Getting ready to road trip your way through the upper Midwestern United States? Set aside time to discover the best things to do in Madison, Wisconsin. Find lush gardens and flourishing local ecology, fascinating museums, and munch on plenty of cheese as you roam through Wisconsin’s capital city.
Gallivant through the thriving downtown core of Madison, admiring the striking architecture of the capitol building and trying tasty goodies at the lively farmers market. Bask along the shores of Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, then hit the winding paths of the city’s extensive and glorious parks and gardens.
Can’t figure out what to do first in Wisconsin’s capital? Explore with this complete guide to the best places to visit in Madison, WI!
Must-see places to visit in Madison, WI
Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Visit Olbrich Botanical Gardens for a peaceful oasis in Madison. Connect with nature as you follow vibrant trails through 16 acres of exotic and local gardens. This gem of Madison horticulture will inspire gardeners and flower lovers of all ages.
Explore Madison’s exotic side in the Bolz Conservatory. Watch the birds flying over 650 tropical plants, and hear the rush of the waterfall. Walk among the variety of luscious pink and red shrub roses in the Rose Garden, and climb the Rose Garden Tower to look out at the gardens.
Tread past ornamental grass and bamboo-lined paths of the Thai Garden, resting in the shade of the authentic, teak wood and gold leaf-adorned Thai Pavillion.
Cross the street toward Olbrich Park, and meander the manicured lawns on the shores of Lake Monona. Stop by The Biergarten at Olbrich Park to enjoy fresh brews and German-themed munchies with scenic views of the lake.
Madison Children’s Museum
Traveling to Madison with little ones? The Madison Children’s Museum ensures hours of fun for your little learners through play and exploration. The variety of interactive exhibits encourages children to create, design, and problem-solve.
Let your little artist partake in a weaving or sculpting class at Madison Children’s Museum or learn about motion on the giant hamster wheel. Mini architects will find inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural style as they create stained glass, build a chicken coop, and assess patterns in nature. Swing, climb, and explore on Wonderground, an upcycled playground that combines artistic sculptures with areas to discover and burn off energy.
Head across Capitol Square for a post-museum bite. You’ll discover a variety of restaurants for every taste, from Marigold Kitchen‘s breakfast and lunch specialties to upscale dinner options at Johnny Delcominco’s Steakhouse.
Chazen Museum of Art
Art fiends, get ready to experience the peak of Madison’s art scene at the Chazen Museum of Art. Stop by and study over 23,000 international masterpieces, both ancient and modern. Meander through the lovely University of Wisconsin campus and find your way over to the Chazen for an afternoon of art appreciation.
While at the Chazen Museum of Art, inspect Chinese works of ancient calligraphy on delicate scrolls and paintings from the Qing dynasty. Study the motion of Alexander Calder’s wire sculptures and Pablo Picasso’s Standing Woman abstract creation. Behold 19th-century Japanese color woodcuts depicting powerful Mt. Fuji waves. Then, analyze El Anatsui’s Danu, an intricate metal patchwork piece reflecting Ghanan culture.
Head through Sifting & Reckoning to examine racial injustices at the University of Wisconsin through photos and memorabilia and international artistic exchange through the paintings in Echoing Overseas.
While in the lively Langdon neighborhood, head east along State Street and discover a plethora of unique boutiques, trendy bars, and eateries.
Wisconsin State Capitol
Architecture, history, and art collide at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Spend an hour or so at this opulent downtown gem, immersing yourself in American culture. Design connoisseurs, history fans, and anyone looking for one of Madison’s finest views will have a ball at the state capitol building.
Amble the paths of Capitol Square toward the all-granite, Roman Renaissance-style capitol building, with its grand dome rising 284 feet into the air. Enter the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol, marveling at the four stunning mosaics. Stare up in awe at the magnificent Dome Mural of women showcasing Wisconsin products from around 1900, like tobacco and lead.
Poke around the Supreme Court, Senate Chamber, and Assembly Chamber, most of which are inspired by Venetian renaissance style.
For a spectacular view, head up to the Wisconsin State Capitol’s observation deck with views from 236 feet up. Look out on sweeping views of downtown and the Madison isthmus with Lake Mendota to the north and Lake Monona to the south.
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Madison is for art lovers, that’s for sure! Whether you’re an avid art connoisseur or more of a casual viewer, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art welcomes you. Set aside a few hours to soak in the diverse art exhibits at this downtown museum.
The striking, glass facade of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art has earned it a spot as one of Madison’s newest landmarks. Inside, find that the towering windows let in plenty of natural light to browse works by upcoming and famous artists.
Admire the colors and textures of Frida Kahlo’s Pitahayas, the dynamic flow of Sam Gilliam’s acrylic on canvas, and the bold and bright Chicago Imagist art on display.
In the art museum’s rooftop sculpture garden, take in the scene of buzzing State Street below. Check out this area for popular restaurants like Michaelangelo’s Coffee House to keep the art theme going over a cup of joe or Ian’s Pizza for some of the tastiest pies around.
