If you’ve never been to Madison before, you’re missing out. Home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this university town is buzzing with cool new breweries, trendy restaurants, and artsy events and festivals. But you don’t have to be a student to indulge in everything this great city has to offer.
Located on an isthmus between lakes Monona and Mendota and just a stone’s throw from lakes Waubesa, Kegonsa, and Wingra, this city offers endless lakeside adventure when the weather is nice. Whether you want to swim at a beach or go kayaking, you’ll be spoiled for choice. When winter arrives and the lakes freeze over, you can go ice skating, ice fishing, and cross-country skiing!
If you prefer to keep your activities indoors, you can easily spend your days shopping on State Street, perusing art at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, or sipping creative craft beers at one of the city’s 20+ breweries.
And whenever you’re feeling peckish, be sure to seek out Madison’s most iconic eats. From the fresh cheese curds at The Old Fashioned to the Mac n’ Cheese Pizza at Ian’s Pizza and the Babcock Ice Cream at the Daily Scoop, you won’t go hungry in Madison!
With so many cool things to see, do, and eat, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Madison for you. Stick to these fun and unique Madison bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this incredible Midwestern gem!
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15 Fun and Unique Things to do in Madison, WI
1. Eat Fresh at the Dane County Farmers Market
One of the best ways to tap into any new city is to pay a visit to a local farmers’ market – and Madison is home to one of the best! The Dane County Farmers Market is the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the US, which means everything you’ll find is sourced from Wisconsin.
The Dane County Farmers Market is held in Capitol Square every Saturday from 6:15 am to 1:45 pm from April to November. Each week, you can peruse the stalls of over 150 vendors hawking everything from fruit, veggies, meats, and cheeses to bread, nuts, flowers, and plants. You’ll also find dozens of artisans selling arts and crafts, jewelry, clothing, and more.
Be sure to come hungry because you’ll find some of the best food in Madison at the food stalls and food trucks. Plus, you can enjoy your farm-fresh bites while soaking in the views from the Capitol lawn. When it comes to fun things to do in Madison, it doesn’t get much better than this!
2. Take a Bike Ride Around Lake Monona
Madison is an outdoor lover’s dream come true. This place is home to five lakes and one of the best trail systems in the US. Madison actually received a Platinum Bicycle Friendly Designation from the League of American Bicyclists in 2015, and it is widely hailed as one of the five best cities for biking in the United States!
Exploring the city on two wheels is easily one of the coolest things to do in Madison. Plus, you’ll find 40 BCycle stations and tons of rental places scattered around town, which makes cruising around an absolute breeze.
The Lake Monona Loop Trail is easily one of the best. This paved trail stretches for 13 miles and will take you past iconic Madison attractions like the Monona Terrace Community Center, B.B. Clarke Park, and the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Plus, you’ll be treated to stunning views of Lake Monona and the Madison skyline along the way.
3. Grab a Sundowner at Memorial Union Terrace
When the weather is nice, do as the UW-Madison students do and beeline it for the Memorial Union Terrace. While this lakefront watering hole is set right on Lake Mendota on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, you don’t have to be a student to hang out here.
In the summer months, this place is always buzzing with students and families alike. You can simply take a seat at one of the colorful chairs on the back patio and take in the stunning lake views. Or, better yet, grab some food and drinks from one of the many restaurants.
For the most iconic eats, be sure to grab a scoop of Babcock Dairy Ice Cream and a pitcher of Spotted Cow beer. Head here during the weekend on a hot summer’s day, and you’ll likely be treated to live music or alfresco movies. Do note that you need to be a Union Member to purchase food and drinks, but you can simply get a $1 one-day membership if you’re in town for a quick visit.
4. Be Transported to Thailand in the Olbrich Botanical Gardens
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Madison, definitely pay a visit to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. This one-of-a-kind attraction is set on 16 acres of land right on the banks of Lake Monona. Plus, this place is open year-round, so it’s easily one of the best Madison activities if you’re visiting during the winter!
One thing that makes the Olbrich Botanical Gardens stand out from the rest is that it’s home to an authentic Thai pavilion that was gifted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison by the Thai government. This 30-foot-tall pavilion is stunning and easily one of the coolest things to see in Madison.
Thai pavilions aside, you can easily spend hours exploring all of the outdoor gardens, which are completely free to visit. You will have to pay $6 to enter the year-round Bolz Conservatory, but it’s well worth it for the tropical climes.
Step inside, and you’ll find a glass pyramid brimming with exotic plants, colorful blooms, beautiful orchids, and a variety of bird species. There’s even a waterfall!
5. Shop (or Eat) Till You Drop on State Street
A visit to State Street should be on everyone’s Madison itinerary. This bustling pedestrian mall stretches for seven blocks from the State Capitol Square to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Along the way, you’ll find over 140 restaurants, 80 shops, and dozens of coffee shops, bookstores, galleries, and more.
