When I was in college applying for graduate school Madison, Wisconsin was top of my list. I’d never been, and wasn’t sure I could manage the cold, but it sounded like an ultra hip town just like Austin where I was living.
Life took me in another direction, but when I was recently invited to visit Wisconsin I was so excited to finally see the university town I had longed to move to way back when. It was all I had envisioned and more.
Turns out there is also a ton of amazingly fun things to do in Madison with kids, which is why it should be on your radar if you are ever in the area.
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9 Amazingly Fun Things to Do in Madison with Kids
We had never been to Wisconsin or even the Midwest, so we were super excited to explore as much as we could during our week visit. To make things easy we based ourselves out of Madison, the Capitol and home to the University of Wisconsin. Located a bit over an hour from Milwaukee (where we flew in), this center of government and college town is the perfect introduction to the state of Wisconsin.
We loved the vibe of Madison from the many signs saying they welcome people of all types to the many co-op grocery stores and farm to table eateries focusing on using local Wisconsin foods. The progressiveness, the vibrancy and not to mention the cost effectiveness of the city is great for us Californians. You should have seen the shock on my face the first few meals we paid! It was so cheap for really delicious food. Madison was such a surprise with all that was on offer during our short visit.
Have Fun at the Madison Children’s Museum
A perfect rainy day place for families is the Madison Children’s Museum. Actually it’s pretty perfect even when it’s sunny! This centrally located museum is steps from the state Capitol and provides 3 levels of interactive fun for kids up to around 10-12 years old.
The museum has a fun area for kids under 5 on the ground floor along with a cafe and a few cool interactive features. Moving upstairs there is a large play structure, play cars, old fashioned video games, an art room and a building room. The big hit however was a life size gerbil wheel where kids and adults can generate electricity by running fast.
On the rooftop, there is a large garden showcasing water conservation as well as chickens, homing pigeons and an indoor area with other small critters. My son became a de facto teacher up here sharing his knowledge of pigeons (his favorite animal!) with the smaller kids and staff members present.
Admission allows you to come and go throughout the day, which worked well for us on our visit. We popped in a few times during the day.
Visit a Dairy Farm
While technically not in Madison, you cannot visit the dairy state without a visit to a working dairy farm. The state of Wisconsin has over 8000 dairy farms, but the Sassy Cow Creamery just 30 minutes outside of Madison is one of the best for a family visit. This fully functioning dairy farm offers farm tours, self guided factory tours as well as delicious ice cream at their little farm shop.
I was totally blown away on the farm tour seeing how the cows are milked and how friendly they were. Did you know that at farms this size the cows are loaded up on a large merry-go-round where they are fitted with suction tubes that is totally automated? I had no idea. My son laughed at me since I seemed to have no clue how this was done.
After oohing and ahhing over the milking process, we walked over to the barn where the cows were currently being held due to very muddy fields and without fail each cow would come up to say hello to us as they passed by. It was so cute.
We ended our visit with a quick walk around the milk and ice cream processing units before settling down with some delicious freshly made ice cream. I highly recommend making a visit here when you are in Madison. Check the schedule to find out times for the farm tour as it is not held daily.
Sassy Cow Creamery also has a small play structure, trikes and bean bag toss games for the kids to work off their sugar high on the large grassy lawn out front.
Take in the Colors at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center
The Aldo Leopold Nature Center located only 10 minutes from the Capitol is a cute nature center with a few manageable trails and an interactive exhibition room that is perfect for families with younger kids. The center has family explorer backpacks you can rent out during your visit complete with binoculars and more if you don’t have your own nature gear.
If you need a little inspiration on your visit, ask for the free bingo card to use as you explore the trails outside the center. Finding 5 in a row allows you to pick out a free button! Even on a blustery cool day we were able to easily find 5 in a row.
The Aldo Leopold Nature Center is a great place close to the city to get out into nature for a few minutes. During fall it’s also perfect for spotting the spectacular colors of the changing seasons.
Eat Ice Cream at Memorial Union
If you ask anyone from Wisconsin what you should do in Madison, the first response is always get ice cream at Memorial Union on campus. Even though this is a college town, the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union is actually quite family friendly. You can’t miss getting a scoop (or two) of Babcock Dairy ice cream at the Daily Scoop and hanging out on the lakeside terrace.
If you are on the south side of campus, pop into the South Union which also houses a Daily Scoop as well as bowling lanes, a rock climbing wall, and pool tables!
The best thing on the menu at the Daily Scoop – the Freshman 15 sundae with 15 scoops of ice cream! We were not brave enough to try that, but next time we just might!
Hop on the Hike/Bike Trails
From Spring to Fall those living in Madison take full advantage of the nice weather by getting outdoors as often as possible. And it’s not hard to do with the more than 200 miles of biking and hiking trails in and around Madison. One of the most popular routes is the Lake Monona Loop which stretches along John Nolen Drive between Olin Park and Monona Terrace. This trail offers picture perfect views of the city across from the lake. During our visit the bike lane counter showed that more than 700 people had crossed by that day!
Another great place to explore Madison’s trails is at the UW-Madison Arboretum. With 1200 acres, it’s easy to feel like you have dove deep into the wilderness without really leaving the city. You can reach many of the trails through the different neighborhoods or drive over and start from the visitor center.
The Arboretum is a great place to see the different landscapes of how Wisconsin would have looked prior to settlers. It’s so interesting to think about how the prairies looked as well as checking out the more manicured gardens. Cian’s favorite was searching for (and finding) the flock of wild turkeys who call the park home.
