Ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the best places to live in America, Madison, WI, is perhaps the prettiest capitol city in the world. Built on an isthmus of land between two lakes, there are actually five lakes in the surrounding area. Nearly 250,000 people call Madison home and, thanks to the University of Wisconsin, the city is a mecca of cultural activities, arts, sports, museums and more than 260 parks offering plenty of things to do for people of all ages.
Since more than half the city’s population is under 30, there is a vibrant night life and ample outdoor recreational opportunities. An efficient public transportation system allows you to park downtown and take unlimited buses anywhere in the city for $4.50 per day per person. But, many of the more popular activities are within walking distance of the downtown area.
Here are some of the most common places to visit in Madison:
The Wisconsin State Capitol Building was built in 1917 and modeled after the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In fact, the Wisconsin Capitol boasts of the only granite dome in America and is only a foot or so shorter than the nation’s capitol. Free guided tours are offered daily during which visitors learn about the 43 varieties of stone used to form the building as well as the 26 historical paintings and intricate mosaic art that adorn its walls. The building is open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and weekends and holidays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. tours.wisconsin.gov/pub/Content.aspx?p=Capitol%20Tour
If you visit during the summer months, make sure to check out the fourth floor observation deck that offers outdoor 360-degree views of Madison and the surrounding area. Saturday mornings from April to November, more than 300 vendors surround the capitol square to sell produce at the Dane County Farmer’s Market. You can buy fresh bakery items, farm-grown vegetables, flowers, meat and, of course, farm-fresh squeaky cheese curds. www.dcfm.org
There are several year-round museums around capitol square as well. They include the Wisconsin Historical Museum, which offers four floors of displays ranging from Frontier Wisconsin to archeological exhibits and historical objects depicting the state’s immigrant history and a glimpse of business and technological advances that started in the Badger State. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission is $4 for adults and $3 for children under 18. historicalmuseum.wisconsinhistory.org
The Wisconsin Veterans Museum that tells the story of the state’s citizen soldiers and the roles they played from the Civil War to the present. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. During summer months, it is open Sundays from 12 to 4 p.m. Admission is free. www.wisvetsmuseum.com
Kids will wear off energy and have a great time at the Madison Children’s Museum where they learn to invent, share and explore. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., displays include a log cabin, art studio, an invention center called Possible-Opolis. rooftop chickens and several other indoor and outdoor activities. Admission is $7.95 for adults and children. madisonchildrensmuseum.org
The Monona Terrace Convention Center is located one block south of the capitol, and features a beautiful view of Lake Monona from the top floor of a building designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Guided tours are offered daily at 1 p.m. May 1 to Oct. 31 at a cost of $5 per adult and $3 per student. You’ll learn about Wright’s life and his vision for the center as well as view the unique curved architecture that defines the convention center. Tours are offered Friday through Monday during winter months. www.mononaterrace.com/frank-lloyd-wrights/guided-tours
From the capitol building, take a one-mile walk down State Street to the University of Wisconsin campus. State Street is well known for its boutique shoppes, art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants. About two blocks from the capitol building, you’ll find the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located within the Overture Center for Arts, Madison’s “civic center” which hosts more than 200,000 artistic experiences throughout the year. www.overturecenter.org/
The end of State Street is where the University of Wisconsin begins. Founded in 1848, the same year Wisconsin became a state, the campus stretches for miles, but most of the touristy activity takes places right in that area. Places to visit include the Wisconsin State Historical Society, which offers an exhibit of historical photos and documents as well as online tools to aid in genealogy research. The archives and library are open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. www.wisconsinhistory.org
A short distance from the Historical Society, you’ll find the Wisconsin Memorial Union — the center of social activity for the campus. You can’t visit Madison without spending time on the Memorial Union Terrace. Enjoy some food or a beer from Der Rathskeller and watch the sailboats glide by. If you’re feeling adventurous, rent a canoe or paddleboat and view Madison from Lake Mendota. Live music is offered Wednesday through Saturday evenings in summer months. You can also grab an ice cream cone made right on the campus at Babcock Hall. www.union.wisc.edu/venue-muterrace.htm.
If you’re visiting in the fall, you might be lucky enough to catch a carillon concert Sunday afternoons from 3 to 4 p.m. The carillon operator masterfully rings 56 bells ranging from 15 to 6,823 pounds in a contraption that resembles an old-fashioned organ to playing modern and classical music. Occasionally, summer concerts are offered, so call first to see if any are scheduled during your visit. kb.wisc.edu/vip/page.php?id=9426
Madison is home to what may be the best free public zoo in the nation. Henry Vilas Zoo is located a few miles from the downtown area and offers dozens of indoor and outdoor animal exhibits as well as an incredible children’s zoo that allows kids to feed goats, ride a carrousel or take a train tour (costs $1.50 per person). Special exhibits include big cats, a herpetarium (reptiles), rain forest, and primates. A new bear exhibit will open in 2015. Food is available at a snack bar, or bring in your own lunch and enjoy a picnic next to Lake Wingra or one of the zoo’s beautiful lagoons. www.vilaszoo.org.
