Best Attractions & Activities

With all of the things to do and see in a city, deciding how to spend your time can be quite an agonizing decision. 10best has narrowed all of the available attractions in Madison to a list of the most appealing and reputable, to aide in your decision making. You can rest easy knowing that any choice you make from our list is sure to please.


The Arboretum

Outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers relish this stretch of preserved land. Spread across more than 1200 acres, the arboretum features a variety of terrains, including prairies, savannas, hardwood forests, evergreen forests, marshes, and ponds. Many of them were restored to their natural status (as they would have been before European settlement); others are in the works. Additional attractions include planned gardens, Native American burial mounds, a visitors' center, and nature trails criss-crossing the acreage.

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Spring Green

Tangible evidence of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural genius, this 600-acre complex of structures and landscapes demonstrates Wright's interests in Asian design and organic architecture. In fact, "Taliesin," a nod to Wright's Welsh heritage, means "shining brow" and refers to his belief that homes should be built not on the peak of a hill but just below, so they appear to have arisen naturally from the landscape rather than crown it. Various tours focus on Taliesin's grounds, the hillside studio and theater, the house and its furnishings, and the estate in general (which incorporates facets of the other tours). Reservations are recommended, and children under 12 are not permitted in interior spaces.

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Given Frank Lloyd Wright's lifelong connection to Madison, it's not surprising that multiple examples of his work can be found in the area. He designed this meeting house in the 1940s and had a particular investment in it, given that his family were members of the congregation. The structure, hunkered down in its natural setting, is crafted of copper, glass, wood, and limestone and features a distinguishing "prow" that juts up from the low-slung main building. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Sponsored by the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, this summertime tour series explores one of the city's most notable thoroughfares. Guides direct interested folks along the street, pointing out intriguing architectural features and structures and regaling visitors with anecdotes about prominent citizens and past organizations that made the district what it is today. Tours begin at the House of Wisconsin Cheese and last about an hour. Reservations are not required.

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Endowed by Colonel William Vilas in the early part of the 20th century, this 28-acre zoo is unusual for not charging admission fees (a feature also dictated by Vilas' bequest). Exhibits are easily managed in a few hours time, and include such animal mainstays as giraffes, primates, lions, camels, and tigers. You'll also find a reptile house, children's zoo (where little ones can feed the animals), penguin exhibit, and more. Food services and a gift shop are available as well.

Read more about Henry Vilas Zoo →

Named after Wisconsin's most noted conservationist, this center promotes good stewardship of the natural world. Programs to facilitate the goal take place on the complex's twenty acres and include lots of hands-on activities for folks of all ages. From nighttime hikes to wildflower identification excursions, ALNC impresses on visitors the interconnectedness of nature and humanity. Most activities require reservations and appropriate dress since they take place outside. Trails are open daily.

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Visitors are entranced by treasures the earth has given up at this fascinating museum. Focus is given to Wisconsin finds, including rocks, minerals, and mammal fossils such as giant beavers and mastadons. Remains of smaller, ocean-dwelling creatures can also be viewed, and visitors can discover how various classes of rocks are created and formed. Self-guided tours are common, and group tours can be arranged in advance. Gift and souvenir items are available as well.

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This esteemed university museum offers works that date back thousands of years. Collections include furniture, currency, ceramics, sculpture, paintings, drawings, photography, and prints. The museum's scope is global, prominently featuring pieces from Asia, Western Europe, America, Africa, and the Middle East. Yearly exhibits highlight special collections or themes, and a great gift shop offers posters, books, jewelry, and other arts-related items.

Read more about Chazen Museum of Art →

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Named for Michael Olbrich, a local attorney dedicated to the proliferation of parks and public lands in Madison, this park arose as a result of Olbrich's own personal and financial commitment. Over the years, land was reclaimed and developed until, today, the park boasts both outdoor venues and a dramatic glass conservatory filled with tropical specimens. Ten themed gardens define the outdoor space, including ones devoted to roses, hostas, wildflowers, herbs, and perennials. An authentic Thai pavilion adds a note of Asian beauty to the grounds. Admission to the conservatory is cash only; gift shop accepts Visa and Mastercard.

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For an enlightening overview of Wisconsin and regional history, this museum can't be beat. Spread across four floors are a wealth of information on original Native Americans, fur-trading, immigration, the lumber industry, politics, domestic life, and prominent figures. Artifacts, archives, multi-media exhibits, photographs, and life-sized vignettes communicate significant moments in state and local history, and displays are as beneficial to casual visitors as to scholars, researchers, and academics.

Read more about Wisconsin Historical Museum →