If it’s shopping you’re after, you can pick up unique gifts at the popular Madison Modern Market, Anthology, and Little Luxuries before hunting for vintage finds at Ragstock or picking up handmade soaps at The Soap Opera.
Once you work up an appetite, you’ll be spoiled for choice. If you want to get into the Wisconsin spirit, grab a Red Brat, a plate of cheese curds, and a local brew at State Street Brats. Alternately, you can try the iconic Mac n’ Cheese Pizza at Ian’s Pizza on State or a sweet treat at the family-owned Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream Co.
6. Take in Panoramic Views from the Wisconsin State Capitol Observation Deck
If there’s one thing that needs to be on your Madison bucket list, it’s a visit to the Wisconsin State Capitol. Plus, it’s located right downtown, and it’s absolutely free to enter, so there’s really no reason not to visit this architectural gem!
The Wisconsin State Capitol was completed in 1917, and, by law, it still stands proud as the tallest building in Madison. Its 284-foot-high dome is visible from all across the city!
Step inside, and you’ll find a spectacular rotunda, expansive murals, stunning marble work, and an enormous skylight. You can either explore on your own or time your visit with one of the free guided tours, which are offered on most days.
Either way, don’t leave without making your way to the observation deck on the 5th floor for stunning views of the city and the lakes below!
7. Admire Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace is easily one of the coolest things to see in Madison – especially if you’re an architecture buff. You’ll find this spectacular building perched on the shores of Lake Monona, and it’s well worth taking some time to explore and even grabbing a drink at the rooftop cafe.
Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright first proposed the plan for his “dream civic center” in 1938 before it was rejected by just one vote. Despite his persistent efforts, Wright never saw his idea come to fruition.
The project was resurrected as the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center and was finally completed using Wright’s exterior design in 1997. Visit this architectural marvel today, and you’ll find Wright’s Monona Terrace extending 90 feet out over Lake Monona.
If you’ve got the time, head up to Lake Vista Café in the William T. Evjue Rooftop Gardens, where you can sit back with a coffee or beer and admire the beautiful lake views. It’s definitely one of the most peaceful things to do in Madison.
8. Eat Your Way Through Garver Feed Mill
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Madison, make your way over to Garver Feed Mill. You’ll find this historic building-turned-trendy-food-hall just off the Capital City Trail, right next to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens.
This National Register of Historic Places-listed building was used as a sugar beet processing plant from 1906 to 1924 and has been completely repurposed as a creative space for local restaurateurs, artisans, and entrepreneurs.
Come hungry because you’ll find some of the best food in Madison at Garver Feed Mill. You can order a pie at Ian’s Pizza, grab a scoop at Calliope Ice Cream, get a caffeine fix at Ledger Coffee Roasters, play board games and eat Asian street food at Roll Play, or sip cocktails at Garver Lounge.
From Kosa Ayurvedic Spa to Perennial Yoga, Garver Feed Mill is also a destination for wellness enthusiasts. If that’s not enough, there are always fun pop-up events, concerts, and markets happening in this space. And if you’re in town in the winter, this is the site of the Dane County Farmers’ Market each Saturday!
9. Go Brewery Hopping
This is Wisconsin, so it should come as no surprise that Madison is overflowing with breweries. You’ll find 20+ breweries scattered around town, so if you want to get a taste of Madison’s buzzing craft beer scene, it’s well worth going on a self-guided brewery tour.
If there’s one brew you’ll see pop up again and again during your trip, it’s New Glarus Brewing Company‘s Spotted Cow. While it’s not technically in Madison, you’ll find that it’s well worth making the 40-minute journey to the New Glarus Brewing Company taproom. Their tagline is “Only in Wisconsin,” which means you can’t find their beers anywhere outside of the state!
But if you prefer to stay within the city limits, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Start with an And I Feel God In This Chili’s Tonight Hazy IPA or Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica. Saison at one of Young Blood Beer Company‘s two taprooms before sipping experimental IPAs at Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company in downtown. From the Giant Pretzel and the Old Glory Cheese Curds to the Brat & Bacon Pretzel Burger to the New London Fish Fry, you won’t go hungry at Great Dane either!
And then there’s One Barrel Brewing Company, which is all about ciders and beers that are “handmade in small batches with love.” If you’ve got the tolerance for more, try Funk Factory, Delta Beer Lab, or ALT Brew.
10. Learn All About Wisconsin at the Wisconsin Historical Museum
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Madison, then pay a visit to the Wisconsin Historical Museum. Set in Capitol Square, the Wisconsin Historical Museum will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the history, culture, and industry of this great state.
