Madison, Wisconsin, has a rich and unique history that has shaped the city into what it is today. The city was founded in 1836 and named after the fourth president of the United States, James Madison. Throughout its history, Madison has been influenced by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, founded in 1848, and has grown to become one of the country’s largest and most prestigious public universities. The city also played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement, with protests and demonstrations in the 1960s.
Today, Madison is known for its progressive political climate and commitment to sustainability, as well as its thriving arts and cultural scene. Madison’s a vibrant and picturesque city that attracts visitors from all over the world. Known for its beautiful scenery, rich history, and friendly locals, Madison offers an unforgettable experience for visitors. Whether you’re looking to explore the great outdoors, discover the city’s cultural and artistic scene, or simply relax and unwind, Madison has something to offer everyone. So if you’re looking for a memorable travel destination in the Midwest, Madison, Wisconsin, should definitely be on your list.
15. Vilas Park Beach
Villas Park Beach in Madison, Wisconsin, is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and have fun. This beach is the perfect spot to take in the winter sunshine, relax in the summer evening, or take a quick dip in the lake. This is an excellent way for the whole family to spend the day. Some amenities include volleyball courts, frisbee golf, kids’ play areas, picnic, and fishing areas, along with a historic boardwalk perfect for evening strolls.
You can even grab lunch nearby on Monroe Street after some hours in the sun. A quick 6-minute car ride away is a stretch of highly-rated restaurants where you’ll find something for any taste. The Laurel Tavern is a neighborhood pub with burgers and other tasty, simple fare. Taste of India, Miko Poke, and Everly (a California bistro) are clustered next to each other as other options.
14. Devil’s Lake State Park
Devil’s Lake State Park is a breathtaking natural wonder located in Baraboo, Wisconsin—a short hour-long drive from Madison. The park is home to one of the most popular and picturesque destinations in the state, Devil’s Lake. This glacially formed lake is surrounded by towering cliffs and bluffs, providing stunning panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
The park is also home to over 29 miles of hiking trails that wind through the forest, over the bluffs, and along the lake shore. Visitors can also enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, and rock climbing at Devil’s Lake State Park. The park’s diverse flora and fauna, including white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and bald eagles, offer visitors a chance to experience the natural beauty of Wisconsin. With its scenic beauty and recreational opportunities, Devil’s Lake State Park (and the nearby town of Baraboo for food and snacks) is a perfect day trip from Maidson. Stop for lunch at Baraboo Burger Company and try some of the best fried pickles around!
13. Downtown Madison
Madison, Wisconsin, offers many interesting downtown activities, including dining, shopping, historical tours, and outdoor activities. Visitors can try acclaimed restaurants such as Graze, Sardine, and Side Door Grill & Tap for an enjoyable lunch or dinner. Shopping at Little Luxuries and Madison Modern Market are popular stops to pick up locally sourced gifts and clothing.
The Wisconsin Historical Museum is located in the heart of Downtown Madison. It offers a fully interactive city and state history, with various permanent and rotating exhibitions and programs. Madison’s Capitol square is an excellent spot for exploring and taking in the sights and sounds of the historic government buildings or relaxing at one of the many cafes or patios. For those seeking a fun outdoor adventure, the Lakeshore Nature Preserve near the university area offers miles of paths and trails to explore on foot, bike, or skis.
12. Lake Mendota
Located in the largest city in Wisconsin, Lake Mendota provides the perfect place for outdoor recreation. Whether taking a boat out on the lake, spending a hot summer day fishing for bass, or heading out for a sunset kayaking tour, Lake Mendota offers its visitors various activities. Multiple marinas are dispersed around the lake that offer boat rentals, docking services, and seasonal events, such as Fourth of July fireworks.