Henry Vilas Zoo
Traveling with a family of animal lovers? Then the Henry Vilas Zoo is a Madison must-see! Spend a few hours meeting over 100 species of animals from the savannas of Africa to the woodlands of Wisconsin.
Step into the tropical rainforest of Henry Vilas Zoo, with free-flight birds soaring around you. Watch the slippery otters playing in their pool, then wave hello to the penguins waddling around their habitat.
In the Arctic Passage, observe the polar bears from the underground viewing spot as they dive underwater, then join the grizzly bears as they fish in the stream. Venture to the prairie, and you’ll be greeted by enormous bison grazing the meadows.
Little ones can ride the mini train or hop on the animal-themed carousel in the Children’s Zoo. Pack a picnic to enjoy in Vilas Park. Wander through bright gardens, tread over bridges, and wind through forest paths, with the calm waters of Lake Wingra in the background.
National Mustard Museum
All of your wildest mustard dreams and fantasies will come true at The National Mustard Museum. If you’ve got some extra time in your Madison itinerary, learn all about this condiment’s history, and discover the wonderful world of mustard you never knew existed.
Browse displays of vintage mustard jars and advertisements inside the quirky museum. Look through the eclectic collections of antique mustard pots lined on towering shelves to create the Great Wall of Mustard. Grab a treat from the world’s only all-mustard vending machine. Then, stop at the Mustardpiece Theater to witness The Sound of Mustard, made by Barry Levenson, the museum creator.
To wrap up your tour of the National Mustard Museum, find your perfect mustard flavor at the Mustard Bar. Taste a variety of flavors from sweet to spicy, fruity to zesty. Find one from your state or one from over 70 countries represented in the museum, and take your favorite home for a delicious souvenir!
University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum
Nature lovers will be in their element at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. Spend a few hours exploring the diversity of the preserved and restored ecological areas, from marshes to forests and lakeside shores to prairie land.
Watch a short film in the Arboretum Visitor Center about the arboretum’s mission to preserve local ecology since 1925. Lace up your hiking shoes to hit up over 20 miles of trails, some paved, some dirt, and all boasting gorgeous views. Begin at the restored Curtis Prairie, past tall grasses and wildflowers.
Frolic through 35 acres of blooming crabapple trees, conifers, and lilacs, fragrant in the air in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens. Step into a fairytale passing under the whimsical Troia Arch, surrounded by purples and pinks of the garden.
Birdwatch in the wetlands on Ickle Boardwalk, and find shade under the canopy of the Lost City Forest, where deer and wild turkeys frequently roam.
Wisconsin Historical Museum
History buffs will enjoy a mosey through the Wisconsin Historical Museum. Travel through time and witness Wisconsin’s heritage through an extensive collection of relics dating back over 1000 years. Just off Capitol Square, tack this museum onto a day spent downtown.
Dig into archaeology and anthropology in the First Settlers exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. Poke through a recreation of a Native American Aztalan neighborhood, complete with recovered ceramics used in homes at the time. Learn the history of the area’s mysterious Effigy Mounds. Next, fast forward to the 1700s and get cozy in a Wigwam, and learn about seasonal Native traditions like maple sugaring in autumn and ice fishing in winter.
Uncover stories of the fur trade and Wisconsin treaties in the Era of Exchange exhibit, and inspect the ancient spearheads on display. Browse colorful Native American ceremonial garb and the history of the Powwow through black and white photos.
Looking for ways to get active outdoors? Investigate Tenney Park‘s flourishing 38 acres, filled with endless outdoor activities. Hike, bike, swim, fish, and sightsee at this peaceful park in a residential neighborhood.
Hike through the greenery and gardens of Tenney Park, taking your time to soak in the serene setting. Set in the quaint, quiet Tenney-Lapham neighborhood, you’ll trade pedestrians for wildlife and cars for canoes.
Take in the panoramic Mendota Lake views from Tenney Park Beach, and snap a pic of Mother Nature’s sky-reflection artwork gleaming on the waters. Change into your swimsuit to go for a swim, then get out on the water with kayak and canoe rentals.
And fun on the lake doesn’t end in winter. Lace up your skates and glide around the frozen water before heading into the warming house to thaw by the fire with a mug of hot cocoa.
Dane County Farmers’ Market
Dive into Madison culture at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Capitol Square comes alive with vendors selling fresh-picked produce, homemade baked treats, iconic Wisconsin-made cheese, and more. Swing by for one of Madison’s top community events.
Get to the Dane County Farmers’ Market early to beat the bustling crowds—and make sure you come with an appetite. Meander through the rows of tents, taking your time to appreciate the wide variety of goods like artisanal soaps, beef jerky, and cheese curds galore.
Head for the Murphy Farms booth to test special flavors like horseradish, tomato basil, taco, and cajun, then grab some hot and spicy cheese bread from Stella’s stall.
Pass by the tents of farmers stringing up their freshly grown cayenne peppers, displays of red radishes, a vibrant selection of carrots, heirloom tomatoes, and fresh herbs. Food trucks, as far as the eye can see, line The Square, serving up Indonesian specialties, taquitos, sub sandwiches, and more.
