I’ve been to a lot of college towns and Madison, Wisconsin is definitely one of my favorites. It had been years since I visited, so I was excited to have the opportunity to return recently and re-discover the city through a more family-oriented lens. Happily, I found lots of affordable, kid-friendly things to do, and I think Madison is just as great a destination for families as it is for college students.
We stayed at the Best Western Premier Park, which has a terrific location right on Capitol Square. The hotel has been renovated since my last visit and is clean, comfortable and nicely appointed. The hallways (and possibly some of the rooms, although not mine) have really nice views of the Capitol building. One minor downside for families is that there’s no included continental breakfast, but overall I would recommend the hotel.
(Yes, Madison had fall foliage in mid-September. I was very jealous, since I went back home to 90 degrees in Indiana.)
- Dane County Farmer’s Market. Every Saturday morning from April to November, vendors line Madison’s Capitol Square selling produce, prepared food, fresh flowers, handmade goods and more. It’s one of the largest farmer’s markets in the US, and is a great place to grab a quick bite before heading out to explore the rest of the city. We were lucky to enjoy beautiful weather when we visited in mid-September, but if it’s raining or snowing (hey, always a possibility in Wisconsin) the Capitol building is a great place to escape the elements, and offers free tours.
- Henry Vilas Zoo. This (FREE!) zoo has a surprisingly great collection of exotic animals – lions, tigers, giraffes, polar bears, orangutans, a rhino – as well as a dedicated children’s area with a carousel and train (at additional cost). The size of the place and the variety of animals are on par with some zoos I’ve paid substantial admission fees for, and the fact that it’s free means you can enjoy it guilt-free even if you have little ones with short attention spans and don’t spend more than an hour or two there.
- Madison Children’s Museum. Admission here is normally $9 for adults and children over 1, but we were able to visit for free due to our membership in another museum that participates in the ASTC Travel Passport program (I plan to write about this amazing program in more depth soon, but it’s definitely something to check out if you enjoy visiting childrens’ and science museums when you travel). I think kids who are preschool age and up would really enjoy this museum, but at a year and a half I felt like my daughter was just on the cusp of being old enough for it and it probably wouldn’t have been worth it if we’d had to pay almost $20. They do have a dedicated area (The Wildernest, basically a giant treehouse) for kids under 5, but there were enough sharp edges and uneven surfaces that I was a little nervous letting a relatively new walker run around in there on her own. And I was a bit disappointed that some of the other areas of the museum (including the art studio and pretend pizza kitchen) weren’t toddler-friendly simply due to lack of seating for really little ones. Given that we were able to get in free though, it was definitely a fun way to spend a morning. Don’t miss the rooftop with a garden and some live animals (and another nice view of the Capitol building).
- University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Exploring campus is practically mandatory whenever you visit a college town, and luckily Madison has a great (albeit hilly!) one. I recommend walking along Observatory Drive to check out the sailboats on Lake Mendota, and visiting the Memorial Union, where you can get a taste of student life – figuratively, but also literally at the ice cream shop run by UW food science students.
Restaurant planning can be a bit tricky with a toddler, and we ended up eating most of our meals on the fly and didn’t get to dive into Madison’s fantastic food scene as much as I would have liked. Still, we found plenty of good food. I recommend the New York-style pizza at Roma, the burgers and fries at DLUX, the coffee and breakfast sandwiches (get one on a homemade biscuit!) at Ancora, and of course The Daily Scoop in the Wisconsin Memorial Union for ice cream.
I highly recommend Madison to Midwesterners looking for a quick getaway!