13 Fun Things to Do in Madison, Wisconsin’s Capital City and College Town

Mira Temkin Avatar

Wisconsin State Capital building in Madison
Wisconsin’s beautiful State Capitol building is the centerpiece of Madison. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Welcome to Madison, WI, the state’s second-largest city and home to the State Capitol, a Big 10 university, and a diverse foodie scene. Add in two beautiful lakes – Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, with an isthmus between – and you’ll discover a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere for a great getaway.

This extremely walkable city features world-class dining, historic sites, and beer-related everything, all in downtown Madison. Farm-to-table rules supreme here with restaurants ranging from traditional Wisconsin Supper Clubs to Wisconsin-style pizza to big city steakhouses. And those fabulous cheese curds, wow! (More on all the great food in a moment.)

Stand in the middle of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and feel the energy of thousands of students who have crossed these paths since 1848. Sit out on the Memorial Union Terrace with its famous multi-colored chairs and take in the lake breezes from Lake Mendota and Lake Monona.

To describe Madison best is to say it offers “big-city flair with a small-town feel.” It’s a spirit and energy you’ll feel everywhere you go.

Read More: 30+ Best Midwest Road Trip Destinations

Top Tourist Attractions in Madison Wisconsin

Viewing the elaborate interior of the State Capitol is one of many things to do in Madison WI.
View of the elaborate interior of the State Capitol. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

1. Wisconsin State Capitol Building

You’ll know you’ve arrived someplace special when you drive up Washington Street and the impressive Wisconsin State Capitol comes into view.

Take a free guided tour of the Wisconsin State Capitol, which houses both chambers of the state legislature, the governor’s office, and the Supreme Court. Learn about the history of the only granite dome in the U.S. and stand in amazement at the gorgeous rotunda. Head up to the observation deck for 365-degree views of downtown and exquisite lake views. Tours take place every hour, every day.

If it’s Saturday morning, it must be the Dane County Farmers Market on Capitol Square, which showcases hundreds of local farmers selling fresh cheeses, baked goods, and FLOWERS. Be sure to bring home a bunch, even if you’re just a visitor. Enjoy your treats as you listen to the live music. Check the full schedule here.

The outdoor Wonderground at the Madison Children's Museum is one of many things to do in Madison WI.
The outdoor Wonderground. Photo credit: Madison Children’s Museum.

2. Madison Children’s Museum

One of the top Madison attractions for families, at the Madison Children’s Museum, kids have the run of the place, both indoors and out. Check out Wonderground, which now offers exciting outdoor play with spiral slides, Cocoon Climber, and an 1830s log cabin. Admission is included with all regular tickets.

Kids can pretend to be architects with an entire exhibit dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright. From “Coops to Cathedrals: Nature, Childhood, and the Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright,” kids explore Mr. Wright’s childhood bedroom, farm, and studio. Using blocks and building boards, the ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright spring to life.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Wisconsin Dells Indoor Waterparks

Kaying on the lake is one of many things to do in Madison WI.
Paddle your own kayak to see downtown Madison from the lake. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

3. Kayak Lake Mendota

Kayaking Lake Mendota is the way to see the downtown Madison skyline from a different perspective. Brittingham Boats rents kayaks, paddle boards, canoes, and more. I paddled a kayak and got up close and personal with the multi-level Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace and Convention Center.

In the winter, hearty Wisconsinites don’t let the frigid temperatures limit their outdoor activities – they go ice fishing on Lake Mendota and Lake Monona.

Madison Bcycle is an easy-to-use and super affordable electric bike-sharing system. Bring your own helmet! Photo credit: Cindy Richards

4. Biking and Hiking Trails

Madison offers more than 200 miles of trails — both biking and hiking. Visit the Arboretum on the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus and get inspired as you ride through prairies, woodlands, and wetlands.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The easiest and most affordable way to get around town is via the Madison Bcycle electric bike sharing system. Bring your own helmet — these powered bikes can be speedy!

Checking out the animals (like this rhino) at the Henry Vilas Zoo is one of many things to do in Madison WI.
A rhinoceros comes to greet you at the Henry Vilas Zoo. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

5. Henry Vilas Zoo

Wandering around the free Henry Vilas Zoo is a great way to spend a hot day. Visit the animals, have a snack, and ride the Zoo Train and historic Conservation Carousel. Don’t miss the Tropical Forest Aviary at Henry Vilas Zoo with its exotic birds, tropical plants, and fish. The Big Cats House will wow you with its African lions and say hi to the polar bears!

