The Perfect Weekend in Madison, Wisconsin (3 Day Itinerary)
May 31, 2023
If you’re planning a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, you’re in the right place! Madison, Wisconsin’s capital city, is full of outdoor adventures, fantastic breweries and beautiful lakes. The college town is surrounded by water, so you’re never far from a beautiful view. Madison has a fantastic food scene, great outdoor activities and a welcoming atmosphere that make you want to return again and again.
This itinerary includes a mix of outdoor activities and great food in Madison and my top recommendations if you only have 3 days to explore. If you have extra time or want to switch some activities out, I list some additional things to do and see at the bottom.
This blog is based on my experience visiting Madison in May 2023.
Full disclaimer – Some activities were hosted by Destination Madison. As always, my opinions are unbiased and my own. I want to thank the Madison tourism board for their generosity!
How to Spend 3 Days in Madison, Wisconsin
Spend the day exploring downtown Madison.
Breakfast at Crema Cafe
Start your morning with coffee and brunch at Crema! This buzzy cafe serves a variety of breakfast meals along with pastries, lunch items and more. I really enjoyed a classic breakfast (scrambled eggs and toast) with their delicious sweet potato hash.
Take a Walk in Tenney Park
Next, head over to Tenney Park for a walk. This gem is located on the shores of Lake Mendota and includes a beach area along with paved trails. The Tenney Park Lagoon runs through the park and there are picturesque bridges that cross over the water at multiple points.
As you walk around the lagoon, keep an eye out for turtles and fish. This is a popular fishing spot for locals as well.
There is also a lock and dam here. If you’re lucky, you’ll see boats transiting between the lake and Yahara River.
I loved the Tenney Park historic paintings, showing the park as it was in the early 20th century. The park was designated a City of Madison Landmark in 1995 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Olbrich Botanical Gardens is easily one of the best things to do in Madison! The outdoor grounds at Olbrich include a woodland garden, a perennial garden, a prairie dropseed meadow, a sunken garden and much more.
The Woodland Garden was especially notable for me because I saw countless turtles here, PLUS a muskrat swimming around! It was neat to see so much wildlife inside a botanical garden.
While you could spend hours seeing every bit of the gardens, the one thing you shouldn’t miss is the Thai Pavilion. This structure was a gift from Thailand and it’s the only one like it in the continental United States. The Pavilion is gold and full of ornate details. It will soon undergo a renovation to keep it in good shape for many years to come.
The outdoor portion of the botanical gardens is free for all. But there is also an indoor portion, the Bolz Conservatory, that requires a small fee. The indoor area features more than 650 types of plants inside of a glass pyramid.
Most notably, there are quails, canaries and waxbills that live in the conservatory. There were baby quails all over the conservatory during my visit! I also loved that the conservatory has two levels for you to see the gardens at different points of view.
Lunch at Banzo
After a morning of exploring, head to Banzo for lunch! This food-truck-turned-restaurant serves traditional Mediterranean food in a colorful setting. When ordering, you get to pick your own adventure by deciding what you want (a sandwich, platter, hummus plate or salad) and which protein you’d like (traditional falafel, sweet potato falafel, chicken, beef and more).
I went with a classic Banzo Platter which included falafel, salad, pita, hummus and rice. It was full of flavor and very filling - definitely the best Mediterranean food I’ve had in quite some time! I also had a side of fried cauliflower with tahini and it was perfectly fried with great taste.
Banzo has great options for vegetarians and anyone who likes Mediterranean food, and is one of the best places to eat lunch in Madison.
Visit the State Capitol Building
The Wisconsin State Capitol Building is impressive whether or not you’re into architecture and history. The building is free to enter and features a large granite dome with painted murals on the inside. It’s worth walking around and admiring all of the details. There are also artifacts inside, such as a replica of the Liberty Bell.
Make sure to take the Northwest Staircase up to the free museum and observation deck. The museum covers the history of the building, a bit of Wisconsin history and more. From the museum, you can walk up a narrow spiral staircase and walk outside on an observation deck for fantastic views of the city.
Fun Fact: No other buildings in Madison are allowed to be built taller than the columns that surround the dome (187 feet tall). This means you’ll get unobstructed views from the observation area!
There are also free guided tours offered of the building if your schedule allows! The tours will take you into the chambers and areas that you can’t see on your own.
Celebrate Wisconsin Cheese at Fromagination
If you like cheese, head across the street from the capitol building to Fromagination, an artisan cheese shop featuring a fantastic variety of Wisconsin-made products. The shop sells all sorts of cheese varieties along with everything you need for the perfect charcuterie board, such as jams and crostini and wine.
