12 Unique Things to Do in Madison

by Paul Joseph  |  Published June 16, 2021

With its diverse programme of arts events and smattering of historic landmarks, Madison has plenty going for it – including several unique things to see and do.

The impressive architecture of Chazen Museum of Art(Photo: Anton Grass / Esto)

Situated west of Milwaukee, the city of Madison is blessed with an array of great landmarks, activities and attractions. If you’re planning a trip to Wisconsin’s capital and would like some inspiration for planning your itinerary, we’ve done the work so you don’t have to by selecting 12 of the most unique and original activities and places of interest that the city has to offer.

Take a look around a world class museum

At the vanguard of Madison’s vibrant creative scene is the Chazen Museum of Art, widely regarded as one of Wisconsin’s finest cultural venues. Part of the University of Wisconsin, the museum is the largest Big 10 art museum, with two expansive buildings encompassing 166,000 square feet, and over 23,000 objects in its permanent collection, including artworks spanning a range of mediums, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, and watercolours, as well as prints, photography, and applied/decorative arts. Both American and European artists feature extensively and the museum also hosts a regular roster of traveling exhibits.

750 University Avenue / Tues-Weds 12pm-5pm Thurs-Fri 12pm-7pm Closed Sat-Mon

Alternatively, Madison is also home to a somewhat quirkier attraction in the shape of the National Mustard Museum. Love it or hate it, mustard is a time-honoured foodie staple in America and far beyond, and this museum, situated in the small town of Middleton six miles west of Madison, celebrates its long history through a range of exhibits and artefacts, as well as an incredible 6,200-plus contemporary and “historic” mustards from all over the globe that can be found in the gourmet gift shop. Ranging from fruity to super hot,all of the mustards are available to be sampled by visitors. Don’t miss the popular local event National Mustard Day each August, either.

7477 Hubbard Avenue, Middleton / Mon-Thurs 10am-4pm  Fri-Sat 10am-5pm Sun 11am-4pm 

Visitors peruse the National Mustard Museum (Photo: National Mustard Museum)

Explore one of Wisconsin’s most impressive historic buildings

Dating back over 100 years, the Wisconsin State Capitol is one of the region’s most impressive historical landmarks. Situated in the heart of downtown Madison, the building is the tallest in the city, and the imposing dome at its peak is one of the largest anywhere in the world. But more than simply marvelling at the Capitol’s exterior grandeur, you can also explore its insides, complete with eye-catching mosaics, marble columns and stunning artworks. The building is open to the public seven days a week and there are free guided tours. During the summer months an observation deck offering panoramic views is also open.

2 East Main Street  / Mon-Fri 8am-6pm Closed Sat-Sun

An exterior view of Wisconsin State Capitol (Photo: Jonathan Miske via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Catch a top class arts show

Madison has a thriving artistic scene and at its beating heart is the Overture Center for the Arts. Housed in an architecturally stunning building in the city’s buzzing cultural district, the venue stages hundreds of performances, exhibitions, and community events in its high-tech multi-purpose performance hall, proscenium theater and other spaces throughout the year . Free tours of the centre also run every Saturday.

201 State Street

Henry Vilas Zoo

Perched on a lake and filled to the brim with exotic animals, the free-to-enter Henry Vilas Zoo combines a scenic setting with a great opportunity to discover the wonders of wildlife. Home to over 650 species, spanning tropical, arctic, savannah, plains, and other habitats, the zoo attracts almost a million visitors per year. Among the most popular residents are Amur tigers, African lions, and red pandas, while other favourite features include a tropical rainforest exhibit, a free-flight aviary, and an Arctic Passage complete with underwater viewing area. For little’uns, there’s also a children’s zoo, a carousel, and an electric train.

