Wisconsin’s capital city has garnered national attention for its delicious food and craft beer scene, as well as its endless list of exciting things to do.
Madison is a vibrant college town that’s known for many things. Situated on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, the downtown streets are perfectly framed, creating an iconic skyline. The city is regarded as one of the U.S.’s most liveable cities thanks to its miles of bike paths and numerous outdoor spaces.
From its lively night scene, exquisite culinary delights, and locally-made items at the famous Saturday farmer’s market, there’s truly something for everyone in Wisconsin’s second-largest city.
While it’s impossible to cover absolutely everything this incredible place has to offer, here’s a list of the best things to do in Madison, Wisconsin, that fit a wide range of interests.
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1. Shop ‘til You Drop at the Dane County Farmers Market
The Dane County Farmers Market is a weekly event around the capitol square in the summers and indoors at the Monona Terrace in winters. The market is held every Wednesday and Saturday, although Saturday is the best experience drawing in larger crowds and more vendors.
The market is known as America’s largest farmers’ market that prioritizes Wisconsin-produced fares. More than 275 vendors that range from farmers, florists, bakers, and more take part in the market throughout the year, not to mention the local food trucks and musicians that often take part in the festivities.
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2. Sip a Local Beer on the Colorful Memorial Union Terrace
The Memorial Union Terrace is a historic building that’s part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus. It was constructed in 1928 on the shores of Lake Mendota and is known for being one of the most beautiful buildings in Madison. Students and visitors alike come to take recreational classes, dine, and sip beer out on the Union’s Terrace.
Filled with pops of green, yellow, and orange, the terrace’s distinct chairs represent Wisconsin’s farming history and the beautiful autumn colors the state sees every year. When it’s warm, the terrace often hosts concerts, movie showings, and more.
If you’re not a student or a member, you can pick up a day pass from any Union café or restaurant. This pass is needed to purchase alcohol but not to tour or enjoy the terrace’s lake views.
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3. Take a Stroll Along State Street
State Street is the heart and soul of Madison. This near-mile-long pedestrian street runs through the city center, connecting the beautiful Capitol Square with the University’s Library Mall and Bascom Hill. It’s known for artsy local shops, mom-and-pop dining, cozy cafes, and a gathering of food trucks found on the 800 block.
Some of the best places to visit on state street include Comedy on State for nightly acts and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. At the end of October every year, the road is closed to accommodate the Freakfest festival, where thousands come dressed in costume to drink, party, and enjoy live music in celebration of Halloween.
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4. Visit the Wisconsin State Capitol Building
The Wisconsin State Capitol is a grand and majestic building filled with marble accents, some of which have ancient fossils embedded in them. A local zoning law means that the Capitol is the tallest building in the city, emphasizing its grandeur. Visitors who come can opt to take a guided tour or wander the halls independently.
Be sure to visit the sixth floor, where you can walk around the interior of the Capitol’s dome and see artifacts and placards that share a bit of the building’s history. It’s here you’ll also find a little window that allows for a clear view of the interior rotunda from above.
After a tour around the inner dome, you can climb a spiral staircase to an outdoor observation deck that provides some of the best views of Madison. The observation deck is free to enter and open from Memorial Day Weekend into November.
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5. Get Out on the Water in “The City of Four Lakes”
Madison is a city that goes by many names, one of which is “The City of Four Lakes.” This nickname celebrates the beauty of Madison’s four surrounding bodies of water which include Lake Mendota, Monona, Wingra, and Waubesa. With so many lakes close at hand, that means countless options for water-based activities and lake fun.
When the weather’s warm, kayak and canoe rentals are an exciting way to enjoy the city and gain a new perspective of the skyline from the water. It’s also possible to rent a boat for some quality time soaking up some sunshine.
As temperatures fall below freezing, the lakes surrounding the city begin to ice over, creating a safe surface to walk out onto the lake for winter viewing or ice fishing.
