The Best of Madison, Wisconsin – 5 Days of Adventure, History, Food & Outdoor Fun
Truth be told, we have yet to visit a capital city in the USA that we didn’t like, and Madison, Wisconsin is no exception!
If you follow us, you know we were both born, raised, and currently live in Wisconsin, so we’re excited to bring you more of the inside scoop on places we discover in our home state.
We spent 5 days on our most recent trip to Madison digging in deep to discover the best the city has to offer in outdoor adventure, nature, parks, museums, food, music, and more.
As a result, we were able to put together this extensive guide so you can plan your visit to this incredible capital city that is literally embraced by nature. Are you ready?
Things To Do In Madison Wisconsin Map
Table of Contents
HOW TO USE THIS MAP: Above you’ll find a map of our highlights in Madison, Wisconsin. Click on the top left of the map to find separate layers marking the route and points of interest. You can hide and show different layers, or click icons on the map to see the names of places we mention in this travel guide. “Star” the map to save it to your own Google Maps, or open the map in a new window for a larger version.
Getting Outdoors in Madison, Wisconsin
University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
Literally, the first place we stopped when we arrived was the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum and we were not disappointed.
The 1200 acres plus additional 513 acres of the outlying property feature the oldest and most varied collection of restored ecological communities in the world.
For most visitors, this place is a nirvana of nature and a place to escape the hustle of the city. There are plenty of trails, bike paths, gardens, and benches to enjoy during a visit.
I won’t lie, we spent way more time here than we planned, so you should be prepared for that. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
Fishing on Lake Monona
Believe it or not, the capital city of Wisconsin is an up-and-coming fishing destination. The best part is that you can partake right from the downtown area on either Lake Monona or Lake Mendota.
During our visit we did a half-day fishing charter on Lake Monona, catching a wide variety of fish including bluegills, perch, and bass. It was a fun afternoon on the water doing all catch and release. Madison is also known for great northern pike and muskie sport fishing during the right seasons.
If you’d like to spend some time fishing on your next trip to Madison, we’d recommend booking a trip with Noah at Madison Angling Guide Service.
Bike the Lake Loop
If there was ever a bike-friendly city, it is Madison. We brought our own bikes for our visit, but you can easily rent them in the capital square for further exploration. There are bike racks everywhere, so don’t be afraid to hop on a bike and explore!
One of our favorite things to do in Madison is to bike the Lake Loop, a 13-mile circumnavigation of Lake Monona. If you have time for just one adventure in the city, this is one you shouldn’t miss because it will give you a little taste of everything that makes Madison such a unique city.
You’ll experience the downtown area, lakefront, beaches, parks, botanical gardens, and more along the way. Not to mention that the trail is all paved, smooth, signposted, and easy to follow.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens & Bolz Conservatory
The Olbrich Botanical Gardens are an incredible oasis just 1.5 miles from downtown Madison. Spanning 16 acres, the outside gardens are free to enter, which makes this an incredibly popular place to visit in Madison.
Each section of the property features themed gardens. Our favorites included the Thai pavilion and castle tower gardens. Both transport you to other parts of the world.
Also, on the property is the Bolz Conservatory, a tropical garden featuring plants from all over the world. From the minute you step through the doors, you’re transported into a lush, green environment that is full of bright-colored flowers. There is an entrance fee to visit, but it’s beautiful and worth it.
Henry Vilas Zoo
Occupying 28 acres in downtown Madison, the Henry Vilas Zoo is one of the top things to do in Madison. The zoo offers both free admission and free parking, so how can you say no?
The most popular exhibits feature the African Lions and the polar bears, although you can find many other species to admire and learn about during a visit.
Hot Tip: Arrive early or late in the day for your best chance at seeing the animals.
Aldo Leopold Nature Center
If you’re seeking a place where you can not only get up close to nature but also be involved in hands-on interactive programs, then you should check out the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.
Established in 1994, the center offers a variety of special events and programs, in addition to many miles of nature trails to explore. All of the trails are free to access, however, the educational programs require a reservation in advance.
