What comes to mind when you think of a downtown and what you'll find in Madison are two different things. Downtown Madison stands apart from bustling concrete jungles as a vibrant, walkable, bikeable stretch of city flanked by two glittering lakes and focused around one of the nation's most beautiful Capitol buildings. 

There's something new to experience each time you visit. Downtown transforms for festivals and fairs and each season brings with it new events and things to do

Whether it's your first time or your fiftieth, you can't visit downtown Madison without checking out these top 10 things to do. Take your time to take it all in by booking a stay at one of our downtown hotels.>

Visit the Wisconsin State Capitol

Staggeringly beautiful, larger than life and totally free to visit, the Wisconsin State Capitol building is an architectural feat that is open to all. Visitors are encouraged to walk through and enjoy briefly or stay for a free, guided tour. The grounds around the Capitol (known as the Capitol Square) are a great place to enjoy a picnic, do some yoga, read a book or simply take in the surrounding views. 

For an even better view, check out the outdoor observation deck during warm-weather months for a 360-degree view of downtown. 

Pro tip: The steps of the Capitol are a great place to enjoy a scone, Stella's Hot & Spicy Cheese Bread or other snack while perusing the Dane County Farmers' Market, the largest producer-only farmers' market in the country.

Stroll Down State Street

Three things are certain in this world: death, taxes and you should never drive your car on State Street. This pedestrian-friendly mile connecting the Capitol and the UW-Madison campus is iconic. Known for its restaurants, shops, public art and fantastic people-watching, State Street is a great place to get a great taste of Madison culture. 

Pro tip: The Pride crosswalk on the top of State Street is an excellent photo opp. 

Jump Around Campus

Taking a tour around the UW-Madison campus is a treat, even for the most die-hard Gophers or Wolverines fans. For 175 years, the university has been a mainstay in Madison's downtown landscape, and it's not just for students. Architectural marvels like the Red Gym, Agricultural Hall, Science Hall and Bascom Hall make you feel like you're walking through a history book. 

No visit to campus is complete without a visit to the Memorial Union Terrace. Part of the Wisconsin Union, the Terrace (as it's affectionately referred to) is known for its beautiful views of Lake Mendota and iconic sunburst chairs. It's an easy place to get together with a group to enjoy live music or dinner by the water.

Pro tip: You can't leave campus without getting a scoop (or two) of Babcock Dairy ice cream at the Terrace.

Tour Monona Terrace

Frank Lloyd Wright's contribution to the Madison skyline is more than a convention center. Take a guided tour of Monona Terrace to learn about Wright's influence on the capital city and his vision to "marry" the city with the natural beauty of Lake Monona. 

Pro tip: Get to the Monona Terrace by bike on the scenic Lake Monona Loop.

Live it up on the Lakes

Going from downtown livin' to lakeside lovin' in minutes is the best perk of being on an isthmus (a strip of land between two bodies of water). It's easy to fall in love with lakes Mendota and Monona with public access at spots like The Edgewater, Memorial Union Terrace, James Madison Park and Brittingham Park

If you want to get on or in the water (and we recommend you do) kayak, canoe, paddle board and other watercraft rentals are available at Brittingham Boats and Memorial Union Terrace.

Pro tip: James Madison Park is known for great views of beautiful sunsets during the summer.

Meander through museums

Want to walk from museum to museum? You're in luck! From the Madison Children’s Museum, to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, to the Chazen Museum of Art and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, our downtown museums offer something for all ages and tastes. With several offering free or low-cost admission, these are perfect places to spend an afternoon.

Note: The Wisconsin Historical Museum is closed for renovations. The museum will reopen as a completely reimagined space in 2026. Learn more about the project here.

Catch a Show

Live performances are happening nightly at one or multiple of downtown's live music, theater and comedy venues. Overture Center for the Arts hosts some of the best Broadway has to offer. Across State Street you'll find legendary comedy acts at the intimate Comedy on State. National touring performers come through the historic Orpheum Theater and some of the most exciting up-and-comers get their start at the Majestic Theater.

Keep an eye on our events calendar for a full lineup of live music.

Pro tip: Looking for a one-of-a-kind live music experience? Check out Sofar Sounds for invites to surprise pop-up shows in unique venues across Madison.

Grab a Drink

But don't grab any old domestic beer or mixed drink. Our downtown bars are renowned for creativity and fresh flavors you can't find anywhere else. Just ask the people at PUNCH, who named Madison one of the five places in the world to drink in 2023. From fresh-brewed beers to cocktails using ingredients bought at the farmers' market that morning, there's always something new to try.

This experience is not just for those who imbibe. The mocktail and NA drinking culture in Madison is strong and does not skimp on quality.

Pro tip: Sign up for Madison On Tap for your ultimate guide to craft beverages in the capital city. 

Dine in Style

Whether you're looking for fine dining, street food or lowkey fare, downtown Madison has something delicious to offer you. Several of Madison's James Beard winners and nominees are cooking up great things downtown including Francesco Mangano at Osteria Papavero, Tory Miller at L'Etoile and Dan Fox at Heritage Tavern. But that's not all. Find a full list on our downtown restaurants page.

Pro tip: Try some of Madison's freshest ingredients from local farmers at the Dane County Farmers' Market on the Capitol Square every April through November.

Explore on Bike

It would be a shame to visit a platinum-rated biking city without taking a spin on two wheels. Rent an e-bike from Madison BCycle stations across downtown and head out for a ride on the Lake Monona Loop or Capital City Trail or use it to get around for shopping, dining and other fun.

Pro tip: Sign up for Madison By Bike for an easy guide to biking in Madison, exclusive discounts and prizes.