Lake Mendota (Flickr: click-see)
List Words : Katherine Price | 24 July

10 things to do for free in Madison

The super-friendly Wisconsin capital is well geared towards cheap living and entertainment. Katherine Price reveals how to see the city without breaking the bank

1. Take a hike...

Picnic Point is a peninsula jutting out into Lake Mendota and is completely undeveloped except for trails and a beach. Fantastic for a hike, a bike ride or a picnic (hence the name), from here you can see across the lake and enjoy the skyline of the city. If you go early or late enough in the day, you should be able to grab a table along the secluded trail for a picnic next to the lake.

It's also a great location for birdwatching across the Bay, in the woods and fields. Over 246 species of bird have been spotted at the nature preserve, including more than 30 species of warblers, five species of thrushes, bald eagles and ospreys.

2. ...Or go for a run

For those who like a good scenic run, there's the University of Madison-Wisconsin Arboretum, which makes for a scenic and thrilling route. With 1,260 acres to roam, it's hard to become bored with so many heart-thumping possibilities.

The area contains some of the oldest and most varied ecological habitats in the world, including tallgrass prairies, wetlands, savannah and several types of forest. The routes keep you on your toes and are a challenge to manoeuvre, but combined with beautiful views they provide a glimpse into the land once covering southern Wisconsin.

3. Listen in at the Union

The Memorial Union banks onto Lake Mendota, and the terrace area is an ideal location for enjoying the view during the day. In the evening, however, the terrace becomes a thriving entertainment venue. Live music (popular, local and student talent) and film showings both feature in the event calendar all year round and are all free to the public (paid for by student fees).

The Union itself is a stunning building, the main wing of which was designed by Arthur Peabody, an architect specialising in universities. 'Der Rathskeller', designed in a German beer hall style, is certainly worth a look-in if nothing else.

4. Enjoy the natural beauty of the city

There are several parks and gardens easily reached within the city, including Olbrich Gardens, the Allen Centennial Gardens and Tenney Park; all of which offer free entry. Tenney Park has shores on both Lake Mendota and the Yahara River and is an ideal place for enjoying views over the lake, a spot of fishing, or simply watching near-by boats being launched.

The Allen Centennial Gardens are a paradise for anyone interested in horticulture, botany and landscapes. Chalk boards are placed around the gardens to highlight plants and areas of focus.

The Outdoor Gardens of Olbrich also charge no admission fee. Look out for the Thai pavilion – the only one in the continental US and the only one outside of Thailand surrounded by a garden – as well as the Perennial and Herb Gardens.

5. Taste Madison

The Tastes of Madison festival takes place over the first weekend in September every year around Capitol Square, and showcases the food from Madison's local restaurants. In case you thought that didn't sound exciting, Madison has one of the highest number of restaurants per capita in the whole of the US.

Free samples are abundant – a great place for a food lover on a budget – and three stages are placed around Capitol Square featuring free live music. The festival involves around 20 beverage stands and 80 local restaurants, giving you plenty of samples to choose from, whether you're looking for traditional American cuisine or something more exotic.

6. Visit the State Capitol

The current Capitol building is in fact the fifth constructed, due to the destruction of previous buildings, and has been standing since 1917. It serves as an awe-inspiring piece of architecture, and a point of information for the state (having gained state status in 1848) and the history of the building (and its predecessors) itself.

The building is the tallest in Madison, stretching over 200 feet high, and its observation deck is open during the summer for viewing the city from above. It is a beautiful Capitol, decorated with murals and styled to reflect its diverse ethnic heritage: built with 43 varieties of stone, hand-carved wooden furniture, glass mosaics, marble, and offers the only granite dome in the US.

7. See the fireworks

If you're in Wisconsin at the right time, Madison's 4th of July firework display is the biggest in the Midwest, held on the Saturday prior to the 4th. The 'Rhythm and Booms' display draws 300,000 spectators from across the country, who crowd into the city parks. Many bring portable radios with them, as one of the local radio stations plays music in time to the display (hence the name).

A carnival is set up in the park, as are musical stages, a Madison mallards baseball game is played, and there is a fly-over by a Wisconsin Air National Guard F-16 jet fighter and a Wisconsin Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter landing every year.

Blankets 'reserving' spaces are strictly not allowed to be placed until dawn that day – it's that popular.

8. Explore State Street

State Street is often littered with street performers and its restaurants, bars and unique shops have a small town style, expressing the various cultures that mingle within the city. It's a place to wander and see what Madison has to offer without necessarily having to part with any money, or even to observe the locals or the farmers' market, which takes place every Saturday.

It's also a location of celebration. Halloween on State Street is infamous for its carnival atmosphere – often so full moving becomes a difficulty – and the costumes are a sight to behold. However, there's an entry fee to the street itself during the Halloween celebrations.

9. Taste the mustard

The National Mustard Museum of Wisconsin might not be to everyone's tastes, but it's certainly not something to skip on a visit to the city. The museum houses more than 5,400 mustards from all 50 states and more than 70 countries. It has the world's largest collection of mustards and mustard memorabilia (including advertisements and vintage mustard pots). It's open from 10am-5pm, seven days a week and tours are free of charge.

The museum also celebrates National Mustard Day on the first Saturday of August every year, holding a festival with live music, free hot dogs and free mustard tastings.

10. Marvel at the city's architecture

Monona Terrace overlooks the lake it's named after. Although tours around the inside of the building charge a small fee, the building itself is worth admiring. It was designed by Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright and proposed in 1938.

However, the plan did not pass referendum until 1992 and construction did not begin for another two years. The building was eventually finished in 1997, nearly 60 years after Wright's original conception. Nearly 390,000 people visit the centre and around 600 conventions are held there each year.

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