Kayaking on Lake Wingra
If you’re looking for a little outdoor adventure in the city, you’ll want to head to Lake Wingra and rent a kayak. From the put-in, you can kayak across the lake for awesome views of the downtown Madison skyline.
Kayaking next to shore will reward you with views of unique vegetation and birds. If you’re up for a bigger paddle, you can circumnavigate the lake or head under the bridge to explore a little of Lake Monona too.
Wingra boats offer rentals by the hour and there is plenty of parking there too. We’d recommend that you rent in the morning, getting there when the rental place opens. This will ensure you are able to find a parking spot, as the park is very popular, and also have a quiet experience on the lake.
Allen Centennial Gardens
The Allen Centennial Garden is one of the most beautiful and popular places to visit in Madison. The garden resides on the University of Wisconsin – Madison grounds and features the Agricultural Dean’s House, as well as an 1896 Queen Anne-style home, among other buildings.
It is open daily from dawn to dusk and admission is free, making it a lovely place to stop in for a walk-through and a break from the business of the city.
Capital Springs State Recreation Area
The Capital Springs Recreation Area offers 3,000 acres of nature to enjoy just a few minutes from downtown Madison. It is also near to the University of Wisconsin – Madison Arboretum.
We visited this small park with the intent of hiking some of their trails but ended up finding a park that offers some great camping near the city. There is also a historical viewing tower to climb.
It’s a great place to visit if you want to hike close to the city but above all, a fantastic place to camp or park an RV if you need to do that.
Bear Mound Park
If you are interested in the Native American history that surrounds Madison, this is a fantastic site to add to your itinerary.
The 1.6-acre Bear Mound Park sits in the place where a massive bear-shaped effigy mound was constructed. Measuring 82 feet long, most of the bear shape is still intact.
Being able to see one of these mounds up close is rare, as most of them were destroyed in the 1800s during agriculture and city expansion projects.
Enjoy Tenney Park
Due to its location on the shores of Lake Mendota, Tenney Park is a favorite among locals and visitors alike. Covering 37 acres, the park offers the ultimate in relaxation and recreation. It features a playground, boat launch, tennis courts, and plenty of paved trails.
Best Day Trips from Madison for More Adventure
Governor Dodge State Park
Governor Dodge State Park is a 5,270-acre oasis located 47 miles from downtown Madison that is worth the drive if you’re seeking outdoor recreation options. Here you can enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking, boating, and swimming.
We enjoyed the hike to Stephens’ Falls. The hike is easy and leads to a beautiful waterfall with a pool beneath it. Most people only go this far, but the trail actually continues along a creek. This part of the hike was quiet, and worth the extra steps.
Blue Mound State Park
Blue Mound State Park is located 28 miles from downtown Madison and is often combined with a visit to Cave of the Mounds. The main attraction of this park is the two towers that offer amazing vistas of the area.
There are also pull-offs for additional scenic viewpoints if you’re not up for climbing the towers. Additionally, you can enjoy hiking and biking in this Wisconsin state park, too.
Cave of the Mounds
Discovered in 1939 while local miners were blasting for limestone, Cave of the Mounds was one of the most unique and interesting places we visited during our trip to Madison!
The cave system is incredible, and it is possible to take a self-guided tour through them. Guides are placed along the path to teach you the history of the cave, pointing out interesting things and answering any questions you might have.
Above ground, you can crack open geodes, sluice for gems and fossils, or enjoy one of the many hiking trails. You could spend a whole day here, but if you only have time for one thing make sure you tour the cave.
We’d also recommend booking your tickets in advance as this is a busy attraction with limited admission.
Tower Hill State Park
Spanning 77 acres above the Wisconsin River, Tower Hill State Park is a wonderful place to explore on a trip to Madison, Wisconsin. It offers a unique blend of protected history and nature options.
The highlight of the park is the reconstructed Helena Shot Tower. The original was built in 1832 and manufactured lead shot until 1860. The site was also registered with the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Check Out A Couple of Madison Orchards
Like Bayfield, Wisconsin in the northern part of the state, Madison offers its own version of a fruit loop just north of the city. It is here that fruit farmers enjoy a unique weather bubble that promotes healthy orchard growth.