The staff is very knowledgeable and can recommend pairings and provide samples. I recommend getting a few cheeses to build your own charcuterie board at home.
Dinner at Vintage Brewing
End your day at one of Madison’s iconic breweries - Vintage Brewing Company. They have some great experimental beers and a handcrafted food menu.
I enjoyed a flight of beer trying their various sours. I especially loved the Diamond Halo Sour, but was surprised to find myself even liking ‘Late to the Party,’ a Coconut Cheesecake Tart flavored beer.
You can’t go wrong with their cheese curds appetizer, a staple on any Wisconsin menu. I also loved the spinach pesto panini for my meal.
Tip: Sign up for Madison On Tap for exclusive discounts at craft breweries! Not only can you get a discount at every bar, but you earn prizes for checking into a certain number of places. You get a sticker for visiting 3!
Take a day trip to Cave of the Mounds and return to Madison for dinner.
Breakfast a Lakeside Coffee
Enjoy breakfast with lakeside views at Lakeside Coffee, located right on Lake Monona. This coffee shop features vintage and eclectic decor inspired by the lake, such as giant canoes, and has large windows that face out to the lake.
They also have great breakfast sandwiches. I enjoyed the veggie pesto sandwich on a french roll.
Along with food and coffee, you’ll also find local art for sale. This is a great gem to visit during your weekend in Madison.
Cave of the Mounds
Cave of the Mounds is a unique place located about 30 minutes outside of Madison. The cave was discovered in 1939 during a routine blast for the nearby limestone quarry.
Luckily, the men who discovered the cave protected its natural beauty and made a plan to make the cave accessible to visitors. Today, the cave is a National Natural Landmark and tours are offered year round to see it for yourself.
Depending on the day, you may be able to take a self-guided or guided tour. I went on a guided tour and was really impressed. Highlights include the section known as the Narrows where you’ll walk through a narrow hallway, seeing the rocks glow in blacklight and admiring reflecting pools of water where microorganisms live in extreme conditions.
This is a beautiful and unique place that deserves a spot on your Madison itinerary.
Lunch in Mt Horeb
If you visit Cave of the Mounds, you must also make a stop in Mt Horeb. This unique village is known as the “Troll Capital of the World” (and is officially recognized as such). As you drive or walk around, you’ll notice 15+ troll statues in front of various businesses.
Make sure to stop at Open House Imports, a Scandinavian gift shop featuring items from Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Norway. The shop has everything from chocolate to clogs to home decor to books.
Next, head to the Grumpy Troll Brew Pub for lunch. Grumpy Troll is an independent craft brewery that serves a menu with pizza, salads, burgers and more. It’s a fun and popular place to eat and drink.
Hike in Governor Nelson State Park
Spend the afternoon in one of the many local state parks local to Madison. Governor Nelson features 8.6 miles of trails, a beach area, a boat launch, a playground and more.
One special thing about this park is that you can stand on the shore and look directly across Lake Mendota to see downtown Madison in the distance! You’ll see the capitol dome towering in the center of the city.
I recommend the Woodland Trail for a relatively easy walk among large trees. There were wildflowers during my visit and lots of greenery. The trail is 1.5 miles and includes slight elevation with a few benches to stop and relax along the way.
After a hike, hang out on the beach and take in the views.
Dinner and Drinks in Madison
Head to the Marquette neighborhood on the East Side of Madison for some great places for dinner and drinks. There are a few great places here, so I’m recommending multiple places depending on your interests.
If you’re looking for elevated cocktails, unique small plates and colorful, trendy decor, then you must visit Mint Mark! The restaurant has an airy atmosphere full of bright greenery. While the decor is beautiful, the food and drinks are what really set this place apart. I absolutely loved the cocktails I tried, especially the seasonal Sangrito featuring ginger.
I was also pretty blown away by the “chicken” and waffles. The chicken was made from a lion’s mane mushroom and it was topped with a mushroom gravy.
The menu is always changing so you’ll always find something new and unique. It’s best to have a reservation, but they also take walk-ins for bar seating.
Just a few doors down from Mint Mark, you can visit One Barrel Brewing. This brewery has been creating small batch brews since 2012 and still experiments with brews one barrel at a time. In addition to beer, they serve bar snacks such as chicken wings. They also have some board games to borrow and a large open-air window for you to watch the going-ons outside.
Finally, a short walk from One Barrel Brewing, Monty’s Blue Plate is another gem that is perfect for dinner. It’s a casual diner located inside of a former gas station. It has a retro-feeling themed after the 1950’s that is sure to bring you nostalgia. I especially loved the detail of kitchen appliances with neon lights spilling out of them!