702 South Randall Avenue / Mon-Sun 9.30am-5pm

A capybara at Henry Vilas Zoo (Photo: Amy Bayer via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Join a spine-tingling ghost tour 

Like most cities, Madison has its own tales of ghostly happenings that have been passed down the ages. Visitors with a taste for history, intrigue, true crime, high drama, supernatural folklore, indigenous legends, ghost stories, cryptid sightings can join a ghost tour that invites you see the city through the lens of the paranormal. Hosted by an acclaimed company called American Ghost Walks, there are three themed ghost tours available in Madison – the State Street Ghost Walk, the King Street Spirits Ghost Walk, and the University of Wisconsin Ghost Walk, each taking in different areas of the city and their spooky past.

A tour group on an American Ghost Walk pose for a picture (Photo: American Ghost Walks)

Enjoy some watersports on one of Madison’s five lakes

With five glistening lakes – Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, Kegonsa, and Wingra – all situated in the vicinity of the city, visitors to Madison have plenty of water-based activities to enjoy. For the more sedate minded there are tranquil cruises and boat rentals, or those of a more adventurous disposition can rent kayaks, canoes, or stand-up paddleboards. Afterwards, an array of waterside restaurants are on hand to top up those energy levels.

Attend a fun-packed festival

Madison’s cultural calendar includes several great festivals and fairs and among the best is the two-day Sugar Maple Music Festival. Celebrating traditional music and dance through performances, educational workshops, and interactive jam sessions, the family-friendly event offers entertainment for people of all ages. The diversity of performances invites people of all backgrounds and ages to enjoy the performing arts in the beautiful setting of a county park, while interviews with performers allow visitors to learn about the history, culture, and techniques of the traditional arts.

William G. Lunney Lake Farm County Park, 4330 Libby Road / 6-7 August 2021

Or for something completely different, how about attending the world’s largest Brat Fest? The annual fundraising event for local charities takes place on Memorial Day weekend and is a celebration of everyone’s favourite sausage-based culinary treat  – the humble hot dog. A large number of restaurants and sports bars from across the city take part, each offering their own twist on the legendary brat. There’s also plenty of drinks vendors to keep visitors well refreshed.

Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 1919 Alliant Energy Center Way / May each year

Cooks hard at work at Brat Fest (Photo: Brat Fest)

Soak up the serenity of a botanical gardens

Spread across some 16 glorious acres, the award-winning Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a haven for horticulture fans – or indeed anyone who simply loves nature and tranquility. Featuring perfectly maintained outdoor specialty gardens, including a sunken garden with an eighty-foot reflecting pool and a perennial garden with a meandering stream, the venue is simply a delight to wander around at your leisure, taking in the scenery. Other highlights include a two-acre rose garden, an exotic Thai Pavilion and Garden, and a year-round tropical conservatory complete with a 50-foot-high glass pyramid.

Olbrich Park Beach, 3330 Atwood Avenue / Mon-Sun 10am-5pm

The Thai Pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens (Photo: Joseph Gage via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Watch the world go by on a scenic terrace

One of the best spots in Madison for people-watching, Memorial Union Terrace is a popular hangout for students thanks to its scenic setting on the banks of Lake Mendota and regular live music shows, as well as other public events such as movie screenings. Situated on the University of Wisconsin campus, the terrace offers day passes for non-students who wish to come and kick back, relax and soak up the atmosphere and views.

800 Langdon Street / Mon-Sun 8am-11pm

Crowds relaxing on the Memorial Union Terrace at sunset (Photo: Richard Hurd via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Peruse great produce at a farmers’ market

There’s nothing quite like a local market for getting under the skin of a city and one of the most cherished traditions in Madison is to head down to Dane County Farmers’ Market on a Saturday morning, where you’ll find more than 150 vendors selling a huge assortment of produce. A great place to pick up fresh culinary staples and treats, as well as flowers and other items, the market is actually the largest producer-only farmers market anywhere in America. Be sure to pick up some spicy cheese bread while you’re there.

1919 Alliant Energy Center Way / Sat 7am-12pm Weds 3pm-6pm Closed Sun-Tues & Thurs-Fri

Produce on display at Dane County Farmers’ Market (Photo: WisconsinKaasKop via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)