We’ve crafted some Madison must-sees that will keep you on the move and on schedule. Whether you have 60 minutes or three hours to see the sights in Greater Madison, there’s always enough time to make memories!
The UW-Madison Arboretum is birthplace of ecological restoration and a natural beauty, making it the perfect escape for those who need a 60 minute walk, run or breath of fresh air. In spring you can stop and smell the azaleas and lilacs, and in summer, the hydrangeas and native flowers bloom. Come autumn, leaves blanket the ground in a beautiful rainbow of colors and winter is the perfect time to snowshoe or ski the arboretum’s 20 miles of trails.
If you have a couple of hours to spare, visit the UW-Madison campus and meander the Lakeshore Path. This 19-mile trek is a combination of several smaller trails and has various entry points for biking or running. A favorite section for locals and students is Picnic Point, a mile-long stroll along a peninsula that leads to sweeping views of Lake Mendota. Hint, hint: stop by the Babcock Hall Dairy Store on the UW campus afterwards for a scoop of their gourmet, made-on-site ice cream.
For a uniquely Madison experience, take the time to walk, run or bike around Lake Monona’s shoreline. This lake is one of five in the Greater Madison area and includes some beautiful views, especially during sunrise or sunset. Start at Olin Park and join the other active locals as you make your way towards the Monona Terrace. The complete loop is roughly 12-miles by foot and 15 by bike.
With only an hour to spend in Madison, why not let the kids run around for a while? In Madison, you’re always just a hop, skip or jump away from a city park—there are more than 200 parks in the Madison area. Winnequah Park is a favorite because of its storybook castle play area with turrets, walls and bridges, and Elver Park hosts a splash pad in the summer and the city’s largest sledding hill in winter.
In two hours, you can visit Henry Vilas Zoo, one of the nation’s few admission-free zoos. The zoo is open year-round and features more than 800 animals, including the newest exhibit: Arctic Passage. This most recent addition houses polar bears, grizzly bears and harbor seals. Stay for a meal at the Glacier Grille, where every seat comes with a view of the polar bears.
Three hours in Madison with kids will give you enough time for an outing to the award-winning Children’s Museum, right in the heart of downtown Madison. This family-friendly museum has three floors of interactive fun for families, plus there’s a garden on the rooftop and a pizzeria in the lobby. If you have time to spare, cross the street to the Capitol building, take a tour and rub the badger statue’s nose for good luck!
Whether it’s your first time in Madison or your fifth, spend an hour touring downtown and visit the Wisconsin State Capitol building —you’ll learn something new every time. Appreciate the towering marble columns and intricate mosaics, or find out more about the secret tunnels that run under the building from one of the docents. Make your way to the observation deck for breathtaking views of the city, and get a better understanding of just how close you are to Lake Mendota and Monona.
The Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building and a great way to spend a couple of hours. Start with a tour, which explores Wright’s organic style and the building’s dramatic open spaces and circular forms. Visit the rooftop, which offers award-winning gardens, sculptures, and breathtaking views of Lake Monona. Grab a bite to eat at the Lake Vista Café, open May through September, or take the elevator down to the pedestrian path that wraps around the lake. The terrace is located near the Capitol building, restaurants, shops and other museums and galleries.
There are many cultural opportunities in Madison, and many enlightening ways to spend three hours in the downtown Madison’s “museum mile.” If you’re interested in fine art, visit the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which brings talent from all over the world and houses permanent collections and traveling exhibits. The museum’s award-winning store offers an extensive selection of jewelry, books and prints as well. For history enthusiasts, there’s the Wisconsin Historical Museum or Veterans Museum—both highlight important contributions made by Wisconsinites throughout history. Learn more by visiting our galleries and museums page.