Along this route, you can stop off at multiple small businesses to sample fruit that is in season and purchase items made with traditional family recipes.
Devils Lake State Park
Located 40 miles from Madison, Devils Lake State Park is both the largest and most visited state park in the entire state of Wisconsin.
The park itself spans 10,000 acres, but it sits up against an additional 27,000 acres of natural space that is open to the public. This makes the park a mecca for outdoor lovers.
It’s possible to camp, hike, bike, swim, ski, and rock climb, among other activities, within the park. If you’re seeking a place to spend a day outside as a day trip from the city, this state park should definitely be considered.
Learn about Frank Lloyd Wright and Tour Taliesin
Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most famous architects of all time and it just so happens that he found southern Wisconsin to be the perfect backdrop for his inspiration. After being raised on a small homestead here, he returned as an adult and built his private sanctuary named Taliesin.
In addition to a home, he built a design studio in the house where many of his most famous creations were brought to life. If you take the highlights tour from the visitors center, you’ll get to tour the inside of Taliesin and also a school that he built for the community on his property.
If you’re unsure who he is, that’s ok. To give you an idea, he designed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and the Guggenheim Museum. He also designed the Monona Terrace in downtown Madison. He was a famous architect but also lived an interesting life filled with some intriguing stories.
House on the Rock
We first visited the House on the Rock many years ago on a trip with David’s family. My memories of the place are still vivid, as it’s a quirky and very interesting place to visit!
The house is privately owned and features the personal retreat and collections of a man named Alex Jordan. It was his vision that brought the House on the Rock to life. Each space offers a unique theme, like the World’s Largest Carousel, The Infinity Room, and The Doll House Room, to name a few.
The estate is massive, so be sure to give yourself several hours to see it all. You won’t be disappointed.
The Best Downtown Madison, Wisconsin Attractions
Tour the Wisconsin State Capitol Building
Wisconsin has one of the most beautiful state capitols in the country, so you shouldn’t miss a chance to visit it. I’m not just saying this because I am a Wisconsinite. It truly is a marvel that shouldn’t be missed.
It is possible to do a self-guided or guided tour of the interior, and you can just walk right into the building. Guided tours run on the hour, except for noon, from the visitor desk. This same spot offers information if you want to wander on your own.
Inside the building, you’ll find several floors of stunning marble and ornate décor. All representing the various things that make Wisconsin unique, as well as homage to the United States.
Dane County Farmer’s Market
Every Saturday morning from 6:15 am to 1:45 pm during the summer months you’ll find the capitol square buzzing as people visit the famed Dane County Farmer’s Market. You don’t want to miss this as it’s amazing, even if you aren’t shopping.
Local farmers and artisans bring fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, cheese, popcorn, honey and so much more to the market. Things are artfully displayed, and the entire market is attractive and entertaining.
Walk State Street & Capitol Square
Even when the market is not happening, you should take a stroll around capitol square, especially in the evening. There is often live music, street performers, and overall a very cool vibe to soak in.
State Street is one of the most popular streets in the city, offering a variety of shopping, restaurants, and museums to enjoy during your visit, too.
Explore Monona Terrace
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Monona Terrace offers some of the best views of the capitol building and vistas over Lake Monona. There is also a restaurant there to enjoy views over the lake.
We highly recommend you pay a visit to the terrace during sunset, as the golden light will illuminate the fountains and the capitol building. The view is dreamy as far as city views go.
Madison Ghost Tour
If you like to know the spooky and morbid stories of the places you visit, then we’d highly recommend you sign up for a ghost tour in Madison! We always take ghost tours when they are available in the places we visit.
Not only are they entertaining, but they offer some great insight into the history of a place. Madison has a very storied past, and the Madison Ghost Tour does a good job of tying it all together to help you better understand the city.
They offer a couple of different tours, and we took the King Street option. This tour explored one of the oldest streets in the capital offering the stories of the buildings and establishments that reside there. It also took us to the base of the capitol and to Monona Terrace to see the illuminated Capitol building.
Walk Around the University of Wisconsin Campus
With Madison being the capital of Wisconsin, naturally, they have a large university. The campus of the University of Wisconsin – Madison does not deviate from the theme of nature and good vibes, either. This is why we would suggest that you take a stroll around the campus to admire the grounds and buildings if you have a chance.
