When we came to visit Madison for the first time, this was the itinerary that made us fall in love with Wisconsin’s capitol city. As an added bonus, the only thing you’ll pay for all weekend is your food and lodging – all of these activities are free!
Wisconsin State Capitol
Once you’ve checked into your hotel, make your way to the heart of the city: the Wisconsin State Capitol building. Depending on your arrival time, consider stepping inside to look around and take a tour (the latest available is at 4pm on weekdays). If you arrive later, take a stroll around the block as the city lights turn on.
Then take a quick walk down Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to see Monona Terrace. Designed by Wisconsin-native Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938, Monona Terrace offers the best view of Lake Monona, one of the two lakes that surround the capitol city.
Memorial Union Terrace
To get the full isthmus effect, make your way to the other side of the city and check out UW’s Memorial Union Terrace. This iconic hotspot on campus is open to the public, and it’s the perfect place to watch the sunset over Lake Mendota.
Dane County Farmers’ Market
Start the day at the Dane County Farmer’s Market, the largest producer-only farmers market in the country. The quiet evening at the capitol last night will seem very different from the bustling booths of Saturday on the Square! Get yourself some locally grown fruits and veggies or freshly made baked goods – and don’t forget to pick up Wisconsin cheese!
Parks or Beaches
Bring your market finds for a picnic lunch at one of Madison’s many parks or beaches. At Tenney Park, you can enjoy some down time by the beach or start a game of volleyball, soccer, or pickleball. There’s also a great playground complete with a scavenger hunt for the kiddos. Other great options include James Madison Park, B.B. Clarke Beach Park, or McPike Park.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Take a relaxing stroll through Olbrich Botanical Gardens. With 16 acres of outdoor displays, there is no shortage of beauty to discover. If you’d like to step inside, check out the Bolz Conservatory where you’ll find Olbrich’s tropical gardens. (Entry for the outdoor gardens is free; admission for the indoor conservatory costs $6 for adults, $3 for ages 6-12, and is free for 5 and under.)
When you’re ready for dinner, head over to State Street to sample the many restaurants between the capitol and UW’s campus. If you’re in the mood, there are plenty of places to grab a drink or ice cream, too.
For your last stop, check local event calendars to see if there’s free live music being performed when you visit! There are often free events at the Memorial Union Terrace and Monona Terrace. If you’d rather see some music on Friday night, look into Live on King, or if you visit during the week, make sure to check out Concerts on the Square on Wednesday nights.
UW Arboretum or the Henry Vilas Zoo
Spend your last morning exploring one of the other amazing (and free) amenities Madison has to offer: the UW Arboretum or the Henry Vilas Zoo. The arboretum has 1,200 acres of woodlands, prairies, and more, with 20 miles of trails to hike or bike. The zoo houses animals native to the African savanna, North American prairies, and more.
Biergarten at Olbrich Park
If you have time for one more destination, check out the Biergarten at Olbrich Park (open 12-9:15pm on weekends). You can bring your own picnic or feast on some classic beer-garden foods: brats, giant pretzels, and cheese curds – all while enjoying a farewell view of Lake Monona and the city skyline.
With all the fun you’ve had on this trip, I’m sure you’ll be back for more because this weekend only scratched the surface of all that Madison has to offer!