If you prefer more relaxed activities, there are plenty of breaks and beaches throughout the lake, offering the perfect place to put down a beach blanket, catch some sun, and take a leisurely dip. Boat tours take guests out for hour-long tours around the lake and include commentary from knowledgeable tour guides about its history and beauty. For the ultimate Madison experience, a boat rental from Madison Boats is highly recommended. With its top-notch customer service and excellent reviews, this company provides memorable experiences and stunning photographic possibilities.
11. Monona Terrace Convention Center
The Monona Terrace Convention Center near Madison, Wisconsin, is a great place to enjoy various events even if you aren’t visiting on business. Located in downtown Madison on the beautiful Lake Monona, the center provides breathtaking views and many flexible event spaces perfect for any number of occasions. From conferences, seminars, and meetings, to weddings, galas, and festivals, the convention center can accommodate events of all shapes and sizes.
The Monona Terrace Convention center is also home to the Memorial Union Terrace and other iconic Madison institutions with a long-standing history in the city. Frank Lloyd Wright proposed the design way back in 1938. In 1997, after 59 years, his hope for a “dream civic center” finally became a reality.
10. Olbrich Botanical Gardens
(image via Wikimedia)
Olbrich Botanical Gardens, located near Lake Monona in Madison, offers a beautiful and serene experience for visitors. There are 16 acres of outdoor gardens and sculptures, accompanied by an indoor conservatory to explore and enjoy. Olbrich’s outdoor gardens and artwork are the perfect place to get away from the hustle and bustle while appreciating the beauty of nature. The outdoor gardens include the Sunken Garden, the Rose Garden, and the Thai Pavilion and Garden, all of which feature incredible landscapes and artwork for visitors to enjoy. The indoor Bolz Conservatory offers a tropical rainforest and desert experience.
9. Henry Vilas Zoo
The Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin, is a popular activity for locals and visitors alike. The Zoo opened in 1911 and is one of only ten admission-free zoos in the United States. This means that visitors can enjoy a wide variety of animals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians completely for free. The zoo doesn’t even charge parking fees. On-site, there is a carousel, concession area, and a play area for children. A great addition to any visit is the Zoo Train, which offers a unique way to travel between the different areas of the zoo.
8. Dane County Farmers’ Market
The Dane County Farmers’ Market, located near Madison, Wisconsin, is one of the country’s oldest and largest producer-only farmers’ markets. Established in 1972, it is an excellent place for locals and tourists to find high-quality and locally sourced produce, meats, dairy, baked goods, and flowers. The main market is hosted every Saturday and Sunday in downtown Madison. Many locals call out Stella’s Bakery as having some of the best bread around. Be sure to get there early if you want the choice picks of all the produce!
For a more historical touch, the original Dane County Farmers Market can be found in the city’s heart on Martin Luther King, Jr Blvd, offering some of the freshest products from over 125 vendors. This one is on Wednesdays instead of Saturdays. Most of the farmers’ markets are highly rated, with many of the vendors receiving high reviews for the quality of their products.
7. Majestic Theatre
The Majestic Theatre, located near the Wisconsin State Capitol building, has had a varied history. Originally, it opened in 1906 as a vaudeville theatre. When moving pictures became popular, the theatre transitioned into a movie house in the 1930s. Now, the Majestic is a popular 600-person live music venue and club.
The ornate decor and vintage architecture provide a unique experience to take in live music from a band or DJ. Over the years, the theatre has hosted many famous artists, including Elvis Costello, Ben Harper, and Pearl Jam. Whether you’re a music lover or a history buff, the Majestic Theatre is a must-visit destination in Madison, Wisconsin.
6. Orpheum Theatre
The Orpheum Theatre in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, is a great way to spend an evening in the city. You can find a wide variety of shows and performances. From concerts to comedy nights and even movies, the Orpheum Theatre will surely have something to enjoy. As a historic venue, the ornate theatre first opened its doors in 1926 and has since then served as a source of entertainment for the local community.