Madison Children’s Museum
If you’re visiting Madison with children and are looking for an interactive activity for them then be sure to put the Madison Children’s Museum on your itinerary.
The museum features exhibits on the arts, sciences, history, culture, health, and civic engagement all laid out in a way that allows learning through interaction.
In addition to the Children’s Museum, Downtown Madison has several other museums that are worth checking out while you’re in town:
- Chazen Museum of Art
- Wisconsin Historical Museum
- Wisconsin Veterans Museum
- Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
- Overture Center of the Arts
Other Fun Things to Do in Madison
National Mustard Museum
One thing we love about Wisconsin, and even the USA in general, is the kitschy museums. The National Mustard Museum is no exception to this.
It features more than 5,500 mustards on display and the opportunity to taste hundreds of them at the built-in tasting bar. And true to Madison, it’s free to visit.
University of Wisconsin Geology Museum
If rocks are your thing, we’d highly recommend a visit to the Geology Museum on the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus. The museum is free of charge and offers the opportunity to learn more about the geological makeup of Wisconsin.
Camp Randall Stadium
If you find yourself in Madison, Wisconsin during the University football season, then you’ll find few things to rival the excitement of the crowd at Camp Randall Stadium when the badgers are playing. Completed in 1917, it also happens to be the 4 th oldest stadium in the country.
Our Favorite Madison Eats
- Old Fashioned – an institution in Madison offering the ‘best cheese curds’ in Wisconsin!
- The Boathouse – lakeside dining with a casual menu. Be sure to try the warm pretzel bites and beer cheese.
- Ancora Café – Super cute café located on King Street that offers streetside dining with a view of the capitol building
- Tavernakaya – Sushi and ramen shop with a modern twist
- Harvey House – Upscale traditional Wisconsin Supper Club dining
- Marigold Kitchen – Another great breakfast spot with a unique menu. Try the chilaquiles!
- Fromagination – If you like cheese, this is where it’s at. We ordered a picnic box for our day outside the city and the food is delicious.
- Eno Vino – Located in the AC Marriott, this place has amazing views of the capitol building.
- Heritage – farm to table in a pub setting featuring pork. The schnitzel and devilled eggs were amazing.
- Miko Poke – offers Hawaiian-style sushi bowls. Super light and refreshing.
- Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier – offers amazing chocolate treats
- Capitol Brewing – locally made craft beer with a great atmosphere.
- Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream – the place to be if you’re craving ice cream!
Where to Stay in Madison
- The Edgewater – located right on the shores of Lake Mendota, this hotel is not only designated as a Historical Places in America building but offers amazing lake views. We stayed here our first 2 nights in the city and thoroughly enjoyed it.
- AC Marriott – This hotel is right off Capitol Square, so it offers some rooms with spectacular views over the Capitol building. If you want to be in the thick of the action and truly downtown, we’d recommend this hotel.
- Hilton Monona Terrace – also located in a historical building, this hotel is adjacent to Monona Terrace and offers some rooms with a view over Lake Monona. It’s located a couple of blocks off of capitol square.
This story was made possible in partnership with Destination Madison and their partners. However, our recommendations, experiences, opinions, and love for Wisconsin are 100% ours, as always.
15 Best Things to Do in Madison (WI)
The city of Madison is known for being the state capital of Wisconsin, and while this may have made it famous, there is a lot more to this city than meets the eye. This charming locale often tops indexes of the best places to live in the United States, and it has an all-American feeling to it which is also coupled with a strong dedication to the arts as well as a flourishing cultural scene.
The city is also modestly stylish, as this was the former home of celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and much of the city is designed in his signature style. As well as museums, art galleries, and concert halls, Madison is known for its biking trail and leafy parks, and if you want to get out on the water then you will find not one but three lakes to enjoy here. Even in the winter months, you can have some fun skiing, snowshoeing, or ice skating here.
