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Things To Do In Madison, Wisconsin (In The Winter)

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

Wisconsin's capitol building in Madison

Snow in Wisconsin in the middle of winter is expected. But what this midwestern girl didn’t foresee when staying for the weekend in Madison, the state’s capitol, was the lake activity.

Let me set the scene for you. My husband and I are driving and notice a flat blanket of snow stretching on and on with a bunch of figures on it. My first thought is, “Wow, I can’t believe so much empty land hasn’t been turned into city.” Then I realize … It’s not land. I’m looking at the lakes that surround Madison. They’ve been frozen for so long already that they’re now a hub of daily activity.

People were ice fishing, kids were skating and even riding their bikes out in the middle and individuals were walking their dogs on it like they would a park. So, naturally, we zipped up our coats and went on a lake walk.

My husband did laugh at me because my initial thought — that also came out of my mouth — was: “Are there any rules?” While it does sound funny, I’m used to lakes that aren’t frozen and that definitely have rules, even if no one follows them.

Lake walking wasn’t the only thing we did in Madison in the below-freezing weather. Since we probably wouldn’t be coming back to this city, we visited the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, the free outdoor part.

Would it have been prettier in the spring or summer? Yes. But was it still beautiful covered in snow? Again, yes! It almost felt as if you’d traveled to a small magical world with wooden bridges, little statues, creeping vines, a Sala Thai and worn brick buildings and archways. If I lived in Madison, I could see this being the perfect spot to sit down with a book or go on a walk with a friend.

The Sala Thai at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Going Underground

Another outdoor (or is it indoor?) activity we planned was the Cave of Mounds. There’s something very comical about watching your 6-ft, 4-in. husband try to get shorter and skinnier as he shimmies through the narrow areas of a cave, especially when there are specific instructions not to touch ANYTHING. He did manage, but that’s just one of the reasons why this adventure is more for a family (or kids) than young adults.

Don’t get me wrong, the cave is cool and full of science. The whole self-guided tour, it felt like we’d been dropped into an alien movie, as every aspect of the cave looked so bizarre that you had to wonder if it was fake. There were also some truly beautiful spots like the Dream River.

However, it was too expensive for the experience we received. I think families, on the other hand, would have a lot more to do: the cave tour, fossil hunts, trails to hike and gemstone mining. Not to mention, kids' admission is cheaper than adults'.

Inside the Cave of Mounds in Madison Wisconsin

Where The Wild Things Are

A second family adventure to keep in mind is the Henry Vilas Zoo. I’ll be honest. When we pulled into one of the few parking spaces, I thought it looked like a playground. My husband and I laughed, knowing that — especially with it being winter — we’d probably be out of there in a few minutes. But I’m happy to say that our preconceived notions were wrong, and we were extremely surprised by this stop.

The zoo isn’t huge by any means; however, it IS a place where you can get up close and personal with the animals. And these aren’t just your typical farm animals either. In the first few seconds, we spotted a beautiful tiger. From there, we saw lions, a badger, camels, donkeys, otters, seals, flamingos, bison, bears and a porcupine.

Due to Covid-19, none of the indoor areas were open, and due to the temperature, many of the animals weren’t available to view, but there were still exhibits and fewer people to have to look around or wait on. I wouldn’t be surprised if this zoo is hopping in the warmer seasons, especially since it’s free.

The flamingos at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison Wisconsin

Milking It For All It’s Worth

As you may or may not know, Wisconsin is known for its dairy production, especially its cheese. So, naturally, we went to a few food places that carry local goodies.

The pizza ingredients at Lucille were locally sourced, and the restaurant had a variety of flavor combinations to choose from for dinner in addition to a more elegant hipster ambiance. We would eat there again.

Our appetizer at The Weary Traveler Freehouse was a cheese plate that also had a few different types of meats and crostini. We followed that with some burgers, but they didn’t quite live up to our expectations. On the other hand, the aesthetic of the pub was intriguing. Mismatched paintings, old instruments and books are scattered all over the walls. It’s definitely the place to bring someone on a date or chill with friends, as there are a variety of board games to take to your table and play.

Sweet Home Wisconsin took the trophy for the best lunch food. At first, you expect it to be fast food, simply because of what’s on the menu, but it serves some quality meals.

Let’s start with our appetizer: fried cheese curds. They were hands down the best fried cheese curds I have ever had! The cheese tasted real with a perfect texture. Plus, the fried coating allowed for that desired crunch and was also light enough that you didn’t feel like you’d taken a shot of grease. The BBQ bacon burger and buffalo chicken sandwich, our main meals, were also top-notch.

Saving the best for last, we drove about 30 minutes outside of Madison for some ice cream at Sassy Cow Creamery. You’ll be staring out the windows at snowy fields and caving in sheds when suddenly there’s an illuminated big red barn on the corner. The creamery truly is local — all of its milk products are from the owners’ farms. When Covid-19 isn’t romping about, visitors can go on a tour to see the milk’s bottling process and how they make the ice cream.

My two scoops were Cappuccino Crunch and Mint Chip, and my husband chose Cow Tracks and Cookies N’ Cream. All were scrumptious! The mint was real as well. (By and by you’ll understand that fake mint is a pet peeve of mine lol, and mint ice cream is my absolute favorite flavor!) There are also grocery store coolers in the back of the creamery where people can buy all types of milk and cheese. Final verdict: Visit the Sassy Cow Creamery! It’s delicious and different.

Did It Cut The Mustard?

I would say the answer to that question is, no. And what I’m talking about is the National Mustard Museum. It’s okay to laugh. Yes, it’s apparently THE mustard museum, and it’s free. But to be honest, it wouldn’t be worth it if it did cost anything … unless you’re truly obsessed with the condiment.

The museum is on the lower level of a building in Middleton, which is just outside of Madison. In one oversized room, you’ll learn about mustard seeds and the history of mustard. More notably, you can view a variety of porcelain mustard pots and about 6,000 bottles of mustard categorized by their state or country of origin.

Upstairs is where more of the action happens. The gift shop has a variety of mustards and other themed trinkets for people to purchase. I got my sister the museum’s most popular mustard, which has apparently been the top for five years now. You can also participate in a mustard tasting when there’s not a pandemic going on. In summary, I was more intrigued by the town of Middleton as we were leaving it than the museum, but if you have some time to kill or are looking for free activities, try it out.

Lastly, as you know, my goal is to visit all 51 capitals in the U.S. (Washington D.C. included), so I took my picture in front of Madison’s. In all honesty, it isn’t anything special, but I got to mark another capital off my list just the same, which made me extremely happy!

My opinion of the capital is a good reflection of my opinion about the city itself and its activities: If you’re passing through, stop by and enjoy some of these places, but don’t make Madison a priority on your travel list … unless, of course, you’re trying to visit every capital. Granted, we did go during the winter, but from what I saw, Wisconsans are just as active in deep snow.



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