6. Cave of the Mounds

One of the best day trips from Madison is Cave of the Mounds, a National Natural Landmark and a cool place to chill on a hot day. Take a self-guided tour of this geologic wonder and see colorful crystals hanging down along lighted walkways. Or go with a guided tour of Cave of the Mounds and learn about the limestone cave formations. The temperature is always a cool 50 degrees.

7. Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Everything’s in bloom at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, featuring 16 acres of lovely outdoor space filled with colorful flowers, winding walkways and quiet places to stop and contemplate the beauty.

The outdoor spaces are free to roam, but there’s an admission fee for the interior spaces such as the Bolz Conservatory, a glass pyramid filled with more than 650 exotic plants, bright flowers, a rushing waterfall, fragrant orchids, and free-flying birds.

When SheBuysTravel Editor-in-Chief Cindy Richards visited near closing time, it was a whirlwind 30-minute stop. She easily could have stayed another hour or more.

8. Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Madison is another one of the art galleries in the city with free admission, open Thursday-Sunday. Featuring modern and contemporary art from Chicago Imagism, Frida Kahlo, and Wisconsin-based artists, the collection is designed to inspire and transform.

9. Wisconsin Historical Museum

This downtown Madison museum, which opened in 1986, is currently closed for renovation. Only the gift shop is open to buy books about Wisconsin’s history until the brand-new Wisconsin History Center opens in 2026.

10. Wisconsin Veterans Museum

This free downtown Madison museum tells the story of those soldiers from Wisconsin who fought in the Civil War to present-day conflicts. Hear their personal stories of triumph and tragedy.

11. UW Madison

Look for signs proclaiming “Go Badgers” as you walk down State Street, which connects the Capitol to the University of Wisconsin-Madison main campus. Along the State Street thoroughfare, you’ll find restaurants, shops, bars, and food trucks.

Once you get to campus, ice cream is the must-try food. UW Madison has an old-fashioned creamery where the ice cream is made on campus. Buy a scoop and take it outside on the Memorial Union Terrace that overlooks Lake Mendota for beautiful lake views.

Checking out the many artisan cheese at Fromagination is one of many things to do in Madison WI.
Fromagination sells cheese from artisan cheesemakers throughout Wisconsin. Photo credit: Mira Temkin.

12. Learn about Wisconsin Cheese

Cheese is everywhere in Wisconsin. Mixed into hash browns. Deep friend as cheese curds. Sprinkled on salads. Melted in mac ‘n’ cheese. You name it, Wisconsinites will put cheese on it.

So you might as well learn about cheese while you’re here. And Fromagination is the place to do just that.

Walking into the store on the back side of Capitol Square is like walking into a European Cheese Shop. You’ll be promptly greeted by owner Ken Monteleone who will educate you about Wisconsin artisan cheese. You’ll come away with an appreciation of the craftsmanship that goes into these healthy Midwest products as well as a bagful of locally-made crackers, chocolate, honey, maple syrup, and more.

Ask Ken about his famous Pleasant Ridge Reserve Cheese, one of the most awarded cheeses in the U.S. from Uplands Cheese.

Be sure to try one of the specialty sandwiches and have a picnic in front of the Capitol. My favorite is its signature turkey breast sandwich with creamy French Brie, and cranberry relish on wheat bread. Pick up a bag of locally made Slide potato chips, the best you’ve ever tasted.

Checking out the many bars on the Madison On Tap Beer Trail is one of many things to do in Madison WI.
Use the Madison on Tap Beer Trail for stops at Young Blood Beer, Great Dane Pub & Brewing and others. Photo credit: Mira Temkin.

13. Bottoms Up with Madison On Tap

Download the app and the Madison on Tap Beer Trail is your road map to hand-crafted cocktails, beer and cider at 30-plus spirited brew pubs in the Madison area. Cheers!  

Dipping the famous Wisconsin cheese curds into ranch dressing is one of many things to do in Madison WI.
Dip into Wisconsin’s famous Cheese Curds with Ranch dressing. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

Great Eateries in Downtown Madison

As America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin is known for its famous cheese curds, made fresh on Midwest farms.

These little gems are all available all over – in restaurants, at the Saturday morning farmer’s market, even at local gas stations. Wisconsites bread them, fry them, add seasonings and eat them plain. The best thing about cheese curds? The fresh ones squeak when you bite into them!

For a sampling of fabulous cheese curds, head to The Tipsy Cow, which serves two kinds of Wisconsin’s famous cheese curds. Try the Spotted Cow battered cheese curds and see the s-t-r-e-t-c-h. For a saltier taste, try the Goat Cheese Curds and dip into flavor!