Allen Centennial Garden
Can’t get enough of Madison’s flourishing horticulture scene? Check out the Allen Centennial Garden for a hidden green oasis on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Stroll through this teaching garden to learn a thing or two or simply to enjoy the serene atmosphere.
Mosey along the winding paths, past a variety of plants in the outdoor gardens, each of which is labeled with information about the local flora. Walk stone paths under delicate ivy-clad trellises in the French and Italian Gardens. Pass under the shady pergola, heading to the romantic Queen Anne-style Dean’s House, then rest on the plush lawn of the New American Garden.
Check the Allen Centennial Garden’s calendar to plan your visit around one of their fun events. Join the flower-pressing class to make a one-of-a-kind souvenir, practice making seasonal flower arrangements, or enjoy a jazzy concert in the green space.
Wisconsin Veterans Museum
Calling all military history fans to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. Witness an incredible selection of artifacts dating back to the civil war era and dioramas of soldiers at war. This museum is extremely convenient to fit into your downtown excursions.
Remember those who served the country as you peruse the immersive exhibits and well-preserved wartime remnants of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. Browse the military uniforms ranging from Korean War winter caps to post-World War I jackets and aiguillettes worn in Germany in World War II. Peruse each item’s meticulously documented history, including information about the soldier who owned it.
Glance up at the helicopters and aircraft hung from above and look through the historical firearms laid out in chronological order. Marvel at interesting artifacts like the gown made by a serviceman’s wife from the parachute that saved his life.
After your Wisconsin Veterans Museum visit, head next door to Cooper’s Tavern for a cozy pub lunch, with the majestic state capitol in sight.
Memorial Union Terrace
Experience college town meets summer vibes at the Memorial Union Terrace. Nestled on the outskirts of the University of Wisconsin next to Lake Mendota, this waterfront gem is Madison’s ideal destination for an energetic lakeside stroll, dinner, and a view.
Relax on the sunburst-inspired yellow, green, and orange patio furniture at Memorial Union Terrace. During the summer, find a number of special events at the Terrace Stage, like live music from touring and local performers and movie screenings. Enjoy a tasty nosh from the dining hall with food stands selling bratwursts, ice cream, sandwiches, or a pitcher of beer from Rathskeller German beer hall.
Make your way out onto the dock, slip your shoes off, take a seat on the edge, and dip your toes into the cool water. Enjoy the stunning views of the calm tides and bobbing sailboats with the sky’s sunset hues reflected across the water.
The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company
Local craft beer? Check. Awesome atmosphere? Check. Incredible dishes made with love? Double check. Grab a bite and a drink at The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company while in Madison to see what all the fuss is about. Madison’s original brew pub won’t disappoint.
Get comfortable inside in the homey atmosphere of the pub, play pool or darts, or head outside to the secret garden to grab a table on the patio. Order one of their refreshing craft beers on draft, like the Oktoberfest for a spiced seasonal amber or the Sultana Pale Ale, fragrant with floral notes and hops.
When in Wisconsin, thy shalt eat cheese! The Great Dane Pub is a fantastic place to make this happen. Try the famous beer-battered cheese curds, poutine, beer, cheese, and potato soup, or cheddar mac and cheese. For internationally inspired cuisine, dig into the Pub Tacos, Mediterranean Falafel Bowl, or Korean Rice Bowl.
The House on the Rock
Enter the fantastical world of The House on the Rock. Built in 1940 by Alex Jordan Jr., this unique mansion sits on Deer Shelter Rock above the lush forests of Spring Green. Make the hour-long trek west to witness unhinged imagination and curiosity come to life.
Start off your House on the Rock visit at the Infinity Room. Walk the 218-foot-long glass hallway to the end, until you’re jutting out 156 feet above the forest, staring into eternity.
Next, face the menacing grins of the devilish creatures on the indoor carousel. Follow the spooky tunes of player pianos into the Music of Yesterday theater, then dive into Heritage of the Sea and meet the massive sea monster.
As you can imagine, things get a little creepy here after dark, which is perfect for the haunted house in October. In December, you can count on special holiday-themed events. During the warm months, get some golfing in at the property’s championship golf course.
Cave of the Mounds
Add a little adventure to your travels with an excursion to Cave of the Mounds. Half an hour away, this is one of the most popular day trips from Madison, WI, for families to experience the area’s natural heritage. Cave the day away among wondrous natural rock formations beneath Wisconsin.
Begin your journey into the depths of the earth, where these limestone pillars were formed over 400 million years ago. Stare in wonder at the crystal and multicolored Galena dolomites and stalagmites poking up from the ground and stalactites hanging down from the cave ceiling. Peer into the pool of water, and look closely for oolites, tiny cave pearls.
Above ground at Cave of the Mounds, prance through the meadows, gardens, and woodlands. Trek along the Oak Valley Loop Trail and pass by bubbling Chert Creek. Meet colorful fluttering friends in the Butterfly Garden among flourishing flowerbeds, then get to work in the Gem Mine and Fossil Dig.