12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Madison
Madison, the state capital of Wisconsin, is said to be one of the most quintessentially American cities and is often featured in lists of the best places to live in the US thanks to its vibrant cultural scene. From superb events such as the wonderful Rhythm and Booms, a huge firework and music festival that includes fly-pasts by air force jets, to its first-rate museums and art galleries, Madison offers a diversity of attractions for tourists. In the summer months, the city's extensive bike trail network is bustling, while others prefer sailing on lakes Mendota, Monona, and Waubesa. Come winter, it's all about skating, hockey, Nordic skiing, and ice fishing. One of the city's major claims to fame is its long association with famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Born in Wisconsin, Wright designed many of Madison's most notable buildings, including the headquarters of the First Unitarian Society and several private houses.
See also: Where to Stay in Madison
1 Editor's Pick Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin East
Just outside Spring Green, 35 miles west of Madison, is Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Taliesin East. Long a place of pilgrimage for fans of the groundbreaking architect, this remarkable property covers more than 600 acres of beautiful rolling countryside. Started in 1911, it was to remain a work in progress as Wright tweaked his designs right up to his death in 1959. Visitors can enjoy excellent guided tours of the property that take in the home as well as its adjoining structures, including a theater, studio, gallery, and a school. Other highlights include the Romeo and Juliet Windmill and Midway Farms, a dam and waterfalls, and an informative visitor center with a restaurant.
Address: 5607 County Hwy C, Spring Green
2 Wisconsin State Capitol
Standing majestically just a few blocks from the lakeshore in Madison's downtown core (and not swamped by soaring skyscrapers thanks to forward thinking city planners) is the Wisconsin State Capitol Building. Finished in 1917, the building is adorned with a 284-foot-high dome (just three feet shy of Washington's Capitol building) and two large wings either side. Noteworthy inside are the murals and marble work in German, French, and Italian styles, and a huge colorful skylight. Tours are available.
3 The House on the Rock
Another Spring Rock attraction is the unusual House on the Rock. Perched high atop an outcropping of Deer Shelter Rock, this sprawling site contains more than 3,200 windows and is a testament to one man's desire to follow in the footsteps of Frank Lloyd Wright (whether he succeeded depends upon one's tastes). There's no denying it's a fun place to visit, especially the world famous 218-foot-long Infinity Room that projects over a cliff like a knife. Standing inside and lining yourself up just right, the end of the room seems to disappear into the distance. The House on the Rock is part of a greater complex including an inn and resort.
Address: 5754 State Road 23, Spring Green
4 Monona Terrace
Fans of Frank Lloyd Wright won't want to miss the building he proposed back in 1938, but never saw built: the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. This visually stunning building on Madison's waterfront was finally built to Wright's exterior design in 1997 and includes his original curved glass façade. It's a wonderful place to spend time, particularly on its rooftop terrace with its downtown views and panoramic vistas of Lake Monona. Tours of the building are available.
Address: 1 John Nolen Drive, Madison
5 The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
The Madison Art Center is the lifeblood of arts and entertainment in the city, and is in many ways a piece of art itself. Jutting out of the corner of State and Henry Streets like the bow of a ship, this splendid three-story glass structure is undoubtedly one of the city's most impressive architectural landmarks. Inside, the center has a large display area and is constantly rotating through local and international art exhibits, as well as hosting a variety of fun events.
Address: 227 State Street, Madison
6 Olbrich Botanical Gardens
On Madison's splendid waterfront, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens are a feast for the senses. Depending on the time of year, a variety of plants will likely be in bloom. Started in 1952, the gardens are noted for their collection of roses and the glass enclosed Bolz Conservatory. Another highlight is the "sala," an elaborate pavilion donated by the government of Thailand, one of only four such buildings outside Asia.
Address: 3330 Atwood Ave, Madison
7 Henry Vilas Zoo
Opened in 1924 and owned by the City of Madison, the 28-acre Henry Vilas Zoo is a favorite with locals and visitors alike, attracting close to a million visitors each year. A wide variety of animals from around the world are on display, including bears, apes, and lions. The zoo also runs an educational program called Zoo School, as well as on-site rides, including a carousel.
Address: 702 South Randall Ave, Madison
8 Chazen Museum of Art
The Chazen Museum of Art features a wide range of art in a variety of mediums. Permanent exhibits include paintings, sculptures, drawings, and watercolors, as well as prints, photography, and applied/decorative arts. European artists in its extensive collection include Rodin and Gainsborough, while its American collection includes works by Shusaku Arakawa. The museum regularly features traveling exhibits and a great chamber music program, so check their website to find out what's on. Guided tours are also available a few times a week.
Address: 750 University Ave, Madison
9 University of Wisconsin: Arboretum and Geology Museum
The 150-year-old University of Wisconsin in Madison covers more than 1,260 acres and is well worth exploring. Highlights include the Arboretum, home to the oldest and most varied collection of restored ecological communities in the world, including tallgrass prairies, savannas, several forest types, and wetlands. It also houses many flowering trees, shrubs, and a world-famous lilac collection, and has an excellent Visitor Center with plenty of useful information on the property. Also on campus is Madison's Geology Museum with its informative displays on how rocks, minerals, and fossils are formed.
