Your family guide to Madison, Wisconsin

Located just under 3 hours from Chicago, a visit to Madison, Wis. is an easy getaway for the family. Madison is not only a cool college town, but you’ll family fun everywhere you turn. And after your first visit, you’ll want to come back and experience more! Here’s your guide to exploring Madison with your kids.

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Madison Children’s Museum

Children’s museums are always fun for the kids, but this Madison museum located close to the Capitol makes learning even more fun. The giant treehouse complete with bridges, slides and little nooks is always a big hit with the kids. Let the creative juices flow at the huge art studio, build away at the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired exhibit or explore the fabulous rooftop garden where you’ll find chickens clucking about. Tip: Head to the rooftop to spot excellent views of the State Capitol as well as the lake.

Henry Vilas Zoo

As one of the ten remaining free zoos located in the country, Henry Vilas Zoo is truly a budget-friendly treat. With giraffes, lions, tiger, polar bears and more, you would never believe this zoo is totally free. End the day at the Children’s Zoo with a huge treehouse playground, petting zoo, carousel, and train. With all the money you save on admission, support the zoo by eating at any of their eateries or instead, grab some ice cream from the Chocolate Shoppe, a Madison ice cream staple.

Vilas Park Beach

After spending a couple of hours at the zoo, head right across the street and cool off in Lake Wingra for some fun in the sun and sand. Looking for more fun? You’ll find playgrounds, fishing areas and a large grassy open area nearby.

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

Head downtown and look for the super cool glass building. It’s time to let the kids channel their creative side at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Browsing through the art collection is fun, but the kids will love the opportunity to visit the learning centers located in each section that explains the art with hands-on activities, books and more. Tip: Ask the staff to borrow an ArtPack that contains activities to encourage more learning.


The Boathouse

For lakeside dining, you can’t go wrong with The Boathouse at The Edgewater. An order of cheese curds is always a must, but the lobster roll won my husband’s heart (and stomach!)  My power bowl with salmon over quinoa and sweet potatoes was so delicious and mostly guilt-free. Tip: Walk along the pier with the kids to watch the boats go by.

Zuzu Café

Located right across the street from Henry Vilas Zoo, Zuzu Café is perfect if you’re looking for a family-friendly spot that offers more than hot dogs and pizza. Here, you’ll find sandwiches, paninis, gyros, hummus plate and more. They also serve coffee, ice cream from Sassy Cow Creamery and baked goods. While you’re waiting for your food, the kids can hang out in the small kiddie area with books and blocks. If you’re dining outside, kids will have a blast in the sandbox. (Good luck trying to tear them away to eat!) Tip: Parents can grab their favorite ice cold beer here.

The Old Fashioned

Located on Capitol Square, you’ll find all the Wisconsin favorites at this iconic tavern including brats and of course the cheese curds (rated some of the best around!). The restaurant is all Wisconsin through and through from the meats and cheeses to the beer and soda are all from small Wisconsin producers.

Short Stack Eatery

Serving breakfast all day, the State Street corner restaurant is open around the clock serving your favorites like pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and French toast. Tip: If you love surprises try their “blind special,” a discounted sweet or savory option.

Babcock Hall Dairy Store

Since 1951, the ice cream plant on the UW campus has been churning out ice cream and visitors can see them in action. 


The Edgewater Madison

Hugging the shores of Lake Mendota, The Edgewater is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the downtown area including the Madison Children’s Museum and the State Capitol. The rooms themselves are spacious, elegant and comfortable. Bring your four-legged friend along since it’s a pet-friendly hotel! As “Madison’s place,” the hotel is committed to the community by offering free public events like outdoor concerts in the summer to ice skating in the winter. The historical hotel was the perfect hotel for our Madison adventure. Read more about our stay at The Edgewater here.


Dane County Farmers’ Market

Make your way to the Capitol Square on Saturday mornings to indulge in a Madison tradition — the Dane County Farmers’ Market. As the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the country, you’ll find items produced by the people behind the tables. Must-tries include Stella’s Bakery for the hot and spicy cheese bread perfect for “tearing and sharing.” You’ll find all sorts of regular or flavored cheese curds everywhere you turn with all sorts of flavors but a popular one is from Farmer John’s. Tip: When you need a break, enjoy your treats while sitting on the grass in the interior of the square. 

Wisconsin Capital Building

Wander through the Wisconsin State Capitol and gawk at the 200 foot Capitol dome. During the summer, you don’t want to miss the views of the city from the observation deck on the sixth floor. You’ll have 360-degree views of the city and see how it is flanked by two bodies of water: Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. Access the stairs by the west or northwest stairwells on the 4th floor.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Take a stroll through free 16-acre Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Not only can you get your fill of the beautiful lush tropical foliage, but you can also see the waterfall, a koi fish swim around, and free-flying birds inside the tropical conservatory. Tip: Don’t miss the ornate Thai Palace covered in gold-leaf paint, only one of the four located outside Thailand.

University of Wisconsin Geology Museum

With rocks, minerals, meteorites, dinosaurs and fossils, this Geology Museum located on campus definitely rocks (pun intended)! Don’t miss stepping inside the Black Light Display room where normal looking rocks glow in the darkness.

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