Monty’s Blue Plate has a large menu full of classic diner dishes such as breakfast plates, grilled cheese, burgers and more. They also have a delicious pie selection. Their offerings also include several vegan options such as a tofu scramble, a sandwich featuring tempeh and portobello mushroom, veggie bacon and more. Everyone is sure to find something to love at this fun and casual spot.
Take a day trip north to experience the best hiking near Madison.
Take a Day Trip to Devil’s Lake State Park
If you love hiking, you’d be remiss not to visit Devil’s Lake State Park during your time in Madison. The park is located about an hour north of Madison and has a large lake surrounded by rocky trails.
You can hike all the way around the lake or choose one side and do an out and back. I embarked from the North Shore and hiked along the East Bluff trail to see the Devil’s Doorway and Balanced Rock. Along the way, there were countless places to walk out on large boulders and take in views of the lake.
Devil’s Doorway is the most unique part of the park. Towering rocks are stacked atop each other and stand up straight with a gap in the middle. The formation resembles a giant door. With views of the lake in the background, this is a really beautiful place to see for yourself.
You’ll want to make sure to see Balanced Rock. To reach balanced rock from the North side, you’ll have to hike down a rocky area that includes some scrambling. You’ll soon reach a large boulder that seems to be carefully balanced on a pedestal. From balanced rock, you can continue on a loop trail around the lake if you would like.
In addition to the trails around the lake, Devil’s Lake State Park has beach areas on both the North and South sides. They also offer kayak, canoe and paddle board rentals in the summer. Plus, there are snack shacks on both shores that serve burgers, cheese curds and several other food options.
Devil’s Lake is an incredible park to visit whether you spend a half day driving up from Madison, or if you camp and stay a couple days!
More Things To Do in Madison
Consider adding these things to your Madison itinerary if you have more time!
- If you’re there on a Saturday morning, visit the Dane County Farmers Market! There are endless vendors selling produce, delicious breads and more.
- Hike in Lake Kegonsa State Park
- Have breakfast at McFarland House Cafe
- Rent bikes and ride around Lake Monona. Stop at Monona Bait & Ice Cream Shop along the way.
- Try pelmeni from Paul's Pel'meni
- Eat dinner at Buck & Honey’s
- Visit the Geology Museum or the Chazen Museum of Art
When to Visit Madison
This itinerary focuses on outdoor adventure, so I recommend avoiding the cold winters of Wisconsin and visiting in the Spring, Summer or Fall.
For the best weather, visit from May to October. The summer months will provide the best opportunity for water activities such as kayaking on Devils Lake, while the spring and fall offer slightly cooler temperatures and a chance of less crowds out and about.
How to Get To Madison
If you’re flying to Madison, the Dane County Regional Airport offers nonstop flights from 15 US cities. This is your best option for convenience. You could also look at flying into Milwaukee, located 1.5 hours from Madison.
Either way, it’s best to rent a car to get around Madison, especially if you plan to leave the city and explore Cave of the Mounds and Devil’s Lake. If you’re staying close to downtown, rideshare such as Uber will be available.
If you’re driving to Madison, it’s located 2.5 hours from Chicago, 1.5 hours from Milwaukee and 4.5 hours from Minneapolis.
Where To Stay in Madison
For a nice hotel with lakefront views and a convenient downtown location, stay at the Edgewater Hotel. They have an indoor pool, a hot tub, rooms with lake views and onsite dining.
If you’re looking for a more affordable stay, your best option is to stay outside of downtown. One hotel with great value is the Baymont Inn & Suites by Wyndham Madison, located about 15 minutes from the city.
For a more unique lodging experience, check out Hotel Ruby Marie, a bed & breakfast located downtown. It is locally owned and features rooms with Victorian charm.
Madison is a vibrant city that should be on your midwest bucket list! Whether you’re a foodie, a craft beer lover or someone who loves hiking and exploring the outdoors, Madison has something for everybody. It makes for the perfect weekend getaway or a wonderful stop on a midwest road trip.
For more Midwest travel guides, check these out:
- The Perfect Michigan U.P. Itinerary
- A Guide to Exploring Hocking Hills
- Top 10 things To Do in Cincinnati
- 100+ Date Ideas in Cincinnati, Ohio
- The Best Things To Do in Cuyahoga Valley
- 3 Day South Dakota Road Trip
- The Best Things To Do in St Cloud, MN
- The Best MN North Shore Hiking Trails
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