20+ Free Things to Do in Madison, WI this Summer

On the windy, rainy, cold spring day I’m writing this it feels like summer is a long way off, but it will be here before we know it! Madison is a great city to live in year round, but it really shows off in the summer.  With kids out of school and weekends wide open for fun, we’ve rounded up more than 20 places to visit and things to do that you can check out in the Madison area.  And the best part – they are all FREE!  

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  1. Olbrich Botanical Gardens

    The Olbrich Botanical Gardens is 16 acres of beautiful landscapes and Midwest plants, with multiple garden areas you can wander through and explore.

  2. Bolz Conservatory

    After you’ve checked out the outdoor portions of Olbrich Gardens, you can explore indoors at the connected Bolz Conservatory, a giant glass pyramid housing tropical plants, and birds.  Admission is free on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

  3. University of Wisconsin Arboretum

    The UW Arboretum is a local treasure; 1200 acres of ecological restoration in the heart of Madison, designed to celebrate the local landscapes of Wisconsin and provide research opportunities. Our family has visited and walked the trails during different seasons and there’s always new things to see.

  4. Wisconsin State Capitol Building

    If you haven’t toured the interiors of the Wisconsin State Capitol and seen the Rotunda and other features, you’re missing out! This building is beautiful inside and out, and there’s often special free events or exhibits.

  5. Dane County Farmer’s Market – Saturdays on the Square

    The Madison area has many farmer’s markets, but the big kahuna is the Saturday morning farmer’s market on the square around the capitol building. Get free tastes of lots of local products, and enjoy a gorgeous summer morning in downtown Madison. (I would strongly suggest grabbing a fresh loaf of Hot and Spicy Cheese Bread from Stella’s Bakery stand to nosh on as you walk.)

  6. Memorial Union Terrace

    Pull up an iconic sunburst chair and enjoy the view of Lake Mendota from the Memorial Union Terrace. There’s fun oversized chairs that the kids can take photos in, and food and ice cream available for purchase.

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  7. Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

    MMoCA galleries are open and free to explore on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons. Rotating exhibits of photography, visual art, and sculptures can provide a new perspective and creative inspiration for your budding artists!

  8. Wisconsin Veterans Museum

    The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is located downtown near the Capitol, and has several engaging exhibits with items from the Civil War to current day that will help visitors connect to WI military veterans’ stories.

  9. University of Wisconsin Geology Museum

    Have you got a dinosaur fan in your house right now? Or a kiddo who can’t stop digging in the yard for rocks and gems and all sorts of treasures? 😉 The UW Geology Museum is a perfect small scale spot to explore dino fossils, a giant Mastadon skeleton, and other natural history collections.

  10. University of Wisconsin Chazen Museum of Art

    Another perk of living in a city with a renowned university, the UW Chazen Museum of Art is a collection of 23,000 works, spanning various mediums and styles.  It is free to the public and at the heart of the UW campus.

  11. Henry Vilas Zoo

    One of our family’s favorites, the Henry Vilas Zoo is the perfect size zoo for younger kids, or just a quick half-day visit.  Even if the animals are quieter that day, there’s a huge playground and green space right next to it that you can explore.

  12. University of Wisconsin Allen Centennial Garden

    Located amidst residence halls and classroom buildings, the UW Allen Centennial Garden is an urban oasis. Check out their social media page for special free events, and concerts hosted throughout the summer!

  13. Concerts on the Square

    The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is back! After a covid forced hiatus, Concerts on the Square are returning to downtown Madison this summer. Pack a picnic dinner, bring a blanket, and enjoy a gorgeous summer evening of music.

  14. Aldo Leopold Nature Center

    The ALNC is a neighborhood nature center that allows you to stroll trails through the different ecosystems of Wisconsin.  Our favorite part is the natural playground / exploration zone where kids can use natural supplies to build and create.

  15. National Mustard Museum

    If you’ve never seen 6,000 containers of mustard in one place, then have you really lived? The National Mustard Museum in Middleton is a fun diversion with exhibits, games, cooking tips, and samples galore.

  16. Wisconsin Historical Museum

    The Wisconsin Historical Museum is another feature of the Capitol Square, and has educational and interactive exhibits all about the history of our state.

  17. Pheasant Branch Conservancy

    Hiking, biking, bird watching, and nature exploring are all on the itinerary at the Pheasant Branch Conservancy on the west side of Madison. You can also enjoy panoramic views of downtown and the Capitol Building.

  18. Monona Terrace Rooftop

    Another highlight of downtown Madison is the Monona Terrace Rooftop, which hosts various special events throughout the summer.  Even if there’s nothing planned, it’s a great spot to view Lake Monona and the surrounding areas.

  19. Vilas Park Beach

    The Vilas Park Beach is a sandy beachfront area on Lake Wingra (located on the backside of the zoo, and near the Arboretum) with calm water for swimming and fishing.

  20. Schluter Park Beach*

    Another small sand beach option is Schluter Park Beach in Monona. There’s a gazebo, grills, playground structure, and fantastic spot across the the road to grab an ice cream cone. *No lifeguard, swim at your own risk.

  21. Wisconsin Science Museum

    The Wisconsin Science Museum is another free option to spark curiosity in your little scientists. They have hands-on experiences, and are open Saturdays.

  22. State Street

    With so many of these free spots located between the Capitol and the UW Campus, exploring and wandering vibrant State Street (which connects the two areas) can be an activity all on its own.

Beyond the specific spots mentioned above, there are also whole categories of free summer destinations in Madison, many of which already have guides compiled on this website:

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