Explore the Capitol Square
It feels as if all roads lead to the Capitol building when you are in Madison. Almost all the places we ate at were within sight of the Capitol as well as many of the places we visited. If you are staying in town, stay near here and you will get the best of the city without too much driving!
You can’t be in the shadow of the Capitol without visiting the inside. Daily tours are offered as well as self guided tours that you can do on your own. The best part of a visit to the Capitol is the 6th floor observation deck which is open in the good weather months!
Saturday’s Farmers Market
Using the state Capitol as it’s backdrop, the Madison weekly farmer’s market is a must visit during the spring and summer. The market has a ton of stalls offering all of Wisconsin’s favorite produce and products. From gourmet cheese curds to cheesy breads and beautiful seasonal fruits and veggies, this massive market is a must do on any itinerary to the city. Enjoy the free samples and then head over to one of the many amazing restaurants here for brunch.
Other places to explore on the Capitol square include Fromagination for a quick education in some of the states best cheese, The Old Fashioned for delicious cheese curds and a Friday night fish fry, Graze for a farm to table restaurant with unique flavor pairings and so much more! Need more options on where to eat – Travel Wisconsin’s website had a ton of offerings all over the state.
Get Creative at the Overture Center
One of the best things we happened upon during our visit was the Overture Center for the Arts weekly shows for families. Every Saturday morning, the Overture offers a free workshop/show for families focusing on anything from science to ballet to culture performances. If you are in town during a weekend, I highly recommend you make time to experience the Kids in the Rotunda show. During our visit there was an amazing science show that had my son totally engrossed for the hour and wanting more at the end!
Another great spot for families to explore their creative side is at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. We would have easily passed by this beautiful glass building without popping in if it hadn’t been for a weaving workshop my son wanted to check out. And, I am sure glad we found this place! It was really spectacular.
On Saturday’s they also have a great family focused event called Kids’ Art Adventures where families can make art together following a discussion about a particular artist/style. Workshops begin at 1 pm, but fill up fast, so arrive early to put your name on the sign up list.
If you visit during the summer, keep an eye out on the Art Kart schedule for outdoor art workshops all around Madison.
Soak Up Nature at Devil’s Lake State Park
If you are looking for a day trip outside of the city, our recommendation is driving an hour up the road to Devil’s Lake State Park. This beautiful park is a perfect outing for many months of the year. Enjoy splashing in the lake on the South shore during the warm summer months or hiking up cliffs on the East Bluff Trail for beautiful views over the lake at any time of the year. There is also a cute nature center on the north shore that is worth checking out. It tends to only open on the weekends outside of the summer months, so plan accordingly.
During our hike on the East Bluff Trail we saw a bald eagle fly right in front of us. It was spectacular and kept us aching for more! We kept our eyes peeled but we didn’t see him again unfortunately.
If you are looking for more ideas for family outdoor fun, Travel Wisconsin has a TON of ideas on their website. We have so many on our to do list now!
Go Quirky at the House on the Rock
Another day trip location worth exploring is Wisconsin’s top tourist attraction, the House on the Rock. This quirky complex takes 3-4 hours to fully explore, however there are shorter options taking 1-2 hours. We suggest doing the tour that includes visiting the carousel room as it’s spectacular. I literally gasped when I walked in it was so fantastical! Another area not to miss is the Infinity Room which is suspended high above the trees with glass paneled walls. It really is a cool space to explore.
The House on the Rock is definitely a unique place that not all kids will enjoy, but my nature loving son was so enamored with how it was built into the rock and that there were trees growing through it. The rooms are decorated in an assortment of styles from stained glass windows to carpet on the ceiling. It’s one of these places you have to see in real life to believe!
This is not stroller friendly as there are lots of tight walkways and staircases within the home itself.
Bonus: Even More Fun for Fall Visits
During the fall season there are many opportunities for picking apples, drinking apple cider, eating apple cider donuts and of course buying pumpkins in and around Madison. Our pick though is Eugster’s Farm Market, which is only a 20 minute drive from Madison. This cute farm has opportunities for picking apples, feeding baby goats and sheep milk from a bottle, getting lost in a corn maze and so much more. If you are in town during the fall, this is a must visit. If you visit on the weekend, there is even more fun with hay cart rides, games and shows. There is so much to do in Wisconsin in the Fall, you will never be bored!
Where to Stay in Madison with Kids
Visiting a college town, it only makes sense to stay in a place that takes the college vibe to a new level. Walking into The Graduate felt like walking into a Wes Anderson film with all the young college students hard at work in the lobby. Cian and I immediately fell in love with fun quirky vibe of The Graduate Hotel. Read our full review of the hotel.
Located in the center of the action, steps from State Street in between the capitol and the campus, there is not shortage of amazing places to eat and things to do. The hotel is a great choice for singles, couples and families alike. The rooms were beautifully decorated with a good amount of space to work and unpack your belongings.
But for me it’s always the little touches that make a hotel special. I loved the cold drinks in the Yeti coolers near the elevator and Cian loved the freshly baked cookies set out to refuel guests. The lobby cafe is the happening place morning to night with smoothies, coffee (and they will even refill your own cup!) and snacks. For dinner, we loved the delicious rooftop bar and restaurant with a camp vibe that had my son wishing he was old enough to live the camp life!
The Graduate is an adorable hotel providing a great space for a college town visit. Want to know more? Read more views and check out current prices on Tripadvisor.
Thank you Travel Wisconsin and The Graduate Hotel for hosting me and my son during our visit. We absolutely fell in love with the state and can’t wait to get back to explore again. As always all opinions are my own.
Have you visited Madison Wisconsin? Tell us your favorite spots in the comments below!
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