Twinkling lights, trimmed trees and a whole lot of hot cocoa: When the holiday season rolls around, Wisconsin’s largest cities start to buzz with the sights and sounds of celebration. Each year, families from across the state turn out to enjoy their favorite holiday traditions, from horse-drawn carriage rides to visits with Santa, and this season they’re back and better than ever.
Strap on your skates, grab your mittens and prepare to get holly jolly at these holiday hot spots around Madison and Milwaukee!
Henry Vilas Zoo
See the zoo lit up in holiday lights at this year’s Zoo Lights. Sip down a warm beverage as you take a stroll down candy cane lane to enjoy the festive sights and sounds. Visit the craft marketplace or take the kids on the zoo’s train and carousel. Thousands of lights will transform the zoo into a winter scene not to be missed. Make this your new family tradition!
State Capitol Building
During the winter holiday season, the Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda is adorned with its stunning Christmas tree. Typically a forty-foot Wisconsin-grown Balsam Fir is decorated with about 700 feet of gold garland, 2,400 multicolored lights and 1,400 handmade ornaments donated by Wisconsin residents, often children. The tree is made complete with a historic train set that circles the base.
There is no admission fee to see this beautiful and historic holiday display. Bring along the cameras to capture the classical revival-style mansion, set right on the banks of Lake Mendota, stunningly decorated with numerous unique trees, wreaths, garlands and lights aplenty. The Residence is also home to seven formal gardens you can stroll through if the weather is right. Non-perishable food items will be collected in support of Second Harvest Foodbank and warm winter items collected in support of the Big Bundle Up campaign. Check for tour times to plan your historical visit!
Ice skating at The Edgewater
Take to the ice on a beautiful ice skating rink right in the heart of Madison. Spend an afternoon or crisp evening on The Edgewater’s 4,000 square foot ice rink, overlooking Lake Mendota in one direction and the Capitol dome towering in the other. Whether you’re skating arm-in-arm with your ‘honey’ or gliding across the ice with a train of ‘little rascals’ in tow, you’ll be skating around for hours. If you’re in need of a warm up, step into The Icehouse for warm snacks and beverages before heading back out on the ice.
An evening at the stunning Overture Center for the Arts, taking in a true holiday classic, is sure to top off your season. Madison Ballet rings in the holidays with this timeless story following treasured characters, like Clara and her Nutcracker. Children will gaze in awe at the towering Christmas tree and swirling snowflakes. Adults will be amazed by the movement and talent of the dancers, and romantic tone of the story. The familiar score is played live by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.
Holiday Lights Festival
Milwaukee’s downtown boosts the holiday spirit with colored lights and animated displays, among other jolly celebrations. Joyfulness awaits for all ages, including couples and families full of little elves. Hop aboard the Jingle Bus for only $2 and get acquainted with downtown landmarks and the most decorated scenes. Much of the downtown area transforms into a winter wonderful, but the grander light displays can be found at Cathedral Square Park, Pere Marquette Park and Zeidler Union Square.
Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes
Venture inside the warm and illuminated Domes this holiday season. Experience a desert oasis, tropical jungle and floral gardens all in one day…and an extraordinary display of lights in the evening. The great balls of light are part of a dramatic display that turn the Domes into dazzling lanterns once night hits. Inside, not only will you be surrounded by impressive poinsettias, the dome itself comes alive with a show of its own. You’ll have to see it to believe it!
Ice skating at Red Arrow Park
Glide across the ice in a beautiful downtown park setting with Slice of Ice. This outdoor rink is open December through February for an extra-long skating season. The refrigerated rink can accommodate 100 skaters at a time and is bordered by a railing, so even the newest of skaters can still enjoy the ice. Visit the warming house for a coffee, beer or bakery goody. With floor-to-ceiling windows, you’ll still have a view of everything going on on the ice.
Tour the Pabst Mansion
The Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion is a fascinating place to visit any time of the year, but their elaborately decorated holiday rooms are a sight to see. This must-visit, first-class American home is the former residence of the Pabst Family, of Pabst Brewing Company. Accompany your history lesson with enchanting décor to put you in the holiday spirit. Spend an evening enjoying Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, at nearby Pabst Theatre – also magnificently historic – if you so choose.
Christmas in the Ward
Spend the holidays in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. Get all of your holiday shopping done in these locally-owned shops. You’ll find unique gifts at great prices! The Milwaukee Police Band, Mrs. Claus and her live reindeer, Santa at Jolly’s Outdoor Gingerbread House and fireworks are just a few of the holiday happenings. Hot chocolate and coffee will of course be available for a warm-up, or if you’re an adult looking for something stronger, the ever-popular cocoa cocktails will be served up as well. If you’re looking for a quaint way to get around, nab one of the horse-drawn carriages.
The fun doesn't stop there. Explore even more holiday events scattered throughout Wisconsin.