Top 10 Things to Do on a Budget in Madison, Wisconsin
Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Wander 16 acres of outdoor specialty gardens at Olbrich, including a Thai garden featuring a glittering gold pavilion―the only authentic Thai pavilion in the continental United States. During the frosty months, tour the Bolz Conservatory, a glass pyramid-shaped building featuring tropical plants, a waterfall and free-flying birds. Free admission to the outdoor gardens; $2 for Bolz Conservatory.
Wisconsin's Capitol is one of the more impressive in the nation, with the largest dome by volume―larger even than the dome atop the Capitol in D.C. Take a free tour to appreciate the art and architecture. In summer, you can walk out on the sixth-floor observation deck ringing the dome and take in great views of the city. Set aside time to stroll around the Capitol Square's 14 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds.
Dane County's largest wetland at 1,121 acres, Cherokee Marsh is divided into two units. The North Unit is laced with 4.1 miles of trail winding through prairie, oak woodland and wetland, with two observation decks to help you spot the abundant wildlife. The South Unit has an additional 3.8 miles of trails. The free-admission marsh can be visited year-round; try snowshoeing and skiing in the winter.
University of Wisconsin Arboretum
The 1,200-acre arboretum contains 20-plus miles of footpaths, boardwalks and lanes through woodlands, wetlands and prairie. Hike along the trails or ski them in winter. Free guided walks and classes are held periodically; check the website for the latest events.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Campus
Universities are often gold mines for those seeking low-cost adventures. A simple stroll around Wisconsin's main campus, for example, will take you up Bascom Hill, past some of the campus' oldest buildings (including an 85-foot carillon tower, where free concerts are held periodically) and to the Memorial Union. Perched on the edge of Lake Mendota, it's been voted one of America's Best Public Places.
Henry Vilas Zoo
This free zoo is a wonderful destination for families and couples alike. Spend several hours checking out the wide variety of animal species that call the zoo home, then picnic on the shores of Lake Wingra, which lies just across the road.
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
This free downtown museum is attached to Madison's eye-catching glass Overture Center for the Arts. With a 5,000-object permanent collection and intriguing temporary exhibitions, there's plenty to see. Don't skip the gift shop, which sells many unique items.
State Street and Monroe Street
If you like browsing shops and galleries and then stopping to enjoy a cup of joe or craft beer, head to State Street or Monroe Street. State Street links the Capitol and University of Wisconsin and is the more bustling, bohemian spot. Monroe Street stretches out from Camp Randall Stadium, home to the Badgers football team, and is filled with more upscale businesses.
Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture tours
Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio, Taliesin, are some 40 miles west of Madison. Tours there, while top quality, are pricy. Get a splash of Wright for a fraction of the cost by touring the Wright-designed Monona Terrace ($5 a person) and driving past the nearly dozen private homes and businesses Wright built in town (information available from Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau). For $20, you can also tour the Unitarian Meeting House with advance reservations and a group size of 10 or more.
National Mustard Museum
Exhibits and video make a quirky yet classy homage to ketchup's counterpart at the free museum, 6 miles west of Madison in Middleton.