Address: 1215 West Dayton Street, Madison
10 Wisconsin Veterans Museum
The award-winning Wisconsin Veterans Museum showcases the history of the many citizens who participated in military struggles from the Civil War to the Gulf War. Displays include a great deal of military paraphernalia, much of it set up in fascinating and informative dioramas. A number of vintage vehicles and warplanes are also on site, including the famous Sopwith Camel and the mighty P-51 Mustang. The museum also operates a research center where items related to the various conflicts can be accessed.
Address: 30 West Mifflin Street, Madison
11 Wisconsin Historical Museum
The Wisconsin Historical Museum, in Capitol Square, is an excellent attraction showcasing the region's history over the millennia. The museum has an ongoing educational program for the public and features rotating exhibits. Fun highlights include exhibits on malted milk, evidently created in the state, and a number of interesting dioramas.
Address: 30 N. Carroll Street, Madison
12 The Madison Children's Museum
The Madison Children's Museum contains a fun selection of exhibits and activities for kids from toddlers to eight-year-olds. Notable exhibits are the Body Shop, Dream Machine, and First Feats. This is well worth a visit if you're traveling with wee ones.
Address: 100 N. Hamilton Street #100, Madison
Where to Stay in Madison for Sightseeing
Downtown Madison is the place to stay, with attractions radiating outward from the State Capitol. The downtown area is very compact and home to attractions that include the Children's Museum, trendy Monroe Ave, a skating rink in winter, and the Henry Vilas Zoo, all within a mile or two. Below are some highly-rated hotels in convenient locations:
- Luxury Hotels: Built in 1940, The Edgewater is a landmark hotel, with understated elegance in a refined setting. In winter, there is an outdoor skating rink next door. Connected via skyway to the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired Monona Terrace Community and the Convention Center, the Hilton is two blocks from the State Capitol and overlooks Lake Monona. In the very center of downtown and a stone's throw from the State Capitol is the recently renovated Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor's Club.
- Mid-Range Hotels: At the top-end of mid-range, but offering free parking and a great location right beside Kohl Center, the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Madison is perfect for those in town for a sporting event. On the western side of downtown and a short stroll to the University of Wisconsin's Arboretum and Geology Museum is the Hampton Inn & Suites. The trendy HotelRED is a stylish boutique property with a great location just a short stroll to the eclectic sights and sounds of Monroe Street. A free shuttle is also offered.
- Budget Hotels: Budget hotels are primarily found outside the downtown core. Close to the Alliant Energy Center, the Comfort Inn is the closest to downtown and has recently been remodeled. Across Lake Monona to the south and featuring an indoor pool and hot tub is the Sleep Inn & Suites. Further out and easily accessible off Interstate 90 is La Quinta & Suites, with large rooms and a quiet location.
Day Trips from Madison
Blue Mounds State Park
The Blue Mounds, the highest hills in Southern Wisconsin, are in Blue Mounds State Park and are popular for hikers, mountain bikers, and campers. An informative Nature Center provides insights into the flora, fauna, and geology of the area. Also worth visiting is the Cave of the Mounds with its large caverns, stalactites, and stalagmites (guided tours are available). Above ground, the property features pleasant walking trails through fields and woods. Afterwards, visit the town of Blue Mounds itself, home to Little Norway, a recreation of a household and church from the early 19th century.
Address: 4350 Mounds Park Road, Blue Mounds
Pendarvis State Historic Site
The Pendarvis Historic Site consists of buildings from the mid 19th century that have been restored to their original state. In the 1830s and 1840s, settlers from other parts of the US and Europe flooded into Wisconsin, lured by the prospect of plentiful lead in shallow diggings throughout the region. As the easy lead became scarce and greater skills were needed to work the earth, immigrants from Cornwall, England filled the need. These miners and their families left their mark on southwest Wisconsin, especially in Pendarvis, where you can see their stone cottages, learn about their lives, and come to understand how their legacy has been preserved. Excellent guided tours with costumed staff are available.
Address: 114 Shake Rag Street, Mineral Point
Hoard Historical Museum
This attraction in Fort Atkinson, just 33 miles west of Madison, has two main items of interest to visitors: the Hoard Historical Museum and the National Dairy Shrine. The Hoard Historical Museum showcases the history of the area using informative displays, including some relating to Abraham Lincoln and the Sauk Warrior Black Hawk. The National Dairy Shrine provides visitors with the history of the dairy industry through a variety of exhibits, including the stranger than fiction dog-powered butter churn.
Address: 401 Whitewater Ave, Fort Atkinson
Fort Winnebago Surgeons Quarters
The history of Fort Winnebago, 40 miles north of Madison, is highlighted in the Surgeon's Quarters dating from the 1800s. Various implements and furniture are on display, along with the history of the fort, the only surviving original building. Another interesting site is the Historic Indian Agency House in nearby Portage. This restored 19th-century home contains a variety of items from the period and was built for an agent to the Winnebago Indians.
Address: Agency House Road, Portage
Belmont: First Capitol State Historic Site
For those interested in the history of Wisconsin's government, the First Capitol State Historic Site in picturesque Belmont, 63 miles west of Madison, provides an excellent resource. Exhibits show how the government was formed and then evolved over the years. The buildings themselves still stand, indicating where legislators met for 46 days in a row when drafting the state's constitution.
Address: 19101 County Highway G, Belmont