Top 12 Free Things to do in Madison

Madison, Wisconsin is a vibrant college town with a rich history and culture. Nicknamed “Mad City”, it offers many free and low-cost activities for visitors on a budget.

State Capitol BuildingTour the historic building with beautiful architecture and public galleries.
Olbrich Botanical GardensExplore 16 acres of gardens and the tropical Bolz Conservatory.
Chazen Museum of ArtVisit the museum to see diverse art collections and exhibits.
Picnic PointEnjoy scenic lake views and picnics at this recreation area.
Free ConcertsCatch live music at various venues and outdoor series.
Monona TerraceTour this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structure with a rooftop garden.
ArboretumHike through diverse ecosystems and enjoy natural art exhibits.
Henry Vilas ZooVisit the zoo to see a variety of animals and exhibits.
Free Museum DayAttend special free admission days at local museums.
Shake Rag Historic WalkJoin a historic walking tour focusing on African American history.
Capital City TrailBike or walk along this scenic trail through parks and along Lake Monona.
Garver Feed MillExplore this historic space turned into a community hub with eateries and shops.

From admiring the beautiful state capitol building to exploring the city’s many parks and museums, there are plenty of ways to experience Madison without spending a lot of money.

Visit the State Capitol Building

Name and Location: Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, WI

History and Significance: The capitol building has been the seat of Wisconsin government since 1917.

What to Expect: Guided tours of the building, observation decks with city views, museum exhibits about state history.

Visitor Information: Open daily. Free tours offered daily.

The Wisconsin State Capitol building is an impressive structure located in the heart of downtown Madison. Completed in 1917, this National Historic Landmark was built on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona.

Free tours are available inside the Capitol where you can view the beautiful architecture, including the granite dome, marble floors, and ornate mosaics. Visitors can also observe the state legislature in action from the public viewing galleries when in session. Outside, the Capitol Square surrounds the building with manicured lawns, walkways, gardens, and monuments.

Stroll through Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Name and Location: Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, WI

History and Significance: A 16-acre botanical garden open since 1952 featuring outdoor collections and a conservatory.

What to Expect: Indoor tropical plants, outdoor gardens, blooming flowers, walking paths.

Visitor Information: Open daily, admission fee charged.

Escape to 16 acres of outdoor beauty at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, open 365 days a year. The outdoor gardens contain specialty gardens like the Rose Garden and Herb Garden, as well as serene paths winding through native woodlands and foliage.

Walk across a floating boardwalk and discover wildlife around Lake Sybil. Inside the tropical Bolz Conservatory, you’ll find exotic plants like orchids, cinnamon trees, and vine bamboo. Admission to the outdoor gardens and conservatory is free, with donations appreciated.

Browse the Chazen Museum of Art

Name and Location: Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, WI

History and Significance: An art museum on the University of Wisconsin campus, founded in 1970.

What to Expect: Permanent collections and rotating exhibits spanning many cultures and time periods.

Visitor Information: Open Tuesday-Sunday, free admission.

With free general admission, the Chazen Museum of Art on the University of Wisconsin campus is an accessible way to admire different collections and exhibits. The museum originally began as the university’s art gallery in the 1970s but moved into a larger, modern space in 2011.

Spanning a wide array of eras and genres, the museum’s permanent collection includes pieces by Andy Warhol, Claude Monet, and Pablo Picasso. Be sure to check the calendar for special visiting exhibits and events including lectures, live music, and art demonstrations.

Relax at Picnic Point

Name and Location: Picnic Point in Madison, WI

History and Significance: Scenic peninsula on Lake Mendota popular for picnicking and relaxing.

What to Expect: Grassy fields, walking/biking paths, lake views, and picnic tables.

Visitor Information: Free access, open daily.

For scenic lake views, head to Picnic Point recreation area in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve along Lake Mendota’s shoreline. The tranquil 750-acre green space contains prairie lands, woodlands, wetlands, and savannas.

Hike or bike 2.2 miles along the paved path out to the point and enjoy a break at one of the picnic tables along the way. From this vantage point, you can gaze across turquoise waters to see sailboats passing by and students rowing crew boats. It’s also a popular spot to watch the sunset across the lake.

Catch a Free Concert

Name and Location: Free outdoor concerts in Madison parks

History and Significance: Madison hosts many free music festivals and concerts.

What to Expect: Pack a picnic and enjoy live music in the park for free.

Visitor Information: Event schedules posted online.

From outdoor summer concert series to year-round music at various venues, you can often catch live music without paying a cover in Madison. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra performs free Lakeside Park concerts during summer on Wednesday evenings.

The Wisconsin Union Theater Terrace also has free concerts on select summer weeknights. Visit the Memorial Union to hear free noon-time concerts on Tuesdays and other events happening on campus. Various bars like The Rigby Pub, The Frequency, and Robinia Courtyard offer no-cover shows.

Tour Monona Terrace

Name and Location: Monona Terrace in Madison, WI

History and Significance: A convention center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, opened in 1997.

What to Expect: Guided tours of the unique architecture and lake views from the rooftop.

Visitor Information: Open daily, free guided tours offered.

Designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Monona Terrace opened in 1997 after decades of planning. The curved structure on Lake Monona has free daily guided tours at 1 p.m. to explore the 16,000 square foot rooftop garden, grand hallway, and meeting spaces made with natural materials like wood, stone, and glass.