Lets explore the best things to do in Madison:
1. Wisconsin State Capitol
Source: flickr Wisconsin State Capitol
As Madison is the state capital of Wisconsin, you can’t visit here and not see the State Capitol building in all its glory. The Wisconsin State Capitol is conveniently located near to Madison’s gorgeous lakeshore in the downtown area of the city, so you can also explore this area on foot at the same time. The building dates from 1917 and is topped with a majestic 284 foot dome which rivals Washington’s State Capitol. Inside the building itself are some beautiful decorative murals as well as marble from France, Italy, and Germany, and you can take a guided tour of the building to take in all the history for yourself.
2. Chazen Museum of Art
Source: flickr Chazen Museum of Art
If you are looking for a range of artwork across a variety of styles then look no further than the Chazen Museum of Art. Here you can expect to find painting, sculpture, drawings, print work, and even photography. As well as American artwork there is also a strong dedication to European art at the Chazen Museum, and there are also rotating exhibits that feature works from around the region and abroad. Guided tours with friendly docents are available so that you can learn more about the history of the art located here, and there is even a music program so make sure you check the local listings to see if you can catch a concert when you are in town.
3. Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Source: flickr Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Located on the scenic waterfront of Madison, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens are one of the most serene and colorful parts of the city. The gardens bloom all year round with seasonal plants, and were first opened in 1952. One of the signature features of the gardens are the roses that are grown here, as well as the Bolz Conservatory which is an indoor area that features a range of pretty indigenous foliage. Not just limited to flowers, there are also architectural features in the park such as the Sala which is a picturesque pavilion that was given to the gardens by the Thai government and is carved in the ornate Thai style to give you a taste of Asia in Madison.
4. Wisconsin Historical Museum
Source: commons.wikimedia Wisconsin Historical Museum
Located in the heart of Wisconsin in Capitol Square is the Wisconsin Historical Museum, which is the place to come if you want to learn all about the background of this great city. The museum will take you back in time over the years and fill you in on all the historical and cultural significance of Madison, and there are rotating exhibitions and galleries that do so, as well as a fixed educational section of the museum. Some of the exhibits here are quite quirky, and these include galleries dedicated to the creation of malted milk, said to be an invention of Wisconsin.
5. Monona Terrace
Source: flickr Monona Terrace
Monona Terrace was actually the brainchild of celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright, although he never saw it completed. The spectacular building was only built in 1997 using Wright’s designs and it is instantly recognizable thanks to its glass facade that was also a signature feature of Wright’s work. You can take a tour of the building or you can enjoy the rooftop terrace here that offers stunning views over the downtown area of Maison and also stretches to Lake Monona.
6. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Source: flickr The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
For anything arts related in Madison you need to head to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art or the Madison Art Center as it is also referred to. Not only does this space support and promote the arts in Madison, but the building itself is often cited as a work of art in its own right. The front of the building resembles the bow of ship and the museum spans three floors, all fronted with stunning glass. The outside is clearly spectacular, as well as being one of the most iconic parts of the city, but the inside is also equally important. Once you pass the front doors, you will find a vast exhibition area that has rotating galleries that feature both local and international works, and there are also art related events held regularly so make sure you check what’s on when you are in town.
7. Henry Vilas Zoo
Source: flickr Henry Vilas Zoo
The Henry Vilas Zoo opened in 1924 and spans 28 hectares in the city. The zoo has over a million visitors per year and you can expect to find a huge range of animals here, some of which are indigenous species and others that come from all over the world. These include bears, lions, and a variety of species of apes. As well as touring the zoo, you can also join an educational program here where youngsters can learn about protecting local flora and fauna, and there are also interactive displays and rides. To that end, there is even an old-fashioned carousel for younger visitors to enjoy.
8. The Madison Children’s Museum
Source: flickr The Madison Children’s Museum
If you are traveling in Madison with younger visitors, then a trip to the Madison Children’s Museum is well worth the effort. The museum has a wide range of exciting and engaging exhibits for young minds and there are different activity areas for guests of different ages from toddlers to pre-teens. Each section is dedicated to a different theme to teach youngsters about the world around them, such as biology, physics, and history, and this is a perfect place to come on a rainy day to keep young visitors entertained.
