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The 20 Best Things To Do In Madison, WI For First-Timers

University of Wisconsin=Madison Geology Museum

Madison is the state capital of Wisconsin. It's located to the west of Milwaukee and is famous for its unique state capitol building that features a dome. Madison offers a variety of historical places and tourist attractions The city has a rich history and multiple sites of interest. If you're planning to take a trip to Madison, here are the 20 best things to do for first-time visitors.

Madison Wisconsin Capital

20. Visit the State Capitol Building

2 E Main St, Madison,

No trip to Madison, WI is complete unless you get to see the grand state capitol building. This is one of the most unique buildings in the entire city. The structure was completed in the year 1917. the dome measures 284 feet in height on the exterior. On the inside, you'll find genuine marble which was imported from France, Germany, and Italy for the special construction of the interior of the capitol building, along with colorful murals and more. Guides are available to point out the highlights of the Capitol and to offer a history of the city. If you prefer to explore the building on your own you can forego the guided tour and explore the non-restricted rooms on your own.

UW Arbortorem

19. See the University of Wisconsin Arboretum

The UW-Madison Arboretum is free to see. It's open from 7 am to 10 pm with a visitor center that is filled with wonderful information. This is a 1,200-acre parcel with an additional 500 acres in the outlying area that offers a combination of wetland habitats, grassland, savanna, and natural forests. There are multiple hiking trails that start at the parking lot. It's like stepping back thousands of years in the pristine preserve areas.

Devil's Lake State Park

18. Devil's Lake State Park

This state park is the largest in the state of Wisconsin and it is also the most popular. There is a picturesque deep glacial lake that is bordered by steep moraines that soar up to 500 feet over the surface of the lake. There are also novel rock formations throughout the park. You're free to hike on any of the 29 miles of trails. The admission fee for vehicles is $8 for in-state residents and $11 for everyone that is out of state.

Lake Mendota

17. Lake Mendota

Lake Mendota is the largest lake in Madison. It is situated on the Isthmus on the northwestern side. Here you will find plenty of recreational activities for enjoyment and outdoor fun. During the warm months, there are tons of things to do including kayaking, canoeing, and paddle-boarding. There are rentals for these crafts available at the Lake. There are five public beaches and two marinas at the Lake. If you're there in the wintertime, you can also enjoy ice fishing once the lake freezes over.

Henry Vilas Zoo

16. Henry Vilas Zoo

Henry Vilas Zoo is available for free admission. The Zoo is open between 9:30 am and 5:00 pm daily. This is one of the most popular attractions in Madison with more than three-quarters of a million visitors annually. This zoo is owned by the city, which is becoming rarer. The zoo includes large cat habitats, polar mammals and an enclosed tropical aviary.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

15. Visit Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a place that you can visit for free admission, at least for the outdoor gardens, but donations are always welcome. If you want to tour the Bolz Conservatory while you're there, the admission is $2. The gardens are open April -September daily from 8 am to 8 pm with October hours of 9 am to 6 pm and November through March the gardens are open 9 am through 4 pm daily. You can go on a self-tour of the 16-acre parcel that features native landscaping gardens including prairie meadows, and native flowering shrubs that are found in the area. At the Bolz Conservatory, you'll find an indoor tropical garden.

Lake Monona

14. Lake Monona

Lake Monona is not as big as Lake Mendota but it is every bit as beautiful. This is a lake that is popular for runners and joggers who can more easily navigate around its smaller circumference. It's also a great lake for boating and there are also rental boats available but it's a good idea to call ahead to make sure that you secure the perfect size boat for your party.

Wisconsin Historical Museum

13. Wisconsin Historical Museum

The Wisconsin Historical Museum charges $5 for adults for admission. It's open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm and Sundays from 11 am to 4 pm and closed on Mondays. This is a family-friendly venue that is sponsored by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Free tours are given on the days that it is open at 1 pm and the guides are dressed in period clothing for a real historical experience.

Monona Terrace

12. Monona Terrace

Monona Terrace offers free admission for adults and children. The inside is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm and the Terrace is open Sunday through Thursday from 8 am to 10 pm, and Fridays and Saturdays from 8 am to 12 am. This is the main convention center in Madison. The building goes all the way back to the 1930s and was the conception of Frank Lloyd Wright. It opened to the public in 1997. There are amazing views of Lake Monona from the terrace adn the Lake Vista Cafe is a great place for taking in the lights of the city after dark and enjoying a cocktail.

Pheasant Branch Conservancy

11. Pheasant Branch Conservancy

Admission to Pheasant Branch Conservancy is free and it is open 7 days a week 24 hours a day. This is a 160-acre parcel that consists of savanna and wild forest lands. Some of the best features are the views of the Capitol dome, the lakes, and the university campus. It's a laid back and relaxing area that is ideal for birdwatching. You'll also find bubbling springs that feed Lake Mendota at the Conservancy.