You’ll find all sorts of rotating and permanent exhibits spread across four floors. As you explore, you’ll learn all about the Native Americans that first lived on this land, the lives of the European settlers, the shipwrecks of the Great Lakes, the state’s agricultural and industrial companies, and so much more.
There is even a quirky exhibition dedicated to malted milk, which was invented in Wisconsin!
11. Go Kayaking or Ice Skating on Lake Mendota
One of the coolest things about Madison is that it’s set on an isthmus between two shimmering lakes. So after you’re done making the trek along the Monona Loop Trail, make your way to Lake Mendota for some more fun on the water.
It doesn’t matter if you’re visiting in the winter or summer because there’s always something fun to do on Lake Mendota. Visit in the summer, and you can go swimming at one of the lake’s beaches, go kayaking and paddleboarding, or try your hand fishing for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and northern pike.
But if you’re planning to visit in the winter, you’ll have the chance to participate in some of the most unique Madison activities. From ice fishing and cross-country skiing to playing ice hockey and going snowkiting, there are tons of outdoor attractions. Time your visit right, and you can attend the Frozen Assets Festival or the Union’s Winter Carnival, both of which are held on icy Lake Mendota!
12. Stuff Your Face with Madison’s Most Iconic Eats
When it comes to comfort food, Madison is doing everything right. If you’re planning to spend a few days in the city, it’s well worth seeking out the city’s most famous foods. You’re on vacation, so don’t worry about the calories!
First off, it would be a sin to visit Madison and not try the fresh cheese curds. You’ll find some of the best morsels of squeaky cheese served at The Old Fashioned or the Dane County Farmers Market. After you’ve nibbled on some cheese curds, try the Mac n’ Cheese Pizza at Ian’s Pizza, a Red Brat at State Street Brats, or the Friday Fish Fry at Toby’s Supper Club.
To top off your meal, be sure to order a scoop of Babcock Ice Cream at the Daily Scoop or some frozen custard at Culver’s. Or, if you’re in the mood for a tipple, you’ll find Spotted Cow beer being served in bars and restaurants across the city. It’s only served in Wisconsin!
13. Watch Movies Under the Stars on the MMoCA Rooftop
If you’re looking for free things to do in Madison, be sure to pay a visit to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA), which is conveniently located right on State Street. Plus, there are always fun events being held here, so it’s well worth checking the website to see what’s on during your visit.
Designed by renowned architect César Pelli, the three-story glass building is one of the coolest Madison attractions. Step inside, and you’ll find a variety of rotating and permanent exhibitions. Among the highlights are works from Frida Kahlo in The Mexican Modernists Collection, as well as the impressive Chicago Imagists Collection. You’ll also find plenty of work from artists from Wisconsin and across the Midwest.
Another cool feature of the MMoCA is the 7,100-square-foot Rooftop Sculpture Garden. Not only is this a fun place to explore, but the museum regularly screens alfresco movies in the rooftop cinema in the summer and fall months!
14. Seek Out Some Street Art
If you’re a street art fan, you’re going to love exploring Madison. You’ll find all sorts of colorful murals gracing the city’s streets, but if you’re short on time, be sure to check out Madison Mural Alley.
Located behind the Madison East Shopping Center on E. Washington Avenue, this is where you’ll find five unique murals in one place, including Better Together by Brazilian artists Zimbardi and Calomino and East Side of Madison by Pete Hodapp.
If you’ve got the time, it’s well worth seeking out the Madison Mural on Monroe Street for that obligatory selfie. You’ll also find incredible works by Audifax sprinkled around town, including Dissolve at Mother Fools Coffee Shop, Silence Makes the Heart Grow Stronger at Harley’s Liquor & Bait, and Open the Sky at the Juvenile Shelter Home.
Artists are always putting up new pieces on walls around the city, so you never know what you’re going to find!
15. See Adorable Animals at Henry Vilas Zoo
Spending the day at Henry Vilas Zoo is one of the best things to do in Madison if you’re visiting the city with kids. You’ll find this 28-acre zoo right on the shores of Lake Wingra, near downtown Madison. And the best part is that this community-supported zoo is totally free to enter!
Henry Vilas Zoo is home to 650 animals and over 100 species. You’ll find colorful parrots in the Tropical Rainforest Aviary, cute penguins in the Penguin Exhibit, adorable otters in the Otter Exhibit, lions and tigers in the Big Cat Exhibits, polar bears in the Arctic Passage Exhibit, and so much more.
The zoo also features a beach where you can frolic in the summer months and a lagoon for ice skating in the winter. There’s also a Children’s Zoo, where little ones can ride on top of an okapi or a seal at the Conservation Carousel and play with friendly goats in the Red Barn. There’s something for all ages at Henry Vilas Zoo!
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Madison. What’s your favorite thing to do in Madison?
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