Free Things to Do in Madison, Wisconsin

Updated on February 24, 2018
Jaynie2000 profile image

Jaynie is from Madison, WI but has traveled extensively. Her family speaks 4 languages, making the world very accessible.

Madison, Wisconsin is a great city to live in and an amazing city to visit. There are plenty of activities happening seven days a week, both day and night, and many of them are completely free! In today's economy, for those living and/or traveling on a budget, the concept of free is enormously appealing. Read on to find out about just a few of the wonderful free activities Madison has to offer.

UW Arboretum

The arboretum covers over 1,000 acres of diverse ecosystems including prairies, savannas, deciduous forests, conifer forests and wetlands. Well kept trails wind throughout the Arboretum providing an excellent destination for hikers, joggers, photographers and snowshoers. The arboretum offers classes and free public walks and tours. Paved roads are excellent for runners and bikers and wind through forests and along the lake, making this one of the most beautiful and serene drives in Madison. You will also enjoy the visitors center located at the heart of the arboretum. Here will you find exhibits relating to local flora and fauna and more.

This scenic area is open year round from 7:00 am until 10:00 pm and is located at 1207 Seminole Hwy, Madison, WI 53711. For more information call them at 608-263-7888 or find them on the web at

UW Arboretum
UW Arboretum | Source

Allen Centennial Gardens

This two and a half acre garden serves as an outdoor horticultural classroom. Located on the UW Madison Campus, the garden boasts a vast array of styles including rock, water, Italian, English, daylily, ornamental shade, Wisconsin woodland and many more. Whether you come to brush up on your plant identification or simply to enjoy the serene beauty of this space, the Allen Centennial Garden is the perfect spot to spend a sunny afternoon.

These lovely gardens are located at 620 Babcock Drive, Madison, WI 53706. They are open from dawn until dusk daily. For more information call 608-576-2501.

Red Bridge at Allen Centennial Gardens
Red Bridge at Allen Centennial Gardens | Source

Henry Vilas Zoo

This is an amazing zoo and the fact that it is free to the public is just the icing on the cake. Much of the zoo has been remodeled into spectacular habitats and there is much more remodeling planned. The zoo currently boasts an incredible children’s zoo featuring a stunning carousel, train rides, goat feeding, a large playground and a respectable variety of animals.

The main zoo includes several habitats among which are favorites such as the lions, the primate center, the tigers, the otters, giraffes and aviary. No trip to Madison is complete without an afternoon at the zoo!

This wonderful attraction is located at 702 South Randall Avenue in Madison, WI 53715. They are open from 9:30 am until 5:00 pm daily. For more information call 608-266-4732 or visit them on the web at

Polar Bear in Winter at Henry Vilas Zoo
Polar Bear in Winter at Henry Vilas Zoo | Source

Henry Vilas Beach

Across the street from the zoo is the Vilas Beach. This is one of the most pristine beaches in Madison. It is shallow and warm and features a snack shop, Lifeguards, a clean and well-groomed sandy beach and picnic areas. Nearby you will find Wingra Boats, at which you can rent sailboats, canoes, kayaks or paddleboards.

Madison boasts many beaches, but Vilas has long been a local favorite and is definitely a great way to cap off a warm day walking around at the wonderful zoo. Parking is conveniently located on the street or in lots adjacent to the beach and the zoo.

Henry Vilas Beach, Madison
Henry Vilas Beach, Madison | Source

Overture Center for the Arts and Madison Museum of Contemporary Arts

While there are many shows for which patrons must purchase tickets, there are also many opportunities for great entertainment that are completely free! The Kids in the Rotunda have shows every Saturday from the end of September through April at 9:30am, 11:00am and 1:00pm.

Overture is also home to the Madison Metropolitan Museum of Art and to four free art galleries, each featuring a unique show by a talented artist. Gallery hours are Monday -Thursday from 9:00am – 5:30pm; Friday from 9:00am – 9:00pm; Saturday from 10:00am – 9:00pm and Sunday from Noon until 5:00pm.

MMoCA is free during the biannual Gallery Nights and $5.00 on the first Friday of the month. Gallery Night hours are 5:00 pm - 9:00 pm.

The Overture Center and Madison Museum of Contemporary Art are located at 201 State Street, Madison, WI 53703. You may contact the ticket office at 608-258-4141 or the general number at 608-258-4177. You may also visit them on the web for a complete listing of live performances, art shows and other activities at

Overture Center, Madison
Overture Center, Madison | Source

UW Geology Museum

This museum features a vast array of wonderful exhibits including a fantastic black light exhibit that illuminates colorful glowing rocks, dinosaur skeletons including a T-Rex and a Triceratops, awesome fossils, meterorites and a host of rocks and minerals. It is a great place for family members to learn about what it was like during the Ice Age, and what it is like for paleontologists to clean and restore the fossilized remains from a host a prehistoric creatures.

