Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Madison, WI

  • Published 2022/11/22

Madison is Wisconsin’s seat of power in Dane County, hosting the Wisconsin State Capitol.

It’s the fourth-largest city in the state and a treasure trove of exciting activities and attractions.

This city’s convenient location makes it an excellent place for an excursion and to take a break from the daily hustle and grind.

Madison is an excellent travel destination, especially if you want to visit nearby attractions without breaking the bank.

You’ll enjoy plenty of outdoor adventures, fantastic sightseeing, and relaxing hikes through its parks and museums, which mostly have free admission.

Check out this list of free things to do in Madison, Wisconsin, to have a budget-friendly adventure in the city.

Watch Flowers Bloom at Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Thai pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens

E Fehrenbacher /

Olbrich Botanical Gardens spans over 16 acres of a diverse outdoor botanical garden and conservatory along Atwood Avenue.

This gorgeous garden is a famous place for locals to hang out for its tranquil atmosphere.

Its main attraction is its beautiful collection of exotic flowers and plants.

Check out its rose garden, gilded Thai pavilion, and 10,000-square-foot conservatory, which has welcomed countless visitors since 1952.

Michael Olbrich founded this garden and co-managed it with the City of Madison through the Olbrich Botanical Society.

Flowers at Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Eliza B /

Many recommend starting your Madison travel adventure in this beautiful garden, not just for its free admission.

Fascinatingly, it’s also the only garden you can find in the entire nation.

Enjoy strolling through its intricately-landscaped rose garden and other types of gardens featuring herbs, orchids, and other plant species for free.

Meanwhile, it has a pyramid-shaped conservatory that houses a wide array of tropical plants, butterflies, and birds, making it a wonderful place to visit.

Perennial garden at Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Tracy Immordino /

Roam the Wisconsin State Capitol

Aerial view of Wisconsin State Capitol

Randy Kostichka /

The Wisconsin State Capitol isn’t just the seat of power in Wisconsin.

It’s also one of Wisconsin’s most famous tourist attractions because of its elegant design and architecture.

Enjoy free tours of this massive building along E. Main Street.

This capitol rests between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona amidst Madison’s gorgeous skyline.

Interior of the Wisconsin State Capitol

NaughtyNut /

This 200-feet tall building is a renowned architectural masterpiece.

Speaking of elegance, it was built with over 40 kinds of stones from around the world.

At the same time, it contains hand-carved furniture, elegant glass mosaics, and the famous gilded bronze statue named after the state.

You can see all these items through the Wisconsin State Capitol’s free tours, so remember to list this down in your itinerary.

Interior dome of Wisconsin State Capitol

Joe Ferrer /

Meet the Animals of Henry Vilas Zoo

Macaws at Henry Vilas Zoo

Jon Puhalla /

For a one-of-a-kind activity, check out Henry Vilas Zoo.

It’s one of the very few zoos that offer free admission to everyone.

You can visit this zoo along S. Randall Avenue and see over a hundred animals within its 28-acre facility.

Since this zoo charges no admission, expect hundreds of visitors who want to see the featured animals, a spectacular sight you mustn’t miss.

Grizzly bear at Henry Vilas Zoo

Reel Wave Media /

Various animals roam this zoo, featuring habitats like the tropical rainforest to the American wilderness.

It has tigers, lions, grizzly bears, polar bears, primates, seals, and birds you only see on television.

Visit the Henry Vilas Zoo, not just for its free admission but for the entire world of animals waiting for you to meet them.

A playground at Henry Vilas Zoo

Jay Yuan /

Remember War Heroes at Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Exterior of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Head to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum for a fascinating historical side trip.

You can visit this museum along W. Mifflin Street.

It mainly features vast exhibits and artifacts from the Wisconsin locals who served in the military for the last 150 years.

Interior of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a fascinating place to explore, especially for war history enthusiasts and even for an average tourist who wants to take advantage of its free admission.

Some of the best exhibits to check out are the Wisconsin Civil War regiments, the 2800 written interviews with Wisconsin’s World War I veterans, and plenty more.

Besides these exhibits, you’ll enjoy browsing the vast collection of war history artifacts relevant to this state, making Wisconsin Veterans Museum an exciting place to explore history.