Before or after your show, you can walk around the downtown area to dine and explore the variety of shops available. If you’re looking for delicious food, popular restaurants such as the Old Fashioned, Graze, and Nattspil are highly rated. With so many options to explore and enjoy, a visit to the Orpheum Theatre in Madison is sure to make for an unforgettable experience.
5. Kohl Center stadium
The Kohl Center Stadium is an exciting venue and the home of various University of Wisconsin sporting events like basketball, hockey, wrestling, and volleyball. The stadium is also a multi-use facility, hosting art, theatre, and other entertainment events. Additionally, the stadium features an Olympic-sized ice rink, five locker rooms, a weight room, and a training room.
Artists and speakers who have held events at the Kohl Center include Barack Obama (as a presidential candidate), the Dalai Lama, Billy Joel, Elton John, Dave Matthews Band, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Shania Twain, and more.
4. Wisconsin-Madison Campus
Madison, Wisconsin, is a great place to visit, with various activities. Whether you’re a sports fan, nature lover, history buff, or just want to kick back and relax, there’s something for everyone near Madison. If you’re looking for a unique experience, you might want to check out the University of Wisconsin-Madison Campus. Home to some of the nation’s best sports teams and a stunning botanical garden, UW-Madison is a must-see for visitors to the area.
You can also discover the city’s unique history by taking a tour of the Beaux Arts-style buildings that make up the historical center of the Madison campus. Plus, with numerous restaurants and cafes located near the campus, there’s plenty of good food to enjoy while you’re there. Popular spots include Mediterranean Cafe and Colectivo Coffee-State Street.
3. Ice Cream, Milkshakes, & Dairy Galore
Babcock Hall Dairy Store is a beloved ice creamery in Madison that offers delicious treats for all to enjoy. Located on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and opened in 1951, this attraction has been delighting locals and visitors alike for many years. This is the place to go for tasty ice cream and milkshakes, made with the very best premium ingredients and created according to Wisconsin dairy traditions. Badger Blast is our favorite, so if you’re a dark chocolate lover, this is your ice cream flavor! Babcock Hall Dairy Store offers baked goods, cheeses, popcorn, and gourmet chocolates in addition to ice cream. The impressive selection of goodies makes it the perfect stop for anyone looking for a sweet treat.
Aside from Babcock Hall Dairy Store, Madison also offers a variety of other ice cream shops as well. One popular spot is Michael’s Frozen Custard, located on Atwood Avenue. The custard here is smooth and rich, and patrons rave over the deliciousness of the sundaes and malts. Another popular ice cream destination in Madison is the Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream Store with multiple locations all over.
2. Wisconsin Historical Museum
A visit to the Wisconsin Historical Museum is the perfect way to get a glimpse into the history and culture of the great state of Wisconsin. Located in Madison, the museum is full of fascinating exhibits from the indigenous inhabitants of the land to European settlements, including the history of the lead mining industry and the Wisconsin agricultural industry. Visitors can even take a special tour of the state Capitol building.
Near the Wisconsin Historical Museum, the surrounding area has an array of great restaurants and other attractions. Nearby, James Madison Park offers stunning views of Lake Mendota. If you’ve had your fill of the past, enjoy some artifacts from the present at the nearby Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, only a block and a half away.
1. State Capitol of Madison
Madison is home to many unique and exciting activities. One of the most popular attractions is the Wisconsin State Capitol. Visitors can explore the elegant marble halls of the Capitol Building and gain insight into the state’s political and architectural history. If chosen, guided tours are available, and reservations can be made in advance for an even more informative experience. Activities around the Capitol include the Capitol Square Park, which offers picnic tables and sculptures for a leisurely stroll, and the Overture Center across the street offers gallery shows, music performances, and theater productions.
As you can see, Madison has a lot to offer everyone. If you are looking to do more in the surrounding area, check out other weekend trips from nearby Madison, Wisconsin.
These areas are perfect for a quick day trip or a long weekend getaway. Explore our favorite things to do or peruse some pre-built itineraries.