Trying the Wisconsin mac & cheese at Johnny Delmonico's is one of many things to do in Madison WI.
Johnny Delmonico’s serves up rich and creamy Wisconsin Mac & Cheese. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

Johnny Delmonico’s Steakhouse

Johnny’s is the place for a classic dining experience with mahogany paneling, white tablecloths, and art-déco décor. Voted the Best Steakhouse in Madison for 10 years, the restaurant serves only Certified Angus Beef in a variety of cuts and topped with mouth-watering sauces.

Start with the traditional Caesar Salad, fresh and crunchy. I ordered the New York Strip and it came grilled to perfection, topped with Bearnaise sauce. Fresh asparagus and Brussels sprouts rounded out the plate. Who could resist the Wisconsin Mac & Cheese?

But I left room for dessert and indulged in the Crème Brulee with blackberry jam.

Tornado Club Steakhouse

Another traditional Wisconsin spot, Tornado serves up juicy steaks topped with that Wisconsin Supper Club must-have, the giant deep-fried onion ring. When Cindy visited, she ordered the other Wisconsin staple, pan-fried Walleye with lemon, thyme, shallots & white wine. And she washed it down with the best Brandy Sweet Old Fashioned she has ever tasted.

While you wait for a table (and you likely will wait for table at this popular spot), spend some time appreciating the mid-century modern decor at this iconic supper club, including the pink tile in the ladies’ room.

Wisconsin Supper Clubs

Wisconsin is famous for its Supper Clubs, traditional restaurants only open for dinner.

At Wisconsin Supper Clubs, Friday is fish fry night and Sunday is prime rib. The dinners start with a relish tray — celery, cucumber, radishes and carrot sticks. There’s a big salad, warm fresh-baked bread and decadent desserts — all in large Wisconsin portions.

Try Toby’s Supper Club known for pan-fried chicken, succulent steaks, and key lime pie martinis.

Wisconsin Pizza

Want to try Wisconsin-style pizza? Lucille’s has perfected this blend of thin-crust pizza and sweet tomato sauce. But they’ve also put their spin on it with the Wisco-Detroit Cheddar-crusted black steel pan pizza. Part of Rule One Hospitality, Lucille’s is proud to source locally-grown farmers and producers. You’ll taste the difference.  

Culver’s Custard

There are nearly 1,000 Culver’s restaurants selling butter burgers and custard across the USA. But it all started in Wisconsin. In fact, the original Culver’s is just outside Madison in Sauk City. The store has been remodeled so it looks just like all of the other Culver’s restaurants, but there’s a plaque and some inspirational messages around the outdoor eating area. The custard tastes just a little sweeter when you go back to its roots!

Where to Stay in Madison

While there are any number of options, Cindy Richards recommends these two:

Hotel Indigo Madison Downtown

This hip hotel is located in a former paint factory and the hotel designers really leaned into that history. Paint imagery is everywhere — the stacked cans of paint that separate the lobby from the restaurant, the paint that drips down the mirror in the guestroom, the paint rollers decorated in flowers that act as art elements on the walls.

The rooms here are large, the bed is comfy, and the retro minifridge brought a smile to Cindy’s face when she entered her room. The lobby is welcoming with cute games set up for passing the time while you wait for the rest of your party to join you.

Hotel Indigo is an IHG hotel, so join the loyalty program before you check in to earn points.

reivew the edgewater madison wi
Ice rink sits between two buildings of The Edgewater on the shores of Lake Mendota. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Cindy stayed at this classic boutique hotel on the shores of Lake Mendota close to the University of Wisconsin during a previous trip to Madison. The hotel is a throwback to a more sophisticated time in leisure travel—when the hotels were grand, the accommodations plush and the service extraordinary.

The rooms are large and feature a lake view. The hotel has a spa and wellness center and three on-site restaurants, including the not-to-be-missed fine dining restaurant, Statehouse. In the winter, the plaza between the two towers is flooded and turned into an ice rink.

Checking out the  view from the top of the Monona Terrace Convention Center is one of many things to do in Madison WI.
View from the top of the Monona Terrace Convention Center. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

Where is Madison, Wisconsin?

Madison, Wi is approximately an hour and a half from Milwaukee and an easy two-and-a-half-hour road trip from Chicago. It’s an extremely walkable city, particularly if you stay downtown. Check out our review of Marriott’s AC Hotel.

For more information about Madison as a great getaway, stop by the Visitor Center in town or go here.

Mira Temkin Avatar
With more than 20 years of travel writing under her bling-y belt, Mira Temkin understands the expectations of the leisure traveler and writes to those expectations. From destinations to tours to cruises and luxury resorts, her articles cover the world: across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Central America, South America and Europe. She is a proud member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and past member of the International Food Wine Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA). Mira always has her bags packed and is ready to go! You can read her other travel stories at miratemkintravel.com.
Read full bio

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *