12 Top-Rated Attractions in Madison & Easy Day Trips

Written by Bryan Dearsley

Madison, the state capital of Wisconsin, is said to be one of the most quintessentially American cities and home to a 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 busy with cyclists, 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. Discover the best things to do in and around the city with our list of the top tourist attractions in Madison.

1. Editor's Pick Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin East

Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin East

Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin East | Kevin Tao / photo modified

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. Wright spent his summers at Taliesin in Wisconsin and winters at Taliesin West, one of the top attractions in Scottsdale, Arizona. 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 school. Other highlights include the Romeo and Juliet Windmill and Midway Farms, a dam and waterfalls, and an informative visitor center with a restaurant.

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.

Address: 5607 County Hwy C, Spring Green, Wisconsin

Official Site: www.taliesinpreservation.org

2. Wisconsin State Capitol

Wisconsin State Capitol

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. The interior of the capitol building's rotunda is stunning, with ornate marble work; murals in German, French, and Italian styles; and a huge, colorful skylight. Tours are available.

Address: 2 East Main Street, Madison, Wisconsin

3. Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

On Madison's splendid waterfront, the sixteen acres of Olbrich Botanical Gardens are a feast for the senses. Depending on the time of year, a variety of plants will likely be in bloom, from exotic foliage to fragrant flowers. 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 and one of only four such buildings outside Asia. The gardens and conservatory are open daily and are free to the public.

Address: 3330 Atwood Ave, Madison, Wisconsin

Official Site: www.olbrich.org

4. Monona Terrace

Monona Terrace

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. Memorial Union Terrace

Memorial Union Terrace

Memorial Union Terrace | Joshua Mayer / photo modified

Memorial Union Terrace on the University of Wisconsin campus is not just a favorite hangout for students - it is known as one of the best spots in the city for people-watching and relaxing. Although it is restricted to Union members, tourists can easily obtain a guest pass, which can be used to access the Terrace, as well as attend any of the free activities hosted here. There is often live music here, night and day, to accompany your picnic or meal from one of the many restaurants - but be sure to leave room for a scoop or two of the famous Babcock Ice Cream. During the summer, free movies are screened after dark, rain or shine.

Address: 800 Langdon Street, Madison, Wisconsin

Official Site: www.union.wisc.edu/visit/terrace-at-the-memorial-union

6. Chzen Museum of Art

Chazen Museum of Art

Chazen Museum of Art | John Benson / photo modified

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, Wisconsin

Official Site: www.chazen.wisc.edu

7. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art | Mark Sadowski / photo modified

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art 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

Official Site: www.mmoca.org

8. Henry Vilas Zoo

Henry Vilas Zoo

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, and one of the best things to do in Madison if you are traveling with kids. It attractions close to a million visitors each year. The zoo is home to a wide variety of animals from tropical, arctic, savannah, plains, and other habitats. The tropical rainforest exhibit includes a combination of fish, rainforest plants, and a free-flight aviary where visitors are surrounded by birds. The newest exhibit, Arctic Passage, features an underwater viewing area for its harbor seals and polar bears, as well as a stream where the grizzly bears fish. Other popular residents include Amur tigers, African lions, reticulated giraffes, red pandas, and alpaca. For younger visitors, there is a children's zoo with animals, a carousel, and an electric train.

Address: 702 South Randall Ave, Madison, Wisconsin

Official Site: www.vilaszoo.org

9. University of Wisconsin: Arboretum and Geology Museum

University of Wisconsin: Arboretum and Geology Museum

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, Wisconsin

Official Site: https://arboretum.wisc.edu

10. Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Wisconsin Veterans Museum | John Benson / photo modified

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, Wisconsin

Official Site: www.wisvetsmuseum.com

11. The Madison Children's Museum

The Madison Children's Museum contains a fun selection of exhibits and activities for kids up to ten years old. The museum hosts a wide variety of year-long changing exhibits with educational themes, like the interactive "Coops to Cathedrals" area where kids can explore the creative process of Frank Lloyd Wright and learn by experimenting with their own creations. The museum's permanent exhibit, Rooftop Ramble, is akin to a farm perched high above the city. The area includes a pond, greenhouse, chicken coop, and even a roost for homing pigeons. Kids can get amazing views of the city from the Crow's Nest, and there are daily drop-in activities and programs in the Clubhouse.

Address: 100 N. Hamilton Street #100, Madison

Official Site: www.madisonchildrensmuseum.org

12. Allen Centennial Gardens

Allen Centennial Gardens

Allen Centennial Gardens | Phil Roeder / photo modified

The Allen Centennial Gardens are the living classroom for the University of Wisconsin-Madison horticulture program, and are designed to educate visitors of all ages. Highlights include the Sustainability Garden, where you can learn about sustainable practices; an Edible Garden; and several themed decorative gardens, including the English Cottage, Italian, French, and Japanese. There is also a pond garden, rock garden, and several more. At the center of the gardens stands the Dean's Residence, a Gothic Victorian house, which was home to the university's first four deans. Today, it is uninhabited and preserved as a landmark in the National Register of Historic Places. The gardens are open year-round from dawn to dusk, and there is no admission charge.

Address: 620 Babcock Drive, Madison, Wisconsin

Official Site: www.allencentennialgarden.org

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

Blue Mounds State Park

Blue Mounds State Park | Amit Mittal / photo modified

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, Wisconsin

Pendarvis State Historic Site

Pendarvis State Historic Site

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, Wisconsin

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, Wisconsin

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, Wisconsin

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, Wisconsin

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