The museum is located at 1215 West Dayton Street, Madison, WI 53706. They are open Monday through Friday from 8:30 am until 4:30 pm and Saturdays from 9:00 am until 1:00 pm. For more information call 608-262-1412 or visit them on the web at

UW Madison Geology Museum
UW Madison Geology Museum | Source

Obrich Botanical Gardens

These stunning gardens occupy 16 acres on Madison’s east side and feature breathtaking perennials, a rare Thai Pavilion, a colorful rose garden, relaxing shade garden, wildflowers, rocks, herbs and meadows. The placid waters in the serenity garden will mesmerize visitors. The Thai Pavilion was donated to the UW Madison by the Thai government and is one of only four such pavilions located outside of Thailand.

Tuesday nights in June and July showcase local musical talents from a variety of genres including bluegrass, jazz, Afrocuban, and swing. Stretch out your blanket or pull up a lawn chair, pop open a cold refreshing beverage and enjoy a light picnic. This is the one night of the week that carry ins are allowed, so enjoy!

The gardens are located at 3330 Atwood Avenue, Madison, WI 53704. They are open from April through September from 8:00 am until 8:00 pm; in October from 9:00 am until 6:00 pm and from November through March from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm. For more information call 608-246-4550 or visit them on the web at

Thai Pavillion at Olbrich Gardens
Thai Pavillion at Olbrich Gardens | Source

Bolz Conservatory at Olbrich Gardens

While the Bolz Conservatory is not technically free, it only costs $1.00 per person. The flora is vibrant and colorful and the greenery is lush. Footpaths and quaint bridges take visitors next to and over the koi pond and a lovely waterfall cascades down the far wall. The conservatory is home to a stunning butterfly exhibit in which a vast array of butterflies emerge from their chrysalises daily and flit about the warm air. There are also both flight and ground dwelling birds that live inside the conservancy so keep your eyes open at all times and you may spot them! The annual Blooming Butterflies exhibition runs in July and August. For information about specific dates, times and pricing, call 608-246-4550 or visit them on the web at

Bolz Conservancy
Bolz Conservancy | Source

Madison Children's Museum

This museum has become even more spectacular since moving into its new space on Hamilton Street. Parking is conveniently located just across the street. The new site features a great art studio in which children can explore their creative sides when working in a variety of media including painting, textiles, weaving, drawing, photography and more. Kids will also love playing the role of real pioneers while living in a log cabin, churning butter, working a two man saw, harvesting vegetables and much more. Another favorite exhibit is PossibleOpolis, a fully interactive city in which kids can take a turn in the human hamster wheel, hoist a full size replica of a cow using a pulley system, and check out the Wayback Machine which is an interactive electronic playground.

The museum is located at 100 North Hamilton Street, Madison, WI 53703. While there is an admission fee during regular museum hours, the museum does offer Free Family Night on the first Wednesday of each month from 5:00 - 8:00 pm. Normal hours from Labor through Memorial Day are 9:30 am until 5:00 pm Tuesdays through Sundays. They are closed on Mondays. Peak Season runs from Memorial Day through Lanor Day during which the museum is open 7 days per week from 9:30 am until 5:00 pm. For more information call 608-251-0134 or visit them on the web at

Madison Children's Museum
Madison Children's Museum | Source

Chazen Museum of Art

Originally known as the Elvehjem Art Center, the Chazen is located near the Memorial Student Union on the beautiful UW Campus. This free art museum features both permanent collections and between 10 and 12 temporary exhibitions each year that will appeal to art lovers of all ages and who appreciate art in all media. There are over 20,000 works of art inside the museum. Exhibitions include works from artists around the globe. To enhance your knowledge of the exhibitions and collections, the museum offers lectures, docent tours, a variety of family activities, films and more, all of which can be found on the events calendar. There is also a museum shop that is open during regular gallery hours.

The address is 750 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706. They are open Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 9:00 am until 5:00pm, Thursday from 9:00 am until 9:00 pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00 am until 5:00 pm. They are closed on Mondays and select holidays. For more information call 608-263-2246 or visit them on the web at

Chazen Museum of Art
Chazen Museum of Art | Source

Wisconsin Veteran's Museum

This exquisite museum features exhibits that chronicle our nation’s many wars from the Civil War through the World Wars and the Korean War. The museum places special emphasis on the involvement of Wisconsin soldiers. Collections include flags from various Wisconsin regiments, over 23.000 artifacts from the past 150 years including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They are located at 30 W. Mifflin Street in Madison, WI 53703 on the Capitol Square and are open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am until 4:30 pm and Sundays from noon until 4:00 pm. The research center hours are Monday through Friday from 9:00 am until 3:30 pm or by appointment. For more information call 608-267-1799 or visit them on the web at

Wisconsin Veteran's Museum
Wisconsin Veteran's Museum | Source

State Capitol Tours

The original capitol building was constructed in 1838 and served as the seat of state government for 25 years until being rebuilt in 1963. It was reconstructed a second time over a span of 11 years after being destroyed by fire. It is the only capitol in the nation to be constructed on an isthmus. The most stunning feature of this building is its dome, which rises 284 feet 5 inches into the air, making it only three feet shorter than our nation's capitol. It is adorned by a gilded bronze statue called Wisconsin, and is known to locals as Lady Forward after the state's motto.

