7 Free Family Things to Do Near Madison WI


Lake_Mendota_smallOne of my favorite cities to visit for work has always been Madison WI. As time has gone on I’ve realized that it is also a great vacation destination. Madison rolls components of some of my favorite cities into one location (Burlington VT, Boston MA, and Austin TX).

Recently, I had the opportunity to fly my husband and six year old out to Wisconsin for a long weekend. While in the Madison area we found some great sites and educational attractions to visit for free. Some of my favorites include the seven below:

 # 1- The Henry Vilas Zoo Madison WI- (702 South Randall Avenue, Madison, WI 53715 http://www.vilaszoo.org/index.php )

I was slightly skeptical of the idea of a free zoo. Of the low cost zoos I’ve been to I always feel like the animals look slightly miserable. Not so at the Henry Vilas Zoo. To begin with the zoo is barely a seven minute drive outside of downtown. There are several free parking lots nearby and on street parking is also available. The zoo is open daily from 930am-5pm. It is closed on several holidays.

Once you arrive inside the gates of the zoo the pathways are very easy to follow. Grab a map and pick left or right. It is easy to wind your way along the paths without missing any sights. We started to the left as my son is a huge penguin fan. The zoo has some great exhibits. The animals seem happy and well cared for. In addition, most exhibits have areas for the animals to go to when they need alone time and while this can make for some empty exhibits from time to time the animals are choosing to come out and see everyone when they do so. There is a petting area with goats. Generally, these areas can be very overwhelming as the goats tend to be very aggressive. Not so with these ones who tolerated being lightly patted without us even having treats. The tiger was impressive the chimps had some great toys to play with and there were some great indoor exhibits as well with longer reading lessons for older children. Stroller parking was easy and abundant and strollers and wagons were available for rental from in front of the gift shop near the VIP entrance.

There were several areas to sit down and eat in. The zoo is alright with bringing in picnic lunches, however, with the concession stand prices being so affordable I highly encourage purchasing food at the zoo to help support keeping the zoo free. Ice cream treats were under $2 and I fulfilled a pregnant craving with a huge root beer float for $4.49. To top it all off the float came in a reusable zoo cup that my son got to keep as a souvenir. If your child is “animaled” out there is a fantastic play area in the back corner of the zoo near the flamingos.

You’d think the zoo being free was enough, however, there is a bonus freebie in the zoo. Between the seals and the lions exhibits look for a Sonic poster on the rock wall. If you take your child’s picture in front of this poster they are eligible for a free Jr Candy Sundae at the Sonic in Middleton, WI.

All in all the zoo is a phenomenal value and is better and more family friendly than multiple pay zoos that I’ve been to.

#2 The National Mustard Museum (7477 Hubbard Avenue Middleton WI 1.800.438.6378 http://www.mustardmuseum.com/)

The National Mustard Museum is one of those sites that you go to to say you went. The Museum’s admission is free and the Museum is open most days from 10a-5pm. Call to verify hours. You enter into the gift shop and the museum itself is downstairs. This is definitely a stop geared towards either babies or older children if you plan on spending a lot of time in the downstairs museum. If it is a quick stop to taste mustards and buy some funny souvenirs toddlers could do okay as well. There is on street parking nearby.

Once in the gift shop you can try any mustard in the shop by asking for it at the tasting counter. Mini hot dogs and pretzels are available for $1 each and can be topped with your choice of mustard. This was a great lunch stop for us as we were satisfied with a few mini dogs each. I highly recommend the Delicae Key Lime Macadamia Mustard (strange sounding- great tasting!). My son’s recommendation was the Inglehoffer Organic Honey Mustard and my husband’s vote went to the very spicy Galena 911 Spicy Hot Mustard. Enjoy the mustards. Buy some to take home and pick up a “Poupon U” t-shirt for the lucky folks at home. All items are available for purchase online as well.

If you are going to be in the area on August 7th I highly recommend stopping by the museum for National Mustard Day from 10am-4pm.