9. Lake Monona
Source: flickr Lake Monona
One of three powerhouse lakes in the Madison area, Lake Monona is fed by the majestic Yahara River and means ‘Beautiful’ in local Chippewa language. The lake is known for being frozen for much of the year, during which time it can be used for ice skating if conditions are conducive, and in the summer months the lake is a popular place for fishing due to the number of indigenous species of fish found here such as northern pike, walleye, and bass. Boating is also possible with a selection of boat ramps available around the lake.
10. University of Wisconsin Arboretum
Source: flickr University of Wisconsin Arboretum
The University of Wisconsin has a long and celebrated history and actually dates back 150 years. The campus spans over 1,000 acres of prime land and members of the public can visit parts of the university such as the Arboretum which has the claim to fame of housing some of the oldest ecological communities in the world which include prairies, forest, wetland, and even savannas. You will also find local flora here including the signature lilac collection for which the Arboretum is most famous. There is also a Visitor Center which has a wealth of information about the local ecology in Wisconsin.
11. Lake Kegonsa State Park
Source: goodfreephotos Lake Kegonsa State Park
Situated just to the southeast of Madison, Lake Kegonsa State Park lies on the shores of the gorgeous Lake Kegonsa. The park is filled with ecological gems such as forest lands, prairies, and stunning wetlands. Popular pastimes in the park include camping on the campground here in order to truly commune with nature, as well as spending time on the beach that is nestled against the northeast shore of Lake Kegonsa. There are over 8 kilometers of hiking trails here if you feeling active and fancy a walk, or if you want to take to the lake then you can go fishing, boating, swimming, or even water skiing here.
12. Wisconsin Veterans Museum
Source: flickr Wisconsin Veterans Museum
The Wisconsin Veterans Museum has won awards for its displays of the history of war and the people who fought in them, going back all the way to Civil War times up until the Gulf War. Here you will find exhibits dedicated to war themed memorabilia as well as interactive galleries and even items such as period military vehicles and war planes. There is an antique Sopwith Camel on site as well as a P-51 Mustang for visitors to learn all about, and this is definitely worth a visit if you want to learn about the sacrifice made by men and women in the military from the past until the present.
13. Aldo Leopold Nature Center
Source: flickr Aldo Leopold Nature Center
The Aldo Leopold Nature Center, or the ALNC, was first founded in 1994 and is dedicated to providing young visitors with interactive programs for families and youngsters alike in order to teach them about the local environment in Madison. The center is named after the celebrated and famous ecologist Aldo Leopold and it has education programs that you can join in order to see the local Madison flora and fauna at its best.
14. University of Wisconsin Geology Museum
Source: wuwm University of Wisconsin Geology Museum
If you choose to visit the Arboretum at the University of Wisconsin then you can also visit the adjoining Geology Museum at the same time, where you can learn all about minerals and fossils from the area. The museum is something of a hidden gem in the area, but if you do make it here then you can expect to find full dinosaur skeletons on display as well as real life meteorites, and sparkling gemstones from the area.
15. Dane County Farmer’s Market
Source: flickr Dane County Farmer’s Market
Dane County Farmer’s Market located in Madison is said to have the claim to fame of being the largest producer focused market in the United States. This accolade means that you can expect the produce here to have come straight from the growers or makers themselves and to that end you will find the freshest and most delicious bites in the region on offer. The market is held in the majestic Capitol Square and has over 200 stalls at one time, and you can expect to find diverse treats such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, and local products like cheese, honey, and baked goods. There are also live events held here such as musical concerts and street performances such as juggling to entertain the crowds.
Henry Vilas Zoo Camp of Madison is in an Amazing Place
The Traveling Cheesehead 11/9/2022 The Traveling Cheesehead
One of the best things in Madison Wisconsin that you can do with kids is the amazing FREE resource: the Henry Vilas Zoo. I know I am just topping 50 in age, but I have amazingly fond memories of this place ever since I was a wee child. Even Better? Henry Vilas Zoo Camp would be a dream way to spend a summer.
