Summer freebies – Isthmus | Madison, Wisconsin

Madison doesn’t tend to stand on ceremony. Generally, event organizers would rather have you come and participate than want you to feel like you had to dress up to show up. Accessibility extends to cost, as well. Mad Town has so many free events in summer, it’s possible to fill every day with something fun without spending a dime. Each year we try to unearth a few gems you may not already know about.

Bend and stretch

Membership in a yoga studio can get expensive. But you can practice your asanas for the low, low cost of zero dollars if you look around. Madison Outdoor Yoga is a nonprofit that holds outdoor yoga sessions, free, in parks in Madison and the surrounding area. Check for locations; sessions are listed about a week in advance.

A beautiful spot for outdoor yoga would be overlooking Lake Monona — and the Rooftop Yoga program at Monona Terrace makes that possible. Summer sessions are Mondays, June 17, July 22 and Aug. 19, from 5-6 p.m. (inside if the weather is bad). The all-levels class is free but advance registration through Eventbrite is recommended. 

Another downtown roof with yoga is at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Yoga in the Sculpture Garden will be held June 22 at 11 a.m.; advance registration is required. See the museum’s website for details. Perennial Yoga also offers a free yoga class — indoors at its east-side location at Garver Feed Mill — every Friday at 5:15 p.m. The classes are taught by recent graduates of its teacher training classes.

Reach for the stars

The UW-Madison’s Washburn Observatory is open at select times for public viewing year round (which has been true since 1881!), but its hours expand for the summer. Every Wednesday night from 9-11 p.m. during June, July and August, students in the astronomy department will help you see more of the universe through the observatory’s telescope, a 20-foot-long tube with a 15.6-inch lens — obsolete for research purposes but great for amateurs. That’s if the skies are clear; check the website or the observatory’s X feed @Washburn_Obs for status. The telescope is not accessible; a flight of stairs must be climbed.

American bandstand

It’s not hard to find bands playing free in parks during the summer. Warner, Olin, Fitchburg’s McKee Farms, Maple Bluff Beach and more all have concert series. But the Capitol City Band’s residency at Rennebohm Park is special. Unlike the other parks, which feature a different band every week for about a month, the Capitol City Band owns Rennebohm Park for almost the entire summer — with a special opening concert at the end of June and eight more concerts throughout July and August. The irrepressible James Latimer conducts the band in jazz standards, classic band arrangements, music from film scores, and Duke Ellington-esque swing. This year the season kicks off June 27 at 7 p.m. with the band’s traditional salute to the troops. A special July 4th concert starts at 6:30 p.m. From July 11-Aug. 22, the Thursday concerts again start at 7 p.m. Bring your own camp chair.

Mansion on Mendota

Tours of the Executive Residence (better known as the Governor’s Mansion) halted during COVID but are now back for the second summer. Free tours take place Thursdays only from 1-3 p.m., and only through Sept. 12. You must pre-register through and there are some security hoops to jump through. The tour goes through the public part of the residence only, so you won’t get to see where Tony Evers’ head hits the pillow at night. But the public rooms are beautiful and feature an interesting collection of historic and contemporary Wisconsin art. The gardens, on Lake Mendota with a view of the isthmus skyline, are a delight. Bonus: the tour concludes with lemonade and cookies on the patio, so you win even if you hate old houses.


Have you wanted to try playing disc golf but you don’t have the right kind of Frisbee? Maybe yours is the $1 PetSmart kind with a lot of toof marks? Madison Public Library branches offer disc golf kits for one-week checkout. The kit contains all the discs you (probably) need: a driver, a fairway driver, a mid-range, and a putter. With your loaner discs and your checkout receipt as a permit, you can play the Madison or Dane County disc golf courses at Hiestand, Elver, Capital Springs, and even the premier 27-hole Vallarta-Ast course at Token Creek County Park — without the required daily or annual pass. The kits (one per library) are first-come, first-served (no holds) so call your branch library to see if one’s available before making a special trip. 

If you want to practice with your own disc before committing to buying a permit, there are free disc golf baskets at Heritage Heights, High Point and Rennebohm parks (each with one); Lake Edge and Wexford parks (each with three) and Westhaven Trails (it has four — heck, play each basket four times and it’s practically a whole course).

In full swing 

Madison Parks has been improving its playground equipment, from pocket parks to the new accessible playgrounds at Brittingham, Elver, Rennebohm and Warner parks. These feature ramp-connected play structures, zero-entry spinners, swings with adaptive seats, and panels that highlight sign language and Braille and interactive games creating scavenger-like hunts throughout the playground (“find the spinners”). Absorbent rubber surfacing makes for soft landings but enables wheelchair access. 

Many park playgrounds offer a unique attraction. Klief, Penn and Olbrich parks have Gaga Ball pits (it’s a kind of dodgeball); Marlborough, Orlando Bell and Yahara Place parks have horseshoe courts; and you’ll find a wavy wooden bike skills track at Sandburg Park.

Follow the path

Madison has a number of outdoor labyrinths open to the public. The point is to follow the circuitous path to the center while pondering a problem or quietly meditating. And don’t worry, they’re flat to the ground; you don’t have to worry about getting lost, like in a corn maze. Sites of area labyrinths include Carpenter-Ridgeway Park and New Life Church at 7564 Cottage Grove Road. 

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