An aircraft displayed in the Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Enjoy the Serenity of UW Arboretum

Daytime view of UW Arboretum

Yinan Chen, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The UW Arboretum along Seminole Highway is part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It mainly serves as a teaching and research facility for academic studies.

Still, it allows the public to visit and enjoy over a thousand acres of gorgeous natural area.

Visiting this arboretum takes you to a different world featuring savannas, prairies, wetlands, and forests you’d not expect to find in Wisconsin.

The best way to explore the UW Arboretum is by hiking or jogging.

During winter, it becomes a popular snowshoeing destination.

In addition, you can join free guided tours and public walks throughout the entire arboretum.

Likewise, you can join its arboretum class if you’re serious about learning more about its programs.

Check Out the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center

Exterior of the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center

Jay Yuan /

The Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center along John Nolen Drive is one of Madison’s most famous buildings.

Frank Lloyd Wright mainly designed this building’s architecture which took 59 years to complete.

Today, it’s one of Madison’s must-visit places for its gorgeous lakeside terrace that Wright personally designed.

Lake view from Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center's terrace

Jay Yuan /

Its convention center’s design is similar to Wright’s famous commission, the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

It has a vast exhibition hall, a banquet hall, a ballroom, a media center, and a vast rooftop garden which you can explore for free.

Besides the famous lakeside terrace, the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center are one of the go-to events venues in the city.

Interior of the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center

EQRoy /

See Rare Rocks at the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum

Dinosaur skeletons in the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum

Patrick Kuhl from Madison, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The University of Wisconsin Geology Museum is another worthwhile museum to check out.

Its exhibits mainly display Wisconsin’s prehistoric past involving dinosaurs and rare rocks.

It’s a beautiful place to feed your mind with fascinating information on over 1,000 artifacts and samples from various rocks, meteorites, and minerals.

At the same time, its other exhibits display prehistoric fish, plant, and vertebrate fossils.

So, join the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum’s free guided tours for adults and children to experience what it offers best.

Hike the Howard Temin Lakeshore Path

The Howard Temin Lakeshore Path offers a different view of Madison’s beauty.

It contrasts the bustling scene on State Street, wherein you’ll enjoy a peaceful hike through this lakeshore path.

Historically, this trail meandering Lake Mendota was named after the Nobel Prize winner Howard Temin.

It features over seven kilometers of the out-and-back trail which takes an hour to complete.

Many hikers, joggers, and cyclists love to traverse this picturesque trail for some solitude and recreation.

Wear your hiking shoes and head to the Howard Temin Lakeshore Path to sweat out and explore Madison’s natural beauty.

Stroll through State Street

The road of State Street

Nejdet Duzen /

State Street is your go-to place to witness what Madison’s locals offer best.

This location technically serves as Madison’s downtown area, containing most of the city’s attractions, from museums, parks, historical buildings, and businesses.

In addition, it primarily connects the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and the State Capitol Square.

Buildings along State Street

Nejdet Duzen /

With all that in mind, it’s the perfect location in Madison for strolling and exploring its beautiful sights.

When the sun goes down, this place becomes livelier, while the colorful lights start taking over the night.

Explore downtown Madison through a worthwhile stroll along State Street.

A shop at State Street

Nejdet Duzen /

Browse the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

Interior of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

Matt Venker /

Check out the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art to see rare and gorgeous artworks.

Check out this art museum along State Street and marvel at its massive indoor museum that spans over 50,000 square feet.

It’s a worthwhile place to visit for its free admission and see exhibits and galleries full of top-notch contemporary artworks.

Glass staircase in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

Nagel Photography /

You’re guaranteed to enjoy browsing hundreds of famous contemporary artworks from the 20th to the 21st century.

While exploring, you’ll find some masterpieces of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and John Steuart Curry.

Remember to add the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art to your itinerary for a memorable art tour.

Travel to the Past at Wisconsin Historical Museum

Exterior of the Wisconsin Historical Museum

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Wisconsin Historical Museum allows you to immerse in the state’s rich history dating back to the prehistoric age.

You can visit this museum along N. Carroll Street.

Discover over 400,000 archeological items and 110,000 historical artifacts from Wisconsin and other parts of the nation in this museum.