© Provided by The Traveling Cheesehead Henry Vilas Zoo Camp article cover image with a swimming polar bear
It has changed dramatically since I was a kid – where I remember standing atop a stairway to drop refrigerated sardines to the seals is now a grassy knoll and the round monkey house is another distant memory. The Zor Shriners used to store their camels there and offer rides (for a nominal fee) on weekends.
Henry Vilas Zoo of Madison
We have learned so much in the (*cough*) 45 or so years since those days – everything about the comfort and safety of the animals! The reasons behind pacing behavior, the fact that having kids feed animals might not be the best source of food sanitation, and how riding animals in a noisy setting might be stressful.
The Henry Vilas Zoo we know today is such an amazing place for the animals, and to actually watch them.
Henry Vials Zoo History
The City of Madison was blessed in 1904 as the result of personal tragedy. William and Anna Vilas donated a 63-acre tract of land for Vilas Park, with the stipulation that no admission be charged. It was named in memory of the couple’s son, Henry, who died at a young age five years earlier due to complications from diabetes.
© Provided by The Traveling Cheesehead Henry Vilas Zoo Giraffe
By 1911, 28 acres of that park were partitioned into an animal exhibit, marking the creation of the zoo. Three years later came the Madison Zoological and Aquarium Society…and in 1926 became the Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society, which continues today.
According to its mission statement:
The society’s purpose is to build community support and provide funding for improvements to the Henry Vilas Zoo. This includes the acquisition, conservation, and replacement of animals; refurbishing and creating new exhibits; supporting educational programs; and improving the overall educational and recreational value of the zoo. The Zoological Society contributes generously to the Zoo’s operating budget. The society has been instrumental in providing funding for many zoo improvements, generally in partnership with the county and city.
Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society
It has been doing just that, for over 100 years now. Recently it created The Arctic Passage, which included a major expansion that houses a new restaurant, and new enclosures for seals and the returning grizzly and polar bears. It opened on May 23, 2015.
That takes us to the Henry Vilas Zoo Animals
Let me do this for you by exhibit. Each exhibit is now an amazing environment – it has come such a long way from the seals swimming in a pool that could be in someone’s backyard. And yes, we made a FREE downloadable Henry Vilas Zoo Animal Scavenger Hunt for you!
(get it at the end of this post)
Discovery Center and Herpetarium
- Aldabra Tortoise
- Alligator Snapping Turtle
- American Alligator
- Common Leopard Gecko
- Desert Tortoise
- Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake
- Giant African Millipede
- Gila Monster
- Golfodulcean Poison Dart Frog
- Green Anaconda
- Green and Black Poison Dart Frog
- Lemur Leaf Frog
- Madagascar Hissing Cockroach
- Monarch Butterfly
- Ocellate River Stingray
- Ornate Box Turtle
- Red-Eye Leaf Frog
- Reticulated Glass Frog
- Seba’s Short-Tailed Bat
- Standing’s Day Gecko
- Strawberry Poison Dart Frog
- Yellow and Blue Poison Dart Frog
- Yellow-Banded Poison Dart Frog
Tropical Rainforest Aviary
- African Penguin
- Blue and Yellow McCaw
- Blue-Crowned Motmot
- Geoffroy’s Marmoset
- North American River Otter
- Ocellate River Stingray
- Orange-Rumped Agouti
- White-Faced Whistling Duck
- American Flamingo
- Chilean Flamingo
- Indian Crested Porcupine
- Red Panda
- Turkey Vulture
- White-Handed Gibbon
- annnnd the goats!
Savanna and High Plains
- Bactrian Camel
- Somali Wild Ass
- White Rhinoceros
- Reticulated Giraffe
The exhibit features underwater viewing of the polar bears and seals and a stream where the grizzly bears love to fish! Check out the interactive, educational experiences for visitors of all ages, including the retired Tundra Buggy research vehicle from the Arctic!
Henry Vilas Zoo Website
- Grizzly Bear
- Harbor Seal
- Polar Bear
- Black and White Ruffled Lemur
- Bornean Orangutan
- Golden Lion Tamarin
- Ring-Tailed Lemur
Big Cats Exhibit
- African Lion
- Amur Tiger
North American Prairie
- American Badger
- American Bison
- American Badger
- Sandhill Crane
That is not all for the Kid friendly excitement.