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6. Jump Around at a Badgers Football Game
Wisconsinites live and breathe football. So it’s not surprising that one of the most local experiences to have is to see a Wisconsin Badgers football game at home. If you’re able to snag tickets, seeing the Badgers play inside UW’s historic Camp Randall Stadium is a sight to see. Be sure to stay through the fourth quarter to witness the entire student section jump around.
If going to a game in person isn’t possible, don’t fret. All of the bars along Monroe Street host game-watching parties, usually for a small cover fee. Many University buildings such as the unions also offer a fantastic place to watch the Badgers play.
With large projectors set up, a full bar, and countless fans cheering on the Badgers, it’s one of the best ways to catch the game and experience a taste of Madison.
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7. Smell the Flowers at Olbrich Botanical Gardens & UW Arboretum
If you appreciate a pleasant garden walk, consider a visit to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. The gardens feature a beautiful glass conservatory filled with tropical plants and wildlife that visitors can see year-round.
Out in the spacious grounds, enjoy the different themed gardens and make time to see the jaw-dropping, authentic Thai Pavilion, which was a gift from the Thai Government.
Another popular thing to do in Madison is visiting the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. The Arboretum has more than 17 miles of trails that loop around native landscapes and effigy burial mounds. Cyclists and snow showers are also welcome on designated trails.
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8. Hike the University Lakeshore Path to Picnic Point
Madison’s Lakeshore Path is a scenic trail that runs from the Memorial Union Terrace, past historic student dormitories, and onward to Picnic Point. Picnic Point is an idyllic little peninsula that juts into the waters of Lake Mendota. It’s part of the University’s Lakeshore Preserve, which helps protect the natural beauty native to Madison.
For those short on time, start your hike from the Picnic Point Parking Lot 130. Along the trail, there are fire pits and picnic tables available for booking.
Once you reach the end, you’re rewarded with excellent city views and a paved seating area where you can rest and relax before continuing back. The path is particularly beautiful in the fall once the leaves begin to change colors.
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9. Experience Frank Lloyd Wrights’ Legacy at Monona Terrace
A Wisconsin native, Frank Lloyd Wright, was a revolutionary architect who left his mark through striking structures in Wisconsin and around the world. His work revolved around creating human-made buildings that melded with nature in a style that’s become known as Prairie Style.
The most shining example of his work in Madison can be seen in the striking Monona Terrace, an iconic feature in the city’s skyline. The Monona Terrace is a convention center that hosts the winter Dane County Farmers Market, among other events.
It also features a cafe on the rooftop overlooking Lake Monona to the east and the state Capitol to the west. Other Frank Lloyd Wright structures in Madison include The Airplane House and The First Unitarian Meeting House.
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10. Indulge in Madison’s Thriving Culinary Scene
In between all of your explorations, make the time to sample the vast culinary options Madison has to offer. The city is brimming with options that range from international dishes, local fare, and sophisticated tasting menus.
For greasy but delicious grub, check out The Old Fashioned and have a basket of ooey gooey cheese curds ranked some of the best in the state. Then be sure to wash it down with a Wisconsin brandy old fashioned cocktail.
For fine dining, a visit to L’Etoile for their multi-course menu is a must. Other popular options that should be on your radar include breakfast at Mickies Dairy Bar, a massive apple fritter from Greenbush Bakery, and creative dishes from Mint Mark.
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11. Have a Local Brew at a Madison Brewery
Wisconsin is a craft beer haven, and Madison is no exception. While it’s possible to try the locally brewed brands at many of Madison’s popular bars and restaurants, a visit to a brewer’s taproom helps paint the whole picture.
Some of the most popular breweries in Madison include Ale Asylum, Karben4, Capital Brewery, and many more. The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company is another Madison staple with two locations downtown and in Hilldale. Most of these breweries have outdoor terraces that welcome dogs and also serve bar-style dishes for the hungry.
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Seen in: Midwest, Things to Do, Wisconsin