Another popular exhibit is the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, located on the city’s east side. The 16-acre park features landscapes built from Midwest-hardy plants, but the 50-foot glass Bolz Conservatory offers a taste of the tropics with this year-round indoor exhibit of tropical plants, free-flying birds and butterflies, plus a rushing waterfall. Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, admission is $2 per person and kids under 5 are free — a very affordable family activity. www.olbrich.org
The University of Wisconsin maintains more than 20 miles of trails and three horticultural gardens in its scenic 1,260-acre arboretum on Madison’s south side. Stopping at the visitor’s center at 1207 Seminole Highway is a great way to get maps and information about scheduled activities and displays. Admission is free and the arboretum is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; however, the visitor center is only open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 12:30 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. arboretum.wisc.edu/visit/visitor-center
For a special treat, rent a paddleboat, canoe or kayak at Wingra Boats for $16 per hour and snake your way into the arboretum’s many tributaries to look for turtles and a variety of birds. www.wingraboats.com
Due to its hundreds of miles of paved on and off-street bike paths that weave throughout the city and even connect to several regional and statewide bike trails, Madison is known as the Bicycle Capital of America. In fact, it was ranked No. 6 on Bicycling magazine’s list of bike-friendly cities. The city takes bicycling so seriously there are 39 BCycle rental stations where bikes can be rented for $3 for every 30 minutes. Some family-favorite trips include the 13-mile loop around Lake Monona, U.W. Madison’s Picnic Point, and the Wisconsin Arboretum. www.cityofmadison.com/bikeMadison/
From football, hockey and basketball to volleyball, swimming and softball, the University of Wisconsin offers plenty of opportunities to watch nationally-ranked teams compete throughout the year at Camp Randall, the Kohl Center or other athletic venues on campus. To check the schedule, visit www.uwbadgers.com. Because the Badgers are so popular, tickets can be expensive. However, for a fun day of affordable, family-friendly entertainment, check out the Madison Mallards, a collegiate league of players competing during the summer months. northwoodsleague.com/madison-mallards
Madison is home to hundreds of franchised and unique restaurants. For a truly unique experience, consider visiting these establishments:
- Nitty Gritty — Madison’s official “birthday place,” people have been ringing in a new year munching on delicious Grittyburgers since 1968. In fact, if it is your birthday, you’ll enjoy free soft drinks or beer in a souvenir mug. There are three locations in the Madison area, but the original restaurant is located downtown, a few blocks away from State Street. Yes, you can also enjoy deep fried cheese curds and real onion rings as well. www.thegritty.com
- Michael’s Frozen Custard — Although the Culvers chain was founded about 25 miles from Wisconsin, Micheal’s Frozen Custard is uniquely Madison. There are three locations around the city, and each offers delicious, tasty treats. There’s a new specialty flavor every day, or enjoy traditional vanilla and custard cones, sundaes and shakes. Visit the Atwood Avenue location, a mile or so from the botanical gardens, and walk across the street to enjoy your treat at Olbrich Park on the shore of Lake Monona. www.ilovemichaels.com
- Ella’s Deli and Ice Cream Parlor — This kid-favorite restaurant will keep adults amused as well thanks to the hundreds of active, antique toys on display throughout the facility. There are so many displays moving up and down, back and forth and in and out, that waiting for a meal is easy. The restaurant is a bit pricey, but the experience is one you’ll remember. Parents beware, there is an antique 1927 carrousel open during summer months (extra fee applies) that will entice your children. www.ellasdeli.com
- Great Dane Pub — Adults will enjoy sipping dozens of specialty beers, including many brewed right in Wisconsin. The food is excellent and offers a good choice of healthy options and traditional bar food. Some locations offer limited outdoor dining. www.greatdanepub.com
- Dotty Dumplings Dowry — Located near the U.W. Madison campus at the lower end of State Street, this Wisconsin tradition has been serving residents and visitors alike for more than 40 years. Outdoor dining is available in good weather. It’s a great place to do some people watching while relaxing and enjoying a mouth-watering burger or even an original made-in-Wisconsin bratwurst. www.dottydumplingsdowry.com
- Rocky Rococo Pizza — Founded on State Street in the 1970s, this restaurant is expanding through the Midwest. Although the original location is no longer open, there are several Rocky’s restaurants scattered throughout Madison. Known for its deep dish pizza, some locations also feature game rooms for kids — and free movies! www.rockyrococo.com
There are several private RV parks in the Madison area, as well as a few public campgrounds.
- Madison KOA — koa.com/campgrounds/madison
- Badgerland Campground — badgerlandcampground.com
- Babcock County Park — www.countyofdane.com/lwrd/parks/babcock.aspx
- Lake Farm County Park — www.countyofdane.com/lwrd/parks/lake_farm.aspx
- Mendota County Park — www.countyofdane.com/lwrd/parks/mendota.aspx
To help plan your visit, check out the Madison Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, which offers a regularly updated calendar of events as well. www.visitmadison.com