Top Things to Do in Madison, Wisconsin
- Photo courtesy of Skot Weidemann
Top-notch weekend destination
Madison is so routinely written up as one of America's most livable communities that it's easy to forget Wisconsin's capital and second-largest city (metro population 555,000) also ranks as a top-notch weekend destination.
Visitors can cruise in kayaks, visit Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structures, bike 200 miles of trails and dine at restaurants from an international menu that ranges from Wisconsin brats to Ethiopian stews. Madison derives much of its progressive, cosmopolitan personality from the University of Wisconsin. Plus, Madison has a downright cool location, perched on an isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona.
Click ahead to find out some of our favorite things to do in Madison. Want to share your own suggestions? Leave a comment below!
More information: (800) 373-6376; visitmadison.com
Dane County Farmers' Market
Madison's legendary Dane County Farmers' Market is the country's largest producer-only market. (In other words, the folks behind the tables grow, cure or harvest what they sell.)
The farmers market, at Capitol Square, welcomes 280-plus vendors selling fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, flowers and more. Street performers add to a festival atmosphere. The market is open Saturdays year-round and Wednesdays in summer. (608) 455-1999; dcfm.org
Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Stroll amid 16 acres of outdoor gardens, including a 2-acre Rose Garden that showcases hardy shrub varieties in a space inspired by Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style, a Perennial Garden, a Sunken Garden and an Herb Garden.
While you're at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, be sure to see the Thai Pavilion (pictured), crafted without nails or screws by Thai artisans. Another outstanding garden feature: The Bolz Conservatory, which features exotic plants, flowers, orchids, birds, and a waterfall.
Special events at the gardens include a popular summer butterfly show. (608) 246-4550; olbrich.org
Babcock Hall Dairy Store
The flagship of the University of Wisconsin's respected dairy program is the Babcock Hall Dairy Store, known for generous scoops of campus-made ice cream. The dairy store and plant seek to support the research and teaching of the UW Food Science program while producing tasty dairy products for the campus and community. (608) 262-3045; babcockhalldairystore.wisc.edu
Wisconsin State Capitol
Free one-hour tours of the Wisconsin State Capitol feature the elegant art, architecture and furnishings of this century-old granite building. Glass mosaics, handcrafted furniture, murals and marble are some of the highlights, as well as an unusual granite dome. (608) 266-0382; wisconsin.gov
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
The striking architecture at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's free State Street facility is open, with lots of glass and natural light. Both levels have changing exhibitions, and there's a sculpture garden on the rooftop. (608) 257-0158; mmoca.org
Madison's food scene
Madison's fabulous, diverse food scene is one of the best in the Midwest. The city teems with chef-owned restaurants serving dishes focused on fresh-picked local produce, while ethnic eateries reflect the nationalities of the scholars, researchers and students who find a home at the University of Wisconsin.
Pictured: Pan-roasted pork chop with creamed corn from L'Etoile. (608) 251-0500; letoile-restaurant.com
- Photo Courtesy of Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau/ Photo by John Maniaci
Outdoor adventures in Madison
Madison's outdoorsy culture has helped earn the city a slew of livability awards. On warm days, sailboats and canoes drift across lakes, replaced in winter by ice huts and cross-country skiers. Bike lanes flank traffic on many main drags. Hiking trails wind through the nearly 1,300 green acres of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.
Visitors can check out boat rentals on Lake Wingra, where kayaks, rowboats, sailboats, canoes or paddleboats are available from Wingra Boats. (608) 233-5332; wingraboats.com
Frank Lloyd Wright in Madison
Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright left his mark on several structures in or near Madison. Wright designed the Unitarian Meeting House (pictured), completed in 1951; it's home to the First Unitarian Society of Madison and is open to visitors. (608) 233-9774; fusmadison.org
The First Jacobs House, a Usonian home constructed in 1936-37, is available for group tour by request (usonia1.com). Tours also are offered at The Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, a curvilinear structure built in 1994-1997 from a design initially proposed by Wright in 1938. (608) 261-4000; mononaterrace.com
About 65 miles west of Madison is one of Wright's most famous buildings, Taliesin. Tours of Wright's legendary home and studio in Spring Green give an in-depth look at the architect's life and creative vision. (877) 588-7900; taliesinpreservation.org
More information: (608) 287-0339; wrightinwisconsin.org
- Photo courtesy of Madison Children's Museum
Madison Children's Museum
Curious kids will love exploring the “city” of Possible-opolis, where they can move Gertrude the cow using pulleys and a harness (pictured), run in the giant Gerbil Wheel or play the video game Pong with giant controllers.
Little adventurers can cross the Bone Bridge and splash around in the water dome when they venture into the Wildernest global village exhibit.
Youngsters can enjoy the outdoors by scaling the Acorn Climber, viewing the city from the Crow’s Nest and meeting the rooftop chickens in the four-season garden. (608) 256-6445; madisonchildrensmuseum.org
National Mustard Museum
A well-curated ode to one of America’s most popular condiments, this quirky museum in Middleton isn’t just for mustard mavens. The Great Wall of Mustard (pictured) displays an impressive and diverse variety of mustards, and a collection of antique mustard pots shows the condiment’s sophisticated side. Visitors can watch a video explaining the history of ketchup’s counterpart and pick up cheeky merchandise in the museum store. (800) 438-6878; mustardmuseum.com