Native american cabin in the Wisconsin Historical Museum

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

History enthusiasts are guaranteed to drool upon seeing well-preserved artifacts across four stories at this museum’s galleries and exhibits.

Some of its famous exhibits are “Frontier Wisconsin,” “People of the Woodland,” “Immigrant State,” and plenty more.

Above all, the Wisconsin Historical Museum has free admission, leaving you with no excuse not to visit this fantastic attraction.

Cigar-making tools in the Wisconsin Historical Museum

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mingle with Locals at Memorial Union Terrace

Aerial view of the Memorial Union Terrace

Jay Yuan /

The Memorial Union Terrace is famous within the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

It mainly serves as a favorite hangout place for locals and students.

You can visit this famous place along Langdon Street and enjoy the scenic view of Lake Mendota.

At the same time, relax and sit in one of its colorful chairs while enjoying the view.

Colorful tables and chairs at Memorial Union Terrace

Jay Yuan /

Otherwise, join the university’s students and staff, taking a break from their schedules for some chit-chat and good company.

Visitors like you can enter this famous location for a day guest pass to access this picturesque terrace for some afternoon relaxation.

Besides being a top-notch location for relaxation, the Memorial Union Terrace hosts free activities for everyone, including live music.

Colorful chairs overlooking the water at Memorial Union Terrace

CYegian /

Explore Lake Mendota

A boat cruising on Lake Mendota

MarynaG /

Your visit to Madison won’t be complete without boating on Lake Mendota.

This 9,781-acre lake is a famous attraction throughout Dane County for its myriad of water activities.

In Madison, you can find countless boat launches and marinas which you can visit to see the lake up close.

During winter, a vast portion of the lake completely freezes, turning it into a winter sports hotspot.

Sailboats on Lake Mendota during sunset

MarynaG /

While in summer, many tourists love boating and fishing at this lake.

Lake Mendota remains popular among tourists and locals in Madison regardless of the season.

You can either fish, kayak, or play ice hockey during the cold months.

This lake has plenty of outdoor recreation, making it a recommended attraction to check out.

A pier at Lake Mendota

Tailor Hartman /

Celebrate Arts at the Chazen Museum of Art

Exterior of the Chazen Museum of Art

James Steakley, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Chazen Museum of Art along University Avenue offers art lovers over 20,000 artwork collections to see up close.

Dropping by this art museum allows you to dive deeper into Madison’s local arts scene.

It has free admission, giving you no excuse to skip this charming art museum home to Wisconsin’s second-largest artwork collection.

Interior of the Chazen Museum of Art

John Benson from Madison WI, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s mainly famous for its rotating exhibits featuring artists such as Joan Miro, Eugene Boudin, and Auguste Rodin with their best contemporary masterpieces.

Besides its comprehensive collection of artworks, the Chazen Museum of Art is also famous for its temporary exhibitions that feature international and local artists.

Marble sculpture in the Chazen Museum of Art

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Take a Break at the Allen Centennial Garden

Close view of Allen Centennial Garden flowers

youngryand /

The Allen Centennial Garden is the University of Wisconsin-Madison Campus’s outdoor classroom and botanical garden.

Today, this 2.5-acre site along Babcock Drive is one of the city’s most picturesque locations.

The garden is part of the Dean’s Residence of the University of Wisconsin, which remains in use today as part of its agricultural department.

Visiting this garden allows you to relax your mind and body while enjoying its peaceful atmosphere.

A pond at Allen Centennial Garden

Corey Coyle, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, you can stroll through the entire garden to see its full beauty.

The Allen Centennial Garden is perfect for taking a break from roaming Madison’s attractions.

Remember to spend an hour or two at this gorgeous garden and take as many photos as possible for a souvenir before wrapping up your Madison travel adventure.

Flowers at Allen Centennial Garden

James Steakley, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Final Thoughts

Madison is more than Wisconsin’s capital.

It’s a charming travel destination that offers visitors plenty of outdoor recreational activities and historical tours without costing you a single penny.

Its location makes it perfect for outdoor adventure or complete relaxation.

Refer to this list of free things to do in Madison, Wisconsin, for an unforgettable budget vacation!

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