Things to do in Madison in Winter

28 Things to Do in Madison Over Winter Break – 2016 Edition

Published on December 28th, 2016
By Jennifer Oppriecht

Photo credit: Jordan Richmond

Good-bye students. Hello winter ghost town. Madison clears out quite a bit during winter break, leaving apartment renters (especially students) left behind, wondering what to do in Madison. Our suggestions for things to do in Madison include new 2016 / 2017 updates from last year’s list!

NEW ADDITIONS For 2016 / 2017:


1. Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Stroll 16 acres of outdoor gardens featuring stunning landscapes and Midwest-hardy plants. Visit the tropics in the Bolz Conservatory, filled with exotic plants, flowers, orchids, birds, and a waterfall. Outdoor Gardens are free and open daily. Olbrich’s Holiday Express: Flower and Model Train Show is always a big draw.

Olbrich Holiday Express

Photo courtesy of Olbrich Botanical Gardens


2. Monona Terrace

The Monona Terrace is Madison’s convention center and banquet hall. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, it offers breathtaking views of Lake Monona. Check out the December community program and events calendar.

Monona Terrace

Photo courtesy of Monona Terrace


3. Wisconsin Veterans Museum

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is dedicated to the citizen-soldiers of our state. Employing ongoing and temporary exhibits, displays, and presentations, the museum’s main galleries tell the story of Wisconsin men and women who served in America’s conflicts from the Civil War to the present.

Check out their special temporary exhibit The Art of Persuasion: Mobilizing the Masses in WWI which runs through March 2017.

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Veterans Museum


4. University of Wisconsin-Madison Geology Museum

Many people don’t know about the Geology Museum on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. From kindergarten classes through adult civic groups, tours are tailored to deliver age-appropriate content.

Tours are one hour long and feature hundreds of rock and mineral specimens, a black light display and skeletons from dinosaurs and Ice Age animals. Admission to the museum is free, but guided tours have a $2 per person fee (minimum fee of $16).


5. Madison Children’s Museum

One of Madison’s jewels, the Madison Children’s Museum is a beloved local play space and learning playground for kids and families. And as we noted in this Local Business Profile, the secret is out—it’s as much fun for grownups as it is for kids! Their Adult Swim event series honors the venerable public pool tradition of kicking the kids out every so often to give the grownups their turn.


OLD Favorites (with New Updates):


6. Wisconsin Historical Museum

The museum celebrates the history and shared experiences of the many cultures that shaped our state.  Check out their “Cure Cabin Fever” lecture series in January.

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Museum

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Museum


7. Chazen Museum of Art 

You walk past it every day, but have you ever taken a look inside the Chazen.  Or, if the weather outside is frightful, pour yourself a cup of cocoa and explore the entirety of their work online. Featured exhibit is FACADES: photographs by Markus Brunetti.

Photo courtesy of Markus Brunetti

Photo courtesy of Markus Brunetti


8. Madison Museum of Contemporary Art 

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art provides free exhibitions and education programs for city residents and visitors. This year’s Wisconsin Triennial captures the richness and variety of artistic expression across the state, and showcases significant themes being addressed within the contemporary art world. Visitors may see new work by artists included in previous Triennials, as well as discover emerging artists. Runs through January 8, 2017.

Photo courtesy of MMoCA

Photo courtesy of MMoCA


9. Hop Head Beer Tours

Offering brewery, distillery and winery bus and bike tours. Hop Head Beer Tours promises you will have a fun, safe and educational experience – and notes the tours are NOT a party bus or pub crawl. Check their website for tour dates.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 2.16.30 PM


10. Ice Skating (and more) at The Edgewater

Madison’s landmark hotel and resort features fantastic views, restaurants, lounges, spa and, you guessed it, ice skating! Check their website for special holiday packages.

11. Wisconsin State Capitol

Sure, you see it all the time, but have you actually been on a tour?  Great nuggets of Capitol trivia await:  did you know that over 40 different types of stone from around the world were used in the construction?  Plenty more where that came from, baby.  The tours also include insight on the Capitol murals, with fascinating stories behind each of the paintings, and much, much more.  Best of all – it’s FREE.

Interior of the Wisconsin State Capitol Building

12. Help Madison’s Less Fortunate  

Have some spare time?  The local food pantries and homeless shelters are always looking for help.  Take a look at River Food Pantry and Porchlight.