The capitol is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 am until 6:00 pm and on weekends from 8:00 am until 4:00 pm and are located at 2 E. Main Street, Madison, WI 53702. For more information call 608-266-0382.

State Capital, Madison, WI
State Capital, Madison, WI | Source

Governor's Mansion Tours

Located in the prestigious Maple Bluff neighborhood, the Governor's Mansion is one of the most magnificent homes in the city. Enjoying a comfortable position on 3.7 acres of immaculately landscaped grounds, the mansion features no fewer than seven gardens. It is a three story structure in the southern classic revival style. There are 34 rooms, 13 bathrooms, 7 bedrooms and an abundance of fireplaces throughout the 16,000 square foot home.

The mansion is located at 99 Cambridge Road in Madison, 53704, on the shores of Lake Mendota. Tours are offered on Thursdays, April through August from 1:00 until 3:00 pm and special holiday tours are offered throughout the month of December.

Governor's Mansion
Governor's Mansion | Source

Monona Terrace Convention Center

The convention center was designed by world-renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938 but was not built and open to the public in 1997. It is an incredible addition to the city and peeks out across the shimmering waters of Lake Monona. It is a short walk from the convention center to the state capitol. Monona Terrace hosts several special events throughout the year including festivals, concerts, family events, and live broadcasts of the popular radio show, Whaddya Know? While not all events are free to the public, many are. Events are listed in the free Isthmus newspaper which puts out new, updated issues every Thursday. Tours are offered to the public for a nominal fee. The terrace is open daily from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm. The rooftop garden is open Sunday through Thursday from 8:00 am until 10:00 pm and Fridays and Saturdays from 8:00 am until midnight.

The Monona Terrace is located at 1 John Nolen Drive, Madison, WI 53713. For more information call 608-261-4000 or visit them on the email them at You can also visit them on the web at

Monona Terrace Convention Center
Monona Terrace Convention Center | Source

Dane County Farmer's Market

The Dane County Farmer's Market is open every Saturday from late April through early November (rain or shine) and features a host of locally grown produce, flowers, herbs, fresh bakery, cheeses and meats. The market spans the entire capitol square. Live music from small combos can often be enjoyed from a variety of spots along the route. A smaller market is also held each Wednesday along the 200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. from 8:30 am until 2:00 pm during the same months. This is one day that pets are technically not allowed on the square, though you will see a few well-behaved, leashed pets. Many vendors have free samples so you can try before you buy. These include many fine cheeses, salsa, jellies, salad dressings and dipping sauces and more. While the wares come at a price, the walking, window shopping, samples, music and camaraderie are free.

Madison Farmer's Market on the Capital Square

Dane County Farmer's Market
Dane County Farmer's Market | Source

Concerts on the Square

Concerts on the square have long been a favorite Madison tradition. Featuring the incomparable talents of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the concerts are held each Wednesday evening for six weeks during the summer months, beginning at 7:00 pm, on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square. Many vendors offer food to enjoy during the concert but you can feel free to bring a cooler full of your favorite beverages and foods. Spread out a blanket (beginning as early as 3:00 pm), throw down a few pillows and enjoy!

Concerts on the Square
Concerts on the Square | Source

Jazz at 5 Concert Series

If the symphony isn't your style, you might prefer the Jazz at 5 concert series. Held at the 100 block of State Street on the Capitol Square. The series features a variety of talented local, regional and jazz musicians. Grab a bite or a cocktail from a local establishment or street vendor, pull up a chair (or bring your own) and enjoy a free night out with friends. This is a favorite tradition among the after work crowd. For more details about the concert line up visit them on the web at

Jazz at 5 Summer Series
Jazz at 5 Summer Series

© 2012 Jaynie2000


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    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      6 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Jaynie,

      This was some terrific writing. I loved every word of this hub. Voted up and away. Your presentation was excellent. I have cousins who live in Kenosha. I should save up to visit them. Just sharing.

      I cordially-invite you to read a couple of my hubs and then be one of my followers. I would love that.

      Keep up the great work.

      Kenneth/from northwest Alabama


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