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Free Things To Do in Madison, WI
- #2View all PhotosfreeState Street#2 in Madison, WIFree, Neighborhood/Area, Shopping, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDFree, Neighborhood/Area, Shopping, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
To experience the heart of downtown Madison, you must take a stroll along State Street. Anchored by the Wisconsin state Capitol on one end and the University of Wisconsin campus on the other, State Street shelters hundreds of shops, boutiques, galleries, restaurants, pubs and taverns, museums and performance venues, including the Overture Center for the Arts. Thanks to its close proximity to the campus, the street is home to a variety of wallet-friendly shops and eateries suitable for the student budget. If you're looking for a more formal sit-down meal (or a restaurant that may not attract many students), head to the Capitol Square. Here's where you'll find perennial favorites like The Old Fashioned and Cooper's Tavern serving up the state's famous cheese curds alongside an impressive list of local beers. Graze, Cento and Tavernakaya are three other popular restaurants around the square.
If you're visiting the area on a Saturday, you can't miss the Dane County Farmers' Market on the Square. Nearly 300 vendors set up shop outside the capitol building selling meats, cheeses, flowers, vegetables and specialty items all grown or produced in Wisconsin. Adding to the atmosphere are a variety of street musicians.
Past visitors had fun perusing the shops and restaurants along State Street, though a few warned of panhandlers and said they felt safer exploring the area during the day versus the night.
State Street spans from Park Street to the Capitol Square. Aside from city vehicles, the area is pedestrian-only. There are a variety of parking garages surrounding the area. State Street is free to visit day or night, though businesses operate their own hours. For a business directory, consult the Downtown Madison website.
- #3View all Photos#3 in Madison, WIFree, Tours, Monuments and Memorials, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDFree, Tours, Monuments and Memorials, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
History buffs and architecture aficionados alike will appreciate a stop at the Wisconsin state Capitol. Constructed between 1906 and 1917, the building is an iconic fixture in the Madison skyline. Among the architectural highlights are the council chambers, which were modeled after Venice's Doge's Palace, as well as the governor's conference room, which is decorated with 26 historical and allegorical paintings by Hugo Ballin. Other chambers within the building feature French and Italian marble, skylights and murals. If you can only admire the capitol from the outside, pay attention to the dome, which rises more than 200 feet and features a bronze Daniel Chester French statue (French is best known for designing the Lincoln Memorial). During the summer months, be sure to stop by the sixth-floor museum and observation deck.
Past visitors described the building as "beautiful" and recommended taking a guided tour for the best experience.
- #4View all Photos#4 in Madison, WIFree, Parks and Gardens, Hiking, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDFree, Parks and Gardens, Hiking, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
For a break from the bustle of the university campus and downtown core, head to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. Sprawling across 1,200 acres, the arboretum shelters tallgrass prairies, savannas, wetlands, several forest types, flowering trees, shrubs and an impressive lilac collection. Explore the attraction's various habitats while traversing the more than 17 miles of trails that weave through the property. There are also three gardens, one of which houses one of the largest displays of lilacs in North America. When you're not admiring the arboretum's collection of plants, head to the visitor center to watch an orientation film detailing the arboretum's history and to access facilities like restrooms, a bookstore, an art gallery and a horticultural library.
Past travelers were impressed with the arboretum and say you'll need several visits to see everything the site has to offer. Many visitors particularly enjoyed the opportunities for bird-watching and recommend wearing sturdy shoes and bringing along bug repellent.
- #5View all Photos#5 in Madison, WIFree, Parks and Gardens, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDFree, Parks and Gardens, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
The Olbrich Botanical Gardens date back to 1921, when Michael B. Olbrich first purchased a plot of land along Lake Monona. Since then, the gardens have expanded to 16 acres and the tropical Bolz Conservatory. One highlight is the Thai Pavilion and Garden – a gift from the Thai government to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The ornate pavilion, which features gold leaf etchings, a lacquer finish and intricate decor, was built in Thailand and disassembled to ship to Madison where it was reconstructed by Thai artisans. Visitors will also want to make time for the 2-acre Rose Garden, which shelters roses alongside perennials, ornamental grasses, shrubs, ornamental trees, annuals and spring bulbs.
If you happen to stop by this attraction when the outdoor gardens aren't blooming, consider warming up in the Bolz Conservatory. The balmy conservatory houses more than 650 plants, a waterfall and free-flying birds with temperatures inside the glass pyramid resting between 65 and 80 degrees year-round.
Past visitors raved about the variety of plants on display at the gardens. Others appreciated the many water fountains and benches interspersed throughout the property. The free admission was also a big hit among reviewers.
You'll find the Olbrich Botanical Gardens on Lake Monona's northern shore about 5 miles east of downtown Madison. On-site amenities include a horticultural library, as well as a gift shop. Due to COVID-19, the gardens are only open from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The conservatory is closed until further notice. Admission to the outdoor gardens is free, though donations are welcome. Admission to the conservatory costs $2 per adult and is free for kids 5 and younger. Parking is free. For more information, visit the official website.
- #6View all Photos#6 in Madison, WIMuseums, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDMuseums, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Situated on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and spread across two buildings, the Chazen Museum of Art shelters the second-largest collection of art in Wisconsin, with approximately 23,000 artworks. The museum's collection spans a variety of mediums, time periods, geographic locations and cultures. Along with its permanent collection, the museum also hosts temporary exhibitions and community events.
Past visitors praised the range of art on display here and said a stop at the museum is a great activity for cold winter days. Others were especially pleased with the free admission and the on-site cafe.
- #7View all PhotosfreeHenry Vilas Zoo#7 in Madison, WIZoos and Aquariums, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDZoos and Aquariums, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
A great option for those traveling with kids, the Henry Vilas Zoo is home to more than 650 animals, including camels, tigers, flamingos and penguins. What's more, it's one of 10 remaining free zoos in North America. The zoo's free admission was a stipulation that Col. William and Anna Vilas made when they gave the land to the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association in 1904 "for the uses and purposes of a public park and pleasure ground." The zoo borrows its name from the Vilas' son, Henry, who died when he was young as a result of complications from diabetes.
Travelers can enjoy the various zoo exhibits, including a rainforest aviary, a big cats enclosure, a herpetarium (where cold-blooded animals like reptiles reside) and the Arctic Passage, home to grizzly bears, polar bears and harbor seals. There's also a children's zoo with a herd of goats, a zoo train and a carousel (both the train and the zoo cost $2 per passenger to ride).
According to past visitors, the zoo is small but still offers a fun outing for kids of all ages. Plus, the free admission makes it a no-brainer for families. Even better, the zoo is surrounded by Vilas Park, which features two playgrounds and plenty of open space for playing and picnics, among other activities.
The zoo is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Zoo admission and parking are free. You'll find the zoo less than a mile south of Camp Randall Stadium just south of the university campus downtown. On-site amenities include an indoor restaurant, a seasonal ice cream and coffee kiosk, and a gift shop. To start planning your visit, check out the official website.
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