Enjoy panoramic views of downtown Madison and tours operate Monday through Saturday. Check the calendar for free concerts, movies, exercise classes, and special events held here throughout the year.

Explore the Arboretum

Name and Location: University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, WI

History and Significance: Ecological research area spanning 1,200 acres.

What to Expect: Hiking trails, gardens, natural areas, and educational programs.

Visitor Information: Free access, open daily. Trails close at dusk.

Covering over 1,200 acres, the University of Wisconsin Arboretum features hiking trails through restored prairie, savanna, wetland, and woodland environments. Follow paths like the outdoor art gallery Wingra Woodland Sculpture Walk, which has over 60 art pieces.

Walk along the boardwalks and observation decks through wetland areas to watch birds and wildlife. Learn more at the Visitor Center with natural history exhibits, event calendars, and free weekly guided walking tours from May to October.

See Henry Vilas Zoo

Name and Location: Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, WI

History and Significance: A free zoo established in 1911 featuring many animals.

What to Expect: Exhibits with gorillas, tropical animals, farm animals, reptiles, and more.

Visitor Information: Open daily year-round, free admission.

Home to over 300 animals, Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison is free to visit and explore. Observe Arctic animals like polar bears, seals, and elk in the renovated Arctic Passage area. Visit the Primate House to see gorillas, chimpanzees, and more.

Kids can enjoy riding the vintage carousel and miniature train. Interactive feeding times and keeper chats happen daily. The zoo is open all year, with adjusted hours in winter, and easily walkable from downtown.

Attend a Free Museum Day

Name and Location: Museums in Madison, WI

History and Significance: Many museums offer free days throughout the year.

What to Expect: Free admission to explore exhibits on certain days.

Visitor Information: Check individual museum websites for free day schedules.

Several museums in Madison offer free days or special promotions to enhance accessibility. The Madison Children’s Museum has free admission during a designated “Community Day” each month. The Wisconsin Historical Museum offers free admission on the first Wednesday evening of the month.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is always free on Thursdays. Check individual museum websites for details on free visiting opportunities before your trip.

Do the Shake Rag Historic Walk

Name and Location: Shake Rag Historic District in Madison, WI

History and Significance: One of Madison’s oldest neighborhoods, with historic homes.

What to Expect: Follow the self-guided walking tour of historic houses and landmarks.

Visitor Information: Trail map available online to download.

Learn about Madison’s African American history and culture on this historic walking tour that is free and open to the public. Weekly tours meet Sundays at 2 p.m. from mid-May through September starting at Monona Terrace.

On the 1.6-mile walk, guides will point out historic homes, businesses, and churches while sharing stories about the early pioneers who helped develop Madison. Tours increase understanding about an important part of the city’s heritage.

Bike the Capital City Trail

Name and Location: Capital City Trail in Madison, WI

History and Significance: Paved recreational trail encircling Madison.

What to Expect: Bike riding, running, or walking along the scenic trail.

Visitor Information: Access points throughout Madison, open year-round.

Madison has an extensive network of multi-use trails for biking, walking, jogging and skating. A popular route is the Capital City State Trail which goes from downtown Madison southwest through parks, wooded areas and along Lake Monona.

The paved trail stretches about 15 miles one-way to Fitchburg. Bike rentals are available from Wheel & Sprocket and other outlets around the city. Explore the city’s natural beauty and scenery along designated bike paths.

See the Garver Feed Mill

Name and Location: Garver Feed Mill in Madison, WI

History and Significance: Historic feed mill undergoing redevelopment on Madison’s east side.

What to Expect: Restaurants, shops, offices, and events in a restored industrial building.

Visitor Information: Free to visit, open daily. Check website for hours.

Built in 1906, the historic Garver Feed Mill was reopened in 2020 as a community hub with its original timber framing and brick exterior preserved. Visit to see the grain elevator, smokestack, and railway tracks as a nod to Madison’s agricultural history.

Today the lively space contains restaurants, a market hall, office space, and event venue. Public spaces in the Year of the Feed Mill feature historical exhibits, event calendars, and a viewing platform of the belt-driven power system.

Tour Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center

Name and Location: Monona Terrace in Madison, WI

History and Significance: Architecturally significant convention center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

What to Expect: Guided tours of the unique design. Rooftop garden, gift shop, cafe and lake views.

Visitor Information: Open daily. Free guided tours offered.

Designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center first opened in 1997 after decades of planning. Free public tours are offered daily at 1:00pm to explore the inspirational architecture featuring curved exterior walls, grand hallway, rooftop garden, and interior spaces made with natural materials like wood, stone, and glass.

The building overlooks picturesque Lake Monona with panoramic views of downtown Madison. Tours provide insight to this unique convention center that hosts a wide array of community events.


Madison offers an array of free things to do, from museums and concerts to biking and gardens. Immerse yourself in local history and culture at sites like the State Capitol, Shake Rag Historic District, and the garlic-themed Frautchi Park. Relax outdoors at lakeside parks and trails.

Don’t miss the cheery blooms at Olbrich Gardens. With free tours, music, and festivals happening year-round, you can experience the city’s vibrant spirit on a budget. Use this list to get the most out of Madison for minimal cost.

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