Food Pantry for the hungry in Madison

Photo courtesy of

13. Sledding in Madison 

Providing there is snow, it’s a great time to take a ride down Elizabeth Waters hill on Observatory Drive.  For true adventure, trek out to Elver Park and ride the mammoth hill where Bo Ryan runs his troops into the ground.  The City of Madison’s website provides info on nine sledding hills.


14. Old Sugar Distillery 

Located on East Main Street, the Old Sugar Distillery has informal tours and will provide you with everything you need to know about their homemade products, including Honey Liqueur, Cane and Abe Rum and more.

Old Sugar Distillery

Photo courtesy of

15. Henry Vilas Zoo

Visit Henry Vilas Zoo for a glimpse at the real thing – a Bengal tiger.  You’ll also see African lions, tortoises from the Galapagos Islands, our favorite, the capybara, and our buddies the lemurs (pictured below).

Henry Vilas Zoo lemurs

Photo courtesy of

16. Ice Skating in Madison Parks

Ice skate rentals and concessions are available at Elver, Tenney and Vilas Park.  You’ll also find group ice skating lessons!

Ice Skating in Madison

Photo courtesy of

17. Microbrews (and Macro-Brews)

Madison is home to some great microbrews, including the refurbished Ale Asylum, the Vintage Brewing Company, the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company and Granite City out by West Towne Mall.  We also have the Capital Brewery in Middleton with brewery tours. Recent additions include the Next Door Brewing Company  and One Barrel Brewing Company.


18. The Ice Age Trail 

The Ice Age Trail is one of only eleven National Scenic Trails in the United States.   It just so happens that it meanders through Dane County.

Ice Age Trail

Photo courtesy of

19. Walking Tours

You can plan a tour of one of Madison’s historic districts by visiting the City of Madison’s Planning Division website. You’ll find fourteen pre-planned, self-guide tour maps complete with anecdotal history.

Lake Monona with the State Capitol in the background

20. The Local Band Scene 

If you’ve been too immersed in schoolwork to get a taste of live music scene, you’re seriously missing out.  You’ll find band performance listed on The Isthmus and this Yelp Listing shows all the local Madison live music locales.

High Noon Saloon in Madison

Photo courtesy of

21. Snowshoeing or Cross Country Skiing 

Once again, if snow allows, you should take a look at snowshoeing.  The DNR provides a complete list of Wisconsin snowshoe trails. The City of Madison has a fantastic cross-country skiing page, and you can reach out to the Ski Trail Hotline for trail conditions at 608-242-4576.

Cross country skiing

Photo courtesy of

22. Memorial Union Classes 

The Memorial Union offers classes on snow skiing, speed reading, and other interests, including  Wheelhouse Studios.

Art Class at Wheelhouse Studios

Photo courtesy of

23. Devil’s Lake State Park

A spring and summertime favorite, Devil’s Lake State Park also features sledding, hiking and snowshoeing.  Added bonus: Snowshoes are available for FREE in January.

24. Snowboarding and Downhill Skiing

We’re not sure how we missed this in last year’s listing, but Tyrol Basin and Devil’s Head are both great places for snowboarding and downhill skiing.  You may also want to check into the UW Hoofers Ski and Snowboard club.

Tyrol Basin hill

Photo courtesy of

25. Freeze for Food (in March) 

Madison allows its inmates to express their insanity and help charitable organizations in the process. Freeze for Food is a 5K/10K run/walk at Vilas park, and it’s scheduled for Saturday, March 4, 2017.

Freeze for Food 5k

Photo courtesy of

26. The UW Arboretum 

The UW Arboretum offers natural beauty year-round.  There are also numerous walks, lectures, and volunteer opportunities during the winter. Includes ski and snowshoe trails too!

UW Arboretum in Wintertime

Photo courtesy of Jeff Miller

27. Snow Tubing 

Ride down a snowy 1,000 foot chute at Cascade Mountain – all in a tube!  Great activity if you’re not a skier or snowboarder.

28. Clean House or Read a Book

You’ve got some time on your hands, so why not take the time to clean out your apartment or catch up on your reading.  De-clutter, get rid of the junk and try and re-organize and/or redecorate and expand your mind.  The new look will feel better and make you more productive.

Tidying up the apartment kitchen


We’ve likely just scratched the surface, and we’re sure you’ve got a few ideas to offer. Add a comment below and let us know what we’ve missed. Then enjoy the time off while you can.

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