The Henry Vilas Zoo has a Children’s Zoo in it! is a wonderful place for kids of all ages! This is where you will find a lot of interactive things for the littles like the rides, playground, and goats!
© Provided by The Traveling Cheesehead Henry Vilas Zoo flamingos
Henry Vilas Zoo Train
How fun would it be to ride in a train, through a tunnel, and around the Children’s Zoo? The Electric Zoo Train will do just that and for a $2 token per rider.
Henry Vilas Zoo Carousel
Dubbed the “Conservation Carousel” it is housed inside the carousel building and just adjacent to the playground. Beautifully maintained and with a plethora of animals to choose from, again, it is just a $2 token per rider.
**note: both the train and carousel run from April through October. If you don’t want the tokens, you can get multi-ride punch cards! Keep in mind that the nominal fee helps support the zoo. That is FREE to visit.
The Adventure Play Area is totally free and a great place to get the wiggles out. Things to climb on, over, and under, as well as run around. It is beautifully done.
Then, there are the goats! The sustainably-designed Red Barn houses them and offers goat feed dispensers (you will need quarters) so you can feed them, if you wish.
Make sure you hit the GREEN barn that has other animals in the Children’s Zoo area – I LOVE the Red Pandas!
Lets Talk Henry Vilas Food
First of all, you can enjoy a FREE zoo and even bring in your own food. There are a ton of areas to spread out a blanket and enjoy a picnic. Keep in mind that drink lids and straws are not allowed on the property – this is for the safety of the animals and supports their conservation message. Plan your water bottles, sippy cups, etc accordingly, and leave the alcoholic beverages at home.
Even picnic tables abound the common areas, but they DO have a restaurant you can enjoy.
Henry Vilas Zoo Glacier Grille
Just like it sounds, it is in the Arctic area. The zoo’s Glacier Grille combines healthy, tasty food with a one-of-a-kind setting. Our Grille is the only indoor restaurant in the country to look out onto a polar bear exhibit!
How cool is that?
With the average entree price of just six bucks, and the incredible view – what is the reason to NOT try it out? Oh yeah, the profits go back into supporting the zoo!
Keep in mind that over the winter it is only open on weekends, that changes in April!
© Provided by The Traveling Cheesehead Henry Vilas Zoo Rive Otter Picture
Henry Vilas Zoo Fundraising Run
We talked about how the Henry Vilas Zoo is FREE and if there is anything to pay for (rides and food) that it goes back into supporting the zoo. One of the major fundraisers the zoo has each year is their run!
The zoo hosts an annual Zoo Ru with a 5K-10K run/walk. The race starts and finishes in the zoo, and uses portions of the adjacent University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum. It is one race/walk that has an incredible view!
Henry Vilas Zoo Events
The run is simply one of the many-many-many events that the zoo has.
- Birthday parties
- Breakfast with Santa
- Boo at the zoo
- Holiday lights – Christmas Lights
- Ice skating in winter
Henry Vilas Zoo Camp
This might be my favorite of all events that the zoo has – camp! I LOVE experiences that are not only fun but educational and how much more of a match made in heaven could camp + zoo be?
What is neat is that it isn’t only summer camp! They have camps offered in the Spring, Summer, and Winter! Yes, they have wild week-long day camps all summer long… but in addition to that? Single day camp on no-school days for what they call “Mini Camp”. Winter break brings full day camp and the same can be said for Spring Break.
Spending actual time with animals is the heart of the Zoo Camp experience! Each day, campers will have an opportunity to step into the role of the zookeepers: putting out food for an animal or helping to prep an animal enclosure for the day. At least once each day, campers get to see or touch an animal up close. They also focus on investigating the real life challenges zoo staff and vets face. Campers will have opportunities to build their teamwork skills as they complete our science challenges.
The Henry Vilas Zoo Camp is one to do over and over again as there is a new theme each day, with different animal encounters, and a new daily challenge and science investigations.
Better yet – they are age-appropriate by group!
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 608-283-1610 to learn more. But again, as a source of income for the zoo – you are helping support this amazing free resource with your Henry Vilas Zoo Camp enrollment.