Lake Kegonsa State Park

10. Lake Kegonsa State Park

If you're looking for a smaller lake that offers 3,200 acres of natural beauty, great fishing, and sailing, Lake Kegonsa State Park may be the best choice. There is a beach that is suitable for swimming and it's one of the least crowded places to catch some rest and relaxation away from the crowds.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

9. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art features a permanent collection of over 5,000 works with many of them the products of Wisconsin artists. There are several exhibitions taking place at any one time at the museum. You can also catch informal talks and a variety of performances in the evenings with no charge ever. Admission to the museum is always free regardless fo what events are taking place.

Wisconsin Veterans Museum

8. Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Another free venue is the Wisconsin Veteran's Museum. There is never an admission fee charged. It is located in the center of the city of Madison on Capitol Square. This is one of the oldest museums in the country, dedicated to the women and men of the US Armed Forces. It is a permanent collection that goes back to the Civil War era through modern times.

New Glarus

7. Spend the day in New Glarus

New Glarus is located in the southeast part of Madison in the rolling hills. It's often referred to as "America's Little Switzerland." Although most things are in English, it maintains a definite Swiss flavor in signage, language, food, and architecture. It's the most amazing place to be during the holidays because the town transforms into a magical Alpine Christmas village. All of the business owners pitch in to turn their spaces into winter wonderlands. While you're there, check out the New Glarus Brewing Company to sample the fresh brews and you can even call ahead to schedule a tour of the brewery.

Blue Mound State Park

6. Blue Mound State Park

Blue Mound State Park is another popular tourist attraction. There is an $8 parking fee for in-state vehicles and $11 if you're out of state. This is a breathtaking park that features Wisconsin's highest point in the southern region. The views are extraordinary. There are twenty miles of hiking trails and a large pool that isn't usually crowded because of the fact that the park is out of the way. It's a great place to escape the crowds and get close to nature.

Chazen Museum of Art

5. Chazen Museum of Art

Chazen Museum of Art is completely free to tour. The museum is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 am to 5 pm, Thursdays from 9 am to 9 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 11 am to 5 pm. There are works displayed by local artists that go back to early history through modern works. The collection exhibits over 20,000 works from the ages and includes the works of a variety of different artists including Dan Ramirez and works from the Korshak Collection.

University of Wisconsin=Madison Geology Museum

4. University of Wisconsin - Madison Geology Museum

This is yet another free museum that is open daily except for Sundays. This is a historical site that was founded in 1848 with over 120,000 paleontological and geological specimens that go back billions of years in the history of the planet. It's the ideal place to tour if you're a fan of rocks and fossils. You can even download a tour pamphlet from the official website before you make your visit so you'll know where to go. The museum features an extensive exhibit of early bird fossils and Jurassic dinosaur fossils. There are rocks with the fossilized remains of dinosaurs from the Cretaceous period.

Madison Children's Museum

3. Madison Children's Museum

The Madison Children's Museum is a great place to tour if you have the entire family with you. This venue costs $7.95 per adult for admission, but it is worth every penny. There are hands-on exhibits that will keep the kids busy and entertained for hours. You'll find an art studio, an urban garden, an architecture exhibit inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, a log cabin replica, and much more. The museum also sponsors special evening events that are suitable for adults and children.

L.R. Ingersoll Physics Museum

2. L.R. Ingersoll Physics Museum

The LR Ingersoll Physics Museum is free to the public but you are welcome to make donations. This is a historical building that was constructed in teh early 20th century. It focuses on physics with tons of kid-friendly hands-on activities that demonstrate the basic concepts of physics. There are also lessons about the history of physics with a total of 65 exhibits. You can arrange for a tour at no charge or navigate the museum on your own.

National Mustard Museum

1. Visit the National Mustard Museum

The National Mustard Museum is a novel place to visit and one of the most popular weird attractions in the city of Madison. This museum is focused on the different varieties of mustards and the history in the MustardPiece Theatre. Here you will find hundreds of mustard varieties along with a tasting bar and you can sample them all. There are also a variety of mustards for sale in the Museum Gift Shop. There is no charge for admission but donations are welcome and purchases from the gift shop are encouraged. This is the weirdest and most novel museum in the entire state of Wisconsin, and possibly in the country.

Liz Flynn

Written by Liz Flynn

Liz Flynn has worked as a full-time writer since 2010 after leaving a career in education. She finds almost all topics she writes about interesting, but her favorite subjects are travel and food. Liz loves the process of researching information, learning new things, and putting into words what others who share her interests might like to read. Although she spends most of her time writing, she also enjoys spending time with her husband and four children, watching films, cooking, dining out, reading, motorsports, gaming, and walking along the beach next to her house with her dog.

Read more posts by Liz Flynn

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