To top off our hotdogs we stopped at the Sonic Drive In (6413 University Avenue Madison, WI 608-831-2633 http://www.sonicdrivein.com) on our way back into Madison. We showed our zoo photo of my son (See #1) and he got his free candy sundae while my husband and I sprang for our own treats. The carhops here still skate to the cars which my son thought was “Awesome!”.

#3 Wisconsin Veterans Museum (30 W. Mifflin Street Madison WI 53703 608.267.1799 http://museum.dva.state.wi.us/ ) The Veterans Museum was a big hit with my son and husband. It consists of dioramas, life size figures, and painted murals over 10,000 feet of exhibit space. There are three main areas- the 20th Century Exhibit, the 19th Century Exhibit and a rotating area with a current exhibit. This museum is a great history lesson and frequently holds public events. The museum is open Monday- Saturday 9am- 430pm.

During the summer months (April-September) the museum is also open on Sundays from noon-4pm. This museum is in the heart of the downtown area across from the Capitol.Madison - STATE STREET STREET PERFORMER

#4 University of Wisconsin Madison Geology Museum (Weeks Hall 1215 W. Dayton St. Madison WI 53706 608.262.2399 http://www.geology.wisc.edu/~museum/index.html )
The Geology Museum is located in the heart of downtown Madison in Weeks Hall on UW Campus. There is on street parking available in the area through pay meters. There is also underground parking in Grainger Hall just be aware that if the Business School has an event this lot may be off limits. The Geology Museum is open Monday thru Friday 830am-430pm and Saturdays 9am-1pm. One of the things that I appreciated the most about the Geology Museum was the opportunity to pre-print the self guided tour book (http://www.geology.wisc.edu/~museum/self.pdf). This a great educational tool for slightly older children.The museum has many neat attractions the most famous being the Boaz Mastodon which was found by children in Wisconsin. The museum also has some other great exhibits. Our family favorites tended towards the meteorites, fossils, and dinosaurs.

#5 Visit Olbrich Botanical Gardens (3330 Atwood Avenue Madison WI 53704 608.246.4550 http://www.olbrich.org/ )

Just a quick drive from downtown Olbrich Botanical Gardens offers free parking for visitors. Admission to the sixteen acres of outdoor gardens is always free. Conservatory admission is $1 with children 5 and under being free. Admission is free to all on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from 10am-noon. Hours vary according to season.

The gardens are very stroller friendly and are handicap accessible. There is also a tram that circles the property and drops up and picks off along the way. The outdoor gardens are divided into 14 separate and distinct gardens including the Serenity Garden, the Herb Garden, and the Rose Garden.

Pick a beautiful day, slather the kids in sunscreen, pack some books and a snack and take the kids on a fun and beautiful stroll!

 #6 Go swimming at one of Madison’s ten lifeguard serviced beaches. The two that I would recommend are adjacent to other free attractions. The Vilas Park Beach is located adjacent to the Henry Vilas Zoo. With three playgrounds, a swimming area, two fishing areas, and a large grassy open area this park has something for everyone.

The second recommendation I would make is Olbrich Park which is adjacent to Olbrich Botanical Gardens. This park is one of Madison’s largest and in the winter boasts a skating rink. Along the shores of Lake Monona this beautiful park also has play areas.


#7 Visit the Madison Children’s Museum (100 N. Hamilton Street Madison WI 53703 608.256.6445 http://www.madisonchildrensmuseum.org/visit/ )

Last but not least I wanted to include the Madison Children’s Museum. It is important to note that while the museum prepares to re-launch in their new space on Capital Square they will be closed. They reopen August 14th. The museum charges admission, however, Thursdays after 5pm, admission is free for Twilight Thursdays. The museum is open until 8pm on Thursday nights. As a fan of the old museum I am excited to return and see what they were able to accomplish in three times the space of the previous space.

 I hope that you all enjoy Madison as much as my family and I did on our recent trip. For other activities and recommendations around Madison please check out my full Madison trip blog. Thanks! 


For more information on Madison, visit www.visitmadison.com

State Street street performer photo courtesy of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau.