeking a place to spend a day outside as a day trip from the city, this state park should definitely be considered.
Learn about Frank Lloyd Wright and Tour Taliesin
Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most famous architects of all time and it just so happens that he found southern Wisconsin to be the perfect backdrop for his inspiration. After being raised on a small homestead here, he returned as an adult and built his private sanctuary named Taliesin.
In addition to a home, he built a design studio in the house where many of his most famous creations were brought to life. If you take the highlights tour from the visitors center, you’ll get to tour the inside of Taliesin and also a school that he built for the community on his property.
If you’re unsure who he is, that’s ok. To give you an idea, he designed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and the Guggenheim Museum. He also designed the Monona Terrace in downtown Madison. He was a famous architect but also lived an interesting life filled with some intriguing stories.
House on the Rock
We first visited the House on the Rock many years ago on a trip with David’s family. My memories of the place are still vivid, as it’s a quirky and very interesting place to visit!
The house is privately owned and features the personal retreat and collections of a man named Alex Jordan. It was his vision that brought the House on the Rock to life. Each space offers a unique theme, like the World’s Largest Carousel, The Infinity Room, and The Doll House Room, to name a few.
The estate is massive, so be sure to give yourself several hours to see it all. You won’t be disappointed.
The Best Downtown Madison, Wisconsin Attractions
Tour the Wisconsin State Capitol Building
Wisconsin has one of the most beautiful state capitols in the country, so you shouldn’t miss a chance to visit it. I’m not just saying this because I am a Wisconsinite. It truly is a marvel that shouldn’t be missed.
It is possible to do a self-guided or guided tour of the interior, and you can just walk right into the building. Guided tours run on the hour, except for noon, from the visitor desk. This same spot offers information if you want to wander on your own.
Inside the building, you’ll find several floors of stunning marble and ornate décor. All representing the various things that make Wisconsin unique, as well as homage to the United States.
Dane County Farmer’s Market
Every Saturday morning from 6:15 am to 1:45 pm during the summer months you’ll find the capitol square buzzing as people visit the famed Dane County Farmer’s Market. You don’t want to miss this as it’s amazing, even if you aren’t shopping.
Local farmers and artisans bring fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, cheese, popcorn, honey and so much more to the market. Things are artfully displayed, and the entire market is attractive and entertaining.
Walk State Street & Capitol Square
Even when the market is not happening, you should take a stroll around capitol square, especially in the evening. There is often live music, street performers, and overall a very cool vibe to soak in.
State Street is one of the most popular streets in the city, offering a variety of shopping, restaurants, and museums to enjoy during your visit, too.
Explore Monona Terrace
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Monona Terrace offers some of the best views of the capitol building and vistas over Lake Monona. There is also a restaurant there to enjoy views over the lake.
We highly recommend you pay a visit to the terrace during sunset, as the golden light will illuminate the fountains and the capitol building. The view is dreamy as far as city views go.
Madison Ghost Tour
If you like to know the spooky and morbid stories of the places you visit, then we’d highly recommend you sign up for a ghost tour in Madison! We always take ghost tours when they are available in the places we visit.
Not only are they entertaining, but they offer some great insight into the history of a place. Madison has a very storied past, and the Madison Ghost Tour does a good job of tying it all together to help you better understand the city.
They offer a couple of different tours, and we took the King Street option. This tour explored one of the oldest streets in the capital offering the stories of the buildings and establishments that reside there. It also took us to the base of the capitol and to Monona Terrace to see the illuminated Capitol building.
Walk Around the University of Wisconsin Campus
With Madison being the capital of Wisconsin, naturally, they have a large university. The campus of the University of Wisconsin – Madison does not deviate from the theme of nature and good vibes, either. This is why we would suggest that you take a stroll around the campus to admire the grounds and buildings if you have a chance.
Madison Children’s Museum
If you’re visiting Madison with children and are looking for an interactive activity for them then be sure to put the Madison Children’s Museum on your itinerary.
The museum features exhibits on the arts, sciences, history, culture, health, and civic engagement all laid out in a way that allows learning through interaction.
In addition to the Children’s Museum, Downtown Madison has several other museums that are worth checking out while you’re in town:
- Chazen Museum of Art
- Wisconsin Historical Museum
- Wisconsin Veterans Museum
- Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
- Overture Center of the Arts
Other Fun Things to Do in Madison
National Mustard Museum
One thing we love about Wisconsin, and even the USA in general, is the kitschy museums. The National Mustard Museum is no exception to this.
It features more than 5,500 mustards on display and the opportunity to taste hundreds of them at the built-in tasting bar. And true to Madison, it’s free to visit.
University of Wisconsin Geology Museum
If rocks are your thing, we’d highly recommend a visit to the Geology Museum on the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus. The museum is free of charge and offers the opportunity to learn more about the geological makeup of Wisconsin.
Camp Randall Stadium
If you find yourself in Madison, Wisconsin during the University football season, then you’ll find few things to rival the excitement of the crowd at Camp Randall Stadium when the badgers are playing. Completed in 1917, it also happens to be the 4th oldest stadium in the country.
Our Favorite Madison Eats
- Old Fashioned – an institution in Madison offering the ‘best cheese curds’ in Wisconsin!
- The Boathouse – lakeside dining with a casual menu. Be sure to try the warm pretzel bites and beer cheese.
- Ancora Café – Super cute café located on King Street that offers streetside dining with a view of the capitol building
- Tavernakaya – Sushi and ramen shop with a modern twist
- Harvey House – Upscale traditional Wisconsin Supper Club dining
- Marigold Kitchen – Another great breakfast spot with a unique menu. Try the chilaquiles!
- Fromagination – If you like cheese, this is where it’s at. We ordered a picnic box for our day outside the city and the food is delicious.
- Eno Vino – Located in the AC Marriott, this place has amazing views of the capitol building.
- Heritage – farm to table in a pub setting featuring pork. The schnitzel and devilled eggs were amazing.
- Miko Poke – offers Hawaiian-style sushi bowls. Super light and refreshing.
- Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier – offers amazing chocolate treats
- Capitol Brewing – locally made craft beer with a great atmosphere.
- Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream – the place to be if you’re craving ice cream!
Where to Stay in Madison
- The Edgewater – located right on the shores of Lake Mendota, this hotel is not only designated as a Historical Places in America building but offers amazing lake views. We stayed here our first 2 nights in the city and thoroughly enjoyed it.
- AC Marriott – This hotel is right off Capitol Square, so it offers some rooms with spectacular views over the Capitol building. If you want to be in the thick of the action and truly downtown, we’d recommend this hotel.
- Hilton Monona Terrace – also located in a historical building, this hotel is adjacent to Monona Terrace and offers some rooms with a view over Lake Monona. It’s located a couple of blocks off of capitol square.
This story was made possible in partnership with Destination Madison and their partners. However, our recommendations, experiences, opinions, and love for Wisconsin are 100% ours, as always.
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